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The panoptic: Foucauldian perspectives in the Films Hunger and Waltz with Bashir.

The panoptic

This essay will argue that the concept of self-surveillance and the principles of the panopticon generally are exhibited in both films; albeit to different extents. This essay will look at the beforementioned films considering the following quotation; ‘each individual under its [ the inspecting gaze] weight will end by interiorizing to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself”[1] This essay will firstly establish the concept of panopticism and discuss the extent by which each film depicts the principles of the concept, and how they may both adhere and challenge the notion of panopticism, showing how one can rebel against it and how one will comply with it in accordance with the self- surveillant prophecy of the panoptic subject.


Before one can describe the metaphorical aspects of discussion regarding Foucault’s perspective on the panopticon, one must realise how it is designed. This will allow a greater understanding of the panopticon as a metaphor. Foucault describes Bentham’s panopticon as a building which holds cells in an annular assortment. In the middle of this ring lies a guard tower. From this tower, a guard can see the prisoners within the cells due to the light that comes through the windows of said cells.[2]


For Foucault, the panopticon serves to; “Induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”[3] What Foucault means by this is that the subject of the panoptic gaze is aware, or “conscious” that he can always be seen, this being his “permanent visibility.” For Foucault, the prisoner adapts to this without explicit intervention; the thought that the prisoner can be seen at any time whilst in their cell conditions said prisoner to behave in a way which the panoptic gaze demands. This ultimately “assures the automatic functioning of power” as the prisoner self-regulates to appease the panoptic gaze, and this, theoretically speaking, leads the prisoner to a state of self-surveillance. The prisoner will aim to appease the panoptic gaze, by adopting the gaze’s desired ideology, behaviour and normalcies.

Steve McQueen’s film hunger problematises this. The film explores the experiences of the hunger strike taken by prisoners within the Maze prison during the troubles. One early instance within the film of the panoptic principle is when the prison guard looks under his car for bombs or traces of tampering. The mis-en-scene presents us with an empty suburban street; it is in such a normative state that one questions if it is normative at all. This guard, then, conveys to us the inversion of the panoptic gaze. The warder’s “automatic functioning of power” is opposed because he himself is within the panoptic gaze. This scene then acts as a precursor to what will happen later in the film; the usual recipients of panopticism are going to push against it. The typical masters of the panopticon are going to be opposed.



One key aspect of the film is how the prisoners cease to be ‘criminal.’ Their only criminality within the context of what is seen on screen is the fact that they oppose the rule of the panoptic gaze, that is the proclamation of the British government. Rather than adopting desired behaviours, the prisoners instead openly reject the ideology of this enemy. The Diegetic soundbite played on the radio proclaims the following; “There is no such thing as political murder, political murder and political bombings or political minds… there I only criminal murder, criminal bombings and criminal minds.”[4]

The prisoners vehemently reject the notion of the criminality with which they have been inscribed. This is exemplified at many points in the film, one being the point at which they are being given prison clothes to which one prisoner responds; “I will not wear the clothes of a criminal”[5] rather than wear the symbol of criminality, the prison clothes, he instead wears nothing[6]. This is ultimately a statement of his rejection towards what the panoptic institution sees him as. Rather than behave in accordance to its laws, he rejects them entirely. The panopticon cannot penalise him as he rejects its ideologies and normalcies instead inverting them and to a large extent, mocking them. His self-surveillance here is of his own ideologies and knowledge; he is not a criminal in the republican perspective, instead he is in an ideological warzone rather than an ideological institution. He is there to fight for his cause through rejection of what is being thrust upon him rather than to be punished as a criminal, in the eyes of the British panoptic gaze.

For Foucault, the subject of the panoptic gaze is; “seen but does not see; he Is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”[7] This would surely mean that those within the panopticon cannot communicate, however this notion is thwarted within hunger simply by the performance of the dirty protest. the prisoners all perform this act simultaneously, there is a ‘domino effect.’ This would imply that they are subjects in “communication” rather than “information” as they have managed to communicate to one another a plan to perform this protest, whilst also not disclosing this “information” to the guards.

