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Spaces of observation and obscurity: cinematic prisons of light and dark

Spaces of observation and obscurity: cinematic prisons of light and dark

Fiddler, Michael ORCID: 0000-0002-0695-6770 (2009) Spaces of observation and obscurity: cinematic prisons of light and dark. Prison Service Journal, 185. pp. 8-12. ISSN 0300-3558

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In The Eye of Power, Foucault delineated the key concerns surrounding hospital architecture in the latter half of the eighteenth century as being the ‘visibility of bodies, individuals and things'. As such, the ‘new form of hospital' that came to be developed ‘was at once the effect and support of a new type of gaze'. This was a gaze that was not simply concerned with ways of minimising overcrowding or cross-contamination. Rather, this was a surveillance intended to produce knowledge about the pathological bodies contained within the hospital walls. This would then allow for their appropriate classification. Foucault went on to describe how these principles came to be applied to the architecture of prisons. This was exemplified for him in the distinct shape of Bentham's panopticon. This circular design, which has subsequently become an often misused synonym for a contemporary culture of surveillance, was premised on a binary of the seen and the not-seen. An individual observer could stand at the central point of the circle and observe the cells (and their occupants) on the perimeter whilst themselves remaining unseen. The panopticon in its purest form was never constructed, yet it conveys the significance of the production of knowledge through observation that became central to institutional design at this time and modern thought more broadly. What is curious though is that whilst the aim of those late eighteenth century buildings was to produce wellventilated spaces suffused with light, this provoked an interest in its opposite. The gothic movement in literature that was developing in parallel conversely took a ‘fantasy world of stone walls, darkness, hideouts and dungeons…' as its landscape (Vidler, 1992: 162). Curiously, despite these modern developments in prison design, the façade took on these characteristics. The gothic imagination came to describe that unseen world that lay behind the outer wall. This is what Evans refers to as an architectural ‘hoax'. The façade was taken to represent the world within the prison walls and it was the façade that came to inform the popular imagination about what occurred behind it. The rational, modern principles ordering the prison became conflated with the meanings projected by and onto the façade. This confusion of meanings have then been repeated and reenforced in the subsequent representations of the prison. This is of paramount importance since it is the cinematic and televisual representation of the prison, as I argue here and elsewhere, that maintain this erroneous set of meanings, this ‘hoax'.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: observation and obscurity, representation of prisons, cinematic prisons, light and dark,
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN1993 Motion Pictures
Pre-2014 Departments: School of Humanities & Social Sciences
School of Humanities & Social Sciences > Department of Law & Criminology
Related URLs:
Last Modified: 14 Oct 2016 09:04

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