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  • Optics and Power in the Novel
  • Dorrit Cohn (bio)

Optical imagery has traditionally pervaded the language of critics and theorists of fiction: window and mirror, microscope and telescope, lens and X-ray, perspective and focalization, reflection and transparency. Recently, in the wake of Foucault, a further trope has been added to this series: the panopticon and its derivatives—panopticism, panoptic vision, panoptical narration. Unlike the more standard ocular images however—which are as a rule used descriptively and neutrally to characterize norms and types of novelistic representation—the panoptic conceit is powerfully charged with negative meaning and invariably contextualized in ideological interpretations that cast a peculiarly hostile light on the novel genre and/or its practitioners.

Before exemplifying this critical optics, a brief reminder of the significance Foucault himself attributes to the panopticon in the section of Discipline and Punish entitled “Panopticism.” At its origin stands, of course, the innovative design Jeremy Bentham proposed for prison architecture in 1791: the inmates are confined to lighted cells that surround a tower from which a guard observes them while remaining himself invisible. Foucault explains that this spatial arrangement functions as “a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.” 1 He stresses moreover that the “state of conscious and permanent visibility” thereby induced in the prisoner “assures the automatic functioning of power” (201). According to Foucault, all institutions of what he calls “the disciplinary society”—schools, hospitals, factories, the family—are modeled on this panoptic schema; all are endowed with “the instrument of permanent, exhaustive, omnipresent surveillance, capable of making all visible, as long as it could itself remain invisible”; all are “like a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception: thousands of eyes posted everywhere, mobile attentions ever on the alert” (214).

As dispassionate readers of these pages have no doubt noted, Foucault rather obsessively overstates the absolute power of the one-way gaze he derives from Bentham’s penitentiary design. 2 Modern institutions that supposedly transfix their charges in this manner are not, after all, known [End Page 3] to produce uniformly and perfectly obedient and submissive prisoners, students, workers, or sons/daughters. But I shall leave this critique to social scientists. More relevant for introducing the concerns of this paper: to acknowledge the power Foucault himself has exerted, largely by way of his panoptic thesis, on ideological approaches to the novel; to note that this thesis has, for the most part, been accepted quite uncritically; to speculate that its appeal may have depth-psychological grounds related to the invisibly all-seeing parental eye abidingly lodged in our unconscious and that each and all of us secretly wish to find and blind; and to anticipate my argument by suggesting that, even if one grants that panopticism may apply to the power relations represented within fictional worlds no less than to those enacted in the real world, serious problems are raised by its application to the formal relations that pertain between novelistic narrators and fictional characters.


These problems first arrested me in a study where formal concerns are clearly subordinated to thematic concerns: D. A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police. In this explicitly “Foucaldian reading of the Novel,” 3 the analogy between narrative technique and panoptic vision only briefly and quite locally enters what is in other respects a provocatively cogent argument concerning the fiction of the Victorian canon. Even so, the moment in question (a couple of pages of the introductory chapter) deserves close scrutiny, not least of all because it features a number of ideas we will meet again in the work of other Foucault-influenced critics.

Miller arrives at the problematic analogy by way of the uncanny and impenetrable visionary power with which Balzac endows his fictional police agents in Une ténébreuse Affaire (21–22). At this point the argument begins to move from impressionistic parallels between the police and the novelist—”Not unlike the novel, the new police has charge of a ‘world’ and a ‘plot’”; “they [Balzac’s agents] thus resemble the novelist...

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pp. 3-20
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