Peter Weibel. The Panoptic Society or Immortally in Love with Death
by Ursula Frohne
In his work The Panoptic Society or Immortally in Love with Death Peter Weibel creates a paradoxical scenario. The fictious prisoner turns the horror of his criminal existence into a public spectacle, thus acting as an accomplice to the surveillance tactics of the state. Weibel directs our view to the pathological side of the tele-media, whose jousting for audience attention produces visual excesses that leave escapism behind and elicit new obsessive-compulsive scenarios of control, xenophobia and sado-masochistic exploitation. The prisoner's right to renounce the privacy even he can claim for himself and his disastrous situation is based on an 'economy of attention' dominant in the reality voyeurism of the entertainment industry and whose strategies are deployed ever-more aggressively in the infotainment offered by news media, in the staging of politics as theatre.
Immediately upon entering the interactive work, the viewer is face-to-face with the visor of a surveillance camera. Weibel has chosen a technoid piece of equipment reminiscent of an iris scanner, the identifying device that reads ocular information in much the same way as a fingerprint. It represents the well-known notion of panoptic surveillance equipment based, in accordance with Jeremy Bentham's scheme for efficient prison architecture, upon the idea that the prisoner should feel observed by somebody whose eyes, and whole appearance, remain invisible. It is sufficient to signal to the person on whom the camera is trained that the observer may very possibly be on the other side of the camera or behind the black pane of a window. The mere idea of another, effigy-like, person being able to look through a darkened pane or camera in order to inspect the room is sufficient reason to believe in the physical presence of a staring eye. Analogously with this basic panoptic observation strategy, the camera eye in Weibel's constellation acts as an autistic authority that consumes the criminal and his atrocious acts without being exposed to the associated danger or physical consequences.
After activating the instrument of surveillance, the viewer is transported to a meta-plane of the panoptic system: the camera turns into the close-up view of an eye with a bull terrier's head inscribed on its pupil. This shift from the technology of surveillance to its psychological dimension sets in motion a transformation of meaning that blurs the conventional division of roles into observing authority and person observed, into perpetrator and victim, into warden and prisoner. It is now an ambiguous game of reciprocal desire and horror, of pleasure taken in fear, in contempt. When the follow-on image shows the identical canine head as a tattoo on the prisoner's bare chest, then the external and internal views merge. There is no longer a clear separation between the delinquent's spheres – of existence and morality alike – and those of the invisible observer. Tattooed on the eye, the dog's head illustrates the incorporation of the brutish, both on the murderer's part as a symbol of his state of mind, and in regard to a collective vanishing point gazed upon by a general public that lies in wait, bloodhound-like, thirsty for sensations, for shocks.
Weibel's concept first presupposes the control instance of the eye as a model of discipline, then changes it into a thoroughly commercial system of surveillance and exhibitionism enticing the individual to voluntarily surrender the last vestiges of privacy and shame. By clicking on one of the tattoo symbols covering the prisoner's torso, the user can enter the individual crime scenes that optically convey the various stages of cruelty and self-contempt passed through by the prisoner as actor of the collective subconscious and verbally allude to his motivation. In order to salvage his own social persona, the prisoner offers it up for public consumption. Like a special attraction in the theme park of the entertainment media, he exhibits his tattoos as emblems of his crimes, his life as a killer. Yet the visuals and sound refuse to tell the 'real stories': the close-up views of the crime scenes deflate the imagined horror. The relics of destruction and annihilation convey scarcely more than the everyday garbage that accumulates in the niches of the subconscious. In the lines of text superimposed in police-report type, by contrast, the coldness and contempt of crime is profiled: a criminal who, alternating between the urge for death and desire for control, lives out his sexual desires through the total destruction of the social. In doing so, he successively anticipates the 'pub(l)ic erasure of privacy' finally achieved in Crime Scene 10.  The nihilistic excess articulated in the callous rhetoric of these statements provokes the sense of the repulsive that unifies, in an aesthetic interplay of death and eroticism, of sexual lust and (self-) destructive fantasies, the most basic human instincts with the capitalist maxims of the society of the masses.
Weibel’s vision of the Panoptic Society hammers into our consciousness that a control economy under the conditions of our mediatized culture is however based on a ‘closed-circuit dynamic’ in which person observed and observer reciprocally influence each other’s behaviour. The reason for the surveillance situation – be it security, exhibitionism, voyeurism or calculated (self-)marketing – remains ambivalent. Crime Scene 1 tells us that ‘murderers in private prisons have high shareholder value in the economy of attention.’ It remains unclear whether this is the opinion of the criminal or that of the prison authorities. The provocative comments can be ascribed to various origins and characterize the participants as (inter)acting components in a system of reciprocally controlling instances. In the same way, the assertions in Crime Scene 2 (‘My private pleasure is to control the privacy of others. Total privacy is total control of intimacy.’) can be related to the perspectives both of observer and prisoner. Even if the prisoner is helplessly exposed to the camera eye, his ability to arouse and manipulate the consumerist delight taken in his depraved existence amounts to a residual autonomy. That the dialectic of such reciprocally reflective manipulation interests has a psychotic factor is unmistakably revealed when the tattoos jump from the prisoner’s body onto the walls of the cell and transform the panoptic space into a claustrophobic pandemonium. The application of pictorial signs onto the 'skin-ego'  unifies the aspect of body boundary with the communicative determination of the body surface, creating a parallel with the metaphor of the ‘magic writing pad’ that Freud used to illustrate the inscriptions and traces of perception and recollection into the layer of the subconscious. Analogously with Freud’s characterization of the body, and in particular its surface, as a place from which external and internal perceptions may simultaneously emanate, Weibel labels the criminal’s body as the actual venue of the media spectacle.  On it, the tattoos form a metaphorical ‘second skin’ marking the body's physical wrapping as the boundary of the ego and functioning also as an interface between a criminal pathology and the voyeuristic interest we take in its bloodthirsty products. When the tattoos leap from the body onto the walls, abruptly turning the cell into a madman's »horror vacui«, we become very aware of the blurring of the border between internal and external perception that occurs when the prisoner's totally renounced self is taken over by the media
Translated from German by Thomas Morrison
1 Cf. Jean Laplanche, »La Pulsion de mort dans la théorie de la pulsion sexuelle.« – Id., La Pulsion de mort. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1986, pp. 11-26. ^
2 Cf. Marie-Luise Angerer, »body options: Körper.Spuren.Medien.Bilder«. Vienna: Turia and Kant, 2000 (2nd edition), p. 141. ^
3 Cf. Sigmund Freud, »The Ego and the Id.« Trans. J. Riviere, ed. J. Strachey, New York: W. W. Norton, 1960. ^
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