The most striking and resonant metaphor employed in Michel Foucault’s seminal Discipline and Punish (1975) was that of Jeremy Benthem’s Panopticon. The Panopticon was an architectural figure based on a central tower, within a ring-shaped building divided into cells. Each cell spanned the entire thickness of the building, to allow both an inner and outer window. Each occupant was backlit, and isolated, from his neighbor as he/she was from the singular occupant of the tower, who remained unseen and, if at all possible, unknown. “Toward this end, Bentham envisioned not only Venetian blinds on the tower observation ports but also mazelike connections among tower rooms to avoid glints of light or noise that might betray the presence of an observer."1
For Foucault, the essence of power itself could be summarized by the ability to “see-without-being-seen,” to have knowledge of the Other that the Other could never obtain. Because the Panopticon ensured surveillance “both global and individualizing” it represented knowledge as power in its most sweeping aspect: the high-level overview of a subject/terrain/concept married to the detailed, analytic understanding of the telescope/microscope. 2 The Panopticon allowed both complete knowledge of any subject as well as knowledge of that subject’s environment, in the widest possible context. To quote the editor of Surveillance & Society, Foucault’s Panopticon represented a key system/mechanism in “the remaking of people (and society) in the image of modernity.”3
At the close of Lost Season 2, the series appears to be in scope and detail almost a textbook illustration of Foucault’s thesis, one that contains an ironic internal reflection of itself with Locke and Eko’s discovery of the Pearl panopticon at the heart of the island. The castaways, marooned on a desert island for almost two months (with diminishing hope of escape), find over the course of their struggle that they are not alone. Unseen voices, and mysterious captors that come in the night but leave no trace seem to be watching them, aware of their forays away from the beach to other parts of the island, interested in the children and the “good” castaways for some unknown reason.
Before I critique the role of the ?/Pearl station to Lost, let me return to Season 1. In episode 9, “Solitary,” Sayid finally encountered an earlier survivor, Danielle, who occupied the island for, at their best guest, at least 16 years. Danielle was clearly a prisoner on the island, and convinced, without any concrete evidence, that she was not alone and was being observed. She claimed that her child Alex was taking while still an infant, and that her crew had contacted a disease, so horrible that it required her to kill them lest it spread beyond the confines of the island. “Panopticism,” the third chapter of Discipline and Punish, begins with the description of how authorities dealt with the appearance of the plague in a seventeenth-century town.
First, a strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town on pain of death, the killing of all stray animals; the division of the town into distinct quarters, each governed by an intendant. Each street is placed under the authority of a syndic, who keeps it under surveillance; if he leaves the street, he will be condemned to death. On the appointed day, everyone is ordered to stay indoors: it is forbidden to leave on pain of death. The syndic himself comes to lock the door of each house from the outside; he takes the key with him and hands it over to the intendant of the quarter; the intendant keeps it until the end of the quarantine. 4
Each day the intendent, a lowly person whose death would not matter in the scheme of things, visits his charges to observe and records their health and action, based on a system of permanent registration. This document is exhaustive, and will be sent up the hierarchy from the intendent to the mayor. In turn, any decision to treat or even visit a sick person must come from above. “The relation of each individual to his disease and to his death passes through the representatives of power, the registration they make of it, the decisions they take on it.”5 Five or six days after the quarantine the buildings are completely stripped and decontaminated.
This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in l which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead - all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism. 6
As if in opposition to this dream of perfect order, “omnipresent and omniscient power that subdivides itself in a regular, uninterrupted way even to the ultimate determination of the individual,” there arose a tradition of ultimate rebellion. Lawlessness, the wanton mingling of bodies “abandoning their statutory identity and the figure under which they had been recognized, allowing a quite different truth to appear.” Against this festival atmosphere political regulation probed ever deeper, as though by the mere marshalling of facts disorder could be kept at bay.
