On our final day of class, in concluding discussion of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (a novel, as the title suggests, involving scanning and surveillance), I introduce Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and Michel Foucault’s theory of “panopticism,” applying the latter to the architecture of the digital classroom, the Zoom environment in which we’ve worked this past year due to pandemic. After ascent from Plato’s Cave in search of higher states of consciousness (Plato’s text being the one with which the course began), we lay bare the medium of our being-together as a class. I speak as one there in a cell with others. Here we are, I say: “Gallery View.” I call awareness to the Zen saying, “Before enlightenment, carry water, chop wood. After enlightenment, carry water, chop wood.” Through Dick’s title, I then trace us back to 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul stresses the importance of “charity” or love. Without it, he writes, one is but “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” In its final moment, then, the course ends thus: with a synthesis of Zen and a kind of gnostic-psychedelic reimagining of agape. One must accept the prison, or at least return to it willingly, despite knowing that one will likely be misunderstood and crucified — but only so as to impart through the medium of one’s being the words “Love one another”: a message of congeniality and goodwill.
What does it mean to convert teaching into assembly of discussion forums plus creation and delivery of content within these forums within a piece of university-administered “classroom management” software? When do we get back to in-person gatherings of students and teachers? How under such circumstances does one practice a pedagogy of hope? Do we become video friends? Do we record little lectures, each of us seated before the camera-eye atop our laptops and smart phones, prisoners in a new kind of panopticon prison? But who knows? With a little practice, we can launch a jailbreak, a prison strike, a riot. Unless perhaps we use this as a moment to build ourselves up. I suppose it’s fitting that I started my career as a teacher, back all those years ago during training, with a short videotaped lecture on the panopticon. For that is what they’ve built around us with the camera atop the devices from which we work, now that our teaching is to be done online. These conditions have been imposed by fiat down a command chain, regional accrediting bodies the ones cracking the whip. Time to get to it.