To return to an earlier point posed by Foucault; “[The aim of the panopticon is to] induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” if this is truly the case, then it would suggest that a prisoner within the panopticon would need to fear their conditions. It suggests that a prisoner within a panopticon cannot be already “conscious” or its effects will fail. If a subject within the panopticon is readily rejecting its inducements, then the “automatic functioning of power” becomes the automatic dysfunction of power. If one enters the panopticon with one’s own normalcies, ideologies and practices and they are still being enacted in the face of the panoptic gaze, then this would mean, at least in the case of hunger, that self-surveillance is indeed used just not in the terms Foucault cites. In the case of the prisoners, they uphold self-surveillance regarding the protest for their demands, their dignities and their normalcies. Their self-surveillance is to ensure that they do not adopt the notion that they are criminals who must treat themselves as such as is what is being imposed upon them.

However, to simply make this proclamation without the discussion of the hunger strike would be problematic. At first glance the hunger strike itself is the final act of rebellion. The prisoners would rather die as non-subjects rather than give in to the demands of the panoptic gaze; “He [Bobby Sands] vehemently rejects the priest’s accusation that he has lost his faith and asserts that it is, in fact, precisely because of his faith that he will starve himself to death. He has faith that it is incumbent upon him to take the necessary fatal step that others are too cowardly to make, and he has faith that it is his life’s mission to do so.”[8]

The above quote presents to us the paradoxical nature of the hunger strike as protest. The catholic priest, that is, the personification of religious normalcy for Sands, accuses him of “losing faith.” Because his protest of inflicting pain upon the body through the hunger strike is seen as self -punishment. And is by default, an act of self-surveillance in alignment with the panoptic gaze; he punishes himself because he is in fact in guilt, he is what Thatcher’s soundbite proclaimed earlier in the film of a “criminal mind.” Although Sands “vehemently rejects” the notion of “losing faith” the fact that he is self-punishing, at least in the eyes of the priest, would mean that he is ultimately under the influence of the panopticon in the words of Nicholas Fessette; “the priest, believing that Sands and the rest of the men’s faculty for rational judgment is impaired by the squalor of their conditions of confinement[..]He Says that Sands and the rest[of the prisoners] have lost their sense of reality and even their faith—since suicide is a mortal sin.[9]

This would suggest that Sands and the prisoners enact self-surveillance and, in accordance with what Foucault states regarding the interiorizing of said surveillance, then the hunger strikes is the absolute manifest of this, in that the prisoners ultimately; ‘will end by interiorizing to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself. ‘At the same time however, one must realise that the prisoners directly challenged the panoptic demand within the prison. If one is to decide that the prisoners did manifest self-surveillance and “feel the weight “of the inspecting gaze, then they must also realise that this is a process, and not simply an irresistible manifestation.

Regarding the prison as an institution, Foucault asks; “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals which all resemble prisons?[10] What Foucault means by this is that one must be ready to question why this is the case; if the prison exists as an institution which aims to exhibit power over a subject, then surely the barracks does so too. Like the prison there is a chain of command, rules and tenants which must be abided by, uniforms to distinguish between the warden and the prisoner, and in the case of the barracks; commander and private. In short, the prison and the barracks as respective institutions serve the same purpose; the aim of both is to maintain and reinforce the hegemony of their respective ideological practices over a subject, that subject being the prisoner or the enlisted troop.



The soldiers in Waltz with Bashir exhibit the complicit subject, as opposed to the resisting prisoners in hunger. The men join the army in large part because they are called to action against the Palestinian “Other”. Interestingly, one has no choice when joining the Israeli army; it’s a mandatory practice, despite this however, soldiers wear this burden with pride as; The basic principle of the IDF [Israeli Defence forces] is that it is a moral army that exists and functions for the sole purpose of defending Israel.”[11] From this, one can see how the army acts as an institution whose aims are to exhibit over a subject the justification for its existence; a “moral army” suggests that it is just, and that its endeavours are correct. By contrast, this would mean its enemies would be by default wrong and the lives of these enemies become expendable as a result of this; the IDF is a moral army your enemy in this instance, the Muslim Palestine liberation organisation, is immoral.

