Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban

Between Surveillance and Spectacle: The Narrative Construction of the Self in the light of a Revisited Panopticon

Lance Lachenicht & Graham Lindegger

Department of Psychology, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg

[email protected] & [email protected]

This paper begins with a re-examination of a limited aspect of Michel Foucault's use of Jeremy Bentham's concept of "Panopticon". Foucault's book Discipline and Punish uses the idea of a Panopticon to describe a fundamental change in social arrangements which supposedly occurred in the early 1800s: before that time the many saw the few; after that time, with the growth of modern surveillance activities, increasingly, the few saw the many. There is little doubt that Foucault has helped us understand social importance of the modern practice of surveillance, which is increasing at an accelerating rate. Yet Foucault has overlooked the continuing importance of the opposite process, of spectacle, of the many seeing the few, which has also continued to grow and expand at an accelerating rate. The mass media, and especially television, enable the many, literally hundreds of millions of people simultaneously, to see and admire the few. Together, the panoptical and the spectacle processes create a two-way social mirror in which all modern selves are both subject to surveillance and to potent images of the powerful. This two-way social mirror helps create, control and discipline the "soul", i.e., human beings who through self-control fit themselves for their place in modern society. The Internal process created in this way can be modelled by Daniel Wegner's "ironic" theory of self-control, a theory that has internal counterparts both for Panoptical and for Spectacle processes. The paper explores the narrative modes through which the panoptical and spectacle processes come to be internalised and to shape the self. It is argued that the inner narrative is both the site of social influence (the converging point of panoptical and spectacle processes) and the site of resistance to social influence (the creation of alternative narratives). Some illustrations of self-narratives reflecting these processes are offered.


I think it is in one of Bill Cosby's skits that he mentions the irony that children often turn to the very parent who has punished them to seek comfort. Interrogators are also thought to work in pairs, a mean angry interrogator and a friendly comforting one. Common-sense observations like these provoke the thought that the social control of people may often require a two pronged approach: a negative procedure that monitors and punishes transgressions, and a positive approach that provides examples of exemplary behaviour and that offers approval or rewards for conformity. Some theoretical support for this idea may come from Wegner's "ironic" theory of individual mental control processes. Narratives we believe, crucially influence both the social and the individual level of these two-pronged control processes.

The purpose of the present paper is show the parallel and interactive operations of internal control processes and external social control processes and to link these two levels through the operations of narratives. The paper first examines internal mental control processes as described by Daniel Wegner, followed by a description and re-examination of Foucault's account of control processes in society (which we will call surveillance and spectacle). The surveillance and spectacle processes we believe operate in parallel together serving the function of social control.

Ironic Mental Control

There are several accounts in the literature of how self-control may be achieved, and a number of them run parallel to the surveillance and spectacle processes of social control. One appealing example might be Jung's notion of unconscious mechanisms such as the shadow, which explain the internal control processes as arising from a need to maintain a psychological balance. In what follows, however, we will principally explore the theory of ironic mental control processes developed by Daniel Wegner.

According to Wegner individual mental control is achieved by the interaction of two processes: "an intentional operating process that is conscious, effortful, and interruptible and an ironic monitoring process that is unconscious, less effortful and uninteruptable" (Wegner, 1997, p. 148). The operating process brings about the intended mental control by searching for mental contents consistent with the intended state of mind. This process may, for example, look for distracters when the person is trying to suppress a thought or for signs of fatigue when the person is trying to sleep. The monitoring process, in turn, searches for mental contents signalling a failure to create the intended state of mind. In the case of thought suppression the monitor looks for the to-be-suppressed thought. In the case of wakefulness the monitor looks for signs of wakefulness.

These two processes function together in a feedback system to bring about mental control. The person trying to diet by suppressing thoughts of food may well expend considerable effort in the form of the operating process looking for distracters. This operating process may perhaps succeed, setting up a calorie free chain of thought. Meanwhile the monitoring process searches unconsciously for thoughts of food by scanning memories and cues in the surrounding environment. When it encounters such thoughts the monitoring process will bring them into consciousness and restart the operating process. Again the person will have to find a new set of calorie free thoughts. Over time the process should gradually eliminate thoughts of food. The irony of the monitoring process, however, is that in providing the needed search for the failure of mental control, it increases the accessibility of exactly the most undesirable thoughts. In the case of the dieter, the monitoring process illuminates all food, meal times, tea times, and the like.

