Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Panopticism can be loosely defined as a form of social control through institutions and institutional power. The theory was developed by Michael Foucault (1926-1984), one of the most important post-structuralist philosophers of the 20th century and author of many texts; these include Madness and Civilisation, in which amongst other topics he discusses how madness is not always a recognisable condition, and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, which looks at the structures of prisons and forms of punishment. Foucault worked to deconstruct many of society's strict binaries, such as sane/insane, good/bad and heterosexual/homosexual.

In the Middle Ages, there was no strict conception of madness. 'Mad' people were generally tolerated by society, and often thought of endearingly as a 'happy fool' or the 'village idiot'. This approach began to change in the late 1600s, when a new sensibility and attitude to work and social value emerged. There rose a general anxiety over people who had been stigmatised as 'socially useless' - they began to be perceived as a problem for society and its development.

As a result 'houses of correction' were constructed in an attempt to curb unemployment and idleness. These sorts of institutions included factories and prisons. Mad people, criminals, drunkards, vagabonds, the diseased and single mothers were the sorts of people that were sent to these institutions and made to work, or else face physical beatings, with the ultimate goal of making the unproductive productive.

This was until the 18th century, when houses of correction began to be seen as a mistake, as deviants would often corrupt each other further as they were all within such close proximity. And so there emerged specialist institutions, such as prisons, hospitals and asylums.

In asylums, instead of physical violence more subtle techniques were used against those thought to be mentally unsound. Inmates were treated like children and minors; if they behaved sane, they were celebrated and rewarded. If not then they were chastised.

In the premodern era, control was expressed through physical violence. At the dawn of the modern era, control became more specialised and focussed on the mental aspects; they weren't just punishing, but correcting and modifying attitudes.

There emerged new forms of specialised institutional knowledge, such as psychology and psychiatry, and experts within these fields that explained and legitimised actions. Doctors now gained a high social status.
Specialists became more interested in learning to internalise our responsibility and take responsibility for conformity.

The pre-modern aim of punishment was to be as grisly and spectacular as possible; a highly visible sign of the state's power over you, and a reminder not to test it. These forms of punishment included devices such as the pillory or stocks, the purposes of which were to be as publicly humiliating as possible in an effort to deter other criminals, and also complex forms of horrific torture. A particularly horrific example was the punishment of Guy Fawkes: "That you be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being alive cut down, your privy members shall be cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four quarters to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure.”

The modern era sought surveillance and control of our behaviour to create a new form of disciplinary society and power. "Discipline is a ‘technology’ [aimed at] ‘how to keep someone under surveillance, how to control his conduct, his behaviour, his aptitudes, how to improve his performance, multiply his capacities, how to put him where he is most useful: that is discipline in my sense’ (Foucault,1981 in O’Farrrell 2005:102)" Modern discipline's aim is to make us more useful.

Panopticism itself is named after Jeremy Bentham's proposed design for the 'Panopticon' in 1791. The Panopticon was a structure designed as a generic and multifunctional institution; most were asylums and prisons.

The building is generally circular; on the periphery are cells or walls for individuals to be placed and in the centre is an observational tower where the supervisor/doctor/psychiatrist/prison guard would be. It was designed as the 'perfect institution'. The inmates can't see each other as they are separated by walls; all they are aware of is the constant presence of their supervisors. Philosophically and practically this is the opposite of a dungeon, where the idea was to lock people away and forget about them. In the Panopticon everything is very light and on display; inmates are objects of scrutiny and study, an institutional 'gaze'.  

The idea behind this structure was that because you are constantly reminded you're being supervised, ultimately you never behave in a way your supervisors wouldn't want you to. What's the point in misbehaving when you're going to be spotted? Also as the inmates are isolated, they are unable to conspire with fellow inmates and gauge their responses. The panopticon internalises in the individual the conscious state that he is always being watched. It is a form of psychological torture.

There are numerous benefits to this form of control: Power functions automatically as the inmates are always aware of their scrutiny, therefore the inmates are always controlled. The outcome is that they begin to take control and responsibility of themselves. Sometimes, it is unclear whether or not they are even being watched, which adds to the anxiety (for example if the interior of the central chamber has no way of being seen from the outside), so effectively staff aren't even needed to manage it.  "hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visiblity that assures the automatic functioning of power" (foucault, 1975)

The Panopticon structure allows supervisors to experiment on subjects and with the aim of making them more productive, reforms prisoners, helps treat patients, helps instructs schoolchildren, helps confine but also study the insane, helps supervise workers, and helps put beggars and idlers to work.

 So there was a transformation in Western societies from a form of power imposed by a 'ruler' or 'sovereign' to a new mode of power called Panopticism.

The building is an allegory for how modern society is controlled and how it organises its knowledge, its power, its surveillance of bodies and its training of bodies. It is apparent in many forms of society, for example the patriarchal gaze: women are subconsciously influenced to act up to the male social definition of 'femininity', similarly to how inmates of the Panopticon act up to the gaze of the institution; you behave in a way you think that place wants you to be behave without being forced.

Modern examples that we wouldn't think twice about include:
- the open office structure, which encourages a shared experience of working whilst under constant scrutiny by the 'boss'. This is played upon in the TV mockumentary The Office.
- open plan bars where everything is visible to the staff, compared to the 'snugs' you find in pubs, as compared below.

- Google Maps - the fact that it is possible to find your own street and house on this utility reinforces the idea that anytime, anywhere, you are probably being watched in some form, whether by man or machine.

We live in a surveillanced society; we are constantly being recorded. This works panoptically to subconsciously alter our behaviour.

- lecture halls - you have no personal power, but are willingly acting submissive to your tutors.

This disciplinary society produces what Foucault calls 'docile bodies' - self monitoring, self correcting, obedient bodies. This is all a mental effect and process; it is not based on physical coercion, but it does have a physical effect. It makes us train ourselves to become better and more productive.

"Power relations have an immediate hold upon it [the body]; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs" (Foucault 1975)

And this isn't only in the professional sense. Our leisurely activities are also up for public scrutiny, whether that is in a gym, on a website, a leaderboard, etc. "That the techniques of discipline and ‘gentle punishment’ have crossed the threshold from work to play shows how pervasive they have become within modern western societies” (Danaher, Schirato & Webb 2000)

We are surrounded by images of what we 'should' be like, which further drives this idea of self-discipline as we feel guilty if we are 'wrong'. An extreme example would be the Nazi Degenerate Art Exhibition in 1937, which was designed to promote the idea that modernism was wrong and the artists involved 'hated German decency'. The crass presentation of 650 artworks was staged to contrast the simultaneously running Great German Art exhibition, where the art, advocated by the Nazi regime, was more classical and 'racially pure', all in an effort to encourage Nazi ideals. 

Foucault describes the notion of power as not being something someone 'has' over someone else, as is or was thought to exist between men and women or teachers and students. Instead it is a relationship between people and groups, and it only exists when it's being exercised.

This only works when people willingly become controlled and enter the relationship as submissive, for example some women act up to the male ideal of femininity 'willingly'.

The exercise of power relies on there being the capacity for power to be resisted; where there is power there is resistance: one is oppressed only because one lets themselves be oppressed. 


An easy way to see Panopticism at work in modern society is on the all-pervasive social network. On Facebook, all information is tracked and under scrutiny, therefore people act differently; they tend to 'put on a performance' which encourages a self-imposed ideal and identity that is often quite different from reality.


I will write in further detail about examples of Panopticism found in films, games and animation in another post.

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