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Chapter 49 ~ “Panopticism” by Michel Foucault September 27, 2009

Posted by Shon in 5369, Carter, Philosophy of Technology, TCR.
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Chapter 49 ~ “Panopticism” by Michel Foucault (1978)

Foucault begins with a discussion about the plague and what happened in a town when the plague arose.

1- strict spatial partitioning
2- ceaseless inspection
3- strict purification

It is a town of segmented discipline. The chaos and uncertainty of the plague demanded a power structure be developed that secured society…and the plague itself.

Foucault then mentions lepers and illustrates a distinction between the leper and the plague-filled town; the leper initiated separate societies; however, the plague called for disciplined societies.

Foucault likens this disciplined society to Bentham’s “Panopticon,” in which visibility is a trap.

Individualizing the surveillance, which is done in the Panopticon, helps to avoid the angry mob syndrome, keeping individuals from coming together as a group to fight against “the machine.” In doing this, the “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” (592).

So, unlike the plague, in which its effects have a top-down mentality of power, the Panopticon works as much as the people being watched work (within the minute exertions of discipline). Because no one person, like a king, controls it, this mechanism can be utilized in various ways – the prison system, the health system, the school system, and the work environment system, to name a few.

I’m not entirely sure, but in the right column of 593, it seems as if Foucault is implying that even those at the top of the Panopticon mechanism become trapped within its casing.

Foucault spends a few pages comparing the system derived from the plague and the Panopticon mechanism, one of which is that with the plague “an exceptional situation” occurs that mobilizes power against its extraordinary evil; whereas, the Panopticon is “a generalizable model of functioning” (594).

A great deal of manipulation occurs in both, but that manipulation seems to be finessed in the Panopticon as if each movement is tested and analyzed and reconfigure to increase power, disabling the ability for it to break down. The mechanism – unlike most power structures in which those in power keep the knowledge strictly among themselves – is transparent, allowing outsiders a glimpse into how it works, making the power not so much about one person but about the society as a whole. This connection of society also illustrates that the individual is not disconnected from social order but “fabricated in it” (596). Makes me wonder, in this scenario, if something does go wrong all we all to blame because we are about the knowledge that makes and generates this power.

The Panopticon, with its efficiency, has the ability to make power more economic. It doesn’t seem that its ultimate goal is to develop humanity despite outcomes such as the spread of education and of public morality.

I read this and take things such as power, the “gaze” mentioned early on, and the individualistic coercion and think about the classroom as a sort of Panopticon. There is a structure that’s intrinsically connected to a classroom, very transparent, but when the one person stands before a classroom of students, line of power are almost immediately drawn and understood. And though there might be the chance of a mutiny against the teacher, the classroom is very individualistic as each student knows he/she is being watched and analyzed by the instructor.

In regards to technology, I wonder if the Internet is the Panopticon…if that’s what we’re supposed to get from this reading. Does the internet individualize us? Does it exert a sort of power of us that conforms us in so subtle a way that we fail to realize our part in the development? And if we are to like the Internet as the Panopticon, then how is this power structure spreading education, public morality, the economy? I can see education and economy, but public morality? No.

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