Stilted Creation: The Internalized Panopticon and the Self-Perpetuation of Silence

It took me a long time to begin this blog. There was a point in my life where I did write without filter and for my friends, but when people stopped reading, I stopped writing in that capacity. That’s when I most began to rely on journaling. Looking back on those journals has been a recent endeavor, and it has been surprisingly fruitful. I can analyze myself with the understanding and distance I have now. But aside from that—those journals were spaces of creation that I have since abandoned in many ways.

I still journal, but infrequently, and reservedly.

I found it fascinating how I wrote with such freedom in those days. There will be pages of me writing about the pain and shame, and then almost immediately, it will become something different—without jotting down a date or indicating any other sort of emotional shift, I’ll be dissecting lyrics, gleefully raving about an impressive classmate while every now and then commenting on a bit of music. I can imagine my 17 year-old self on the bus with her iPod playing, allowing her diary to absorb the product of competing strains of thought vying for attention. (Incidentally–George Saunders’ “Victory Lap” is an excellent piece that I think so closely manages to capture the true mayhem of inner monologues).

At some point, a paranoia set in. That fear of surveillance came back and I was certain even my journal’s writing would come back to haunt me, be used as evidence in some impending shame tribunal. Luckily, I had begun forming circles of support having started somewhat anew at university, and thus relied less on writing anyway. But even as I vented my anxieties to friends, I occupied spaces with the proverbial look over the shoulder.

It began with being convinced my journals would be read, escalated into thinking that that person who I’ve come to realize was abusive could read my mind (and s/he had a disarming way of making it seem like s/he could), until it did become me being terrified of being overheard in any public space. But to what end? In many ways, it didn’t necessarily prevent me from doing what I set my mind to. I still went to shows, hung out with my guy friends at night, read, watched and listened to whatever I wanted. I just did it fearfully.

Where a fear of surveillance did make a difference was in creation. Consumption is one thing—it can be done in private, it can be hidden, and if one were to seek it out, they would need to know where and how to look. Creation is somewhat different. Creation requires the creator to put herself out there, put her work out there, and if necessary, put her name to it. And that fear was only one of a myriad of all-consuming fears. There was the fear of failure, hardwired into me since I so miserably disappointed everyone in high school and they made sure to tell me as much. There was a fear of accountability, where I imagined myself being called center-stage to justify my politics to unsympathetic ears.

So I look at my journals today, and there are sometimes periods of unbounded creation. But for the most part, there is an insecurity permeated through even this wholly private space—a clear restraint, projects begun and abandoned when they required too much of an emotional commitment. I began writing as if someone was reading, as if someone was judging the narrative I was forming, criticizing my writing style, word choice, analysis.

Even now as I write this, my heart aches with my reliance on clichés—knowing that I speak to the problems of not engaging the writing-as-process ethos of a writer. This incapacitating self-awareness is useless if not used to better one’s writing. It does not have an effect insomuch as pushing me to create new conceits; instead, it simply makes me go, “This is all you are capable of.”

And is that not the goal of Bentham’s Panopticon that Michel Foucault speaks of in Discipline & Punish–the prison so structured that prisoners could never be certain whether or not they were being watched from the all-seeing panoptic structure and thus behaved as if they were always being watched? Isn’t that what Edward Snowden says is the greatest problem in NSA spying? That it alters human behavior by instilling the fear of being surveilled? In my case—I know I am not being watched and yet have altered my behavior somewhat as if I am. I wish I could extend this further to create a systemic critique, but if I am honest, I will say this fear is rooted almost entirely in the abusive aspects of my upbringing. It most certainly was exacerbated by the panoptic nature of the surveillance arm of my religious community and the institutional racism in post 9/11 politics, but those structures would not have had as strong an impact were I not a vulnerable subject to begin with.

But that is where this blog comes in, and I am excited by that. This blog challenges me to engage with that fear and call it out for what it is, and in that process something is created and interventions begin to be made.

I will end this with some of the people and pieces of art that have stuck with me these past few weeks and pushed me to begin this project in the first place.

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah features a character named Ifemelu who starts a blog. Adiche’s writing is beautiful, whereas Ifemelu’s has the imperfections of someone venturing into the foray and developing her craft. This juxtaposition and the beauty and value in both types of writing placates somewhat my own inhibitions about my writing.
  • of Montreal’s Clayton Rychlik asked me if I wrote songs in such a genuine manner that for a moment, I believed I could.
  • of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes rejects the idea that all songs on records need to be hits, and discusses the value in creating ugly art. There’s a broader context and a deeper examination of the psyche that such artistic endeavors can speak to, which I think can be said for weaker vs. stronger written pieces as well.
  • I told my therapist about my fear of writing about things I was not an expert in. She said that an examination of my life and my traumas was something I was an expert in. And she’s right–what would give someone else more credibility about this?
  • Anaïs Nin’s diaries are inspiring examples of how powerful an art form journal writing can be.
  • And, of course, best friend who pushed me to start blogging to begin with.
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