I recently read an excerpt from Michel Foucault’s “Panopticism” in the class “Perspectives on Gender” with Professor Marcus, and upon finishing Part 2 of Go Tell It on the Mountain, I could not help but be reminded of Foucault’s work, specifically the parallels between what he names as “The Panopticon” and the role of religion in the lives of John and his family members. Foucault defines The Panopticon in the context of the carceral system, inspired Jeremy Bentham’s idea for prison reform where the cells circle around a central guard tower, The Panopticon (like the image above). Because they each face inward towards the tower, The Panopticon represents the constant possibility of surveillance, so much so that there not even need be a person inside as long as the people in the prison have internalized this belief (fear) that they are constantly being watched. There is no escape from this incessant monitoring, real or imagined, and risk of punishment that follows should they be caught doing the “wrong” thing. Given the seemingly narrow scope of The Panopticon in Foucault’s writing, I asked: what might The Panopticon look like in other settings?
I think Go Tell It on the Mountain offers one possible answer to this question. I would argue that religion functions as some sort of Panopticon-like force in John’s life. One moment where this idea is especially evident is when John visits the movie theater when “having once decided to enter, he did not look back at the street again for fear that one of the saints might be passing and, seeing him, might cry out his name and lay hand son him to drag him back” (Baldwin 37). John very clearly worries that a member of his church will see him committing this sin and become someone who can testify against him before the Lord come judgment time. In other words, John feels that there is no reprieve from God’s watchful eyes. Another similar example of this idea is when the mass attendees recite “My soul is a witness for my Lord,” and in this instance, John experiences “an awful silence… a dreadful weight, a dreadful speculation… and this weight began to move at the bottom of John’s mind, in a silence like the silence of the void before creation, and he began to feel a terror he had never felt before” (Baldwin 76). I understand John’s visceral reaction to this religious expression to speak to the fear that arises from the exact internalized perception of constant surveillance that is the basis for The Panopticon. For John, by way of others or himself, there is no escaping God’s sight nor this world of binaries– good and evil, white and black– he sees as intrinsically connected to and enforced by his religion.