The plague gave way to multiple separations between people, rituals of exclusion, the intensification of modes of control, and the further hierarchization of power. As Foucault elaborates, the exile of the leper and the dream of control bring different political dreams. “The first is that of a pure community, the second that of a disciplined society. Two ways of exercising power over men, of controlling their relations, of separating out their dangerous mixtures.” The plague-stricken town is the model of perfect governance. Although the society of the leper and the magistrates are wildly different, they are not incompatible, and this relation between the exile and social systems of control (psychiatric and medical hospital, reformatory, school) was central to the formation of modern society in the nineteenth century and beyond.
Seventeenth-century plague control thus developed methods of social control brought to bear on all aspects of later society. So too did the introduction of incurable disease and imperious “others” in Season 1 of Lost prepare us for the revelations of Season 2, in which we find that Ethan was only one of at least two sentries observing and recording the castaways, and separating them into “good” and “bad” according to, as yet, unfathomable criteria. Although we lack a definitive history of the others (relying on scattered dialogue and the webmaze for clues as to their identity and motives), we might imagine that the “sickness,” if not the sole reason for it, certainly contributed to our growing picture of the island as a dream of “perfect governance” as hierarchically-controlled mechanism.
As viewers we are privy to the mechanism on some intermediary level; we know more than any of the castaways – indeed, than all of them put together – but we are yet manipulated by the producers, who reveal only enough of the political machinery at any one time to keep us returning to our glowing screens/cells for more. According to Foucault, the panoptic mechanism reverses the dungeon principles to “deprive of light,” and to “hide,” preserving only “to enclose.” So does the island supply light everywhere (even in the forlorn Swan Station), with nowhere to hide, while keeping the castaways not only on the island but also on their beach, insecure and in the dark.
Although we suspected, with the permanent unease of the paranoid schizophrenic, that someone was watching the castaways besides ourselves in season 1, we could not be certain that Walt’s or Claire’s abductions were planned, or that there was any resident camp on the island, much less an organization with an interest in controlling its inhabitants. With Desmond’s introduction, and that of the tail section survivors, followed by the discovery of the medical station and the food drop, we came to realize that there was an active, all-encompassing presence on the island, one that sought to manipulate the survivors for its own ends.
Foucault’s model of the panopticon, as stated above, has proved a durable metaphor that has been employed to shed light on all manner of modern social practices, from telecommunications, to genetics to food preparation. But Season 2 of Lost appears to move beyond the Panopticon as metaphor, adopting Foucault’s expansion of Benthem’s structure as both a structural and dramatic device. In The Ambiguous Panopticon: Foucault and the Codes of Cyberspace, Mark Winokur chooses to align the internet with panopticism, as both
construct space with a special attention to the subject's internalizing a particular model of space, and a particular notion of how people are distributed throughout space in relation to one another, and with a special attention to the defining of the individual through the space she occupies. Further, both are intensely interested in the construction and distribution of authority over and within the subject. 7
I will return to a discussion of the internet as panopticon below; here I want to focus on the idea that from its very first frame, Lost has focused on the island as a delimited area. As the camera roams the island, and the castaways map their destiny, Lost deliberately locates each individual in a distributed space (beach, caves, hatch, etc.), and fixes authority over the master of each region. Those in charge of each space – Jack in the cave, and then in the hatch, Ana-Lucia at the opposite end of the island – exert their most profound authority when they order others to vacate their habitat for another. Claire is the lowly single mother who collects information on all those who perished in the crash, and organizes a funeral for them, but Sawyer ends up with the manifest. On the beach, Hurley is the lowly note-taker who compiles a comprehensive list of castaway names and origins, reporting to Jack as final arbiter when he discovers that Ethan is a spy. Under the aegis of a team leader, the castaways appear to move freely within the confines of the island. Yet as they stumble upon traps, lose members of their expeditions, and face hallucinations and signs wherever they turn, they realize that those in charge (Jack, Sawyer, Sayid, Ana-Lucia) may unwittingly serve higher masters.
