Panopticism, Old Power Regime

Michel Foucault. Disciple and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977)

The panopticon is machine for surveillance; it allows one to totally see without ever being seen. Regularly used in prisons, this apparatus “induces in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (201). However, this apparatus is not solely restricted to the prison, but has found use in hospitals, schools, and military training. From Foucault, the panopticon, “reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions—to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide—it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two” (200). Thus imposing visibility as a trap by allowing one to always be the object of information, but never a subject of communication.  “All this is needed is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy” (200). In the observer’s periphery is a multitude of cages, like small theaters, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized, and constantly visible. The objective can vary, but it purposes to “reform prisons, but also to treat patients, instruct school children, confine the insane, supervise workers, and to put beggars and idlers to work” (205).

In the chapter on the Panopticism, Foucault offers two examples of power: First, in a plague city  (“the old order”) at the end of seventeenth century and Second, in Bentham’s panopticon:

I.     To prevent spread of the plague , the city mentioned is under strict control. Specifically,  the town and outlying districts are closed and movement is greatly restricted and any movement this is not authorized will result in the punishment of death. The city is divided into districts, each of which is under the control of an Intendant. Each street is placed under the authority of a syndic, who keeps surveillance, if he leaves he will be condemned to death. Those living in the towns are locked inside their houses by the syndic and must surrender their keys over to the intendant. Each family is responsible for making its own provisions, but some provisions of bread and win are allowed to be gathered from small wooden canals, but communication with suppliers is absent. Meat, fish, and herbs are hoisted up into the houses with pulleys and baskets. The only substantial movement is among the syndic, intendants, and guards. To a lesser degree, crows (those who carry dead bodies and other vile tasks) are allowed to move. That is to say, “Each individual is fixed in his place. And if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion, or punishment” (195). A militia, commanded by “good officers and men of substance” along with the guards, present in each quarter, ensure the prompt obedience of the people to the absolute authority of the magistrate. At each town gate, there is an observation post and sentinels. Intendants monitor syndics and question the inhabitants if they have gripe. The syndic ventures to each house, every day, calls roll and commands each person to offer the status of their condition; if a person lies, the punishment is death. Over this whole hierarchy, is a mayor who functions as magistrate. Occurring also, are inspections, record keeping, and surveillance; this includes monitoring of deaths, illness, complaints, and irregularities. “The plague is met by order; its function is to sort out every possible confusion: that of the disease, which is transmitted when bodies are mixed together; that of the evil, which is increased when fear and death overcome prohibitions” (197).

II.     In Bentham’s panopticon, power has a dual function: to be visible and unverifiable. Being “visible: in inmate will constantly have before his eyes the outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon” (201). Being “unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so” (201). In the prison, each actor is alone, perfectly individuated and constantly visible.

In the old order, power could only grow at the expense of society. Power immobilizes, but it creates new techniques that are very strict, controlled, and meticulous. Power also exists within a hierarchy that is constantly checking the level under it and so on, until the apex is reached.

In Bentham’s model, power is no longer vested in a person, such as with the plague city, but in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, and gazes, and arrangements whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up. In the plague city, several actors were needed to enforce the separation and isolation, but in the panopticon, only one person is required, given proper infrastructures are in place. The panopticon reinforces the feeling of being constantly watched, even if you are not; and therefore it is incredibly difficult to have solitude. This model creates an incredible improvement to efficiency compared to the old order. Specifically, being able to replace at least five levels of hierarchy with one person. Further, the panopticon increases efficiency in training, that is to say, turning a multitude into a multiplicity, more efficiently than the old order. Whereas power in the old order immobilizes, in the panopticon, power spurs activity and keeps things going. The positive power, that is power that drives us to be successful and upwardly mobile, is maximized. Positive power instigates you to move, and to keep moving.

Instead of being static and trapped, the panopticon spurs you to correct your behavior to be in compliance with the norm. Those outside what is determined to be the norm are trained or disciplined to meet normal standards. This technique leads individuals into aggressive docility, increasing the efficiency of order and training as such used in industrious tasks, spreading knowledge, or military drill. In the old order, power is reinforced by hierarchy, monitoring, constant documenting, and fixed-routine. In panopticon, power automatically functions.

One thought on “Panopticism, Old Power Regime

  1. “Whereas power in the old order immobilizes, in the panopticon, power spurs activity and keeps things going. The positive power, that is power that drives us to be successful and upwardly mobile, is maximized. Positive power instigates you to move, and to keep moving.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head here. Foucault thought that power didn’t have to be inherently negative and could in fact be positive. It is arguable whether feeling subjected to act according to a certain norm is good or not – in principle, that is – but in practice, acting according to certain norms that make you a more diligent student, for instance, is positive for the individual and society as well for the direct benefactors of the arrangement.

    Liked by 1 person

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