The Death of The Panopticon

The element of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation that I am finding the trickiest is his claim that the rise of media that induce simulation also lead to the “End of the panoptic system” (Baudrillard, 29). Placed in the context of his inquiry into the Loud family, as the first televised attempt to pierce “lived reality in order to put it to death” (28), Baudrillard’s claim of the death of the panopticon seems linked to the simulation of continuous “‘verite’ experience—the panopticon dies in the “truth of the TV” (28). This moment in Simulacra and Simulation struck me as particularly jarring, since as I was reading the piece I was waiting for Baudrillard to use the panopticon as an example of simulation itself.

In the architecture of the panopticon, a circular room locates inmates or students in individual cells, all facing away from the center. A guard is placed in the center of the circle and observes the inmates or students as they face away from the guard. Although it is impossible for the guard to observe the inmates or students at all times, it is also impossible for the inmates or students to know when exactly they are being observed. This is situation of discipline, where the gaze of authority is, more often than not, a simulation. The construction of paranoia is the simulation of constant observation.

panopticon

Baudrillard further clarifies his stance on the panoptic again when he notes that “Truth is no longer the reflexive truth of the mirror, nor the perspectival truth of the panoptic system and of the gaze, but the manipulative truth of the test that sounds out and interrogates, of the laser that touches and pierces, of computer cards that retain your preferred sequences, of the genetic code that controls your combinations, of cells that inform your sensory universe” (29). The panoptic gaze is destroyed by a re-orientation of ‘truth,’ a re-orientation necessarily caused by the shift from the ‘real’ to the ‘simulation.’ The five causes of this shift, as noted by Baudrillard are:

  1. Television, film, print, the internet. These media confuse our sense and shift away from what is necessary for living and what perpetuates commercial images.
  2. The caesura of capitalism, which distends the materials and processes of capital from their natural and cultural contexts.
  3. The alienation caused by urbanization. The advent of the city locates culture around productivity systems and alienates them from the natural.
  4. The valuation of goods based on currency-value and not based on use-value or necessity. Additionally, the valuation of use-value in terms of monetary systems.
  5. Language as a vehicle and mechanism of capitalism.

Although it seems possible to locate the panoptic gaze in situations of academia (and, it must be noted, there are still prisons that architecturally embody the panoptic gaze), Baudrillard would argue that such a system of control is simply a simulation of the former truth of the panoptic gaze—a simulacra now divorced from the initial referent.

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