WARNING: THIS IS A PRO-PANOPTICON ESSAY
When Zack Snyder set out to adapt the unadaptable, The Watchmen (2009), he was forced to make some structural compromises. Film has a hard time replicating the famous 3×3 grid of the graphic novel as written and designed by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins. Of course, some back story from the 12-issue comic series would need to be retrofitted, and he needed to update it with some current events. For the latter, he created a subplot about the reliance on fossil fuels and the promise of alternative energy. He imbedded this cultural-relevance point where it belonged – within the trope of unbridled capitalism as evil. In a scene with Lee Iacocca (Watchmen takes place in 1985) and other captains of industry, the superhero turned modern pharos, Ozymandias chastises a room of executives (the real life villains), “oil, coal, nuclear power are drugs and you gentleman are the pushers.” Ozy’s new business model is to solve the energy crisis using renewables (as solution and business model) so that nuclear war can be averted. Very 80s.
This is Sustainability sneaking into our Pop-Culture – one representation of the contemporary. We can also use the film to reflect a very real and possible promise of environmental apocalypse as ushered in by the Trump era. This is how we use Pop-Culture from any time to reflect Sustainability in modern time. This is how this works. It’s like putting an object in a box, and that box has mirrors on each inside wall. I’m tempted to note that this is also why Artists (and Art’s funding) are important since it is the Artists job to reflect culture back to us. Or, I could go full Zizek and stammer on about parallax. But I won’t in this essay. Suffice it to say, looking at the things that our culture produces says more about the culture than culture itself.
The film’s central storyline is a what-if scenario Moore designed to explore the layers of superherodom that he rightly felt was lacking in most comics and film adaptations. How would they interact with real life? They would be sad, goofy, crazy and flawed in turns out. And they would eventually be rounded up and put to work for the government, sent to asylums in Maine, and locked up in prison. Basically, they will be placed into spaces in our culture where they could be watched. Those that avoided the inevitable transcend the law. When the police won’t do their job, the remaining superheroes become vigilantes who step up, and things get messy. All this to create the moment where the line “Who watches the Watchmen?” has value. More than a clever turn of comic book phrase, it’s rooted in politics. In Latin, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? was quoted as an epigraph in the Tower Commission Report into the Iran-Contra scandal and many other places. Positively Foucaultian, it brings up an important concept in business sustainability – that all sustainability reporting is self-reporting. It’s a dirty secret. How can we trust authorless texts? There are guidelines, frameworks and “book” auditing, but it is all self-reporting. “Compliance” with environmental regulations is not Sustainability, but it is the cellar floor of Sustainability. And here is where we can make a connection to modern politics.
Obama never mandated corporate sustainability, but he upheld some rules, regulations and oversight via the Environmental Protection Agency. Trump, is gutting that agency as an impediment to growth. From a custodial perspective, these regulations provided limits and pressure for corporations to “do the right thing” and also to encourage their supply chains to do likewise. Without political levers, who will set the limits? With nothing to keep an eye on, not oversight is needed. This of course assumes they need to be watched. It assumes that “doing well by doing good” is not as prevalent a business strategy as it may seem.
In prison architecture, the architecture of the Panopticon allows for all inmates to be viewed by a single watchman. Geometrically the Panopticon acts like a circle. Think of the classic guard tower in the center of the prison yard. Nova Corps Prison, The Klyn, in Guardians of the Galaxy is based on this design, lest we think the concept has yet to break the seal of popular culture. Heck, even Batman refers to himself, in a sense, as a metaphorical Panopticon to criminals and corrupt cops. Arkham Prison uses this architecture to keep an eye on The Joker.
Who watches the watchmen? Indeed. Surveillance is control, and this is why it works. It is this assumption that drives compliance with prisonyard rules. Of course, it is impossible to always be watching every inmate, to be successful, the Panopticon need simply only provide the illusion of a voyeur. In his book by the same name, Christian Parenti, a professor in the Global Liberal Studies Program at New York University calls surveillance the “Soft Cage,” taking us from slavery to the War on Terror.
In supply chain sustainability, we see a failed system of surveillance in the form of on-line surveys, often an annual glance in the rearview mirror at the footprint of the supplier network – if that. It is surprising that there are so many organizations lending their acronyms to this seemingly archaic tool when the idea of a digital Panopticon is so readily available.
This failure of the most dominant survey framework today comes from a place of fetishism with data. I’ve had conversations with supply chain managers who do nothing (or worse – don’t know what to do) with the data they collect from their suppliers – but data is held up as a kind of sacred cow. This amounts to panty sniffing in my opinion. Surveys, in the way that sustainability practitioners commonly apply them, only serve the surveyor – the prison bull collecting information for their own analytics, awards or reporting requirements. This is not to say that partnering with supply chains doesn’t happen – but it is more rare than common, and it is unnecessarily laborious as currently practiced.
Classically, the Panopticon only works in a fear-discipline-punish relationship – an arrangement that is rarely (outside of a consenting sexual context) welcomed with open arms. When Walmart charges its suppliers $750 to comply with its annual supply chain survey, suppliers are being punished for the privilege to be (a) Submissive. But the idea of the Panopticon need not be Orwellian. It’s a circle and could be used as a piece of the circular economy. Think of a system where everybody is reporting all the time up and down the supply chain to the benefit of the entire system not the yardmaster. Supply chain engagement efforts fail to see the circle as an important shape – even as it would relate to the most intimate of surveillance techniques – give me your data. Call and response dialogues like Surveys travel along predictable (uninteresting) linear pathways. Fill this out and send it back. If better designed, there is no need for watchmen in the system.
What corporate supply chain manager hasn’t uttered the desire to build a better mousetrap with the qualities of “a mill for grinding rogues honest”? Ok, so that was Jeremy Bentham, social theorist and papa Panopticon from the late 18th century. But the intent of the corporate supply chain manager is, in fact, the same as the prison guard. Keep an eye on the bastards! In Watchmen, Rorschach is the grumpy voice of justice. When he is captured and locked in prison, he famously kicks the shit out of another prisoner and reminds everybody in his sinister voice “None of you seem to understand. I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with *ME*! ” His speech at the opening sets the tone (dark) for the movie, and for maybe where corporate sustainability is heading in the age of deregulation and top down supply chain box-checking.
Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen it’s true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”…
…and I’ll look down, and whisper “no.”
The Watchmen are old and tired throughout the movie. They have been fighting for a long time, and society still crumbles despite their sacrifices. I’ve seen this in real-life in the Sustainability conferences like Greenbiz and Sustainable Brands. Picture aged, super smart sustainability leaders sitting around, semi-retired, semi-active, semi-pissed at the lack of progress. But mostly tired of showing up and fighting alone, and forced to praise corporations as part of their consulting gigs that pay the bills between books. Tired of the bullshit and lip-service as progress.
Cradle to Cradle co-inventor Bill McDonough stands proud, arms crossed and wrapped in a cape, Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder Hunter Lovins in her cowboy costume, Middlebury College rock-star Bill McKibben is our Professor X, and Paul Hawken sits in a crumple of clothes. Hawken is our Rorschach. As he said at GreenBiz last year:
“Hope is the mask of fear. Fuck hope.”
Amen, Mr. Hawken, Fuck Hope indeed.