A conversation occurs early within the film which best represents how the soldiers, the complicit agents of the “moral army” discuss an example of the kind of tasks which they had been asked to carry out; “we went into Lebanese villages to search for wanted Palestinians. Yeah, and”[12] What this pattern of speech does is highlight the fact that the soldiers acknowledge that they hunted Palestinians but in alignment with the “moral army” doctrine take it at face value, it is an order that they do not question it. Their position as a “barracks” subject filters their political consciousness to that of black and white. They shoot the unquestionably “immoral” and follow further orders this is the extent of their role, hence they become complicit subjects.


the young men’s enlistment into the army in Waltz with Bashir, and the guards stationed at the maze prison in Hunger both represent the subject in agency. They are told by the panoptic gaze be it the doctrine of the army, or the justice system, that those that they are set oppose are not like them; they are “immoral” or of “criminal mind.” Both appear to accept this notion as unquestionable gospel. What complicates matters in the case of the soldiers, namely Forman, is that; “unwillingly you took on the role of the Nazi”[13] and are; “guilty[14] It could be argued that this moment in the film is used to highlight the fact when confronted about being the complicit the subject is then able to acknowledge the fact that what they have done is questionable. However, in the context of this film, this moment highlights that Forman was always guilty even then at nineteen when he joined the army. If this is the case then in accordance with Foucault’s quotation; “each individual under its [ the inspecting gaze] weight will end by interiorizing to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself” Forman knew what he was doing was wrong yet persevered. It is precisely in this moment that he “exercises self-surveillance” as this moment in the film would suggest that Forman was totally conscious of what he was doing, but acted in accordance with the military doctrine of the barracks “interiorizing” the intuitionalism of said barracks and ultimately; “became his own overseer” due to the fact that he acted to repress his guilt in favour of army doctrine and ultimately, “fell under the weight” of the panoptic gaze.


In conclusion, when considering the panoptic gaze, one must think about said panopticon beyond the prison. One must realise that in all institutions where there exists an ideological agenda, then they are within a panopticon. Within society, it is ubiquitous. But as has been discussed, it is something which can be resisted. Acknowledging the existence of being within a panoptic structure, should lead one towards questioning what is being asked of them before they; “end by interiorizing to the point that they are their own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, themselves”

[1] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin,1979; originally published as Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1975). P.155 [2]Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish P.200 [3] ibid. p201 [4] Hunger Dir., Steve Mcqueen (Icon Film Distribution, 2008) [5] ibid. [6] Eugene McNamee, Eye witness — memorialising humanity in Steve McQueen’s Hunger p.10 URL: http://uir.ulster.ac.uk/3494/1/ijlc_proofs.pdf [accessed:10/12/2019] [7] Foucault, Discipline and punish p.199 [8] Nicholas Fesette, Performance, Prison Strike, Zombie: Steve McQueen’s Hunger and the ‘Reflection Machines’ in Etudes Vol.1No.2 p.6 (2015) URL:https://www.academia.edu/32888913/Performance_Prison_Strike_Zombie_Steve_McQueens_Hunger_and_the_Reflection_Machines_ [9] ibid pp.4-5 [10] Foucault, Discipline and punish p.228 [11] Yulia Gilichinskaya, Reason to Forget: Memories of War in Waltz with Bashir p.2 URL: https://www.academia.edu/11755170/Reason_to_Forget_Memories_of_War_in_Waltz_with_Bashir [accessed:15/12/2019] [12] Waltz with Bashir, Dir. Alri Folman, (Sony Pictures Classics, 2008) [13] ibid. [14] ibid

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