Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

The Panoptic Exodus


Last Updated on November 19, 2020 by bricoleur

The Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham - late 18th century
Jeremy Bentham, Panopticon, design by Willey Reveley

The Building circular – an iron cage, glazed – a glass lantern about the size of Ranelagh – The Prisoners in their Cells, occupying the Circumference – The Officers, the Centre. By Blinds, and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed from the observation of the Prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of invisible omnipresence. – The whole circuit reviewable with little, or, if necessary, without any, change of place.

Jeremy Bentham (1791). Panopticon, or The Inspection House

“He always said that even the best actor knows that the camera is pointed at him, and that the spontaneity, the innocence, the beauty of expression on a face cannot be truly captured except when the person is not conscious of being photographed.”

Peter Blum
The Prisoner’s Perspective

First off, in Blum’s pronouncement there lies the lingering taste of an assumption that borders on what once was called by the dialecticians of enlightenment the ‘jargon of authenticity.’ Secondly, Marker was a seeker of visual contact, the precise and conscious return of his gaze. The mind drifts around the thought eddy that the human photographic subject, by the mere conscious knowledge of being filmed or photographed, loses something ineffable, some bit of truth in self-presentation to the world. Marker is aware of the non-sense of the gaze that does not affect the gazed upon. We see this willful, if shy, communicative aspect (and hetero voyeurism) in his long quest to capture the face as it is Staring Back, as it becomes clearly aware of the camera and the man with the movie camera—even (and especially) if for 1/24th of a second. Clandestine documentary, on the other hand, offers heroically to capture this lost parcel of authenticity (the long-lost Benjaminian aura?), the subject unaware of the means of reproduction that causes, if even minimally, a change in visual self-presentation. Documentary theory has long since dismissed any claim to objectivity and embraced the uncertainty principle, the quantum entanglement of subject and object, though it lingers on in mainstream media.

One could surmise that following Foucault’s ‘panoptism’, the world of the photographic unconscious—that is, the pristine subject—may actually have to a large degree disappeared. There is now, especially in urban zones, always the presumption of the camera—not the camera of the clandestine artist, but the surveillance apparatus: ubiquitous, proliferating, causing adjustments of behavior by its very presence, as did the central tower of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, whether occupied by an agent of surveillance or unoccupied and merely virtually present as a visual threat, implied in the very design that strips one of privacy. The Eye of Mordor, always searching for the Ring, and its bearer…

One might go further and think that the very proliferation of cameras in public spaces gives rise to a kind of disinterest or banality of the quotidian, such that the modification of one’s own comportment in public space undergoes a subtle reversal. The subject, in this scenario, grows so accustomed to the idea of being captured (literally and figuratively), inscribed into the machinic memory system, that it is no longer necessary to internalize the surveillance apparatus, no longer necessary to adjust one’s behavior always already towards auto-surveillance and self-policing.

Marker’s Cat Occupy Logo

One can see this small thought of liberation from panoptism play out in the Occupy and now Black Lives Matter movements, as they escalate a reclaiming of public space to promote a disregard for the old Kafka-type spies and the Panopticon in favor of a new modality. This new modality takes the means of reproduction available on cell phones, plugged as they are into the social media machine, and turns it against power, forcing the police into their own situation of counter-panoptism, of the eternal possibility of being recorded (Treyvon Martin), posted to a viral social media machine that propagates a kind of anti-panoptism, without a central tower— without Castle, without the Eye of Mordor. Cellular video becomes a viral threat to power, and brings people into the streets, reversing to a degree the prior isolation of the passive body caused by device addiction.

However, with these thoughts, we are still in the mode of duality, of power and resistance—but the moment for this paradigm, long pronounced dead, to truly disappear may not yet have come, simply because the still somehow Empowered, fully equipped with their police forces, armies and crumbling economies, while certainly on their way out, have maddeningly not quite gone away. The King may be dethroned but then one has to deal with the military, as in Egypt.

Nonetheless, the Kafka informants, perhaps epitomized best in the DDR Stazi (that is, Stalinist) system of spying and informing on your neighbor, may have jumped ship and come to work for another, a masterless enterprise that itself is less capable of or interested in hierarchical control due to its rhizomatic and viral nature—and for those very reasons baffling to the older machines of technology (panoptism) and social paranoia (informants).

For documentary theory, the real has long been suspect, and documentarists, including quantum-Heisenberg and ‘reverse ethnographers’ (like the unsurpassed Jean Rouch), have long known that the camera trained on a subject changes the subject. Marker himself shows back in Lettre de Sibérie how a montage of documentary footage combined with commentary can present a potentially endless series of possible realities, each virtually co-existing, products of choices of mise-en-scène, montage and the vital, flexible relations of voice/text and image. The old Kuleshov effect fed into a fractal generator…

Our thoughts here, laid out in some haste and worthy someday of greater elaboration, are triggered by the quote in which Peter Blum speaks of Marker’s photographs on the occasion of the exhibition at Arles. Revisiting Marker’s old metaphor of photography as a hunt: “La photo, c’est la chasse, c’est l’instinct de chasse sans l’envie de tuer. C’est la chasse des anges… On traque, on vise, on tire et — clac! au lieu d’un mort, on fait un éternel.” There is as much a recognition of the primordial violence of photographic inscription as there is the dream of its transformation into an art of peace.

Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

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