Wegner suggests that as long as the operating process is healthy this won't be a problem. The operating process is far more effective than the monitor given the greater share of processing resources it consumes, so it usually overwhelms the tendency to counter-intentional thoughts produced by the monitoring process. However, Wegner argues, when mental load rises - when the person is subject to distractions, stress, time pressure, intoxication, or the like - the operating process may be overtaken by the monitoring process in its ability to flood consciousness with the products of its search. Mental control then breaks down, and indeed works against itself, bringing to mind unwanted contents. Wegner must argue, then, that such extra mental load is common in clinical patients and manifests in eating, obsessional and compulsive disorders.

To be effective, external control of persons has to work with, and indeed develop, internal mental control processes. Perhaps it can be argued even more strongly: that internal control largely arises through some kind of internalisation of external control processes and that internal control is subsequently enhanced and maintained through the operation of external control processes. And it precisely for this reason that external control may require two prongs: A surveillance system to detect deviations from approved social conduct, and set in motion corrective punishments; and a more positive process which will help provide an approved repertoire of social behaviours.

A surveillance system on its own may well suppress behaviour, but since it is likely to be a source of great stress for the people subject to such surveillance, ironic thought control processes will ensure that deviant desires are not eliminated. Indeed the person subject to surveillance may be constantly aware of deviant thoughts and desires precisely because of the need to suppress them. However, when surveillance is coupled with a more positive control procedures providing both powerful examples and absorbing ideas, social control is likely not only to suppress deviant behaviour but also to generate active conformity. The filling of the controlled person's mind with "acceptable" content will help undermine the ironic effects of surveillance and create willing compliance. In this way social processes for controlling individuals may come to mimic internal control processes.

An additional way in which spectacle processes may enhance surveillance processes is by offering socially legitimated procedures for channelling deviant thoughts and behaviours, e.g. through ritualised tolerance of political opposition, and religious confession of deviant thoughts and emotions. Freud's notion of sublimation might be seen as an example of this. Some of the behavioural and strategic methods for control take account of this phenomenon, e.g. controlled drinking in alcoholics. There are also well documented culturally rooted mechanisms for dealing with, processing, and ultimately controlling these impulses.


All of this leads to a revisiting of Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The birth of the modern prison (1975) and his use of Bentham's idea of a Panopticon in particular. (Interestingly, the original French title, Surveiller et punir: Naiscance de la prison, contains the words "surveillance"). The opening chapter of Discipline and Punish gives a vivid description of an execution in Paris in 1757. The execution was of Robert Francois Damiens who had attempted to murder Louis XV. The execution took a great deal of time, included severe torture, and ended in Damiens being torn apart by horses tied to his legs and arms (though the horses needed some human help). The execution took place in front of a large crowd. The next account in Foucault's book takes place in 1838 where the contemporary life routine of prisoners is described. The lives of prisoners at this time were regulated by precise rules, from a drum role in the morning to which the prisoners rose and dressed silently, through prayer, working hours, meals, education, rest, the washing of hands, the inspection of clothes, and sleep. The naked brutality and torture of Damiens' execution has disappeared but has been replaced by a system of rules regulating prisoner's lives in great detail.

By contrasting these two scenes Foucault wishes to make a number of points. He wants to point out the change in the nature of punishment from physical torture to prison. But more than this Foucault wants to point out the change in the purpose of punishment, changing from the infliction of pain to the transformation of the soul. Foucault remarks (p.19) "During the 150 to 200 years that Europe has been setting up its new penal systems, the judges have gradually � taken to judging something other than crimes, namely, the 'soul' of the criminal". Consequently, the public character of punishment has disappeared: "Punishment will tend to become the most hidden part of the penal process" (p.9).

All of this is related to a deep historical change in the social order. "This book", Foucault states, "is intended as a correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge" (p.23). Modern penal practices are, Foucault assures us, actually techniques of power, and his analysis of these techniques is intended to enable us to understand "how man, the soul, the normal or abnormal individual have come to duplicate crime as objects of penal intervention". So Foucault is attempting to understand the creation of human beings who control themselves through self-control, and thereby who fit into a modern industrial society.

The new prisons were organised so that a few could supervise and see a large number. In this sense they were panoptical (a term coined by Bentham from pan meaning all, and opticon meaning visual). These new prisons implied a new society organised on panoptical lines. He states (p. 216): "In appearance Panopticism is merely the solution of a technical problem, but, through it, a whole new type of society emerges". For Foucault, this new type of society represents a transition from the situation where the many see the powerful few to a situation where the powerful few see the many. Foucault, writing of prison arrangements but also of social arrangements, quotes Julius, a prison reformer writing in 1831 as follows: "To procure for a small number, or even for a single individual, the instantaneous view of a great multitude" (p.216). In summary, Foucault states: "Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance � we are much less Greeks than we believe. We are neither in the amphitheatre, nor on the stage, but in the panoptical machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are a part of its mechanism" (p.217).

