The Present Gaze: Observation as the Definition of Existence

by liquid

In Foucault’s Panopticism, the social structure of discipline and observation is presented as the defining ideology of the modern era. The extension of discipline to all aspects of life, both overtly and covertly, is both the means to, and the culmination of the economic extension of the power of the gaze. Discipline, as a function of perfecting an idealized society of production and order, as a method to “increase the possible utility of individuals”, is built upon an inherent inequality: that of the visible and the invisible, the observer and the observed.

The Panopticon, then, is a representation of this structure, with its towering unknowable watchers contrasted to its caged, dissected watched. The great achievement of the Panopticon is its effective concentration and multiplication of power, not through an obvious and coercive force, but through a subtle and ever present atmosphere of awful apprehension. Normalcy is enforced not through coercive action, but through the all-present potential for observation. Power, then, is both concentrated in the central figure of the watcher, and multiplied; democratized among any potential number of observers. Furthermore, the system becomes self-sustaining, the act of observation shifted from the observer to the observed, with the mere possibility of punishment, always present at the edge of consciousness, quasi-apprehension and dread maintained by the spectre of the gaze.

This structure is reflected, then, in our modern society, in institutes as diverse as the police and the media, discipline present to the level for subconscious acceptance. Our own desires to self-censor, to present an air of political correctness and social acceptability is perhaps the most subtle enaction of “an indefinitely generalizable mechanism”. This power over us, enforced by the self-immolation of identity, is delicately wielded by various organizations for multiplicious means, all with the intent of instilling patterns of behaviour.

Possibly the most effective method of controlling behaviour is through the manipulation of the sense of community and normalcy, utilizing the powerful drive to belong inherent in all humans to create a draw to the desired ideas. Modern marketing strategies rely heavily on this, exploiting our fear of being somehow lesser or inadequate. This fear is rooted in the panoptic gaze; we believe that we are constantly under observation–it is this fear guides our behaviour.

This system of perception of constant observation influencing behaviour is central to the narrative of Gianfranco Mingozzi’s Flavia the Heretic. The nuns exist in a pseudo-Panopticon, where they are under constant scrutinization. The mother superior monitors the sisters’ acts of devotion, constantly appraising for signs of impropriety. The nuns pray face down, with the observers pacing above them, a startlingly poignant example of the visible dominated by the invisible. During the Tarantula invasion, the older nuns observe the defilement of the sanctuary, while the younger ones hide. When Sister Livia, a young nun, “converts” to the chaotic behaviour of the cultists, the mother superior has the Tarantulas driven from the convent. The gruesome punishment then inflicted on her for breaking the rules of the community is used to further enforce the elder’s power.

A central “observer” in the film is the portrait of the knight. Its gaze presents a dichotomy that drives the later action. Flavia views it as a positive, romantic figure, Sister Agatha, however, is convinced that it represents St. George, created to have power of the nuns, to use its gaze to induce the submission of the sisters. It is a perfect example of the complete democratization of the power structure that the Panoptican lends itself to: an inanimate object can, through the reminder of the presence of observes, convince the observed to punish themselves.

Stylistically, the film creates an atmosphere of Panopticism through its reliance on long and distance shots. The majority of the film is shown with distance between the viewer and the characters highlighted, reinforcing the viewers position as watcher. The limited amounts of close-ups, which normally serve to draw the viewer into the film, are extreme, and typically feature graphic violence that further serves to accentuate distance. The distance created this way is an important part of the film, enveloping the viewer in the same isolation and angst that Flavia herself feels.

This observation and enforcement serves to create a disciplined social structure, with a place for everyone and productivity and the maintenance of order sacrosanct. The nuns are shown making religious icons and praying with a business- like regularity, the convent serves “to increase both the docility and utility” of all the members.

It is important to note that unlike the other nuns, Flavia does not conform to the position of observed, but becomes an observer, and seizes the power implicate there. She refuses to lie on her face during prayer, instead rising to meet the gaze of the saint, who’s power she strips and who’s image she eventually destroys. She also frequently walks the countryside, a wandering observer, gaining knowledge and power. During these walks she talks to Abraham, who attempts answers her questions on the nature of god, observes the gelding of a horse and the rape of a village women by a French noble, all of which serve her later. Her major turning point comes during her observations on a hill, which serves as a natural Panopticon. While standing above the tone, much like Foucault’s observer in the central tower, she witnesses the incoming Moslem fleet.

It is with the arrival of the fleet that Flavia begins to break down the Panoptic structure of her world. She leads the warriors to the convent, where they subvert the disciplined structure enforced by observation. The nuns are drugged, destroying both the threat of observation and the internal urge to self-censor. With their order in disarray, the nuns revert to a state of bestial existence, engaging in some of the same chaotic behaviours as the Tarantula cult. This complete reversal only serves to highlight the structure normally in place: the removal of discipline removes the utility and docility of the members of the system.

The panoptic structure, outlined by Foucault and depicted in Flavia the Heretic, Is a central tenant of our society. We exist in a world were docility and utility is given great importance, and our own fear of observation and desire to belong is manipulated to ensure that we remain such. The structure of the Panopticon has become ingrained in our communities, infiltrating every level of our society and serving as a formative influence on our identities. Awareness of this, however, gives us some power over our lives, and grants us the ability to resist the manipulation, gaining power over our own lives.