Modernity as Post-Panoptical

Whatever else the present stage in the history of modernity is, it is also, perhaps above all, post-Panoptical. (Bauman, 10:2000)

Post-Panoptical? This post-Panoptical age , “in this history of modernity”, may not be that hard to understand, or to imagine. The Panoptican, as Zygmunt Bauman illustrates in Liquid Modernity, was used as an archmetaphor by Michel Foucault, (borrowing from Jeremy Bentham’s design), to examine the state of modern power (Bauman, 9:2000). The Panopticon imprisons inmates “within thick, dense and closely guarded walls,” fixing them to the laborious equipment within, or around the cell (Bauman, 9:200). However, the inmates’ fixation to the minimal spatiality of the cell is not the only form of control disabling the inmate: the control of this fixation is made possible by the ever watchful eye of the warden. As Bauman accounts, “they could not move because they were under watch; they had to stick to their appointed places at all times because they did not know, and had no way of knowing where at the moment their watchers – free to move at will – were (Bauman, 9-10:2000). As Bauman illustrates, “access to the means of transportation and the resulting freedom of movement,” is the foundation of power; conversely, the inmates immobilization also aids in defining persuasions of power (Bauman, 10:2000). Immediately, we can envisage a common Marxist theme: “the means of […]”; production, transportation, education, welfare, etc. The nouns warden and inmate metaphorically transform into two differing possibilities: In Marxist economical terms, warden becomes bourgeois while inmate becomes the proletariat; and in Foucauldian biopolitical terms, warden is government, and inmate, citizen. These metaphorical transformations give greater credence for Panopticon serving allegorically to modernity being Panoptical and subsequently post-Panoptical.

Though the Panopticon serves to immobilize inmates, Bauman points out the Panopticon serves as “a model of mutual engagement and confrontation between the two sides of the power relationship (Bauman, 10:2000). In this stage of modernity, economical or biopolitical, all struggle for power is physical; that is, there has to be the phenomenological perception of physical presence, as Bauman illustrates, above all, “it requires presence” (Bauman, 10:2000). To move from a Panoptical stage of modernity to a post-Panoptical, what has to change, or at least, what has to advance for this evolution in modernity to occur?

Pausing on this, one thing comes to mind: technology. The Panoptical stage of modernity, obviously, was not without its technology; however, “power”, Bauman concedes, “can move with the speed of the electronic signal – and so the time required for the movement of its essential ingredients has been reduced to instantaneity” (Bauman, 10:2000).” Bauman’s function of power does not resonate in a defining function of power produced in the Panopticon, (or the allegorical foundation is serves as). The power brokers of the Panopticon are no less tied down than the inmates the Panopticon serves to incarcerate; the only advantage of power the wardens have over the inmates was that “in Panopticon the people in charge were assumed always to ‘be there’, nearby, in the controlling tower.” Power, in the post-Panoptical stage of modernity, however, migrates further from any perceived center. As technology has changed the face economics, medicine, the archiving of knowledge, warfare, so to has technology changed the face of politics, surveillance, and above all, power.

Given the changes technology has created for some of the defining characteristics of society and culture, in what way has technology changed power relations in the post-Panoptical stage of modernity? “It does not matter any more,” argues Bauman, “where the giver of the command is – the difference between ‘close by’ and ‘far away’, or for that matter between wilderness and the civilized, orderly space, has been all but cancelled (Bauman, 11:2000).” It becomes clear that as technology becomes all powerful, so too, the power-holders. The underlying factors [or, perhaps, metanarratives] in these power struggles are, again, both Marxist and Foucauldian; the alienation of Marxism, and the governmentality of Foucault, are the underlying [meta]narratives of the post-Panoptical stage of modernity. Post-Panoptical power provides “unprecedented opportunity” for the power-holders seeing “the end of the era of mutual engagement… The prime technique of power is now escape, slippage, elision and avoidance, the effective rejection of any territorial confinement with its cumbersome corollaries of order-building, order-maintenance and the responsibility for the consequence of it all as well as of the necessity to bear their costs.” Postmodern incredulity still exists, though has taken a back seat to the reinstatement of existentialist angst and the entrapment of Heideggerian thrownness. Modernity , (in the post-Panoptical stage), is the privatization of uncertainty or indecisiveness in the face of binaries. Modernity, (in the post-Panoptical stage), is Liquid Modernity.

As politics, war, terror, and power have changed in a post-Panoptical [Liquid] modernity, homo sapiens are not only alienated but has become exiled in governmentality. No longer can homo sapiens be this or that being, or have this or that form of life [zōē], the metanarratives thought to have been overthrown in a postmodernity, are, again, the very instruments that are controlling and surveilling the self and the populations the self resides. Homo sapien is being transformed by the power struggles of the post-Panoptic stage of modernity. Still the self is being thrown in a form of existence which it struggles to find itself. The entrapment continues.

Cross posted from Philosophy and Literature

Posted by Nathan

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3 Responses to “Modernity as Post-Panoptical”


  1. 1 Brad February 11, 2008 at 10:51 pm

    I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I had never made the connection between Orwell’s 1984 and Bentham’s Panopticon until reading that review. Put me down for a copy of Liquid Modernity.

  2. 2 Nathan February 12, 2008 at 9:14 am

    Bauman, amazingly, is not well known as far as I know, though still regarded as one one the most original thinkers of the 20th/21st century. Though retired, he is still actively writing and lecturing; you can find a lecture called the Archipelago of Exception: Sovereignties and Extraterritoriality with Giorgio Agamben here. I thoroughly recommend it.

    As you can see from the references I used the review only covers a few pages, as I’m only part way through the book; but what have read has been very interesting. I also recommend to anyone interested in (post-)Marxist (and Foucauldian) thought/political theory to read it; along Agamben for that matter.


  1. 1 Modernity as Post-Panoptical | Subaltern Cat Trackback on September 4, 2015 at 10:46 pm

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