In his essay Panopticism, Michel Foucault discusses power and discipline, the manipulation there of, and their effect on society over time. He also discusses Jeremy Benthams Panopticon and other disciplinary models. However, after reading Panopticism, the question that baffles everyone is: What is panopticism anyway?
One exceptional disciplinary model is the measures taken by a seventeenth century town when the plague appears. First there is a strict spatial partitioning which involves the closing of the town and dividing it into quarters. There is a syndic assigned to each street who keeps the street under surveillance. This syndic locks the door to every house on his street from the outside when the quarantine begins and gives the key to his supervisor, the intendant. There is one intendant per quarter. To get supplies to each house there are wooden canals set up between the streets and houses to distribute the residents rations of bread and wine thus allowing each person to receive his ration without communicating with the suppliers and other residents. (314) Only the intendants, syndics and guards are allowed to be on the streets, outside of the homes. No one else is permitted to leave his home for it is a crime punishable by death. Each individual is fixed in his place. And if he moves he does so at the risk of his life. (315)
Second there is ceaseless inspection. A large militia, commanded by good officer and men of substance, guards the gates of the town. (315). This strict guarding is to ensure the prompt obedience of the townspeople and the absolute power of the magistrates as well as to observe all disorder and every action. Everyday the syndic goes to the street he is responsible for, stopping at each house, calls the inhabitants to the window and takes attendance. If someone does not appear at the window they are assumed to be either sick or dead.
This constant surveillance is based on a system of permanent registration and reports that are passed on from the syndics to the intendants to the magistrates. At the beginning of the quarantine the name, age and sex of each individual is recorded. Every observation made-deaths, illnesses, complaints, irregularities-is recorded on these documents and reported to the entire hierarchy. The magistrates have complete control over the medical treatment of the townspeople. They select one physician whom they trust to treat the patients. No one else is permitted to visit a sick person without a written note to prevent concealing and dealing with the sick without the knowledge of the magistrates. The registration is constantly centralized with the relation of each individual to his illness and death being passed through the same hierarchy of power, which makes every decision based on it.
A few days after the beginning of the quarantine the purifying process begins. One house at a time, all the inhabitants evacuate the house for this process.
The furniture and goods are raised from the ground or suspended from the air; perfume is poured around the room; after carefully sealing the windows, doors, and even the keyholes with wax the perfume is set alight. Finally the entire house is closed while the perfume is consumedFour hours later, the residents are allowed to reenter their homes. (316)
This enclosed segmented space is a disciplinary mechanism. The entire area is under strict surveillance. Each individual has his designated place in which the slightest movements are supervised and all events are recorded. Power is exercised according to a hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, and examined. (316)
The other major disciplinary model presented by Foucault is Benthams Panopticon. The Panopticon is a large, circular architectural figure. It is annular building with a tall tower in the center. This tower has wide windows that correspond with windows on the inner side of the main building. The ring is divided into cells extending the entire radius of the building. Each cell has a large window on the outside of the building; this window corresponds with the inner window such that it allows the light to cross the cell at all times. The entire cell is then visible to a supervisor in the tower by the effect of backlighting. (318)
In the cell one would place a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker, or a schoolboy. (319) Confined in his cell, this man would be under constant surveillance and in fear of being watched. He would never know when he was being watched and when he wasnt. Whenever a man is visible he feels exposed, as though every move is being watched. Visibility is a trapHe is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject of communication, (319) this being the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.(319) The man in the cell knows that there is someone in the tower watching him at all times. Since he could not see the observer in the tower he is forced to assume his is under observation at all times and therefore must follow the rules set forth for him so as not to be punished. (319)
It is the invisibility of the observer that guarantees order and power. The power should be visible and unverifiable. It must be visible such that the inmate will always know that there is a tower in the center with an observer. It is from this tower that he is always watched, thus if the tower is always visible from his cell, he is always visible from the tower, at all times. The power must be unverifiable such that the inmate never knows if he is being watched at any given moment but lives with the knowledge and fear that the could be being watched. With the observer out of sight the inmate never knows when he is being watched and when he is not. Through this set up,
He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principal of his own subjection. (323)
In such a situation the inmate will discipline himself to behave as the rules set out for him say; for he could be observed when he does not follow the rules and thus be punished.
