Power, Process, and Pan-Opticon

by on January 31st, 2006

Power, Process, and Panopticon: An Introduction

At the crux of all organized human endeavor lies power: that delicate, systemic, and seductive phenomena that is regarded with a visceral awe and secrecy, chiseling the mind of man with the fine stencil of ambition; the final marble products, statues of vanity, lust, and self-righteousness, pitted against one another in power’s most primitive manifestation; or in the post-modern reality, a cunning collusion between those that strive to craft a consolidated society based on a single empirical consensus: this is therefore the era of a single World Order, and the umbilical basis of the post-modern Urban Society.

In studying the political system of cities, in examining the allegedly chilling phenomena of Panopticon, in assessing the idea of the mall as a sanitizing collectivization of experiences, in examining the grand architecture behind the engineering and commodification of social trends, in disseminating through moral and extra-moral apparatuses the classic and postmodern stratification, we arrive indeed, at an unprecedented outcome: a self-perpetuated ‘conspiracy’ designed in the cool of deliberation as well as in the heat of doubt, both distinct and diffused, that is transcending sensibilities by subverting them. The natural rural, bucolic, transient musings of man’s composition, is diluting into ‘pragmatic’, urbanized, commodified compromises, and recreated illusions of faint memories and bygone days.

In this era, the natural man is in transgression and will be punished by a society complicit in his banishment. His refuge, his hearth, the warmth of his embraces have acquired through new ties, a new dogma, a post-modern dogma; and an enhanced and selective viscerality, further enhanced and stratified by a rhetoric and retail machine that ruthlessly commodify the span of the new man’s consciousness into artificial extracts of oozing pleasure, each drop of which, its blood, its tear, its urine, and its semen, policed, pressed, primed, pampered, and purchased through the towering spectre of the pan-opticon.

This is the Urban Society of the modern World Order, and these are the means of Social Control.

The Phenotypics of Post-Modern Urban Society

The post-modern Urban Society consists a group of people that classical theory has divided into 5 sections: “These are: 1. the ‘cosmopolites’; 2. the unmarried or childless; 3. the ‘ethnic villagers’; 4. the ‘deprived’; and 5. the ‘trapped’ and downward mobile.” (Gans, 629)

In their ingestions, digestions, recreations, rotations, and interactions, these five elements of present urban society shape the greater social charisma of modern civilization, vis a vis, Urban Society, as it is known.

The elements are engaged with one another in primary, secondary, and tertiary relationships, in the order of intimacy, sincerity of exchanges, nearness, and common identity. Urban existence is a paradox that has eliminated physical distance between individuals, yet widened pscyhological distance between them. This new proximity and new alienation has created a psychosis whose intensity and bearing upon the human mind is unprecedented.

As noted by Louis Wirth,”The multiplication of persons in a state of interaction under conditions which make their contact as full personalities impossible produces that segmentalization of human relationships which has sometimes been seized upon by students of the mental life of the cities as an explanation for the “schizoid” character of urban personality.” (Wirth, 12)

“Wirth’s conception of the city dweller as depersonalized, atomized, and susceptible to mass movements suggests that his paper is based on, and contributes to, the theory of mass society.” (Gans, 627)

A culture thus deprived of its rural tenets, fitted into Industrial requisites, have created a new mass city and a new mass consciousness: a consciousness of bargains and booze, garters and grammar, speed and shrinks; a consciousness amenable and susceptible to the ministrations of power: it is a culture of commodification.

The Grand Architecture of Commodification: The Shopping Mall

In her seminal publication, ‘The World in a Shopping Mall’, author Margaret Crawford posits, “The spread of malls around the world has accustomed large numbers of people to behavior patterns that inextricably link shopping with diversion and pleasure.” (Crawford, 28); adding retrospectively, “The malling of America in less than twenty years was accomplished by honing standard real-estate, financing, and marketing techniques into predictive formulas.”(Crawford, 8)

Margaret Crawford is referring to the urban (and suburban) concept of the Shopping Mall as an aggregate nexus for drawing into its miles of consumer space the Cliff Notes version of all the extended novelties of cultural and quasi-cultural existence. In its sprawling water gardens, in its built-in pathways resembling the town square, in its bazaars of boutiques, book shops, and bargain houses every ingredient of lust, leisure, and luxury is contained in shrink wrapped, plasticized, glazed, and illuminated corners and crevices.

“The ethos of consumption has penetrated every sphere of our lives. As culture,leisure, sex, politics, and even death turn into commodities, consumption increasingly constructs the way we see the world. As William Leiss points out, the best measure of social consciousness is now the Index of Consumer Sentiment, which charts optimism about the state of the world in terms of willingness to spend.” (Crawford, 11)

Consumer opinions unfurl from a single point of origin traceable decades ago, since which time they have been transformed through a relentless marketing catering service, evolving itself automatically and indeliberately, feeding through fresh interpretations of needs and security, foregoing cliches and embracing the vogue; mutating generations of products.

