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Response #2: Digital Panopticism

Digital photography in the age of social networking provides a space where the public and private clash, intersect, and obscure one another. The parameters of what constitutes subjectivity are constantly put into question via emergent technologies. Can one easily define the space a photo taken in public depicting strangers’ faces that is then uploaded to a site such as Flickr, Tumblr, or Facebook inhabits? What space can the self-portrait now occupy?

Amparo Lasén and Edgar Gómez-Cruz suggest that “[b]eing at the same time the photographer and the photographed, displaying such images on the Web and mobile phone, exchanging such pictures with other people [ . . . ] [demonstrates] how self-portraits are participating in the shaping of the bodies and subjectivity” (206). This is an interesting form of self-surveillance and one that echoes Foucauldian panopticism. Foucault writes: “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (202-3). Essentially, the subject internalises the rules of surveillance producing a form of self-policing. What, then, if any, are the new rules of engagement for digital photography and social networking? Social networking often gives the impression of engendering greater agency, allowing for the cultivation of relationships with other users, but more importantly with the self. Yet, it is in many respects a 21st century Panopticon. It surveys; it directs; it produces obedient subjects who police themselves through comments on one another’s photos, statuses, etc., while adhering to the policies and procedures laid out by Facebook. It also fundamentally complicates what can be construed as public and private.

What is most fascinating about the “selfie” (self-portrait), is that it has redefined the subject position as one that is inherently scopophilic, i.e., voyeuristic (OED). The digital self-portrait when placed within the context of a social networking site, produces a new “mirror”; one which is no longer in the privacy of the bathroom or bedroom but broadcast out into the public as well. One can see themselves reflected through the comments of others while simultaneously contemplating their own subjectivity, all in real time. Then again, who is always watching and when?

“scopophilia, n.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 6 March 2013 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/172997&gt;.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Lasén, Amparo, and Edgar Gómez-Cruz. “Digital Photography and Picture Sharing: Redefining the Public/Private Divide.” Knowledge, Technology & Policy 22.3 (2009): 205–215. CrossRef. Web. 6 March. 2013.


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