Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Foucault's panopticism explained with examples

Michel Foucault's concept of "Panopticism" (Described in his book "Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison" (1975)) is based on Jeremy Bentham's idea of the "Panopticon". Bentham, a very utilitarian philosopher, offered the Panopticon as a highly efficient model for a prison. Bentham's Panopticon is built with a watch tower at its center and a round system of separated cells circling the tower. The cells are built so that prisoners cannot communicate with one another nor can they know if they are being watched. This system, for Bentham, allows for a highly efficient prison in which only one guard cam supervise many prisoner, and in fact even no guard since the prisoners act on their own as if they are being watched.

Foucault took this idea by Bentham as the paradigm for modern system of discipline. For Foucualt the ideas behind the Panopticon and the way they are manifested are actually of process Western society went through, becoming a "disciplinary society". For Foucault Panopticism is a theory of how power works.

In "Discipline and Punish" Foucault describes how discipline works to produce individuals who act "on their own" within the interest of power. The way this is done is elaborate and you can read about it here and get the bigger picture here. For the purpose of a simple explanation let's look at an example: In the army you've got ranks and commands, both of them serve together as a system for making everything more efficient. This system classifies people in relation to it and can also judged their performance and worth based on a set criteria. One soldier is different from another by they are judged on the same scale. Now, Foucault says that this does not only happen in the army, and that this need for efficiency has caused all society to function under Panopticism. An example would be money: we are all separated by how much we have yet we are also united and equalized by being judged on the same objective numeric scale. Thus positioned, we are acting according to the interests of money who disciplines us into being hardworking consumers.  

Panopticism / Foucault - Full summary 

Part 1:Foucault's notion of discipline
Part 2: discipline  and the production of individuals
Part 3: human sciences
Part 4: disciplinary society

More on and by Foucault: 

Foucault - "Of Other Spaces" - summary   
Foucault's concept of discourse
Foucault on power and knowledge
technology of power

Recommended books by and on Foucault: