12th February 2018

By Fergus McNeill

A paper that I’ve been tinkering around with for over a year has finally been published in Punishment and Society.

Mass supervision, misrecognition in the ‘Malopticon has been a labour of love as it draws on two encounters with a Scottish man referred to as ‘Teejay’ and discusses what I learned from him about the penal character of supervision.

Teejay is subject to life licence parole and has decades of experience of being supervised before, during and after imprisonment. We explored his experience first through photography and then through song-writing. The article includes discussion both of several of the pictures he took to represent his experience of supervision, and of the song we wrote together in Vox Liminis workshop, as part of this project:


Our song, Blankface, was inspired by other people’s images of supervision, and tells an intriguing story. Here’s what I say about it in the paper:

“On one of the walls, we had hung four pictures side by side. One pictured a digital clock at midnight: 0:00. Another showed a woman probation officer sitting at the far side of a desk, staring absently past the camera and, it might be assumed, towards an off-camera supervisee. A third image showed the closed sliding glass doors of a probation office. The fourth showed a children’s climbing frame and the shadows cast by it and by the two adults atop it.

zero hours

Teejay immediately connected these four images, crafting a story of supervision from them. Many of the themes found in his photographs recurred in this simple story: The clock signified the supervisee being required to start over yet again, without much hope of success. In the probation officer, Teejay thought he recognised the blank face of bureaucratic indifference; the kind of weary disinterest that would elicit, he expected, an equally weary and disinterested response from the supervisee. The failure of these two people to connect and engage would inevitably result in breach or revocation. Teejay saw the sliding doors as the entrance to the prison to which the supervisee would be returned. The climbing frame represented a spider’s web binding both the humans it confined: the (higher) supervisor and the (lower) supervisee. As he said to me: ‘The criminal justice system is like a spider’s web. The more you struggle, the more tightly it grips you’.”

You can hear a version of the song (as recorded by Louis Abbott, Tom Gibbs and Donna Maciocia) by clicking here. In fact, that link takes you to an EP of songs about supervision.

Co-writing Blankface inspired the idea of the ‘Malopticon’. Here’s how I explain the idea in the paper:

“In the Malopticon, penal subjects suffer not hyper- or super-visibility; rather, they suffer the pain of notbeing seen; at least not as they would recognise themselves. In Teejay’s imagination, Blankface sees him as just another supervisee; as just another bundle of risk factors; as just another prospective failure – and he sees her as just another penal apparatchik; just another time-serving pen pusher.  The Blankfaced officers of the Malopticon stare at the supervisee, but they do not see him or her at all; their gaze fails to individualise him or to discern him. But not only is the subject of the Malopticon seen badly; he is she is seen as bad. If that badness is no longer cast primarily in terms of moral disapprobation, then it is cast as the risk-based calculation that he or she is, above all else, a bad bet. Worse still, the Malopticon projects this dubious assessment – socially and temporally: ‘Tick says he’ll do it, again and again’. Merely by virtue of its insistence on supervising them, the Malopticon represents and projects its subjects as untrustworthy. So, while in its rhetoric it sometimes calls for their reintegration and re-entry, it simultaneously undermines confidence in their redeemability by perennially misrecognising and discrediting them. When they resist, the Malopticon uses this as ‘evidence’ to confirm the veracity of its constructions, tightening its grip on its subjects and projecting its reified misrepresentations more intently. Thus, the Malopticon insists upon the compulsory internalisation of misrecognition by its subjects and the outward (social) projection of their degradation (Garfinkel, 1956). In Teejay’s case, this projection is permanent and the degradation is indelible.”

The paper is now available for download;

McNeill, F. (2018) ‘Mass supervision, misrecognition and the Malopticon’, Punishment and Society, first published January 29, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1177/1462474518755137

An open access version can be found here: http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/154645/