I spend a lot of time on tumblr.
Ostensibly, this is for “research” purposes.
What? I study fandom, fandom lives on tumblr, ergo: I study tumblr.
One of the things I’ve learned over there is the desire seems to drive many of the interactions in that space: the users, the teenage girls and young women who hang out there–they want to be seen.
They want to be noticed, listened to, taken seriously, treated as individuals worthy of love, respect, and praise.
But for that to happen, they first must be observed.
In Discipline and Punish, the philosopher Michel Foucault discusses the panopticon–a prison model designed in the 18th century that allowed a guard to see into every cell from a central watchtower, like this:
For Foucault, the panopticon is a metaphor for the disciplinary power of the state, one which doesn’t rest in a king or a president or even an government; rather, it sits in what he calls the “apparatus” of that power–the mechanics of our everyday lives. That is:
And although it is true that its pyramidal organization gives it a ‘head,’ it is the apparatus as a whole that produces ‘power’ and distributes individuals in this permanent and continuous field. This enables the disciplinary power to be both absolutely indiscreet, since it is everywhere and always alert…and absolutely ‘discreet,’ for it functions permanently and largely in silence. (177)
To put it more bluntly: we are all the panopticon. We’ve internalized the norm-ing forces of our society, our civilization, and we replicate and transmit the disciplinary power of those norms through our everyday interactions.
We’re the watchman. We’re the prisoner. We’re the Man.
Ultimately, Foucault argues, it’s this observation, though, this constant state of surveillance that we ourselves embody and enact, that creates the individual. As he puts it:
“Discipline ‘makes’ individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its own exercise.” (170)
On tumblr, then, I’ve noticed a desire to be seen, to become both the object of disciplinary power and the instrument through which that power’s divined.
You’ll see a lot of posts like this, is what I’m saying:
This is only 1/3 of the list of questions, BTW.
Users post selfies, they post confessions, they post minute-by-minute details of their day. And for this, you as a reader are asked to “follow” them–no, to become a follower of them–so that you might be notified each time they post to their blog. So you can see them, each and every time they ask you to look.
More than other online spaces I live in, tumblr is a place where the reader’s greatest sin is to ignore the writer, where the writer’s greatest fear is that no one will respond to or reblog their self-hate, their gif set, their grin, yes.
And I say this for myself, too: on tumblr, I feel more vulnerable than I do on here on my blog or on twitter or over on AO3. Which is odd, to say the least, given my utter lack of shame about the content of my writing in genera.
But, on tumblr, when I’m seen? It’s usually terrific. But when I’m not, when the guard in the tower has her back to me, I–my digital self–disappears.
My prof asked: Is this desire to be seen generated by the panopticon? Or is it a form of resistance?
No, I said, quick. It’s not resistance. But as for the other?
I gotta say: I find that question really fucking disturbing.
Productive, yeah. Interesting, sure. But really really disconcerting.