Sunday, February 10, 2008

Panopticism and The Truman Show

With its description of a system that allows one to look in on an unsuspecting subject/person, Michel Foucault's Panopticism greatly informs one's "reading" of the film The Truman Show (1998), directed by Peter Weir. At its core, the movie has at least two fundamental themes/ideas that are similar to those in Panopticism: (1) a prison-like environment where one can be viewed but cannot see the viewer(s) and (2) a psychological experiment that relies on the subject's not knowing whether anyone is watching him/her (or not knowing THAT someone is watching him/her, in the case of The Truman Show). Throughout the film (which itself is a "lens" for viewing), the viewer sees Truman (Jim Carrey) through the lens of a television show, and in that lens, through the FURTHER (literal) lenses of thousands of hidden cameras; thus, not only is Truman the subject of a television show, within the movie, he is the UNKNOWING subject of a television show, which perpetuates this secret fa├žade by way of hidden cameras.

The film portrays the secrecy of these cameras in two specific ways: (1) cameras sit so far INSIDE an object (e.g., inside a wall or mirror) that the viewer actually sees the camera as being BEHIND another object (e.g., behind picture frames and behind the numbers on Truman's car radio), thus oftentimes employing a strange camera angle that a director would not use under regular circumstances, unless he/she is trying to depict a specific/meaningful emotion and (2) cameras sit inside of objects, such as brooches, in a way that the viewer can only tell there IS a camera because the edges of the screen are masked with black or white blurs. With this latter technique, the mask around the hidden camera shows up on the TV screen as an eye (an oval shape), through which we see Truman at the same time others (viewers of the in-film television show) are seeing him on their own television screens. This network of literal and figurative lenses definitely complicates the notion of the panopticon, but it also can be counted as an excellent example of a panopticon-like system of surveillance. The eye-like image further perpetuates the notion of surveillance.

Finally, The Truman Show depicts an environment in which someone is definitely ALWAYS watching, but the question of whether someone is watching has no psychological effect on Truman, as he does not even know he is the subject of a hidden-camera television show. In contract, Panopticism portrays an environment in which someone may or may not be watching, which causes the subject to self-monitor his/her behavior out of fear of punishment for a misdeed. The main difference between these two texts, then, is that The Truman Show features an unwitting subject, while Panopticism shows a subject who is aware of his/her status because he/she has performed an illegal action (prison panopticon), become ill (hospital panopticon), and so on. Truman, for all intents and purposes, is a prisoner of the show within the movie, but he doesn't even know it.

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