Wednesday, October 13, 2010
*Panopticon, by David Bajo
First, my thanks to Rachel at Unbridled Books for sending me an ARC of this book.
Now, I'm just a reader, not a critic, but David Bajo’s new novel Panopticon is thought provoking and intense. Set in San Diego and the border area between California and Mexico, it begins as reporters Aaron Klinsman, Oscar Medem and Rita Valdez are given their final assignments. The newspaper where they work is about to go to press for the last time, and their boss, Gina, has assigned them to cases, as the blurb notes, that turn out to be "suprisingly personal." Klinsman has been assigned three subjects in places he's been before -- coverage of a Luchador event, surveillance in public parks, and a beat call at the old San Ysidro motel, where Klinsman expects a crime scene and doesn't find one. As he examines the room, he notices a number of oddities, including the outline of a woman on the bed, black tape everywhere, covered mirrors, and a bag of lightbulbs. Wondering why his editor would send him there, he begins to try to piece together what may have happened in that room, and he brings Rita to the room for a fresh perspective. Rita and Oscar are also working on their assignments, and as the three get further into their stories, they come to realize that someone is out there watching them, but for what purpose?
One of the most prevalent themes in this book is that we are living in an age of (in the author's own words) "digital omniscience." The title of Bajo's book is an interesting choice: the word "panopticon" literally means "all-seeing." In the late 18th century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham conceptualized a structure (prison, poorhouse, facilities for quarantine, etc.) that would offer authorities the opportunity to monitor the inmates of the place without being seen by those they are watching. The idea (in a very brief nutshell here) was that the authorities were up in a tower in the center of the complex, behind blinds so they could not be observed. The inmates would not know when they were being observed, only that they could possibly be under the gaze of the authorities at all time. The idea was that believing they were under surveillance at all times, those being observed would regulate their own behaviors. Eventually the idea was that there didn't need to be anyone in the tower at all -- as Michel Foucault noted in his most excellent book Discipline and Punish, the idea was to "induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power" (201). The panopticon, however, has moved away from a physical structure, and today we are all living in it. The fact is that we're all being observed by someone at some time, but believe erroneously that we can somehow elude the gaze and guard those parts of ourselves that are private, only letting others see what we want them to see or know what we want them to know. Panopticon is filled with imagery that makes this point, for example, towels draped over mirrors, darkness, and masks all are methods used to keep prying eyes away. Yet, especially with the Internet, there are always traces left somewhere, and as technology becomes more sophisticated, as Klinsman, Rita and Oscar discover, it is becoming much easier to watch others -- and there is always someone who wants to discover what it is we don't necessarily want others to see or to know. From the obvious surveillance cameras to cell phone cameras to small video cameras and even our webcams, it's not only possible, but it's happening. But I also believe that Bajo is saying here (toward the end, which I will not divulge) that panopticism can, in some cases, be put to good use, a positive application of what Foucault calls "coercion" (222).
I really liked this book. The subject matter is something I've been interested in for eons and the author managed to keep it real, rather than making up a bunch of pseudo-scientific-techno crap, a place other authors (whose books I no longer read) have often gone. I liked the characters, and the sense of place was very well established. As I got further into the story, and figured out what was going on, I couldn't put the book down because I had to know the why of it all, so I can say that there is an element of tension in the novel that will keep you reading. Panopticon is one of those books where even if the critics hate it, I wouldn't care.