All Eyes On You: Spectacle, Industry, and Panoptic Self-Regulation

© Copyright 2018 Ewan Matthews, Ryerson University.

And she’s taller than most
And she’s looking at me
I can see her eyes looking from the page of a magazine
She makes me feel like I could be a tower
A big strong tower, yeah
The power to be
The power to give
The power to see – KT Tunstall

We are barraged with advertisements wherever we go. They look down on us from towering billboards, hover on the periphery of news articles, and stare at us from magazines. They stare blankly, of course, and cannot actually watch us. Yet they are impossible to escape, impossible not to see: they watch us the way we watch each other, following our movements and transmitting to us all the while. Foucault’s notion of panopticism, an extension of Jeremy Bentham’s architectural Panopticon, reminds me of the above lyrics from KT Tunstall’s 2004 pop hit “Suddenly I See” and of the irresistible woman on that magazine. What if this tall, powerful model was the tower? What if her indomitable gaze was following and affecting consumers like me? How might ubiquitous representations of ‘normal’ and ‘perfect’ human bodies foster a society in which consumers are made to feel permanently visible, and persuaded to regulate their appearances, moreover to self-regulate like the prisoners in the panopticon?

My project explores this question by engaging with major theorists of control, manipulation, and spectacle. It then crystallizes these concepts in the form of mock advertisements built in Adobe Photoshop, each mimicking the rhetorics of those inescapable billboards and pop-ups.

We begin with the original conception of the Panopticon as recounted by Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish (200). Bentham imagined a cylindrical building with cells separated from each other completely, atomizing the occupants from one another. The only windows look towards the centre of the cylinder, where a guard tower stands equipped with a system of shutters, and with bright lights in later conceptions (Miller and Miller 3). These shutters and lights control the flow of light into and out of each cell, and blind the occupants from seeing the tower’s details. In this way the occupants – whether they be prisoners or labourers – are rendered visible and are always aware of the presence of the tower, though they cannot make out who is on it, watching them. They come to assume the presence of a watcher, and to regulate themselves accordingly.

Guy Debord’s “spectacle” has come to replace the physical panoptic tower, and both the tower guards and prisoners are replaced by regular citizens. In his seminal 1967 work The Society of the Spectacle, Debord writes:

The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images . . . . In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. (10-11)

My project aims to build on Bentham, Foucault, and Debord by focusing on advertisements, though clearly the media of spectacle are far more numerous. Advertisements as spectacles signify social relations in which commodities are shared desires, and represent human ideals shared by a society. In our society that which is displayed on billboards and televisions is conferred importance. Visibility is conflated with value (Flyverbom and Reinecke 1630). Therefore it is valuable to be seen, to be looked at, and the consumer of spectacles comes to assume that they are being watched.

This is understandable in our modern world: there are retinas and sensors everywhere, capturing our images, recording us, storing us, and judging us. With the proliferation of Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, to not be looked at is to lose the chance at feeling the glamourous spotlight of the spectacle. In Deleuze’s words, we might understand this environment as “a form of expression and [us as] a form of content… the form of the visible and the form of the articulable” whereby consumers generate a need for visual ‘articulation’ and contribute to the creation of a panoptic “visual assemblage” (Caluya 628). This visual assemblage is a structure of representations of human ‘beauty’ and ‘success’ in the form of advertisement models, who are carefully selected, enhanced with the application of makeup, and edited through the use of complex software. My project uses the same software to explore and critique the creation of advertisements and the production of spectacle.

Here we turn to the pseudo-advertisements I created (which can be viewed here in full resolution). One in particular, called “Dare To Be Beautiful,” appears to be a lipstick ad. Three images of women’s lips are sandwiched between the words “KISS THIN LIPS GOODBYE!” These images were originally full portraits of beautiful women, which I cropped and compressed vertically, thinning their lips. Distorted and with their eyes removed, these images appear subordinate beside a much larger portrait of a woman who stares back at the viewer with full, painted lips. This image is clearly preferred in the frame of the advertisement, and devalues the other images. The text above tells women, with no proof, that their lips are “the first thing men notice about you and the last thing they’ll forget!” Beside the kitschy catchphrase “Show the world a colour that pops!” this line is a heinous appeal to insecurity. Further editing could desaturate the colours in the subordinate images, or compress them more at the risk of making the viewer aware of the editing process.

Two separate advertisements.
Ewan Matthews. “Dare To Be Beautiful,” “You Can’t Hide Your Teeth.” 2018.

This comparative mechanism is similar to how the “You Can’t Hide Your Teeth” ad operates. This poster presents the viewer with two individuals, one who is hiding her teeth and is therefore subordinate to the one who smiles. The latter is confident, a paragon of visibility, while the former shies away from the panoptic tower. The title serves to make the viewer aware of their own teeth, which are likely not as perfectly shaped or white as the smiling model. The rest of the text suggests that the product is a toothbrush with the noble mission of improving consumers’ smiles, and invokes the need to be “Instagram ready” and visible. Again, sinister messages are encoded in the text, situating “You can’t hide” above “Make the right choice in oral care,” and throwing in a reference to “ugly stains” before mentioning social media.

Two separate advertisements.
Ewan Matthews. “All Eyes On You,” “Beauty Doesn’t Need To Be An Exclusive Club.” 2018.

The “All Eyes On You” ad invites the viewer to compare themselves to two sporty models presented doing one-handed push ups. The title reminds the viewer that they are being judged on their body, and the subtitle and following text underscore the toned, muscular Western ideal of the body, and the viewer’s own lazy or unhealthy habits. The models are caught looking fabulous, mid-exercise, and stare directly at the camera as if the viewer is an intruder, one who could never belong in the same space as such ideal forms. If it motivates, it does so by making accusations and forcing comparisons.