They castaways continue the task of pushing the Swan station’s button every 108 minutes with apparent free will. But that very act of pushing the button carries the insidious implication – as did Charlie’s murder of Ethan, or Michael, Jin and Sawyer’s shift of the raft to pursue the seabillies – that no act is truly free on this island. Locke serves as a model of the conflicted individual, whose inner nobility is stifled by a gnawing sense that he is but a pawn in the service of others (the welfare system, a disturbed mother, a conniving father, an abusive boss, a mute and inscrutable island entity).
I was never meant to do anything. Every single second of my pathetic little life is as useless as that button! You think it's important? You think it's necessary? It's nothing. It's nothing. It's meaningless. 8
If Locke could but be certain that any one of his actions were truly his, it would no longer be contingent, no longer be “nothing.” But the revelations of Pearl Station shake him to the core. There her is reminded that Boone died so that he could discover Swan stations. There he views an Orientation film that seems to invalidate everything done in Swan station, where countless secrets have festered, men have come to blows, his leg was reinjured, and two women have died. And there he finds a surveillance system at the center of a radiating system of hatches, with instructions from a mysterious Doctor with at least two “illuminated” names to record in minute detail the actions of those observed on the camera for each station. Thus the Pearl Station seems to be the apex of the Island’s panopticon of stations, and those passively recording the results of the psychological experiment in Swan station (the only one visible) in a sense control and exert power over those who are unwittingly observed.
During the Orientation film for station 5, the Pearl, we are told, “Karen DeGroot herself has written, ‘Careful observation in the only key to true and complete awareness.’” Spoken as a true student of Benthem, our narrator tells us that the nature of the experiment that the observer must record is completely immaterial.
What do these subjects believe they are accomplishing as they struggle to fulfill their tasks? You, as the observer, don't need to know. You, as the observer, don't need to know. All you need to know is the subjects believe their job is of the utmost importance. Remember, everything that occurs, no matter how minute or seemingly unimportant, must be recorded. 9
Yet we viewers note a “third eye” up above, a camera trained on the inhabitants of Pearl station, as well as discrepancies in the Sony u-matic 3/4" tape that cast doubt on both orientation films (those observed by Locke and Eko in both Swan and Pearl stations, which appear to invalidate one another, if not be part of some elaborate, Rabelaisian joke).
The discovery of Pearl station marks the point in Lost’s trajectory where metaphor meets literal transcription: Benthem’s creation of the ultimate scientific workstation, one which could simultaneously carry out both social, medical, pedagogical, psychological, philosophical and evolutionary experiments. “The Panopticon is a privileged place for experiments on men, and for analyzing with complete certainty the transformations that may be obtained from them.” 10 And, as our observation of the Pearl station avers, the panoptican even provides “an apparatus for supervising its own mechanisms.” 11
An inspector at any level of the hierarchy may at a glance observe all those below him. The panopticon replaces the plague-stricken town model with an ideal model of control, one that may, and has (perhaps even on Lost island) been detached from any specific use. As have Locke and Eko, “anyone may come and exercise in the central tower the functions of surveillance.” Theoretically, this alleviates the immediate threat of tyranny, providing the central tower is accessible. Such was not the case on Lost island, however, and such may never be the case, as long as the Brazil-like pneumatic tubes of information function to consolidate power in a higher, as yet undiscovered turret.
The panopticon provides a fertile model for critiquing Lost not because of its insular manifestation in the flesh, in episode 21 of season 2, but because it grounds the entire series with a compelling explanation for why the castaways may have been lured to the island, and what the Dharma Initiative, or its corollary Hanso Foundation, may want with the island and its inhabitants. The panopticon as theorized by Benthem was a means to spread and institutionalize discipline, in all its facets, throughout a society. Foucault traces the "Benthamite physics of power" from the classical age onwards, noting how individual highly disciplined armies, colleges and hospitals became models for Enlightenment Europe. In this process the act of discipline itself replaced the original function of discipline (e.g., military discipline was no longer a mere means of preventing looting or desertion, but a basic technique to enable an army to exist). Once trained in a discipline, a particular institutional model was transferred to other areas, and disseminated throughout society, to be administered in a detached manner by the state. So may our castaways have been assembled and manipulated for the purpose of internalizing and replicating the island’s disciplinary procedures, as they represent in themselves a society in microcosm: criminals, scientists, businessmen, soldiers, mothers, fathers, doctors, teachers, psychologists and the (formerly) infirm..
