Week 7: The Panoptic Gaze, Government Surveillance, and its Depiction in Popular Culture

For this week’s response, I figured I would have a little fun with the discussion on Remote Sensing, the Panoptic Gaze, and its implications on government surveillance by tackling instances in which the government monitors individuals, not in actuality, but instead of how awareness is disseminated through popular culture. In post-9/11 United States, the government became involved in all kinds of monitoring of potential risks to national and homeland security by observing internet searches, phone calls, and emails. The issue become more prevalent after Edward Snowden, an ex-system administrator at the National Security Agency, revealed several classified documents that illustrated the extent of government surveillance.  This is where the notion of Remote Sensing and the Panoptic Gaze come into play because they both depict this disembodied method of viewing the world around them. Remote Sensing is the retrieval of information through methods of observations that do not require a physical presence. An example of this would be the use of satellites to capture the Earth’s mountains and oceans, as well as the Earth itself from space. The Panoptic Gaze stems from Michel Foucault’s discourse on Discipline and Punish, which covers disciplinary societies and their need to observe and control. This idea manifested itself in Jeremy Bentham’s design for a Panoticon prison, one which would allow a guard to view all the cells and their inhabitants from an elevated position in the center of the building. The structure’s circular design allows for the guard to be able to view all the inmates and most importantly, the guard’s gaze becomes internalized within each individual inmate, for they would constantly be concerned over the guard’s gaze. In theory, this internalized perception of the guard’s gaze would prevent inmates from doing anything wrong because of the fear of being watched. This panoptical surveillance and the fear of being watch is explained by Wilson in this section on Global Positioning Systems: “It promises an unprecedented ability for individuals to know where they and others are on the face of the earth. It allows the easy creation of events cued to position and movement. The shadow side portends new extensions of panoptical surveillance and control; authorities will be able to know exactly where things and people are. There could be no privacy, no solitude” (Wilson 283).

This internalized gaze, the fear of being watched, and the disembodiment of remote sensing are all issues prevalent in Marvel Studios 2014 film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Now, why is a comic book movie important to mention when it comes to discussing Remote Sensing and government surveillance? Well, this film is the dissemination of awareness of the dangers of government surveillance which I mentioned before. Even if you read comic books or not, it is evident that the superhero genre has been steadily taking over summer blockbusters. Nearly forty superhero movies are slated to come out from now until 2020, making this a testament to the impact that superhero films have on the market. The fact that these movies make so much money is important, obviously because it means a lot of people watch them, but also because studios will keep churning them out to keep making money. Therefore, it is up to those in charge of each particular film to provide engaging, thought-provoking and action-packed film to keep the audiences captivated. This leads us to the Winter Soldier, a film which grossed over $714 million worldwide and was critically praised for introducing some pretty hefty political themes. The film follows Steve Rogers, a super soldier from WWII who was frozen in ice until he was found and defrosted in 2012 by S.H.I.E.L.D., and how he becomes accustomed to modern society. He works for SHIELD, an espionage organization that was responsible for organizing the Avengers Initiative (There’s a lot of backstory here, so I’m just going to skip it and hope that if you are unfamiliar, a quick Google search can fix that). Essentially, the movie plot revolves around Project Insight, which consists of three helicarriers that are connected to satellites all over the world, which means that SHIELD could monitor anyone they want. This also led to the argument that SHIELD could eliminate potential threats before they even occur, something that Captain America does not take too kindly (Please view the linked video).

Basically, SHIELD had created a monitoring device that would manage everyone in the same way that the guard would be able to manage all of the inmates at the Panoptic Prison. However, while the prisoners knew they were being watched, the regular civilians in the film would not have known until they strike. The point of this comparison is that the film’s writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, were raising awareness on government surveillance issues, issues similar to the ones that were brought up by Edward Snowden’s release of classified information. What is significant about this comparison is that these political themes were created in a way that are extremely accessible to understand; it raises awareness and is thought-provoking on the many ways that government surveillance could be a beneficial thing or a huge mistake. Also, since it is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, its audience is huge and worldwide, which means that these themes are being disseminated throughout this popular medium.

Winter Soldier scene:


Ashley Bryan Marin


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