Symbolism of Eyes and Foucault’s Panopticon

The gaze is extremely powerful. Artist Marina Abramovic knew this when she sat in an art gallery and stared at people for months.

Harrison Fisher also understood when painting these girls, supposedly having fun, except for the one giving us the stink eye.

Harrison Fisher (1875 or 1877 – 1934) stink eye
Harrison Fisher (1875 or 1877 – 1934) stink eye

Eye contact has been emphasised in psychological research. Take the following experiment, first using a series of questions, interspersed with eye contact, all to induce intimacy between subjects. These 36 questions became widely known after Mandy Len Catron used them as part of the process in getting to know her boyfriend, then wrote an essay about that experience for the New York Time’s Modern Love column. The subjects are required to look each other in the eye. (This is a self-selected group. Many neurodiverse people would avoid an experiment like this.)

Eye Colour In Fiction

Eye colour is commonly mentioned in thumbnail character sketches. Don’t mention it unless it’s meaningful, and even then, be careful.

The Evil Eye

Colloquially known today as ‘the evils’ (in New Zealand) or ‘stink eye’ (in a funny scene from the film Juno), a threatening gaze or stare was once thought to be so powerful it caused actual harm.

As a result, numerous amulets and charms have been invented, thought to protect one from the harms of the Evil Eye.

Eye contact varies significantly across cultures. Western, neurotypical cultures are commonly, problematically, thought to set the ‘correct default’ when it comes to eye-contact. In the West, eye contact gives the impression of reliability and sincerity. But in many, if not most, cultures around the world, eye-contact is commonly perceived as threatening, and avoiding someone’s gaze is often simply a sign of situationally appropriate submission. For our closest animal relatives, the same holds. This leads me to believe that eye-contact ‘rules’ in my own Western culture default is a contrivance, impressed upon others from leaders in a patriarchy, which always functions best with overt and commonly understood displays of dominance.

Austin artist John Cleveland designed the pyramid-and-eye album cover. The album’s sound, featuring elements of psychedelia, garage rock, folk, and blues, is notable for its use of the electric jug, as featured on the band’s only hit, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”.
1936-1939 WPA illustration eye poster Keeping Up With Science
1936-1939 WPA illustration Keeping Up With Science
My Eyes in the Time of Apparition by August Natterer 1913
My Eyes in the Time of Apparition by August Natterer 1913
Howl's Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki, 2004
Howl’s Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki, 2004

Sanpaku eyes is a Japanese term to describe eyes which show a lot of white above or below the pupils. Transliterated, it means ‘three whites’ (each side as well as above or below). When illustrating a character, it’s a great way to create an ominous look.

Artist unknown, The Walking Dead (Warner Bros., 1936), One Sheet Movie Poster sanpuku eyes
Artist unknown, The Walking Dead (Warner Bros., 1936), One Sheet Movie Poster sanpuku eyes
Harry Clarke, Irish. 1889-1931. An illustration for Goethe’s Faust, c. 1925

Eyeball Warding Off Evil

Apotropes are specific kinds of amulets designed to ward off evil. The word comes from Greek and means ‘turn away’. This amulet features a protective symbol such as an eye. Eyes are thought to ward off the evil eye by staring right back at it.

The idea that you can overcome evil by looking something directly in the eye is a trick from psychology, based on the idea that you can only overcome something if you face it first. For example, addicts must acknowledge they have an addiction problem before they can start to control their addiction.

This idea is also used in various narratives at the Battle scene (climax). An excellent example of that is the movie The Ritual. A man with PTSD after the murder of his friend enters the forest and encounters a terrible monster. He overcomes this monster not by escaping it, tricking it or killing it with a gun but by mustering the courage to put his face right up to the monster’s face. The monster can no longer bother him. The monster is clearly a symbol for some very hard emotions — emotions the main character must learn to live with rather than banish, which would only result in suppression.

One-eyed Creatures

The one-eyed creature is as scary as the three-eyed creature. Humans have evolved from bilateral symmetry, starting with the bony fishes. Therefore, anything without bilateral symmetry is nowhere near related to us.

Unless there’s been a genetic mutation, that is. One-eyed sheep have been overexposed to a chemical known as cyclopamine, clearly named after the Cyclops, an ogre from Greek mythology. He has one eye.

We all go through a forebrain dividing process in utero. But when that process is interrupted, it’s known as cyclopia. When human babies are born with cyclopia, they live only for about a day.

Eyeball As Symbols of Surveillance

The symbol of the All Seeing Eye can be seen famously on the American dollar note. This is also known by conspiracy theorists as The Eye of Providence. I can’t be the only one who finds this creepy because the existence of an eyeball on a Government issue ‘document’ has given rise to various creepy theories.