On this basis Foucault describes how Panopticism has come to pervade the "entire social body" (p. 298). Of course there continues to be some use of spectacle, but says Foucault, "the pomp of sovereignty, the necessarily spectacular manifestations of power" that are necessary initially, will soon give way to "the daily exercise of surveillance, in a Panopticism in which the vigilance of the intersecting gazes was soon to render useless both the eagle and the sun" (p.217). For Foucault, then, Panopticism produces the self-control, which disciplines people to fit into a modern industrial society.

The continuing use of spectacle

Anyone reading Foucault must be convinced of the enormous importance of modern surveillance and control systems in shaping our society. Prison surveillance is just one part of modern surveillance. The use of computer technology enables the surveillance of whole classes of individuals. Often people are now scrutinised not just for present crimes but as potential future criminals. Computer information systems link different police forces, banks, credit agencies, marketing organisations and tax collectors. The school system, the health and psychiatric and social systems all keep tabs on the individuals in our society. Clearly, we are a society where the few see the many.

But it is also easy to see that we live in a society where the many see the few. The twentieth century, more than any other, has been the age of mass media. The nineteenth century had daily newspapers. The twentieth has cinema, radio, television, and most recently the World Wide Web. Foucault doesn't appear to mention television in Discipline and Punish. Yet any mention of television must surely have drastically changed his analysis of the panoptical machine in which he sees modern man as trapped.

The mass media are arguably sources of great power. They filter and shape information, often in the context of a hidden political or economic agenda. They stage the great moments of the nation and the world (think of the gulf war or Mandela's release from prison. They can generate greater confidence and belief than most politicians. Public opinion is largely shaped by the mass media. They provide distractions from the ills of everyday life. The media tends to be controlled by the most prominent elites in the society.

There seem to be strong parallels between the growing Panopticism of modern society and the growing role of the mass media in modern society. It is easy to show that just as the technology (and the use of the technology) of surveillance has grown through the twentieth century, so the technology (and the use of the technology) of mass media has accelerated in the twentieth century, allowing for greater possibility of spectacle phenomena. Few could watch a royal wedding 300 years ago: in modern times literally hundreds of millions of people watched the wedding Charles and Diana. Through the media, the many are enabled to view social ideals embodied in the few. Further the media becomes means of presenting tragic examples of the consequences of the failure of social control (or conformity) for public viewing.

And it is clearly also true that both spectacle and surveillance are ancient tools of social control. Roman emperors frequently indulged in public spectacle and built public monuments to impress their people with their power. But they also conducted censuses, and went to great lengths to ensure that most Romans paid tax. Spies were regularly employed by Elizabeth I and other rulers. The Norman conquerors of England at the beginning of the last millennium conducted a complete survey of all the land in England, appropriately called the "Book of Doom". It is simply not true to believe that spectacle is an ancient mode of social control that has been superseded by Panopticism. Both have always been used.

It would probably not be very difficult to show that the two forms of social control have developed in intimate association with each other, the one complementing the other. The technology for surveillance is closely related to the technology for mass spectacle. George Orwell (in 1984) foresaw the ultimate fusion of the two technologies: through a screen in your room you saw Big Brother but were also seen by him� The marriage of computer and television technology means that such a fusion is not far off in our present lives.

One of Foucault's purposes in writing of the Panopticon was to suggest a shift from external control through spectacle to internal self-control through self surveillance. By arguing for the continued use of spectacle we do not wish to ague that there has been no shift from external social control to self-control. Rather we are arguing that spectacle, by providing alternative thought contents and opportunities for confession and sublimation is an essential component of self-control. Indeed there seems to be a tendency in some non-western societies for social control to be largely executed through social and group relations. Westernised, urban, and industrialised societies seem clearly associated with a greater sense of autonomous individual identity. In the process, internalisation leading towards self-control becomes a vital aspect of the process of social control. Parry and Doan (1994) in their book on story revisions suggest that individuals should be thought of as "internalised others" (p.5). In a society in which methods of surveillance and spectacle are especially powerful, these internalised others are particularly likely to be the "few" who control these methods.

Examples of Social Control in South Africa and Elsewhere

Social control in South Africa and elsewhere has historically been executed by means of both surveillance and spectacle.

Surveillance must, historically, have been used as an important and explicit tool of social and political control through various means: political, medical and religious.

