The Name Game
Nicholas Carverhill | guest columnist
Graphic by Christopher Khew
I have always been equally optimistic as I have been wary of our College’s first publication, particularly in relation to its chosen name. Digging back through the archives, one can find the etymology of Panopt being described as, “that which sees everything” (Issue 02, Volume 01, 2013). Funnily enough, the student who submitted this interpretation was awarded a Starbucks gift card. In two issues before last, we are provided with a stunning reversal from this initial interpretation; we are told it is “not the Panopticon, and […] never will be” (Issue 01, Volume 02, 2014), despite the fact that this original definition is, in effect, a description of the Panopticon.
I find the newest justification for this publication’s name troubling. It is of some reassurance that the editors were actively aware of the negative associations with Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (even though they invoke a much later thinker’s, Foucault’s, view on the concept). Where the logic falls apart is in the description of Panopt’s role in our College community. We are told that this publication is meant to “bridge the gap between the seeing and being seen,” and is therefore antithetical to that which the Panopticon embodies. This is problematic primarily because the Panopticon is by definition a construct in which the observer is never observed. I find it ominous that we are willing to align ourselves, even metaphorically, so closely to something that was originally designed as the ultimate prison. Bentham imagined that the Panopticon would be effective as an institution because inmates would never be able to tell when they were being watched. The ‘watchman’ in the Panopticon is, in fact, structurally immune to any form of “transparency or accountability.” Later, when Foucault invoked the concept, he refers to the modern state structure wherein population control is achieved without the need for physical domination – an idea familiar to all students of Comparative Social Institutions. Panopticism is desirable precisely because it dissociates the ruler from the ruled and veils the structures of power in the shadows.
While it would be hyperbolic and intellectually irresponsible to assert that this publication’s goals are anywhere close to those described above, there is a frightening turn in its own etymological justification: “there is no fear of being seen if one is not in the wrong.” This claim implicitly abandons the previous stance that, as an institution, Panopt is somehow structurally different from the Panopticon. Recognize that invoking this reasoning is in tension with the accountability claims because it tells the reader, ‘if you have nothing to hide, then why bother caring that we are all-seeing in the first place?’ It dismisses the fact that there may be value to privacy in and of itself, and is an argument in preparation for the failure of the initial claim that it does not see everything to begin with.
On a side note, this publication’s new logo—with its ominous eye-shaped ‘O’—does not help its cause in dissociating itself from the all- seeing. I can only imagine the field day that Jim Sleeper would have if he ever stumbled across our name, logo, etymological justification, or any combination thereof.
As the self-proclaimed platform for free discourse and critical discussion at Yale-NUS, Panopt is not exempt from navigating our College’s complex political territory and its associated responsibilities. I will make the bold recommendation that this publication scrap its name and conduct a College-wide referendum to rename and rebrand itself as something more befitting of the relationship we wish to have, as students, with structures of power. The fourth estate is meant to be a conduit for the oppressed and a voice for the marginalized; even if Panopt is only associated with the Panopticon by root-word it is enough to question whether it indeed exists amongst us, or above us.