It is not so much that these decisions are being concocted and fed to the public by a nefarious and scheming corporate machine, but as in panopticon, “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.” (Foucault, 202-203)

Indeed, marketers and planners act merely in symmetry to the evolution of this self-perpetuating machine: “Mall managers constantly adjust the mix, using rents and leases to adapt to the rapidly changing patterns of consumption. The system operates much like television programming, with each network presenting slightly different configurations of the same elements. Apparent diversity masks fundamental homogeniety.” (Crawford, 9)

This is the phenomena of a Laissez Faire economy, based on the classic and fundamental tenet of Economics, which defines its basic unit of hierarchy, the consumer, as an entity who is fully capable of making correct determinations and choices. Choices that, in order to reach a state of profit-maximization, must be immediately commodified into a single bottom line.

As Crawford observes, “Southdale’s managers are constantly adjusting its mix to reflect increasingly refined consumer profiles. They know, for example, that their average customer is a 40.3 year old female with an annual income of over $33,000, who lives in a household of 1.7 people. She is willing to spend more than $125 for a coat and buys six pairs of shoes a year in sizes 5 to 7.” (Crawford, 10)

Policing and Stratification

Like Foucault’s great plague scenario of the 1700s in which the lepers and other undesirables are quarantined, in which a systematic, policing mechanism reinforced through public regard for sanctity and preservation is instituted; so too, in the post-modern world of commodification, the plague of abundance to be properly monitored and optimally exploited must be policed and adequately stratified.

Michael Davis is quick to point out the sarcasm, as he ‘greets’ his readers in his work, ‘Fortress Los Angeles: The Militarization of Urban Place’: “Welcome to post-liberal Los Angeles, where the defense of luxury has given birth to an arsenal of security systems and an obsession with the policing of social boundaries through architecture.” (Davis, 154)

“The ‘public’ spaces of the new megastructures and supermalls have supplanted traditional streets and disciplined their spontaneity. Inside malls, office centers, and cultural complexes, public activities are sorted into strictly functional compartments under the gaze of private police forces.” (Davis 155)

In his well regarded work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977), Michel Foucault reminds, “..power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.” (Foucault, 201)

So too, in policing and stratification of society persists the adage of anonymity, of synchronicity, of a pernicious palpability, in the post-modern urban reality.

In light of the catalyst of 9/11, William Finnegan of The New Yorker, interviewed a N.Y.P.D commisioner. He observed:”He didn’t seem especially interested in the debate about how to treat terror detainees, and when I asked about the Patriot Act, which has been criticized by civil-rights groups, he said brusquely, “The Patriot Act helps the F.B.I do its job. And that’s good for us. I’m too busy to see if the F.B.I. abuses its powers.” (Finnegan, 7)

Due to the diluted roles and responsibilities overseen by an impenetrable hierarchy, even the ideal defenders of the ‘just law’ are too psychologically marginalized to ‘care’. A clear lack of accountability rises, a blissful ignorance saturates, and the self-perpetuating machine cranks on.

Conscience, role, discipline, and rhetoric become indistinguishable in the average burgeous mind whose tendency is to perpetually normalize. As the commisioner repeats after the proverbial oath of office and other promissory, ritualistic, particulars of rhetoric:”Do everything we possibly can within the bounds of the law to make sure there is not another terrorist attact on New York City. It ain’t more complicated than that.” (Finnegan, 7)

Yet, it is indeed more complicated than that. Much more complicated. For, “political participation is a function of individual resources, interest, and mobilization; people are more likely to participate if they have skills and knowledge, if they are more psychologically engaged, or if they are recruited by others.” (Oliver, 362)

The Post-Modern Pan Opticon as a Continuum

In this culture of urban commodification the defeat and disintegration of gemeinschaft is distinct, but claims that posit to the effect that it is an entirely unilateral, deliberate process underestimates mightily the sheer complexity and spontaneity of ‘the process’. The Pan Opticon is a continuum that perpetuates itself ruthlessly, cranking under the weight and momentum of humanity in motion, with power seeking leaders, our men of marble, keeping everyone in the hustle and bustle: in the incontrovertible rat-race of hyper-consumption.

Indeed, as Dunier reminds, “…the long-standing theory of delinquency called ‘differential association,’ which argues that deviant subcultures come into being through a process by which people associate with those who are deviant, just as lawful behavior is fostered through a process of association with those who are law-abiding.” (Dunier, 143)

The ecological argument persists. The question of freewill, the question of free choice, the answer of free enterprise, all coalesce into the unthinkable: the contemporary masses are incapable of determining transcendence: a choice beyond choices: it is incapable of perceiving the subtlety of a grand, all illuminating, God, but rather, it is a worshipper of many gods of small things.

Herbert Gans says “Ecological explanations of social life are most applicable if the subjects under study lack the ability to make choices, be they plants, animals, or human beings.” (Gans, 639)

This for many of us should be veritably disturbing, perhaps a cautionary note even; for our traditional, inbred notions have convinced us that we are individuals: a far cry from being animals, or God forbid, plants.

Works Cited:

• Louis Wirth, “Urbanism as a way of Life”

• Mitchell Dunier, “How Sixth Avenue Became a Sustaining Habitat.”

• Herbert J. Gans, “Urbanism and Suburbanism as Ways of Life”

• J. Eric Oliver, “City Size and Civic Involvement in Urban America”

• Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, part 3

• Margaret Crawford, “The World in a Shopping Mall”

• Mike Davis, “Fortress Los Angeles: The Militarization of Urban Space”

• William Finnegan, “How is the NYPD Defending the City?”

Alexander Rai