Democratisation of the Centre

August 24, 2011

Tony Bennett agrees with Foucault in “The Exhibitionary Complex” from his book The Birth of the Museum (1995) that during the 18th century the spectacle of the sovereign state’s power was internalised, taken from the overt public displays of punishment and “integrated into the very body of the state apparatus” (Foucault, 1977). However, he conversely argues that institutions were undergoing the opposite transformation – that the institution went from the private (internal) domain into that of the public sphere. Rather than the demise of overt displays of power in society, Bennett sees the rise of the institution as a new tool in which the state could manipulate and exercise power/knowledge relations.

The 19th century saw the rise of large exhibitions and World Fairs, and with them a specific architectural spatialisation. When combined with a number of other factors as described by Bennett, there began to be made apparent a correlation between society and the spectacle. The inner workings of the city began to be opened to the public,  with the view that a city could be “visible, and hence knowable, as a totality”. The state began to be involved in the funding of cultural institutions, which became an important part in the “formation of the modern state”, with its new imaging as “a set of educative and civilizing agencies”. These same institutions became a “permanent display of knowledge/power”, where beyond the transitory exhibitions, the institution was able to “continually [display] its ability to command, order, and control objects and bodies, living or dead”. These ideas culminated in the exhibitionary halls and institutions (along with the shopping arcades and malls), whereby the organisation of goods became the embodiment of national accomplishments. Within these spaces there was an interchangeability between subject and object, with the public able to be on display and view the display – the crowd became the spectacle. Bennett sees this as a democratisation of the centre of Bentham’s panopticon model, whereby all have access to view the other.

The inclusive nature of these spaces led people to share ownership of these national accomplishments, and thus behave and perform the role which was orderly and methodically described to them by the state.  This led to self regulation in an effort to fulfil or maintain the ‘appropriate’ power relation with the state. By viewing themselves through the eyes of the state the crowd remained docile.

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