Tag Archives: foucault surveiller et punir

The Unblinking Eye

Almost exactly a decade ago, in November 2002, DARPA released a hot new brand into the marketplace of national security: Total Information Awareness (TIA).

With its motto Scientia Est Potentia, intended to convey in primitive Latin the commonplace idea that knowledge is power, TIA would be directed by former perjurer John Poindexter to “imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness useful for preemption; national security warning; and national security decision making.”

As it happens, TIA went too far with too much, and too soon. The program was officially terminated; the website deleted; and Poindexter faded into richly deserved obscurity. Yet bit by bit and year by year, the comprehensive surveillance infrastructure of TIA has without any fanfare (and well beneath the dull radar of the mainstream media) become fully operational, with data storage and analysis conducted through the NSA.

With its all-seeing eye at the apex of its pyramid of power, and with the entire planet transfixed by its radiant gaze, the unblinking eye of TIA represents a sort of globalized penetration of the “principle of inspection” conceived by Jeremy Bentham in 1787 — a date neatly (and ironically) sandwiched by the American and French revolutions.


Of course, Foucault’s analysis in Surveiller et Punir – which the DP editorial staff devoured while undergraduates – articulates the key features of Panopticism, while also tracing its historical genesis from the fear of plague and contagion. Though there have been reams of texts contesting this or that aspect of Foucault’s research, his emphasis on how power becomes internalized as subjective consciousness remains valid and useful in coming to grips with ever more hypertrophic technologies and networks of state surveillance, and the corresponding compression of private space.

In any event, the primary text from Bentham himself could hardly be more forthcoming; after all, it was written as a sort of sales pitch in search of a lucrative commission, thus there would be no value in obscuring the design’s fundamental intent. Through a series of letters (we had not previously noted that they were scribed from White Russia) Bentham articulates the “inspection principle”, from which specific environments and architectures might then be derived:

In his introductory remarks, Bentham himself underscores the key point in his design: that the object of inspection be kept in the dark as to exactly when inspection is to occur. The uncertainty that exists “during every instant of time” for the prisoner assures that the behavioral objectives of surveillance become internalized; not something imposed from above but far more potently as conceived by each prisoner, as part of their own response to potentially constant — yet unverified — inspection.

Bentham further elaborates how the design of the panopticon regulates transparency and light, such that the prisoner becomes a pacified object of information generating behavioral data:

In sum, the power of the inspection principle derives from retaining control over visibility as the key to sustaining the uncertainty which in turn produces the desired state of passive self-regulation (or “learned helplessness”, in today’s terms) that is optimal for the efficient management of a subjugated animal mass.


To change to a different stream of information, redaction provides possibly the most compact expression of panopticism: only eyes that have been thoroughly inspected and approved may view the document, while the public mass can only access fragments. Wikileaks threatens to take the power of redaction away from the domain of the Inspection House (CIA, NSA, etc.) and thus must be silenced, through criminalization or demonization, a process in which much of the mainstream media has eagerly participated.


In his quietly brilliant way, Oliver Ressler explores the issue of blacked out sites (geographic redaction) in part three of his film/installation project, What Is Democracy. With a focus on Area 52, Ressler records a lucid analysis by artist/geographer Trevor Paglen, posing the fundamental question: how can democracy possibly function when there exists a network of sites that are designated as outside the bounds of the discursive polity, and (even more importantly) outside the law.


Now comes the Petraeus Affair, to introduce phrases like “digital forensics” and “internet traffic analysis” into the everyday lexicon of American politics. Will those who labor under the delusion that we still live in a constitutional republic finally wake up to the murky reality of the Surveillance State? And has the dark web of TIA become so complex, with its limitless potential for abuse and malice, that it will inevitably begin to consume itself?

If someone like King David can be consumed by the surveillance web, through events set in motion by a  “favor” granted to a socially ambitious hostess, then what protection will average citizens have should the unblinking eye cast its paranoid gaze upon them?

To be clear: we never believed the Petraeus Myth. If we are to consider his brutal “surge” as some sort of triumphalist “win”, then  should we also count the massacre at Wounded Knee as the crowning achievement of our manifest destiny? Forget the tacky romp with his own hagiographer; focus on the real history of the murderous “surge”, and its legacy of corruption and betrayal, together with the unmitigated strategic disaster of Surge II in Afghanistan.

Petraeus was a master of manipulating the media and the broader public craving for a Hero, any Hero, please give us a Hero. Now he learns that those who live by smoke often die by fire.


Following his death and in accordance with his express wishes, Bentham’s body was embalmed using Maori techniques and put on display at the University College, London. Unfortunately, the embalming of the head was unsuccessful, and it continued to decompose. A wax replica was then used to crown the auto-icon, while the real head was placed between the legs, as depicted below.

In 1975, the same year as the publication of Foucault’s Surveiller et Punir, the head was stolen by a group of students who demanded that a ransom of 100 quid be paid to a homeless shelter. UCL eventually coughed up a tenner, and the rotting head was returned to its case.