As a disciplinary mechanism, the Panopticon automatizes and disindividualizes power. (321) It is an easily operated machine. Anyone can operate it. All it needs is for the inmates to know there is someone in the tower potentially watching them. Any individual taken at random could operate the Panopticon; and when he was on vacation anyone could replace him. The purpose of having such a machine and exercising such power is irrelevant. Whether it is to cure the ill, teach school children, performing experiments on men, or for the sheer enjoyment of watching people, the Panopticon is still an easily operated mechanism.
The Panopticon can be used as a laboratory of power instead of a house of certainty. It can be used to conduct scientific experiments on people instead of to constrain the convict to good behavior, the madman to calm, the worker to work, the schoolboy to application, the patient to the observation of the regulations. (323) Foucault discusses the possibility of bringing up different children according to different systems of thought. Some children would be taught that two plus two is not four. Another group of children would be taught that the moon was a large piece of cheese. Then, when these people become adults and are twenty-five years old one would have them discuss such things and it would be a more valuable conversation than any sermon or lecture. The Panopticon is an ideal architectural mechanism for experiments on men; they do not even need to know it is happening. (324)
At first Panoptic institutions were rare occurrences, such as the plague town. They were not something that actually happened but a plan, just incase the plague appeared in a town. However Benthams Panopticon brought the panoptic scheme to a whole new level. The plan of the plague town was for the purpose of the immediate salvation of a threatened society, it was a desperate situation, which called for desperate measures. However in the Panopticon, the panoptic scheme is used to strengthen social forces and for economical growth. The panoptic scheme was brought to the far extreme, creating the plan for the Panopticon, a general formula stemmed from extreme measures. (326-27)
There are two forms of discipline. One extreme being discipline-blockade and the other extreme, along with panopticism, is discipline-mechanism. In discipline-blockade there is an enclosed institution, located on the outskirts of society, which has the purpose to arrest evil, break communications, and arrest time. However on the other extreme, discipline-mechanism, where panopticism is, we have a functional mechanism that must improve the exercise of power by making it lighter, more rapid, more effective, a design of subtle coercion for a society to come. How does something such as panopticism get from one extreme to another? Through a process that depends on the formation of a disciplinary society, the gradual expansion of the mechanisms of discipline throughout the social body; a disciplinary generalization and the spread of disciplinary institutions. The process has three steps. First, The functional inversion of the disciplines. Second, The swarming of disciplinary mechanism. And third, The state-control of mechanisms of the discipline. (328-330)
The first step regards when discipline is first used; to neutralize dangers, to fix useless and disturbed populations, to avoid the inconveniences of over-large assemblies. It is later asked to increase the positive utility of individuals. For instance, the discipline of the military is no longer used in preventing war and theft but is used in the workshop enforcing regulations and preventing theft and loss. (328-329)
The next step that allowed this transition from one extreme to occur was the swarming of disciplinary mechanisms. As the number of disciplinary institutions increased, the mechanism became deinstitutionalized such that it was no longer viewed as something irregular, but rather common.
The third happening, the state-control of mechanisms of the discipline, which lead to complete control by one organization, as in the Panopticon, is the transition of social discipline duties from one organization to another. Functions originally carried out by he church were now carried out by the police. Police were viewed as the most direct expression of royal absolutism. There was then constant surveillance, visible power that was still unverifiable. The society had been permeated by panopticism.(330-331)
Discipline is neither an institution nor an apparatus; it is a type of power. The use and manipulation of this power is a technology called panopticism in which it is the function of the state, or some other leader, to see that discipline reigns over society as a whole; and the formation of a disciplinary society, or social quarantine. While this appears to be a technological solution, it is not, a whole society emerges. The society of modern age
People are now focused on the individual and the state where as we were previously people were focused on the community and public life. Our society has become one of surveillance, fulfilling the historical process, which Bentham had described as a technical program. We arein the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism. (334)
Panopticism is a technology dependant on power and discipline. Since the sixteenth century it has grown from a rare occurrence, to the surveillance our society is based on. It is a dangerous mechanism based on Jeremy Benthams Panopticon, behavior control, and constant surveillance. This technology has taken over our society and has put us in danger of being under the absolute control of someone else, anyone else.