Historically, political surveillance was extensively and elaborately practised in South Africa as a means of control, primarily through the function of the infamous security police and organisations such as BOSS. As short a time ago as ten years many ordinary South Africans lived terrorised by the surveillance tactics of these organs of political control. In fact, I (GCL) remember the time, when, on university campuses, the ability and adeptness of security policemen to recount to politically active students their day-to-day movements, obviously based on subtle but extensive surveillance, was sometimes enough to terrorise them into political conformity.

Alongside of political surveillance, religious surveillance has also been used as an important vehicle of social control. This has taken place in both the public and private domain. The powerful sense that "God sees all" is, as Durkheim and other sociologists of religion have shown, a potent means of social control. But in many contexts, including South Africa, there has been a more public religious surveillance, through the means of public moral watchers. Organisations like the Broederbond would have fused religious and political forms of surveillance.

But it is also reported that in many societies medicine, and psychiatry in particular, has served a surveillance function contributing to social control. The British psychiatrist Malcolm Lader, working with Amnesty International in Russia reported the clearest instances of this. Lader's work revealed the explicit use of psychiatry for political control through the life-long incarceration of political dissidents in mental hospitals with diagnoses such as "political delusions".

All the above are manifestations of the few viewing the many. But previously and today there are also many examples of the many viewing the few.

On a political level this is very apparent through the current work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Through the media, and TV in particular, the many are enabled to view the few. In many instances these "few" that are the focus of the TRC are the very few who previously practised surveillance on the many who are the contemporary viewers.

The religious domain has also provided interesting examples of the many viewing the few as a means of social control. Stories of great religious figures would be a means f or encouraging personal conversion and dedicated lifestyles. "Lives of the Saints" has long provided a powerful and subtle vehicle for the many to admire and emulate the few. Similar processes would take place through the hearing of personal testimonies of conversion.

Very similar processes operate through some aspects of contemporary medical or therapeutic treatment. Alcoholics Anonymous encourages the telling of personal stories or testimonies which serve as a model for the many other unredeemed addicts. Similar stories or testimonies are told in the media of redemption from other forms of psychiatric disorder. It has become highly fashionable for media to screen programmes about particular conditions or disorders which involve interviews or observations of real people whose misfortunes are then viewed by the many. Often there is an implicit moral in these stories told by unfortunate victims.

One particular modern version of the many viewing the few in medical contexts is seen in the case conference. While case conferences in medicine have always provided the opportunity for the few "knowing" to discuss and observe the few "unknowing", this has become particularly elaborate with modern technology. The history of the family therapy conference in South Africa is a typical example of this. Many foreign specialists visiting this country for the conference have arranged, set up and invited live viewing of therapeutic interactions, either in the presence of the few or via closed circuit television. Even those less inclined to such exhibitionist practices invariably have quantities of videos with real patients to be viewed by disciples all over the world. A typical example of this was from the Australian family therapist, Michael White.

Linking surveillance, spectacle and self-control through narrative

We are arguing that surveillance and spectacle processes help to create self-control in the individual and thereby help to fit the individual for a place in modern society. Part of our argument rests upon the structural similarity between what is known about internal self-control processes (ironic self-control) and surveillance and spectacle processes in the larger society. We believe that narratives play an important part in mediating this transition from outer to inner process. Narratives are also, in themselves, a powerful mechanism through which social control may be exercised.

Narratives are regarded largely as creative constructions that account for past sequences of events that are of importance to the individual. (Here we are emphasising the constructive nature of stories rather than how they are transmitted or socially organised). In organisations and in the political arena narratives are often about leaders (directly relating to spectacle and surveillance processes). But for the individual person, narratives are about the battle to make sense of experience and thereby to influence both consciously and unconsciously what happens in the decision-making process. Narratives can also serve as vehicles for resistance, for the creation of a "counter-culture" and for distancing oneself from events and policies.

The anthropologist Turner (1980, 1985) has suggested that stories are a source of the creativity needed for social and individual transformation. According to Turner story telling is a cultural genre that, like religious ritual of old, takes its participants out of the structure of everyday life with its roles, rules, boundaries, laws and regulations into a "liminal" condition. In a liminal condition the person is located outside or between more stable and predictable social-structural arrangements. It can create an "as-if" reality where wishes, desires and hypotheses may rule. In liminal experience the rules of everyday life are suspended and thinking becomes reflexive, arousing self-consciousness, so that the range of social roles and relationships can be reconsidered. So it is in liminal experience, in narratives, that social control may create self-control and thus operate to shape human beings. And it is in stories that resistance to social control may be born.

