Exercise 4.2 – Foucault’s Theory of Panopticism

Facts taken from Foucault: Discipline and Punish (London, Penguin, 1977) with my own personal conclusion in the last paragraph.

Referring back to the great plague (17 century), the measures taken had to be carefully planned (down to the finest detail) and executed. Just as the leper gave rise to rituals of exclusion, the plague gave rise to disciplinary projects.

They have both helped to achieve political dreams:

  • Leper – the dream of the perfectly governed city.
  • Plague – the ideal exercise of disciplinary power.

These are different principles but are not incompatible. In the 19th century, authorities exercised individual control function according to this double mode, branding (is he mad / sane, dangerous / harmless, normal / abnormal) and coercive assignment (who is he, how he is to be recognised, what sort of surveillance does he require). These were the principles developed for prisons, schools, hospitals . This led to the development of Bentham’s panopticon. By observing an outer curve from a central source it is possible to observe every point on this curve, therefore if, for example, criminals were placed around this curve, they could all be observed by one man. This is similar to the principle used today in a hospital intensive care unit. The principle can also be applied to small theatres where each actor is alone but observed by all.

Each prisoner is separated from another which is the exact opposite of those Hogarthian pictures of the masses. Control is better assured. The crowd is abolished and replaced by collective individualism. This has different but always positive effect on schoolchildren, contagious hospital patients, prisoners, madmen.

Another important mechanism devised by Bentham was that power should be visible and unverifiable and by clever design details, the use of venetian blinds etc. this could be achieved, particularly in prisons.

The panopticon allows the user to draw up differences through observation, symptoms of each patient, performance of each child etc. It can also be used as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter behaviour, to teach different techniques or to carry out different punishments.

In each application it is possible to perfect the exercise of power. This is done mainly by reducing the number of people exercising it and increasing the number it is exercised upon. This power can be used to intensify production, so this brings the theory into the commercial world. So the panopticon can unlock mechanisms throughout the whole social body.

After Bentham, Julius stated that the panopticon led to much more than architectural ingenuity. “It was an event in the history of the human mind.” Through it a whole type of society emerges.

The modern age poses the opposite problem: “To procure for a small number or even for an individual the instantaneous view of a great multitude”. We all operate within the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism.

In today’s terms our single gaze is directed outwards, towards digital media in particular, we are using a reversal of the panopticon to take control of our own personal worlds. We are no longer part of the “oppressed masses” but the implication is that the power which we exert will change the world and this is being seen at the moment via the use of social media in particular. Press photographers no longer exist, politicians can no longer deceive, vital information can  no longer be with held. Ref, Donald Trump, WikiLeaks and the recent successful election campaign (on the ball) of the labour party.


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