Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Introduction: Speaking to the Eye

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Introduction: Speaking to the Eye

Article excerpt

In an obscure footnote to his entrepreneurial proposal for a multipurpose institution tellingly labelled the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham wrote his epigrammatic injunction to the modern age: 'lose no occasion of speaking to the eye'.1 The phrase was deliberately declaratory, and it contained an inherent sensory hierarchy. Power was to be registered through the eye, by seeing and by making visible. Aural sensation, by speaking, was referred to only metaphorically. In this paradigm, the sound of power was subordinate to the power of vision. If Lord Chancellor Bacon's legal maxim was 'Nihil ex scenâ' (nothing outside of the public eye), Bentham asserted his must be 'Multum ex scenâ' (everything outside of the public eye).2

This hierarchy was implicit in Bentham's purpose to recommend that in the operations of the law and the punishment of offenders (with which he was primarily concerned in recommending the Panopticon), theatre was everything. The awful majesty of the law as well as the abject guilt of the offender must be seen, and it was by seeing along carefully constructed but otherwise invisible lines of sight built into the institution that the Panopticon itself would function. The Panopticon would manifest law and justice, morality and order in carefully designated fields of vision. The knowledge of being held in sight, that one was observed or observable at any moment, was Bentham's alternative to the inefficiency of 'torture' and cruelty by whips and chains in the existing prisons he wanted to replace. Held in sight within the walls of their cells, but otherwise unrestrained by torturing chains, Bentham suggested that 'noise' was the 'only offence' to which 'troublesome' inmates could resort, an offence that could easily be 'subdued by gagging'.3

In its inscription of vision into the design of the institution, a design transferrable to other uses including hospitals and factories, Bentham's Panopticon has famously been read as the incarnation of visual power, through surveillance, in modern societies.4 More recent critics have suggested that the disciplinary power of surveillance (of the many by the few) has been replaced by the no-less disciplined and disciplinary orchestration of spectacle (the exposure of the few to the many).5 In terms of either surveillance or spectacle, modernity has been portrayed as an age of vision par excellence, in which both power and possibility are primarily conveyed visually. This interpretation has been consolidated by a body of work in historical sensory studies which has tended to concentrate on vision over sound and the other senses, emphasising the importance of spectatorship in the expression of civility and politeness.6 The behavioural emblem of this body of work remains Adam Smith's tying of civil conduct to the ability to take the position of a 'cool and impartial spectator' in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.7 In Smith's view, the approbation of social passions and disapprobation of unsociable, disruptive passions depended on our ability to see ourselves as an 'indifferent by-stander' judging the conduct of others before us, and thus internalising indifferent judgement by spectating upon our own conduct.8 In this sense, the impartial spectator occupied a position akin to the inmate in Bentham's Panopticon. By internalising the experience of being gazed at, both were forever gazed upon by themselves. Here the force of morality was explicitly tied to the power of vision:

The man who has broke through all those measures of conduct, which can alone render him agreeable to mankind, though he should have the most perfect assurance that what he had done was for ever to be concealed from every human eye, it is all to no purpose. When he looks back upon it, and views it in the light in which the impartial spectator would view it, he finds that he can enter into none of the motives which influenced it.9

Indeed, Smith explicitly contrasted the powerful silence of internalised impartial spectatorship to the mere 'noise' of external sources of moral judgement:

if the man within condemns us, the loudest acclamations of mankind appear but as the noise of ignorance and folly, and whenever we assume the character of this impartial judge, we cannot avoid viewing our own actions with his distaste and dissatisfaction. …

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