“Beauty Doesn’t Need To Be An Exclusive Club” likewise uses beautiful, refined women who appear to have been interrupted while socializing. Two of them look at the camera, sizing up the intruder. Another looks dismissively to the side, uninterested. The font is tall and skinny, claiming that the viewer deserves “to be looked at, to be the centre of attention and the subject of fantasies.” The ad claims its products can democratize beauty or level the playing field, so to speak, at the cost of a few more pennies.

Two separate advertisements
Ewan Matthews. “Life Is A Runway,” “Where Are You Going?” 2018.

The more austere “Life Is A Runway” has been edited to blot out any unnecessary background content or any text, mimicking fashion advertisements. The image and text invoke the isolation and exhibitionism of the runway, i.e. ‘there are always spectators watching your form, don’t let them see you make a mistake.’ The only other editing I did on this photo is to accentuate the light on the video camera and add flash effects to two phones in the audience. These are meant to draw the viewer’s gaze to the presence of recording devices and remind them of their own digital footprint on social media. I also chose to use electric toothbrushes in the “Teeth” ad because of their circular form, which may evoke the eye or camera lens (note how one seems to creep up from the bottom of the frame, reminding me, at least, of a few horror film scenes).

Besides their amateur quality, the above ‘ads’ are strange because none of them are actually advertising anything explicit. They reference “tools” and “makeup products” and “our brushes” without displaying large brand logos. An exception is the ad “Where Are You Going?” which uses embedded logos for men’s Nike, Adidas, and Asics shoes to make the viewer aware of brand preferences and the need for a name, the need to represent a brand. Such spectacles lessen the importance of use-values in favour of symbolic codes of purchasing power and style inhered within objects (Jansson 16-17). They suggest that the product tells a story about the consumer, who must purchase selectively to assemble a positive impression, to visually articulate success. In the case of these brand-name shoes (in a time when people will spend upwards of $200 for certain brands of athletic shoes), the advertisement claims that the symbolic codes on the viewer’s feet communicate their entire life story, past and future. The implicit warning is that not spending more for the desirable brand communicates that the wearer is going nowhere.

Each of these spectacles manipulates the reader by trying to create and exploit pseudo-needs (Flyverbom and Reinecke 1629). They point out what we can’t hide and so must enhance through commodities. They conflate owning commodities with owning a presence, earning attention, and purchasing beauty. They suggest that the viewer has work to do or else products to buy—ultimately exaggerating the onus of beauty—and place that weighty onus on the viewer. Laura Mulvey describes a similar cinematic experience in which the male gaze projects “its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly…. Women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (9). Her concepts have become even more relevant today, when all spectacles transmit a preferred paradigm of visibility, and all spectacles are projected phantasies. Regardless of gender these models engage the viewer, interpellate them into certain behaviours, modifications, into a closed aesthetic space. Viewers then strive for to-be-looked-at-ness to mimic the spectacle, to please the inescapable gaze of others. We begin to prefer the sign—the enhanced model, the unfaithful representation of our own human bodies—to what we are familiar with and attached to. The sign becomes preferred to the signified, and the spectacle reinforces an extreme model of commodity fetishism (Flyverbom and Reinecke 1629).

Electronic media augment the power of these spectacles by collapsing the space between consumers and producers (that is, the people who make design decisions about advertisements in order to better manipulate the public). Advertisements on mobile web pages and television screens use a shortcut, “penetrating the lifeworld as a kind of cultural, or aesthetic, expert system” (Jansson 16). Behind the system of spectacles is an industry, fuelled by capital, using the power of visibility and visuality to accrue profits. Speaking back to Debord, Foucault claims that “under the surface of images, one invests bodies in depth;… the play of signs defines the anchorages of power; it is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.” (217) Spectacles therefore transmit specific codes of beauty, exploiting the permanent visibility of consumers, and creating a mimetic relationship between spectacles and their viewers, advertisements and their consumers. In the model of this spectacle-mediated panopticism, consumers assume their own visibility and regulate their appearances based on ubiquitous representations of human ideals, attempting to not just be seen but to be looked at, to articulate to-be-looked-at-ness.

Works Cited

Caluya, Gilbert. “The Post-Panoptic Society? Reassessing Foucault in Surveillance Studies.” Social Identities, vol. 16, no. 5, 2010, pp. 621-633.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Zone books, 1994. Translated by Ken Knabb, 2005, Accessed 4 April 2018.

Flyverbom, Mikkel, and Juliane Reinecke. “The Spectacle and Organization Studies.” Organization Studies, vol. 38, no. 11, 2017, pp. 1625-1643.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books, 1979.

Jansson, André. “The Mediatization of Consumption: Towards an Analytical Framework of Image Culture.” Journal of Consumer Culture, vol. 2, no. 1, 2002, pp. 5-31.

Miller, Jacques-Alain, and Richard Miller. “Jeremy Bentham’s Panoptic Device.” October, vol. 41, 1987, pp. 3–29.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, pp. 6-18.

Image Credits

Electric Teeth. “Oral_B_Smart_4_4000_Electric_Toothbrush (6).” Flickr, 2017. Accessed 5 April 2018. Licensed under CC-BY 2.0.

Electric Teeth. “Oral_B_Pro_3_3000_Electric_Toothbrush (72).” Flickr, 2017. Accessed 5 April 2018. Licensed under CC-BY 2.0.

Wagner Cesar Munhoz. “Electric Toothbrush.” Flickr, 2007. Accessed 5 April 2018. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.