Friday, December 7, 2012


the panopticon prison

big brother is watching

One of the more interesting concepts in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment is the panopticon.  Panopticism is an idea taken from Jeremy Bentham, who conceptualized a prison where all the inmates could be viewed by a guard at the same time, without the ability to know when or if they were being watched.  For Bentham this would exemplify the ability for people to overpower and keep control over others in a modern society (Crimmins 1994).  The idea of the power inherent in the ability to watch others, and the psychological effect of knowing that at any time you could be being observed, which changes how people act; “anxious awareness of being observed”.  (Foucault 2008:7)  Foucault expanded on Bentham’s original theory, particularly considering the boom in observational technologies like surveillance cameras and phone taps.  Foucault sees how the idea of the panopticon can be extended beyond controlling inmates, to governments controlling the public.  In 1984 Orwell also used this idea, with the Big Brother government maintaining control over their citizens through the fear of being observed doing something against the government and being punished as a result.  Foucault saw the panopticon as symbolic of modern government as a whole (Foucault 2008).   In his discussion, Foucault talks about the development of panopticism in the west, focusing on the historical example of the plague in Europe.  During the plague governments were able to legitimately wield a great deal of control over the regulation of its peoples, all in the name of the greater good (incidentally Bentham was a famous father of utilitarianism and of the saying, the greatest good for the greatest number).  Foucault analyzed if the plague really needed to be real, or if just the threat of a plague would be enough to justify creating a panoptic society (Foucault 2008:4).  Power, as always for Foucault, is crucial to this understanding of the function of government, and the panopticon really brings together all of the ideas Foucault was working towards in his works.  The whole point of discourse is the ability to regulate and discipline without chains, “panoptic institutions could be so light: there were no more bars, no more chains, no more heavy locks”(Foucault 2008:8)  The ability to see without being seen, as power or domination, and the knowledge that one could be at any time observed as subjection.  Foucault makes a connection between the panopticon and the social sciences, where the panopticon is a laboratory where,
“it possible to draw up differences: among patients, to observe the symptoms of each individual, without the proximity of beds, the circulation of miasmas, the effects of contagion confusing the clinical tables; among  schoolchildren, it makes it possible to observe performances (without there being any imitation or copying), to map aptitudes, to assess characters, to draw up rigorous classifications, and, in relation to normal development, to distinguish 'laziness and stubbornness' from 'incurable imbecility'; among workers, it makes it possible to note the aptitudes of each worker, com pare the time he takes to perform a task, and if they are paid by the day, to calculate their wages.” (Foucault 2008:8-9) 
For Foucault the panopticon is the ultimate tool of the social scientist, the ability to observe people without being observed oneself.  The panopticon functions as a “laboratory of power… a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men.”  (Foucault 2008:9 -10)

While Foucault himself did not discuss modern panopticism at length, in our post 9/11 society it has become an incredibly complex and significant issue.  Proponents of the increase in security and use of observational technology and methods by the US government cite the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the omnipresent danger of attack as the rational for why we need the observation to prevent future attacks.  The argument has continued to include more mundane crimes, like theft or mugging, to help the police force’s ability to protect the public.  Cities like New York and London has cameras all over the place, in order to provide the police with the ability to be everywhere at once without having expensive massive forces.  Critics of this development however stress that it vastly increases the power of the government and invades the privacy of innocent people.  They point to things like red light cameras (which anyone on long island would agree have become widespread lately) and to the wiretapping scandal of the Bush administration, as examples of government overstepping their power and infringing on the rights of the American people.  They fear that these developments will lead to a more authoritarian and restrictive government, where people live in fear of disobeying their political leaders.  Shows like LOST have functioned as allegories for Bentham and Foucault’s panopticon, as has the incredible rise of “reality television” like Survivor or even HBO’s taxicab confessions.  Nothing has proven to be more exemplary of the panopticon than the internet and popularity of cellular phones, where at any time anything we do can be recorded and displayed for all to see.  In that way, perhaps the internet is a popular panopticon, where anyone can be watching anyone else, but that is a topic for another day.            

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