Foucault and the Panopticon

Posted by Ali Reda | Posted in | Posted on 11/06/2014

The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

This principle was at the heart of British philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century conception of the Panopticon, a building design he believed would allow institutions to effectively control human behavior. The building’s structure was to be used, in his words, for “any sort of establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection.” The Panopticon’s primary architectural innovation was a large central tower from which every room—or cell, or classroom, or ward—could be monitored at any time by guards. The inhabitants, however, were not able to see into the tower and so could never know whether they were or were not being watched.

Since the institution—any institution—was not capable of observing all of the people all of the time, Bentham’s solution was to create “the apparent omnipresence of the inspector” in the minds of the inhabitants. “The persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so.” They would thus act as if they were always being watched, even if they weren’t. The result would be compliance, obedience, and conformity with expectations. Bentham envisioned that his creation would spread far beyond prisons and mental hospitals to all societal institutions. Inculcating in the minds of citizens that they might always be monitored would, he understood, revolutionize human behavior.

In the 1970s, Michel Foucault observed that the principle of Bentham’s Panopticon was one of the foundational mechanisms of the modern state. In Power, he wrote that Panopticonism is “a type of power that is applied to individuals in the form of continuous individual supervision, in the form of control, punishment, and compensation, and in the form of correction, that is, the moulding and transformation of individuals in terms of certain norms.”

Foucault has suggested that the geometry and discipline of the Panopticon can serve as the core of the new methods of disciplinary power. Political order was to be achieved not through the intermittent use of coercion but through continuous instruction, inspection, and control. Power is usually imagined as an exterior restriction: its source is a sovereign authority above and outside society, and it operates by setting limits to behaviour, establishing negative prohibitions, and laying down channels of proper conduct. Disciplinary power, by contrast, works not from the outside but from within, not at the level of an entire society but at the level of detail, and not by restricting individuals and their actions but by producing them. Individuals choose on their own to comply, out of fear that they are being watched. That eliminates the need for all the visible hallmarks of compulsion, and thus enables control over people who falsely believe themselves to be free.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault explained that ubiquitous surveillance not only empowers authorities and compels compliance but also induces individuals to internalize their watchers. Those who believe they are watched will instinctively choose to do that which is wanted of them without even realizing that they are being controlled—the Panopticon induces “in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” With the control internalized, the overt evidence of repression disappears because it is no longer necessary: “the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to be non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound and permanent are its effects: it is a profound victory that avoids any physical confrontation and which is always decided in advance.”

These methods produce the organised power of armies, schools, and factories, and other distinctive institutions of modem nation-states. They also produce, within such institutions, the modern individual, constructed as an isolated, disciplined,receptive, and industrious political subject.

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