[-empyre-] netopticon and personal culture

davin heckman davinheckman at gmail.com
Thu Jan 20 03:36:46 EST 2011

Jon and Alison,

"how far can the metaphor of the Panopticon go and still seem intact
as it travels towards to the surface of the many-layered onion that is
our collective understanding of things?  In the Netopticon, is it the
browser? or internet protocols? In our culture, is language our
(panoptic) prison (Jameson's 'The Prison house of Language')? Or can
we think of the speed of light as a panoptic prison, or mortality, or
the idea of the Panopticon/Netopticon itself etc."

My thought is that we want metaphors of this nature to go as far as
they possibly can in pursuit of a limit that cannot realistically be
achieved.  In other words, the panopticon is a great metaphor for
enculturation because it highlights the ways that we internalize
social pressures and apply them to ourselves, not only in superficial
ways, but in the most intimate reaches of our psyche.  In an earlier
era, God was sufficiently awe-inspiring for some people that they
would discipline their thoughts and behavior to conform to God's
watchful eye....  Foucault provides a secular and thoroughly modern
metaphor of the bureaucratic observer who might catch us being
indecent.   The social network, after neoliberalism, steps in for a
state bureaucracy which nobody believes in....  and replaces the
watchful eye with that of your fellow citizen, not citizen, I mean,
your social competitor, your "friend."  It rather nicely conforms to
Thatcher's glib statement on the non-existence of society.

Underlying all this is the reality that things like light speed and
mortality apparently DO, as far as we are able to realistically know,
pose limits to the spatiotemporal existence of humans.  If we find a
way out of the panopticon, we still have to confront this thing called
culture....  or, retreating from it, we face alienation (which is
also, in its way, a cultural phenomenon).  Lurking at the periphery,
there is the very strict limitation to human existence posed by
biological things like eating, shitting, drinking, breathing, and
death.  (Which, incidentally, are the means by which proletarianized
populations are kept in line).

At the same time, the connotations of imprisonment can only carry us
so far.  Language (and culture) make some courses of thought easier to
follow than others, but if we compare the relative elasticity afforded
by culture to the rather cut and dried restrictions imposed by a raw
biological existence....  Language and culture can as something other
than a prison house....  but as a refuge from a rather rigid existence
dictated by its absence, which is difficult to even conceive of, where
daily life is similar to breathing.  In other words, when we step into
culture, we step into temporality.  When we step out of culture, we
step into something that resembling raw gestures in service of
metabolic processes.  In other words, just as Foucault paints a rather
oppressive picture in Discipline and Punish, he also offers an obverse
view in the History of Sexuality, suggesting that this prison house
can also be produce desire.

In regards to digital culture and the netoptic, then, we can think
about the prison house of these panoptic social media practices.....
but we can also think about the profound desire that this panopticism
might lead to.  I was listening to my radio and heard Sherry Turkle on
NPR talking about robots that "need" our love...  and she mentioned
that in her research she has met a number of young people who have
grown up within a digital culture, who are actually seeking out more
"authentic" experiences by leaving things like Facebook behind.
<http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1122816> Of
course, we all know that this type of nostalgia is not an objective
thing, but the fact that people can form desire for more visceral
forms of contact is very interesting.  I was part of a generation that
got swept up in the romance of new media.  To see people (including
Turkle) pierce through this romance is a very welcome development.
But the question is not a simple one: some are pro-technology and some
are anti- (as the luddites are mischaracterized), the question is
about how humans can make decisions that serve a set of priorities
that cannot be simply answered by the adoption of new technology or
the function of markets.  Again, these little pockets of resistance
will not inevitably lead to a better world.  What is needed is
cooperation, cultivation, thinking, etc.


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