Right or Righteous: Looking at conscience as a panoptic apparatus

The lens- as a panoptic gaze- is literally above the humans in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, but its powers are also unlike that of the humans in the movie. For instance, the ability of the gaze to seamlessly, and silently move in and out of rooms- without having to knock on doors, or open doors, or creak on floorboards- has a deep metaphorical significance for the way the panoptic view does not operate through the physical body of a single individual , but through a complex structure that transcends what one individual is humanly capable of doing.

In contrast, after the scene where Mother sister sits at the window and tells Mookie to “remember…Mother Sister sees everything”, the camera abruptly cuts into the next scene with Mookie entering Sal’s pizza. Though she speaks of having a panoptic presence on the community, the reality of her stasis says otherwise.


She might be sitting at the same level that the lens might be looking down from, but she does not have the same mobility (as the lens) to pan the area, and move in and out of people’s rooms, and intimate moments.


“Discipline ‘makes’ individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards inpiduals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise. It is not a triumphant power…it is a modest, suspicious power, which functions as a calculated, but permanent economy.”
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

The panoptic gaze is everywhere. In Lee’s Do The Right Thing, it’s even in Tina’s fridge when Mookie goes to get some ice. Mother sister cannot be in a fridge- she is unable to compete. For a thing to be so omniscient it has to operate like a kind of transparent seal; you only notice it when you need to poke the straw into the cup, or out of the cup. It’s akin to what people call glass ceiling because you don’t really see it till you start thinking you can go up another flight of stairs. You can’t. There have to equipment and apparatus that make its affect in our lives silent, and seamless- almost making us feel like they were never involved in our decision making process. This is where the idea of conscience as a neutral, objective moral compass strikes me- quite hardly.

“One way of describing its development is to see its starting point in the eighteenth-century notion that human beings are endowed with a moral sense, an intuitive feeling for what is right and wrong. The original point of this doctrine was to combat a rival view, that knowing right and wrong was a matter of calculating consequences, in particular, those concerned with pine reward and punishment. The idea was that understanding right and wrong was not a matter of dry calculation, but was anchored in our feelings. Morality has, in a sense, a voice within.” Charles Taylor- The Politics of misrecognition

The idea of conscience is popular in many religious (and some unreligious) circles for being an inherently built moral compass that was inbuilt into humanity. It’s made to seem as a singular unifier of all humanity- which make sit easier to understand why people use phrases like “restore humanity.” I’ve always been curious as to what it is that we are restoring; what do we perceive as the core/crux of humanity such that when we deviate away from it, we are becoming less human. Also, does that mean that our conscience is the optimum signifier of humanity such that we can never be better than our conscience. There are interesting stories in the bible where kings and prophets lost sight of the Lord; specifically, there was one king who was said to have stopped receiving counsel from the Holy Ghost and then demons entered his mind. Till this day, I’m always confused about the order of things: Was it that demons entered his head because he lost the counsel of the Holy Spirit, or was it that demons now found space to enter him after the Holy spirit stopped giving him counsel?

But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the Lord troubled him (1 Samuel 16:14).

I’m sure we are not all avid bible readers here but I raise this point because in the Christian history, the Holy Spirit is supposed to be that conscience- the Holy Spirit is supposed to be the voice in your head that you listen to. Which is such a tragic ideology to trap people into especially for those people raised in Christian families. Imagine if a family calls themselves Christians but still imbibe some harmful values, the child grows up being unable to separate these family values from Christian values that the family claim to uphold- and there we have a conflict because we have a person who is unwilling to imagine a different way of thinking for fear that whatever is different, does not align with the voice in her head. She doesn’t want demons to take over her mind. She wants to stay favored. She wants to go to heaven.

“A real subjection is born mechanically from a fictitious relation […] He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribed in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Thinking about ideological apparatus and religion is probably one of the most complex things I do. Especially when religion, as a panopticon, influences your every thought and your every movement, people are more likely to justify whatever shortcomings, discomfort and pain they feel by verses that justify those pains as necessary parts of being religious. This is not to say that makes religion a lesser way to live life, but thinking of oneself as a pencil in the hand of a creator, makes it harder to distinguish manifest destiny from man-made injustices. The Biblical message of embracing suffering has been used to gloss over the suffering that has been intentionally caused by decades of racial and gender oppression. I am one person that believes struggle, greatly identifies my being. But: There is the struggle that happens when I fall sick on the day of my job interview, and there’s the struggle that has been imposed by a racist and sexist institution that expects me to wear a weave if I want to get that job. Though both situations put me in a place of discomfort, I should be able to analyze them and distinguish them for what they are.


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