The French philosopher Foucault used the idea of the Panopticon to show how we are dominated by an imprisoning and controlling story.
Imagine a prison. In the centre of the prison is an observation building. From this building, every area of the prison can be observed. This means wherever you are in the prison, you could be seen. Nothing escapes the gaze of the panopticon. This means that if you are one of the prisoners, you will adapt your behaviour around the controlling gaze of the observation tower. This tower has rules that must be followed at all times, otherwise punishment will be swift. This tower never sleeps or changes. So at all times the prisoner is controlled by the observing gaze. The gaze of the LAW.
Of right and wrong.
Of dualistic control.
The thing is. Maybe the prison guards just built this structure but vacated it long ago. Maybe no one is watching and the eye slits, observation towers, monitors and CCTV are blank.
It matters not, because for the prisoner, they do not question the authority and vicious power of the tower. They remain controlled by it. Even if there are no real walls, gates or barbed wire keeping them in. They remain imprisoned under the gaze of an empty structure.
So who is holding them captive? The story they believe about the tower holds them enslaved and bowed. Their own minds are acting as prison warders and jailers.
But be under no illusion. I am not saying that the ties that bind us in fear and subjugation to a toxic story are just our own sick fantasies. No. There IS a real structure and it was built by the oppressive, occupying force. It is the stronghold imposed by the invader of our own land. It is forced upon us via abuse, trauma, neglect, bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia and the mindless acts of others. All these things build panopticon’s in our lives. We are never going to be able to detox from our old stories and build new ones unless we face and dismantle these structural and systemic strongholds.
The panopticon is not just some internal, subjective and personal problem with our cognition. It’s also in the fabric of our societies, cultures and political structures. As Walter Wink the theologian points out the demonic ‘principalities and powers’ are not just to be found in tormented individuals but in the very fabric of institutionalised power.
When Jesus Christ came preaching freedom and good news for the poor he was deconstructing the centre’s of institutional power. And that’s why they killed him.
Make no mistake, if you decide to stop conforming to the panopticon you could find yourself sanctioned by the powers of authority, the powers that be.
Many of us have a panopticon working in our lives. It was left there vacant many years ago by an occupying force. This force like any dictator tells us lies that then become the floor of our truth. They become the assumptions around which we build our lives. These structures include inbuilt racism and hatred for the outsider. However liberal or educated I may be. However post-modern and fluid my perspective of identity, no matter how many black friends I may have, none of this precludes me from having a panopticon of racism within. How do I know this? Because I was born into and brought up in a system of white privilege and that system has as one of its primary moving parts the subjugation of my black brothers and sisters.
We need to step back from these toxic towers of control and awaken to a new story. Even if it means blowing up the ground under our feet. Otherwise the bind weed of these structures continues to uphold and underpin our reality, our very identity. It’s time to disentangle from the toxic stories that shape us and breath the free air outside the panopticon.