I’ve been sorting through some files on my computer and I came across the following. It was written for a job application, one of those quirky questions they toss in at the end of the application to, I think, challenge you. They asked “if you were superhuman, what would your superpower be?” This was my reply.
When asked same question, one of my friends answered flippantly invisibility. They wanted to be invisible so they could spy on people. I know. Because the superhero is after all the territory of the adolescent. It’s hard not to be flippant. There’s something very childish in all of our answers.
When you really think about the same question as an adult, the answer is very different. For adults superpowers are less super, more human. As an adult I think my superpower would be strength.
Strength of character.
Strength of will.
Strength of intellect.
We all make up stories to help us understand the world. I tell one about a villain I call Mr. Panopticon.
The Panopticon was a circular prison designed by 18th Century social theorist Jeremy Bentham. In his design the cell walls are made of glass, transparent, allowing prisoners to be watched at any time from a central tower. The structure teases compliance from its tenants because they never know when they’re being watched. Michel Foucault used Bentham’s prison design as a metaphor, to highlight the way power, since the destruction of absolute monarchies, has sought to hide itself from view. If there is no focus for our anger, it’s impossible for us to remove the cause of our pain.
My Mr. Panopticon has a lick of the Mr. World’s about him. For those who don’t know Mr. World is character from the book and television series American Gods. He mysterious, charming, and dangerous.
More recently my view of Mr. Panopticon has changed. I used to think of him as a machine, a huge torus wrapped around us, surrounding us, watching us from central point, controlling our behaviour with his constant gaze. But more recently Intinction Rebellion entered the public space with a series of demonstrations. Their efforts to highlight the impending doom of Global Warming have made me adjust my vision of Mr. Panopticon. Their efforts made me realised, he’s not a torus as Bentham designed him, but instead a sphere, a visceral ball rolling over the planet consuming everything in his path.
If that’s the case, where does Mr. Panopticon watch us from? Is he at the centre of this massive ball like structure? More importantly I wonder where we fit, where do we live?
After thinking about that for a while I can only surmise the cells we inhabit line the inside of Mr. Panopticon, coating the inside of his outer membrane like the proteins lining the wall of a virus. This realisation changes the orientation of the cells we live in, tipping them over, packing them together side by side. And that shift changes the way we’re watched. He no longer looks out along a horizontal axis, instead monitoring us from above.
If we inhabit six-sided boxes, a hermetically sealed cells, what do we see when we look out? Looking left or right, front or back, we should see the other tenants of Mr. Panopticon. They should be there, staring in on us, as we stare in on them? But we don’t! Why is that? Are we so similar we mistake them for a reflection? Does he mediate everything, filtering it though some platform or other, making us forever reach but never make contact with our neighbours? It could be that he has transfixed us, made us all Narcissus, so enamoured by our own reflection everything else is just a haze.
If when we look around, and only see reflections, what do we see when we look up? Do we see Mr. Panopticon looking down on us? No. He’s a trickster. His entire existence is based on not being seen. Can we even see the spherical version of the tower? All watching? All knowing? Omnipotent? Do we see the virus gnome, hovering above us like water sliding over oil? Do we see God? Is that why Mr. Panopticon hasn’t destroyed our notions of God? He needs us to believe in the almighty, so we keep looking up. If we’re always looking up, we’re not looking down. If we don’t look down, we don’t see the viscera, the clots of blood, the chimeric limbs of the virus. We don’t see the true horror of Mr. Panopticon swirling beneath our feet. We’re taught the fiery chambers of hell are waiting for us should we transgress. They’re not. All that is beneath us is the bloody intestine of the beast that has swallowed us.
Give me strength.
The strength of character to call him out.
The strength of will not to succumb to his manipulations.
The strength of intellect to dissect the intricacies of his plan.
One final thing. Do I think I live in a glass box? No. Am I alone in the world? No. I can reach out, pull my partner close, and feel their warmth against me. Mr. Panopticon is a story. He is Joker to my Batman. Agent Smith to my Neo. He’s a villain that I need superpowers to resist. And reason for my superpower to be strength.