Foucault’s “Panopticism” and Morrison’s Individuals

Image result for panopticon

I have been unable to shake a connection I made between the Foucauldian reading of the Panopticon and the ways in which Morrison, through internal character dialogue, examines systems of power and domination, which from my readings so far are overt and important themes across Morrison’s work; each novel explores in different times and places that various ideologies that perpetuated and continue to perpetuate anti-blackness and other forms of relegating oppressed groups.  I am not the first to make this connection, but I still think there is some potential insight to be discovered from more close reading with this theoretical perspective in mind. 

Image result for panopticon

I’ve attached a second image in order to better illuminate a visual of what a panopticon is. The structure is a prison, which as the quote in the first image explains, is a visual metaphor for understanding the “ideal” form of power. I suspect that ideal is ideal for those in power rather than those whom are subordinate to dominant systems of power. I think this sort of power, power that is largely effective since it involves self-policing, is examined thoroughly in Morrison’s work. For example, Golden Gray in Jazz perpetuates anti-black sentiment, even as someone born with a Black father. His section stood out to me as one of the most viciously racist in the novel, but it’s important to note that his oppressive rhetoric is both internal and internalized. What I mean by this is that he himself is Black, and his iterations of racist ideology cannot be untangled from his own apparent self-hatred about his racial origins. Even more complex, Golden Gray passes as white to many of those around him, so he is able to deploy and benefit from white privilege.

This is an excellent example of the development of how dominant power spreads and is enforced because Golden Gray’s internalized racism implies that even when one passes as white, the dominant, in this case anti-black, ideology still infects and replicates itself, like a virus, in individuals. Foucault elaborates that this type of power “automatizes and disindividualizes power…any individual, taken almost as random, can operate the machine: in the absence of the director, his family, his friends, his visitors, even his servants [Bentham, 45]” (Foucault 202). Even though Golden Gray does not receive as much external reinforcement of power as he passes as white, the dominant discourse about race still succeeds and the internal enforcement of racist ideology persists. I think Morrison represents and interrogates this kind of replication of power internally since it’s essential to understanding how racist and anti-black ideology and rhetoric is enforced and spread, and furthermore (or potentially) how a contemporary society, with a Black president, is able to covertly spread and uphold the same or similar/evolved forms of this ideology. I am interested to see if or how this same type of internal policing continues in the novel we will read and if it will have significance.

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