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The Panopticon (ROUND 1) – Scottish Review of Books

The Panopticon

Jenni Fagan
Paperback £8.99 Cornerstone ISBN: 9780099558644
by Ian Abbott

The Panopticon (ROUND 1)

April 12, 2017 | by Ian Abbott

Designed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century The Panopticon is a brutal architectural design; it allows all inmates of an institution to be observed by a single watcher without the inmates being able to tell if they’re being watched or not. A radical surveillance that can dictate behaviour.

How does a body endure repeated attacks in places of care? How does a mind sustain when it’s subjected to psychological constraints? How would a 15 year old child respond in these environments? Meet Anais.

After spending time in care as a child Fagan writes from a position of lived experience; details provide layers of emotional resonance and aspiration for what the future could hold: “in our kitchen there were forty boxes of teabags, and a vintage photograph of French girls smoking cigars. A blonde and a brunette – bobbed hair, wearing face masks.” Awash with escapist teenage monologues which offer some prologue to times before, our teenage lead is bolshy but not without reason; unhinged but with screws still in some holes, maybe a trifle cross-threaded.

With an ever present shadow of narcotics and invisible eyes Anais deals in drug induced bravado highs and crashing self doubting identity crises. She’s fed stories and feeds others stories about her past and whether she has been constructed by a system or by a schizophrenic mother who jumped out the window seconds after giving birth. When you don’t have an identity; others inject it into you. We’re sat directly behind her cornea as she guides and shifts our gaze; she is in control of what we can and cannot see. Anais is The Panopticon.

Details are gruesome but not horrific; offering slivers of encounters that shaped her and her attitude to authority, adulthood and relationships. Structurally The Panopticon feels two dimensional as it’s concerned with plot advancement rather than deepening character engagement; predictability comes in waves with bonds growing between female inmates and slowly those relationships fall apart – the cycle repeats again. Anais is alone, leaving a destructive trail behind her.

I’m left with something a little too neat; there’s not enough fraying of characters, narrative or expectations – Anais inhabits a world of oppression and I see and feel little of that reality on the page or in the heart. There’s gaps as to how she arrived and what were the decisions by herself and others that forged this identityless girl. Imagine a year by year account of the mundanity and horrors between ages 5 and 18 – this isn’t the made in Edinburgh Harry Potter, but an acid trip fuelled prostituted life of a hardened Scottish gal. What would that voice sound like if it was written by a 15 year old who is experiencing it now, living with the trauma and has little time to process it?

The parallels between the incarceration of young people in care and black history/hip hop resonates heavily; those in power target the youngest and most vulnerable in society without retribution, causing people to live in fear of invisible oppression. In It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop by MK Asante Jr. articulates the history, segregation and civil rights violations of African-Americans from police and governmental structures forging deep divides within communities across the country. Asante Jr’s writing is also born of a lived experience too and yet the effects on me from the two books couldn’t have been starker. Fagan creates little tension or paranoia in her words and I came away being shown and told what to feel; a dictation of empathy and surveillance with little nuance or discovery for me to make. As Carter G. Woodson says: “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him no to stand here or go yonder. He will find his proper place and stay in it.”

Ian Abbott writes about performance art for writingaboutdance.com. He spends time in the dance studio when choreographers are making work and creates a written response. He also spent three years writing about video games for Sci-Fi- London.

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