Foucault and His Panopticon

Foucault and His Panopticon

by Moya K. Mason

Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault

Above all else, Michel Foucault believed in the freedom of people. He also realized that as individuals, we react to situations in different ways. His used his books as a vehicle to show the various factors that interact and collide in his analyzation of change and its effects. As a philosophical historian and an observer of human relations, his work focused on the dominant genealogical and archaeological knowledge systems and practices, tracking them through different historical eras, including the social contexts that were in place that permitted change - the nature of power in society. He wrote that power "reaches into the very grain of individuals, touches their bodies and inserts itself into their actions and attitudes, their discourses, learning processes and everyday lives" (Foucault 1980,30).

Along with other social theorists, Foucault believed that knowledge is always a form of power, but he took it a step further and told us that knowledge can be gained from power; producing it, not preventing it. Through observation, new knowledge is produced. In his view, knowledge is forever connected to power, and often wrote them in this way: power/knowledge. Foucault's theory states that knowledge is power:

Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of 'the truth' but has the power to make itself true. All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has effects, and in that sense at least, 'becomes true.' Knowledge, once used to regulate the conduct of others, entails constraint, regulation and the disciplining of practice. Thus, 'there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time, power relations (Foucault 1977,27).

For him, power exists everywhere and comes from everywhere; it was a key concept because it acts as a type of relation between people, a complex form of strategy, with the ability to secretly shape another's behaviour. Foucault did not view the effects of power negatively. For him, power didn't exclude, repress, censor, mask, and conceal. Foucault saw it as a producer of reality: "it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth" (Foucault 1977,194). The importance for him always lay in the effect that power has on entire networks, practices, the world around us, and how our behaviour can be affected, not power itself.

One of the techniques/regulatory modes of power/knowledge that Foucault cited was the Panopticon, an architectural design put forth by Jeremy Bentham in the mid-19th Century for prisons, insane asylums, schools, hospitals, and factories. Instead of using violent methods, such as torture, and placing prisoners in dungeons that were used for centuries in monarchial states around the world, the progressive modern democratic state needed a different sort of system to regulate its citizens. The Panopticon offered a powerful and sophisticated internalized coercion, which was achieved through the constant observation of prisoners, each separated from the other, allowing no interaction, no communication. This modern structure would allow guards to continually see inside each cell from their vantage point in a high central tower, unseen by the prisoners. Constant observation acted as a control mechanism; a consciousness of constant surveillance is internalized.

Foucault's Panopticon
Foucault's Panopticon

The Panopticon was a metaphor that allowed Foucault to explore the relationship between 1.) systems of social control and people in a disciplinary situation and, 2.) the power-knowledge concept. In his view, power and knowledge comes from observing others. It marked the transition to a disciplinary power, with every movement supervised and all events recorded. The result of this surveillance is acceptance of regulations and docility - a normalization of sorts, stemming from the threat of discipline. Suitable behaviour is achieved not through total surveillance, but by panoptic discipline and inducing a population to conform by the internalization of this reality. The actions of the observer are based upon this monitoring and the behaviours he sees exhibited; the more one observes, the more powerful one becomes. The power comes from the knowledge the observer has accumulated from his observations of actions in a circular fashion, with knowledge and power reinforcing each other. Foucault says that "by being combined and generalized, they attained a level at which the formation of knowledge and the increase in power regularly reinforce one another in a circular process" (Foucault 1977).

For Foucault, the real danger was not necessarily that individuals are repressed by the social order but that they are "carefully fabricated in it" (Foucault, 1977), and because there is a penetration of power into the behaviour of individuals. Power becomes more efficient through the mechanisms of observation, with knowledge following suit, always in search of "new objects of knowledge over all the surfaces on which power is exercised" (Foucault 1977).

When only certain people or groups of people control knowledge, oppression is a possibility. We need to find out who is recording our actions. At least then we will know who has power and who doesn't.

But what happens to all the knowledge that is collected through mechanisms of power? Isn't that the most important question? Foucault painted us a picture but left it up to us to create a process for resistance, and to figure out how to resolve conflicts ourselves. He gave us instruments of analysis, but offered no weapons.

Where can we draw the line between security and freedom, especially when modern surveillance technology is increasingly used in urban public spaces to control or modify behaviour, tracking people who aren't incarcerated, but mobile and innocently going about their business? Who determines what our rights are? Can we make the rules together?

Can we mobilize counter-power to form a resistance against the pervasiveness of an increasingly intrusive electronic society that is trying to manage the information it is tracking and collecting? Can we wage our own battles and develop some strategies to help us retain a semblance of individual anonymity and privacy? Can we develop our own system of power/knowledge as a form of resistance? Or should we just surrender to it? Surrender to the unseen power that endeavours to control us from afar? Or should we continue to adapt and submissively, quietly accept the prevailing philosophy of an increasingly monitored society? Or should we try to overcome?

If power systems are already immersed in society, does smart mob technology offer any real opportunities for significant counter-power? Should we even bother to hope that we can change the world? Who or what should we develop a resistance against, if we want to see real change? Foucault says it is better to forget the State in our struggle against power, and instead, concentrate on local struggles. Are recent street protests against globalization a good point of departure? Can we really expect that the right thing will be done just because? Can local cooperation and resistance make a difference globally?

Can smart mobs help by allowing us to organize even more appropriate and more mobilized counter-power protests, and offer a more sophisticated avenue for defending democratic liberties and personal rights? It may be possible that coordination and cooperation, brought about by smart mob technologies, will help us to acquire new forms of social power by organizing just in time and just in place. Perhaps the real power of smart mob technologies lies in their ability to act as agents of change; one group at a time, one place at a time.

Related Papers

Jeremy Bentham and Rhetoric

© Georgina Rowlands, all rights reserved