Visibility is a trap

April 18, 2012

The architectural model of Panopticon embodies the mechanisms of the disciplinary power in its most perfect form. Panopticon is a architectural machine that assures the automatic functioning of power, in that the people inhabiting the space are themselves the bearers of power, controlling themselves. They are seen, but never see; they are objects of information, but never subjects in a communication. Bodies, surfaces, lights and gazes are all relating to each other in an intricate weave of power, control, registration and observation. In order to function in a disciplinary way the power at work in institutions such as prisons, hospitals, schools and workshops has to be unspectacular and seemingly transparent. This is also one reason why the architecture, the layout of spaces, organization of bodies in it, has an important role in the exercise of disciplinary power.

When Foucault describes how and why the prisons became the systematic mode of punishment, he draws attention to the twofold function of the prison, which are not only the deprivation of liberty, but mostly the assignment to change and improve individuals. The prison is an extreme model of the exercise of the disciplinary power, since the interns are processed during constant discipline. The procedures of all other disciplinary mechanisms are carried out in its most intensity here. The lives of the interns can be regulated and observed in extreme detail, deciding over time and space to eat, sleep, work, talk, move, everything concerning the body all the time. The disciplinary power exemplified in the prisons produces subjects, it normalizes and differentiates. As Foucault effectively shows us, individuals are carefully fabricated in the mechanisms of the disciplinary, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.

We are neither in the amphitheatre, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are parts of its mechanism. (Ibid. p 217)

Architecture is part of the disciplinary mechanisms forming us as people. To see is to have control and power, to be a subject in communication and not an observed object. Foucault’s writings on the disciplinary power is closely connected to gender theories of the gaze, vision and subject/object positions. Sight lines create power relations, something Beatriz Colomina investigates in readings of Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier houses in the article “The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism”. About seeing architecture as a co-creator of power relations and subjects, Colomina also writes:

Architecture is not simply a platform that accommodates the viewing subject. It is a viewing mechanism that produces the subject. (Beatriz Colomina: “The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism”, ur Colomina, Beatriz (ed.)

Sexuality and Space, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, Cop. 1992. p 83)

In Of Other Spaces Foucault describes the countersites that all relate to the more dominant spaces in society, but in a suspecting, neutralizing or subverting manner. Heterotopian spaces can have potential for subversion and change. Is it here my investigation of music comes in? As potential spaces of opposition and resistance to dominant patriarchal culture.

The importance of investigating and questioning the seemingly rational, humanistic and transparent. Not to order, categorize and normalize, but to allow for the complex multiplicities of humans.

– Anja Linna

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