The Eyes of Power by M. G. Piety

There are a number of reasons to be concerned about the NSA’s Panopticon. First, it cannot possibly work as a means of uncovering terrorist plots or other sorts of threats to U.S. security. The information collected is too vast for any meaningful sorting process. No such process could be done by machine anyway. It would not only require human beings, it would require that they be acquainted with the parties whose correspondence they were attempting to interpret. This is how what is called “intelligence” used to be gathered. Actual investigative work was done to determine who ought to be surveilled and what their communications meant. However problematic the old fashioned approach was, it was vastly preferable to the current approach. The current approach is indeed impressive. We can collect everyone’s email, listen in, effectively, on everyone’s phone calls. Wow! That way, no one will be able to get away with anything right? Wrong. Our infatuation with technology cannot help but make us even more vulnerable in that it makes all communications equally meaningless, nothing but words rolling about all over the place, to paraphrase Socrates. If we have more discriminating systems of surveillance, then we do not need this blanket one. It becomes not only an unpleasant and potentially destructive intrusion into people’s privacy, but an obnoxious expense. If we do not have more discriminating systems, we are lost.

It is possible, of course, that the people at the NSA are not really so naïve as the blanket surveillance program would suggest. Perhaps their objective is something more in line with Bentham’s than with that of traditional surveillance methods. That is, perhaps what they are really hoping is not so much to uncover specific terrorist plots as to discourage the hatching of such plots. Perhaps they are assuming if people fear their communications are being monitored they will be less likely to engage in such behavior. But is this assumption not equally naïve? Do not real terrorists always assume that their communications are perhaps being monitored and adapt their methods of communication accordingly?

Michelle Perrot, one of Foucault’s interviewers makes this point very well. “Benthan,” she observes, “seems very sure of himself, very confident in the penetrative power of the gaze. One feels he has a very inadequate awareness of the degree of opacity and resistance of the material to be corrected and integrated into society….[I]sn’t Bentham’s Panopticon at the same time something of an illusion of power” (161).

What kind of power do you really have when people realize they are being observed?  I know people who censor their own work email for fear their employers are reading it. Even if the monitoring of people’s communications could have been effective at preempting terrorist plots before the practice was known, that it is now known makes it very obviously pointless. And yet the monitoring goes on.

There are those who believe the whole thing is a ruse, that the point is not protecting national security, but maintaining the grasp of a particular group on the reigns of power. Nixon’s problem, they argue, was that he spied only on the democrats. If he’d spied on everyone in the name of national security, he could have collected with impunity all the information on the democrats he’d ever wanted.

It is indeed frightening to contemplate the potential for abuse represented by such a system. I am not so much inclined to conspiracy theories, however. Stupidity, after all, has been a more conspicuous flaw in human nature throughout our short history than has malevolence. I believe people, at least some people anyway, actually think the program will help to keep us safer.  It is clear, however, that it cannot, and if we rely on it to do so, not only will we have no effective defense against terrorist plots, we could end up unraveling the fabric of our own society, the fabric on which our security ultimately rests. Who is going to control these massive surveillance systems and the “information” they collect?

Speaking of the technology of surveillance, Foucault observes that

One doesn’t have here a power which is wholly in the hands of one person who can exercise it alone and totally over others. It’s a machine in which everyone is caught, those who exercise power just as much as those over whom it is excercised. … Power is no longer substantially identified with an individual who possesses or exercises it by right of birth; it becomes a machinery that no one owns. (156.)

“One has the vertiginous sense,” he continues, “of being in the presence of an invention that even its inventor is incapable of controlling” (157).

That isn’t the only problem with surveillance though, and perhaps not even the most serious one. The Panopticon, observes Foucault, is “an apparatus of total and circulating mistrust” (158). But how long can a society survive once the foundation of mutual trust is removed? If you want to see what mistrust looks like, watch The Conversation. The title is ironic because the characters are so fraught with suspicion that none of them can have a genuine conversation, the kind of free-flowing exchange of ideas that makes one glad to be alive. Hackman is the worst. A career in the surveillance industry has made him so suspicious that even his girlfriend doesn’t know where he lives or what he does for a living.

The end of the film is the most arresting part. Hackman destroys everything in his apartment and finally the apartment itself in a vain search for a bug he has come to fear must have been placed there. He dismantles the phone, the security system, the light fixtures, removes every piece of wallpaper, strip by strip, pulls up every floorboard, every piece of molding, gouges great holes in his walls. When he’s finished, the place is not only unlivable, it’s as violently devastated as any building that had been destroyed by a bomb.

That’s what universal suspicion looks like. It is one of the most disturbing scenes ever presented in a film ( We would do well, now, at this point in our history, to watch it. It should make clear, if nothing else can, that we cannot allow our society to degenerate into a state of universal suspicion, into what Hobbes refers to as the “war of all against all.”[6] We have to continue with the progress of civilization that was built on trust. And if we really do think about it and do not succumb to our fears, it should be a comfort to realize that it is only in such forward progress that any real security can consist.



[1] No, I am not one of those philosophers who believe that all thought is language. Not only that, as a translator, I can tell you that I know it is not. There is something deeper than language that comes to expression in language. Over and over again in working on translations from Danish to English I have asked myself the question: How does one say that in English, where “that” was not the Danish, but something that had been captured in it and that I was sometimes able to capture equally well in English.

[2] For an excellent treatment of this issue see, Akeel Bilgrami and Carol Rovane, “Mind, language and the limits of inquiry,” The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky, ed. James McGilvray (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 181-203.

[3] Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (New York: Touchstone, 1998).

[4] Noam Chomsky, Language and Mind, Enlarged Edition (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972) 116.

[5] In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980) 146-165.

[6] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651) in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, ed. Sir W. Molesworth (London, 1839-45) 186.


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M. G. Piety

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The Eyes of Power, an Essay by M. G. Piety