The Eye of Providence has been used throughout history to represent God watching over us. This All Seeing Eye / Eye of Providence has its roots in the Egyptian Eye of Horus. The triangle was added later. Now we have the Christian Trinity — Father, Son, Holy Ghost.

The eye in triangle was adopted as a symbol of the Illuminati and the Freemasons, both secretive organisations. The Illuminati is an organisation within the Catholic Church. According to Freemasonry God is considered Architect of the Universe. Hence the eyeball in a triangle as their symbol, first used as a Masonic symbol in 1797.

When creating characters for children’s books, it’s really easy to get the eyes wrong. The eyes make or break a piece. I’m not sure if the artist behind each picture below intended peak creep, but if so, a gold star.

Foucault’s Panopticon

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher who left us with some very interesting ideas. He thought of his ideas as a toolbox, and others were welcome to take tools from it, using them how they wished. Foucault provided us with the concept of the heterotopia and also with the concept of the panopticon. Foucault’s main interest was with systems of power and oppression.

Foucault rejected the notion that power comes from the top and that if we cut the head of the king off we can be free.

There’s a 1968 slogan, about lifting up cobblestones, finding a beach and finding sexual pleasure and being happy. (Something like that.) It may have worked like in the 17th century regime, but not today. Today power comes from the decentralised networks of institutions where professionals have the right to classify individuals through categories. 

In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault critiqued the apparatus of modern society — schools, hospitals and so on — rather than how people traditionally thought of power structures (led by monarchies). This other kind is now widely known as ‘capillary power’.

In describing capillary power, Foucault presented us with the idea of the panopticon. The panopticon was based on Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century architectural drawings of a prison.

Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison

Key features of the panopticon:

  1. A central observation tower for the guard
  2. A periphery comprising a circular building with circular cells
  3. Crucially, all of the cells have windows. This isn’t to keep the Hannibal Lecters of this world happy. The windows are not for prisoners’ benefit at all. Instead, light floods the cells so that prisoners can be observed from the tower.

The point is that the inmates observe themselves. They begin to monitor themselves, taking that gaze and imagining we are being watched even when we aren’t. Nobody holds ‘power’. This is how Foucault’s work becomes a critique of Marxism – nobody holds power; we hold it within our very sense of ourselves. (Foucault’s gayness was probably crucial here – later academics have studied this internalised homophobia in much depth.

It’s significant that Michel Foucault lived as a gay man in a dangerously homophobic time. Foucault was a playful, youthful character, but he was also at times very unhappy. He attempted suicide more than once. When faced with the medical establishment, Foucault was told that his illness was because of his homosexuality (not because he was required to live in a homophobic society). So Foucault had personal experience with the medicalisation of something which should never have been medicalised – his sexuality. He gave much thought to how people are surveilled, and even when no one is watching, we still feel watched and judged.

For excellent insight into how homophobia affects mental health, see the work of New Zealand’s Professor Michael Ross, whose research looks into sexual risk behaviour and mental health in gay and bisexual men across cultures and continents. Or perhaps listen to Professor Ross interviewed on Radio New Zealand.

Illustration by Fred Banbery for ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S GHOSTLY GALLERY (1962)
Illustration by Fred Banbery for ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S GHOSTLY GALLERY (1962)
From ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ 1966 Written by Elizabeth Rose Illustrated by Gerald Rose ( b. 1935) fish bowl
From ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ 1966 Written by Elizabeth Rose Illustrated by Gerald Rose ( b. 1935). The fishbowl is a common symbol of surveillance, as is a glass house.

Black Eyed Kids

Black-eyed kids are paranormal creatures from contemporary American culture. The stories began in the mid 1990s. They’re thought to be normal looking teenagers who wear hoodies. They’ll knock on your door asking for help. The story goes downhill from there. Their entire eyes are black. Some people think these stories come from drug-addicted young people, because of the dilated pupils experienced by drug users.

Green-eyed Monsters

The green-eyed monster is a line from Shakespeare’s Othello and no commonly means jealously personified. (Monsterfied?)

It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.

Noah and the Rainbow An Ancient Story, illustrated by Helga Aichinger, 1972 eyeline
Noah and the Rainbow An Ancient Story, illustrated by Helga Aichinger, 1972. There are tricks illustrators can use to show where a character is looking and not all of them look light they’ve come straight out of a comic book. This is one fine art example.
"The Green Eyed Monster' illustration by Anton Pieck from 'The Ring Of Seven' (1939)
“The Green Eyed Monster’ illustration by Anton Pieck from ‘The Ring Of Seven’ (1939)

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