Panoptism Michel Foucault Used the Term Panoptism Essay

Excerpt from Essay :


Michel Foucault used the term Panoptism (all-seeing) to describe the methods of control and surveillance used by industrial society to discipline and control the lower classes, whether in factories, schools, hospitals, mental institutions or other bureaucratic institutions. In these, everyone is under constant observation and surveillance, being analyzed, evaluated and regulated, and the most extreme versions of this system would be found in police states like Nazi Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union. He began his chapter of Panopticism with a description of a 17th Century town under quarantine for the plague. This was not yet the full-fledged machine of control that would emerge in the 19th and 20th Centuries but only a hint of things to come. Of course, the quarantine was only a temporary measure while the system of Panopticon is permanent, and the methods of control and surveillance were still primitive and crude in a preindustrial society. Nor did these pre-modern societies even have the intention of totally controlling and disciplining the entire population in this way, which is strictly a modern idea. To be sure, feudal aristocracies were highly oppressive to the slaves, peasants and serfs, while women and children were trapped in patriarchal family structures, and political and religious dissent was not tolerated, but the real totalitarian police state was a 20th Century development.

In order to control the epidemic, the town officials ordered everyone to remain inside for a certain period under threat of death. Even their food would be brought to them by the guards and officials, who alone would be allowed to move about freely, except for the 'crows' collecting the dead bodies. This quarantined town was "a segmented, immobile, frozen space," much like the prison Jeremy Bentham described in Panopticon (Foucault 195). It had guards at the gates and in every neighborhood, to ensure that no one went outside and that they obeyed all regulations. Every day, town officials with registry lists of inhabitants took roll call to determine if any sick or dead persons were being hidden. As in Bentham's model prison, they observed "everyone locked up in his cage, everyone at his window, answering to his name and showing herself when asked" (Foucault 196). It was a very early model of a hierarchical, authoritarian bureaucracy, operating in the name of public health, a "compact model of the disciplinary mechanism" operating "by means of an omnipresent and omniscient power" that observes and records everything (Foucault 197).

Foucault called the early modern era the Great Confinement, in which the state created new institutions like prisons, hospitals and asylums to control the lower classes. To the ruling elites, society appeared to be too chaotic and disorderly, with epidemics, rebellions, bandits, paupers and vagabonds roaming the town streets. Gradually, these people were categorized, studied and locked up, as were the rebellious young in "the psychiatric asylum, the penitentiary, the reformatory, the approved school" (Foucault 198). Nor was it any accident that all these institutions came to resemble the factories that were coming into existence at the same time, since they all used the same model. Foucault claimed that Bentham's Panopticon prison was that model, with its observation tower in the center that could keep all the workers-students-prisoners under continual surveillance. Each of these would be separated and isolated in cells, no matter whether a "madman, a patient, a condemned man or a schoolboy" (Foucault 199). They would have no possibility of communication or collective action against the system, which would simply function automatically like any other machine.

Bentham stated that power should be visible but unverifiable in the sense that it would be able to watch everyone at all times, but they would never know when they were being watched. Blinds and partitions would prevent the prisoners from knowing exactly when the guards were looking at them, but they would never forget that they might be watching. These guards did not have to be particularly intelligent or well-trained any more than unskilled factory workers. Nor did their motives matter, no matter whether they were driven by curiosity, boredom, sadism or perversion since "any individual, taken almost at random, could operate the machine" (Foucault 200). Panopticon did not even look like one of the old fortress prisons or asylums, and was cheaper to construct than these. It could also be a "machine to carry out experiments, to alter behavior, to train or correct individuals," and to determine which methods of teaching or punishment were most efficient (Foucault 203). Even better, the supervisors could also spy on the guards, teachers or foremen without being observed, to ensure that they carried out their assigned tasks.

There were about 150 years between Foucault's quarantined town and the sleek, efficient, scientific machine described in Panopticon. It took time for the machinery to become perfected, and of course there were always new technologies of surveillance and control like television and computers that Bentham could not have imagined. These made the duties of the guards and officials even more efficient and automated -- and remote from humanity -- but the main point of Panopticon was that "in each of its applications it makes possible to perfect the exercise of power" (Foucault 204). While the quarantine of the 17th Century town was temporary, Panopticon became a new way of life and it "spread throughout the whole social body." Its mission was to "increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality," since the masses would never know when they were being observed by their superiors (Foucault 205). This machine would become self-perpetuating like a cancer or virus, and would have no end. Bentham, the utilitarian, imagined that it would soon extend everywhere, creating a new society "penetrated through and through with disciplinary mechanisms" (Foucault 206).

Panopticism in Real Life

Jeremy Bentham was a liberal, even a radical, who wanted Britain to become a more humane and democratic society, and he would have been appalled at the idea that his Panopticon would be compared to George Orwell's 1984, or real life totalitarian police states like Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia. Indeed, Orwell was also prophetic about the contemporary surveillance society, with closed-circuit television cameras everywhere that use computer technology to keep all citizens under observation and programmed to seek out undesirable behavior. Certainly such constant surveillance and control is commonplace in any modern prison or penitentiary, and increasingly in schools, shopping centers, parking areas and other public spaces. In 1984, the state required all citizens to have telescreens which were kept on at all times, and could see and speak to anyone, nor matter whether they know they were under surveillance at any given moment. Bentham believed that his new system of confinement and correction would be far more ethical and kind than the old-fashioned methods that depended heavily on torture, flogging and capital punishment, but for libertarians like Foucault, they were a technocratic nightmare of science being used to police an entire society. He noted that the capitalist prison, factory, school and prison were all authoritarian and hierarchical, based on the same model of close supervision of students, workers and inmates.

Postmodernist philosophers and historians like Foucault can be very opaque and difficult to comprehend, using jargon and terminology that means little to the uninitiated. He was gay, and more of a New Left anarchist or libertarian than an Old Left Marxist or socialist. A great admirer of the California hippie and gar counterculture, he had a natural and instinctive aversion to all the bureaucratic institutions of society, such as schools, prisons and psychiatric hospitals. Even though these claimed to be rational and efficient, Foucault argued that behind this mask they were in fact insane and repressive. He did claim that modern society was overregulated but his message was not always clearly defined, and his view of discipline was too broad and too generalized. His book and this section were needlessly complicated in the manner of the French philosophers, using big words and unfamiliar terms that limited his audience to the small minority that could understand them. His style often seemed boring and caused him to lose even more readers, and he sounded almost arrogant at times when he found commonalties to back his arguments. His example of the village affected by plague was one-sided and does not incorporate the whole situation. In this case, the plague had been ravaging Europe since the 14th Century and there were no effective medical treatments to control it. These government officials had learned through hard experience that such epidemics spread very quickly and could wipe out an entire city in a very short time. Quarantine was the only method they had that might have been remotely able to slow down the spread of disease, even though they were hampered by not knowing its cause and by the crowded, unsanitary living conditions of those times. No doubt, they carried out these measures in a highly oppressive, authoritarian manner, with no questions or dissent allowed, but that was the nature of…

Cite This Essay:

"Panoptism Michel Foucault Used The Term Panoptism" (2011, April 12) Retrieved August 23, 2017, from

"Panoptism Michel Foucault Used The Term Panoptism" 12 April 2011. Web.23 August. 2017. <>

"Panoptism Michel Foucault Used The Term Panoptism", 12 April 2011, Accessed.23 August. 2017,