Narratives, for Turner and for Geertz (1986), are a form of artwork: they create meaning. They allow us to understand new social relationships or new social constructs. The liminal aspect of stories emphasises change. New meanings are created by, and have to be created to meet the requirements of changing circumstances. Change is a source of conflicting values, goals and interests. These become the stuff of stories. By representing events in terms of past experience (i.e. culture) and political interests stories evaluate and distort what they represent. They go beyond saying what did happen to saying what can and should happen. In this way they influence thought, emotion and volition, and help create the fabric of the social world.

Stories, in Turner's words, are invested with transformative power through an intrinsic performative sequence. This means that stories communicate their message through the changes that take place in the characters and subjects featured in the story. In Turner's language these changes are structured by inaugural (a subject in brought up), transitional (something is said to have happened that leaves the subject in a condition of uncertainty) and terminal (a conclusion is reached that clarifies the situation, even if only to say that it defies understanding) motifs.

Social spectacle, such as the execution of Damiens, is designed to evoke a story in which the subject of the few (Louis XV) is inaugurated, in which the authority of the few is rendered uncertain (the murder attempt by Damiens), but in which the uncertainty is then resolved through the execution and through the naked statement of power which the execution represents. If accepted in the form in which it is intended such spectacles evoke the inner "operating process" for they resolve the liminal condition of narrative in favour of the few. Spectacle processes are always designed to evoke the authority, power, knowledge and social standing of the few.

Examples of the role of stories in enhancing self-control and conformity can be found in the therapeutic literature. Most of the therapeutic self-help movement has relied heavily on personal stories and testimonies, which have effected a process of self-control through identification with the stories of the powerful, and healed, others. The great success of Alcoholics Anonymous provides evidence of the power of narratives of self-control for personal control.

On the other hand, surveillance processes are intended to suppress stories and the liminal condition evoked by stories. The powerful routines of prisons and the regularity and ordinariness of indoctrinated thought habits are both ways of evoking the inner monitoring process, for failure to conform will be noted by the few and have consequences. The more everyday life can be rendered automatic and machine like the less chance there will be that any of it will be rendered liminal in a story that could perhaps be resolved in a way unfavourable to the few. The irony is that the very act of surveillance may problematise the very routines and habits they intended to shield from the liminal condition of narrative. The inner monitoring process may ironically evoke the very narratives it is trying to suppress.

The powerful need of the few to suppress some stories may be illustrated by a political example. During the state of emergency in 1986 a provision was enacted by the then minister of police, Adrien Vlok, prohibiting the public mention of names of detained persons. Interestingly this included a ban on the mentioning of the names of detained persons in public prayer. This can be seen as a suppression of the telling of stories (inevitably heroic in flavour) which could run counter to the privileged stories told by the agents of political power.

Together, the spectacle and surveillance processes act as a finely honed control mechanism designed to control the liminal condition of narrative by evoking stories with favourable (to the few) resolutions and by suppressing narrative when the resolution is unlikely to be favourable. Neither process can completely destroy the liminal magic of narrative however: it is unlikely, but possible, to resolve narratives evoked by spectacle unfavourably, and even vigorous surveillance may be undermined through ironical processes. But operating together they are indeed a potent medium of social control.

Still narratives and stories also offer the possibility of resistance to control. The Australian narrative therapist, Michael White, provides interesting demonstrations of the role of narrative processes for therapeutic intervention by enabling people to re-author or legitimate the stories of their own lives, in order to redeem them from being mere actors in the dominant stories of their society and community. This is especially important in contexts in which people have been victimised by processes of surveillance and spectacle.


Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. (Translated by Allan Sheridan). London: Penguin Books. French original published in 1975.

Geertz, C. (1986). Making experience, authoring selves. In V. Turner and E. Bruner (Eds.) The anthropology of experience. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 373-380.

Lader, M. (1977). Psychiatry on Trial. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin.

Turner, V. (1980). Social dramas and stories about them. Critical Inquiry, 7, 141-168.

Turner, V. (1985). From ritual to theatre: The human seriousness of play. New York: PAJ Publications.

Wegner, D. M. (1997). When the antidote is the poison: Ironic mental control processes. Psychological Science, 8, 148-150.

White, M. (1989). Selected Papers. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Both Lance Lachenicht and Graham Lindegger teach psychology at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. Lance has an interest in the psychology and social psychology of language and in motivational topics such as self-control and procrastination. He has also published articles on Rom Harré and on the computer modelling of psychological and social phenomena. Graham Lindegger is the director of the clinical psychology programme at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. He has a deep interest in narrative approaches to clinical psychology, and has published extensively in the field of health psychology (pain, the treatment of AIDS, etc). He has edited a special issue of the South African Journal of Psychology on AIDS. He also has a long-standing interest in systemic approaches to psychology and therapy.

Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban
critical methods society - - [email protected]