Abstract: Panopticism

February 7, 2016

In Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, published in 1975, the chapter entitled “Panopticism” defines the ways in which a society attempts to organize itself through modalities of power, namely, discipline and panopticism. Discipline exists as a technology of power; it is the way in which those in power control the masses. Discipline seeks the acquiescence of the “human multiplicities,” at the least cost, economic and political, with the most far-reaching and deepest intensity, and to the greatest economic output. Discipline above all else establishes a fixed order in society by controlling the physical bodies of its members, in order to attain the most productive output from them. In the West, Foucault argues, the more violent and overt forms of governmental discipline have come to be seen as inefficient and brutal, but have been replaced with subtler, more calculated forms of discipline. That is to say, in the modern world, those in power utilize a panoptic modality of power to discipline the masses. Panopticism differs from the generalized disciplinary modality of power in that it is not strictly connected to the wider judicial-political structures of a society. Rather, it relies on systems of “micropower,” using coercion and surveillance to organize and control the individual. The prison is a perfect example of this modality, as each prisoner is recognized and accounted for, so that the power to punish, which rests in the hands of guards and officers, is not as potent as their power to observe. Like prisoners, each member of society disciplines themselves, not because of a fully realized comprehension of the judicial system (and its punishments) but because of the awareness that they are being observed.

Foucault, Michel. The Foucault Reader, “Panopticism.” Compiled by Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

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