The panopticon centralizes the space of the observer while simultaneously mystifying the act of observation, such that the threat may be ever-present even if an actual prison guard is not. In the same way, Foucault's conception of the societal panopticon imposes its standards on the individual, who must conform to the standards of society due to a fear of the possibility of discovery and punishment. According to Foucault, "the Panopticon is a privileged place for experiments on men, and for analyzing with complete certainty the transformations that may be obtained from them" (Foucault 204). The space the narrator finds himself in at the beginning of The Unnamable functions in this same way, except that in this case the object of the panopticon's gaze has not undergone the process of subjectification prior to finding itself there.
The narrator simply exists upon the reading of the novel, and is subsequently unable to undergo the process of subjectification over the course of the novel because he has already been locked into place as the void of humanity constrained by a society that has so totally permeated everything that it need not ever reveal itself. In a normal formulation of subjecthood (as discussed in psychoanalytic terms), "the parental gaze both assures the infant of its subjective existence and threatens to stare it into submission by its stern surveillance," but in this case, the narrator experiences the stern surveillance without the subjecting gaze (Moorjani 44). This is why the only character to ever be 'seen' in the novel is the narrator; just as the prison panopticon gains its power from the assumption of power given to it by the prisoner, so too does the panopticonic society implied by the novel gain its power by the narrator's own enactment of it through his narration. Thus, the narrator's attempt at subjectification by uttering "I say I" fails because there actually is no Other for him to orient his 'I' against, or put another way, there is no one or no thing to call the narrator 'you.' This fact is integral to any understanding of The Unnamable, because it informs the entirety of the subsequent narration, as the narrator attempts again and again to establish a subject for himself, first by inventing additional identities and then by attempting to obtain the role of author by alluding to Beckett's previous works. Thus, having established the necessary critical tools and demonstrating their overarching importance to this analysis of The Unnamable, it will be possible to examine the novel in greater detail to see how this dynamic plays out to its tragic end.
Before considering the narrator's various attempts to establish an identity for himself, it will be useful to address the framework in which these attempts are made. The narrator of The Unnamable is an undercover agent who has a secret, and keeps that secret from reader and his supposed interrogators throughout the novel. The existence of such an undercover character like this is not a new subject in Beckett's work, because there have been a number of such characters before. For instance Knott, Watt and Moran in Beckett's earlier novels can all be seen to embody this characterization. However, the narrator in The Unnamable embodies this trope to its extreme, as he engages the conventions of the secret agent genre, and in doing so uses suspense, tension and excitement as a means of simultaneously engaging his interrogators (and readers) while confounding their questions and interests. He repetitively employs the tropes of investigation, whodunit, mind games, confinement and death traps and by putting himself in the role of an anonymous agent under the torture, he implicitly describes the Foucaultian panopticon.
In his description and comments regarding the Secret Agent Society, the narrator echoes the Foucaultian model of panopticon by describing the harsh surveillance operations and intelligent code cracking systems which are utilized to control the narrator's behavior. This is revealed when the narrator describes the nature of his surveillance, which closely mirrors the constituent relationship which makes a panopticon work. He notes that "perhaps they are watching me from afar, I have no objection, as long as I don't see them, watching me like a face in the embers which they know is doomed to crumble" (Beckett 301). The narrator describes an awareness of ever-present but only occasionally recognized surveillance, such that the possibility of surveillance supplants the actuality of surveillance as the means of control. Even his description of his secret agent training reveals this connection, as he notes that:
They gave me courses on love, on intelligence most precious, most precious. They also taught me to count, and even to reason. Some of this rubbish has come in handy on occasions, I don't deny it, on occasions which would never have arisen if they had left me in peace (Beckett 293).
Thus, even his secret agent back-story and the abilities he gained from it only serve to reinforce the power of the panopticon, because they are only useful within the framework of that society, such that the little knowledge and agency the narrator has actually serve to reinforce his impotency. In this way, the narrator confirms Foucault's idea that in the modern and postmodern word, people no longer need actual humiliation, torture, or surveillance by visible authorities in order to create socially disciplined bodies. However, the narrator continually attempts to escape from this control in the only way possible for a subjectless consciousness; he fakes it, or otherwise appropriates the agency of others in place of his own lack.
Before examining the narrator's attempts to establish an identity for himself, it is important to note how he is able to conduct these attempts, reliant as they are upon a kind of intertextuality available to the narrator role in general but constrained in the case of this particular narrator. The narrator of The Unnamable intermittently shifts back and forth between the position of (pseudo-) subject and object, author and narrator, narrator and character, the voice of 'I' and the voice of other, named characters, and finally between the position of investigator and investigated. In reality, however, he is none of them, and instead exists in a state of constant flux, a liminal entity only ever on the verge of existence.
In his final words the narrator addresses this liminal nature, and locates himself as somewhere suspended at the threshold of narrative embodiment by wondering if his words (or the words of another of which he is only a part):
"…have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on"(Beckett 407).
With no event to mark a transition to subjecthood, time has no meaning for the narrator such that he is always already on the threshold of all times, so that the end of his story leads him to the beginning. Even this hope of silence, following an entire novel's worth of nonstop speech, is illusory, as the conclusion of the story only bears him to its beginning, such that his admission that he will "never know" nonetheless leads back to the questions which began the novel.
Furthermore, one may recall the conflation of time and space at the beginning of the novel, with the questions "Where now?" And "When now?" so that the narrator's temporally liminal quality extends to a special liminality. The narrator remarks that "I'm neither one side nor the other, I'm in the middle, I'm the partition, I've two surfaces and no thickness, perhaps that's what I feel my self vibrating," and he calls himself "the tympanum," considering himself somewhere between "on the one hand the mind, on the other hand the world," but ultimately belonging to neither (Beckett 376). Thus, "as we have learnt from Derrida's paradoxes, the threshold (the tympanum) is where negation and affirmation meet and coexist" so that the narrator is never able to fully realize himself nor does he ever fully disappear (Nojoumian 391).
According to Suzie Gibson, this liminal existence embodies what Maurice Blanchot calls "the neutral," that is, "a resilient yet variable horizon point that allows all forms of expression and endeavour to begin and end," acting "as an endless spindle that unfurls and overturns creation," and in this case, it infinitely unfurls by looping back on itself (Gibson 297). This fact, and the quest which results from it, is best summed up by Philip Solomon, when he describes the "mental space" of Beckett's protagonists, noting that "ever since Beckett's first novel, Murphy, whose now famous Sixth Chapter depicted the topography of the mind, the heroes of Beckett's novels have been aware that the essential self is aspatial," something that becomes especially relevant when considering…