Slavoj Zizek writes of the contemporary panopticon as a place where the original authority has been twice displaced. Where once there had been an identified overseer, that authority figure had become fictive. The horror or “radical uncertainty” of not knowing whether or not we are being observing is quashed if we but internalize the role and regulate ourselves.12 If the process of pushing the button is, in Eko’s words “more important now than ever,” it is as just that: a means by which to make that horrifying discipline their own, to efface the fictive overseer with a new boss. In so doing Locke and Eko raise the discipline of button-pushing and hatch maintenance to a fait accompli, liberated from the need to “mean” anything beyond the exercise of discipline for its own sake.
I return now to Winokur’s discussion of the panopticon, namely his useful division of research spawned by this enormously popular notion. Writing in 2003, Winokur notes that the thousands of discussions of the panopticon on the internet focus almost exclusively on visible surveillance. In that they follow Neo-Foucauldian discussions of surveillance society as an Orwellian, top-down phenomenon “in which power is invested in the powerful if invisible.” 13 Studies that focus on how invisible control increase the unease of the observed certain have much to say about our increasing fear of losing control and civil liberties to information-gathering over the ‘net. I would not want to discount the acute relevance of such a position to Lost, where an increasing sense of frustration and powerlessness afflicted the castaways as they slowly realized that they were being observed, tracked, and classified (witness Locke’s shocked expression when the faux Henry Gale admits to him that “I was coming for you.”14)
But Winokur is interested not in how the internet deploys information to “just” know us, but in how it “deploys information to create us.” Her reminds us that the panoptic gaze is initially “unidirectional and fictive”; television is an easily identifiable panoptic institution in that its discourse is defined by variations on the themes of entertainment, desire, and consumerism, with each genre’s rules constituting one discourse among several. Although it is an accepted tenet of media studies that film is more “spatially panoptic” than television, surely Lost breaks that mold with its ever-widening sphere of influence, one that embraces print interviews, podcasts, official and unofficial websites, official and unofficial literature tie-ins, multiple forums for discussion, and a multi-media, cross-institutional “game” that promises to span all forms of twenty-first century communication technologies.
Certainly we as viewers are less centralized than the traditional film audience, with Tivo™, videotape, iTune™ downloadable shows and free internet marketing further liberating the viewer from any specific time, place or even modality of viewing, as witness the free streamed episodes at ABC's website. And among the community of Lost viewers, the sense of one overriding authority is muted by both the scope of internet and press discourse on Lost and conflicting messages from those associated directly with its production (is J.J. Abrams the true force behind the mythology, despite his day-to-day absence from production? Or is it Carlton Cuse, voice of Hanso Foundation commercials and podcasts? But hasn’t Damon Lindelof been the most ubiquitous voice heard in print and televised interviews?)
The internet – and the diffusion of Lost information through it – seems to constitute an “anti-panopticon,” an environment that empowers the user, and allows for bi-directional discourse, creative expression, and true choice. Yet as the internet expands, more and more institutions and sites are brought under the control of huge umbrella companies such as Time-Warner and ABC Disney (who own Lost). And the increasingly expensive real estate in cyberspace is made possible with more sophisticated and ubiquitous consumer identification and targeted marketing.
