Michel Foucault’s concept of the panopticon explores the efficacy of punitive observation. This concept can be expanded to apply not only to prisons and other institutions, but to society as a whole. Inspired by the design of a new prison, which entailed a ring of isolated cells surrounding a central guard tower, the panopticon presents a constant state of surveillance as an effective controlling device for the management of prisoners, students, employees, patients, etc. The system casts its participants as all either observers or the observed.
In Woody Allen’s film Zelig, the protagonist, Leonard Zelig, is arguably cast in both roles; he is both the subject of observation as well as an observer. In the first role, as the observed, Zelig is a mental patient, studied ferociously and displayed to the public as spectacle. His behavior is quite literally determined by this observation, as his own awareness of being observed triggers the very behavior which renders Zelig the subject of study. Zelig is a social chameleon, and his feelings of personal inadequacy drive him to literally transform himself physically into a facsimile of his observer. Zelig is hyper aware of the gaze of others, and driven by this awareness he is constantly remaking himself to satisfy that gaze. As Foucault explains it, “full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap.” This could not be more true for Leonard Zelig: constantly being under the gaze of others, being fully and constantly exposed to observation effectively traps Zelig in the very cycle of chameleon behavior which all of the observation is allegedly meant to cure, and in the variety of changes he undertakes to protect himself from the gaze of others, Zelig could very well people every cell of the panopticon by himself. Further, as the object of observation, Zelig’s experience quite clearly exemplifies Foucault’s assertion that “our society is one not of spectacle, but of surveillance.” In the film, watching Zelig becomes a national pastime. This voyeuristic pop culture fixation with the trials of one sad little man clearly present the tawdry, peeping-tom surveillance entertainment potential provided by the panopticon. Zelig is not a spectacle, but a minor oddity, and his deeply personal struggle for identity becomes the focus of his observers’ entertainment base, his medical history and the results of his psychological tests making front page news.
It is worth noting, as I mentioned previously, that Leonard Zelig effectively fills both roles in the panopticon throughout the course of the film. Although he is himself constantly observed and turned into the focal point of a culture of surveillance, he is also constantly observing his observers, as evidenced by his manifestations of them in his own body. Without being an observer himself, Zelig would have no one to become, no persona to paste over his own “inferior” self. It is not insignificant that Zelig is placed at the center of the action of the film, literally embodying all those whom he observes. Proximity and mimicry of his observers allows Zelig to become the center of a secondary panopticon, seeing all and remaining unseen. Leonard’s genuine personal identity is largely ignored as a kind of interlimnal state between transitions by his observers and is largely dismissed as irrelevant when compared to his chameleon behavior and the entertainment value of his medical trials, so the real Leonard Zelig becomes a kind of unseen observer in the tower.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. NY: Vintage Books 1995. Web.
Zelig. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen, Mia Farrow. MGM, 1983. DVD.