Lost: the Experience is the official name of the overarching game launched by ABC on May 2, 2006 and it suggests, indeed, that the combination of Lost: the series with its cross-platform accouterments represents a total entertainment experience unparalleled by any single previous media enterprise. Every one of us who has invested in Lost: the series is asked to invest further in the Experience, despite the passively-worded claim in the official press release to the contrary.15 As the panoptic experience is – at base – a virtual one, so the virtual Lost Experience is a panoptic one Foucault’s notion of absolute authority was the equivalent to Zizek’s internalized uncertainty: the individual who absorbs the discipline of the overseer participates in every aspect of the panopticon: he/she is participant, observer, punisher and punished. By internalizing the discipline we immerse ourselves in it; we seek to create our own Lost Experience by following the clues scattered like breadcrumbs through small print on false press releases, oneiric images that momentarily populate game websites, or newspaper ads that prompt us to purchase Bad Twin or be left behind. Like Foucault’s panopticon, we have let the ideology of Lost permeate our being, so that the Lost Experience is but the next logical step for every loyal fan of the show. At the bottom of the hardcore Lost fan lie the message board lurkers and those who watch the show but once or twice, following at a distance those bloggers immersed in daily pursuit of the game. Like Foucault’s panopticon, we have let the ideology of Lost permeate our being, so that the Lost Experience is but the next logical step for every loyal fan of the show. At the bottom of the hardcore Lost fan lie the message board lurkers and those who watch the show but once or twice, following at a distance those bloggers immersed in daily pursuit of the game.
Those with the means to afford iPods, broadband access and cellphone internet support wield more power than those restricted to more prosaic modes of information access (in this case, our multi-tasked computers). They lead the rest of us down the rabbit hole, and we follow at various distances, some concerned in our increasingly archaic, late-20th century worldview only with the show as broadcast, others lurkers marking the progress of the game from a distance. As Eko has internalized the discipline of Dr. Mark Wickman, so we have internalized the discipline of the rather hazy but insistent producers of the Lost universe to watch, listen and record, as we analyze screengrabs, translate obscure Latin phrases, and trace every visual, audio and literary reference back to its origin, as a prelude to very observation and analyses. We may never meet the mysterious “him” that so terrified Mr. Friendly in the Staff station or Faux Henry in the Swan munitions bunker. But we need never worry about “him” if we can internalize his authority – and those of the show’s producers - as our own masters of the Lost Experience.
Ben F. Barton and Marthalee S. Barton. "Modes of Power in Technical and Professional Visuals," (Journal of Broadcast Telecommunications 7.1, 1993, 140-41.) back
Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972-1977, Ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 148. back
David Wood, Surveillance & Society 1 (3) Editorial, 235; [http://www.surveillance-and-society.org/] back
Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (NY: Vintage Books 1995; © 1977),195. back
Foucault, Discipline & Punish,196ff. back
Foucault, Discipline & Punish,196ff. back
Mark Winokur, “The Ambiguous Panopticon: Foucault and the Codes of Cyberspace,” Ctheory Article 124 (3/13/;2003), [http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=371] back
Lost, ABC, ?, written by Damon Lindelof & Carlton Cuse, transcript by spooky [http://www.lost-tv.com/transcripts/Question_Mark_Lost.htm] back
Lost, ABC, ?, transcript. back
Foucault, Discipline & Punish, 200ff.back
Foucault, Discipline & Punish, 200ff.back
Geert Lovink, "Civil Society, Fanaticism, and Digital Reality: A Conversation with Slavoj Zizek," Ctheory Article A037 (2-21-1996), [http://www.ctheory.net/text_file.asp?pick=79]back
Lost, ABC, Two for the Road, written by Elizabeth Sarnoff & Christina M. Kim, transcript by spooky [http://www.lost-tv.com/transcripts/Two_For_The_Road_Lost.htm]back
"You don't need to be one of those hard-core fans who've memorized every episode, [Mike Benson, senior vice president of marketing for ABC Entertainment] said. ‘We wanted to make it so that if you watched 'Lost' from the beginning or if you've never watched the show before you can get into this.’
The game is specifically designed in a manner that is not dependent on information from season one or season two.” ABC Press Release, April 24, 2006 “'Lost' Game Lets Fans Hunt for Clues” [http://www.abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=1881142]back