• Read Chapter 5 of the course reader, Panopticism by Michel Foucault and make notes:

Notes and thoughts on research and reading, pre-project

Several things strike me as I read through the article about Foucault. Reading around and watching documentaries, I see he really divides people. There are those who see his brilliance and those who think his work is fraudulent, poorly constructed and badly researched.  I find that quite interesting because it tells me something in his work is challenging for people and therefore truly worth investigating thoroughly. I also listened to a short broadcast where he reportedly talked about the trend in French philosophical circles to write in an obtuse and impenetrable way, and how failing to do so would invite derision. Foucault apparently yearned to write more clearly but felt his work would not be taken seriously in France if he did. That invites questions about whether he felt compelled to write in a sort of pastiche of other philosophers’ style, attempting to emulate them, trying to sound more ‘clever’ than he might have felt, employing a kind of fragile grandiosity. Or, he had a point and French philosophers deliberately wrote in increasingly complex, impossible to understand prose, attempting to outdo each-other in a sort of apelike game of posturing, vying for top position for who could be the most obtuse. In any case, Foucault’s essay seems immensely interesting especially in terms of social media, when people deliberately put so many details of their lives online, all of which can reveal a multitude of facts and information, from simple banking details to hidden secrets and psychological tells. The translation appears at first reading to be relatively clear compared to others we’ve looked at, even if facts are wrong, such as the time it took for western society to transform the way it punished people, from brutal public torture to more private, separate institutional prisons we see today. Apparently it took a great deal longer than the 100 years or so Foucault describes, and the transition was less dramatic. (Wiki)

Discipline and Punishment, Panopticism

  • Published in 1977
  • Starts chapter by comparing the way in which power was utilised to control people during the plague and compares with how lepers are treated. In the latter, the entire town must be monitored and controlled, in a bid to separate out man’s “dangerous mixture” (62).
  • Foucault claims “rulers dream to the state of plague” as there was ample justification under those circumstances to instil extreme measures of power over subjects in the town
  • interested in deconstruction the use of power over others; and
  • “binary division…. mad/sane; dangerous/harmless; normal/abnormal” (63)
  • “The constant division between normal and abnormal, to which every individual is subjected” (63)  – Foucault alerting us to the fact that these two positions are not separate entities and are constructed and morally weighted accordingly
  • He introduces architect Betham’s panoptical building, a prison with a central tower surrounded by cells that can be seen into, but out of which people have really only got the view of the tower, which houses the authority figure, the watcher. As pointed out in the article about the human gaze I posted last night, “You may not realise it, but eye gaze affects something so primitive as our psychological reactions to other people. It is a large cue in establishing social dominance” (Dempsey-Jones, 2016)
  • The article also said, “However, it turns out we can only reliably detect such gaze within four degrees of our central fixation point.” (Dempsey-Jones, 2016)
  • The architecture described by Foucault enables the authority figure to increase the sense of social dominance, even though no one can see back into the tower to confirm whether or not the poweful figure is actually there, evoking a ‘feeling’ of being watched constantly
  • The scene in 1984 where Winston finds a corner where he believes he cannot be seen by Big Brother, so he can write his diary springs to mind. The entire landscape is panoptic in that case, as Winston discovers later when his entries are read back to him. Orwell wrote his book about power in 1949, several decades before Foucault (1977) but I suspect they are looking at very similar aspects of being human
  • The Wikipedia entry on Discipline and Punish (which comes with a warning about lack of academic style) states that, “In a later work, Security, Territory, Population, Foucault admits that he was somewhat overzealous in his descriptions of how disciplinary power conditions society; he qualifies and develops his earlier ideas.[2]” (Wikipedia)
  • In relation to the above, having watched the recent BBC news item on overcrowding in Wandsworth Prison, and spoken with a local volunteer who supports long term prisoners who are considered illegal migrants and so retained indefinitely, the way disciplinary power operates is at the least enormously expressive about a society
  • Interesting how lack of control is evident in the above film, despite the panopctically influenced architecture in the main section of the prison. Also, how dungeon like cells where people are held in isolation are not panoptic
  • Foucault describes the cells; “Like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualised and constantly visible” (64) This description reminds me of the home/search page on Instagram where all the people you follow can be seen described as above.
  • He goes on to say “visibility is a trap” (64) and compares this newer more modern way of imprisoning people to “swarming, howling, masses” as painted by Goya (64) where each human/individual is dissolved
  • “replaced by separated individualities” (65)  – was this not the trend for human society as a whole, over a period of time, and especially true throughout the last century (as seen in The Century of the Self) where individualism became the ideal goal, perhaps driven in part by consumerism, but ultimately a moving away from collective communities?
  • The following seems immensely important: “The Panoptican is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad; in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen. It is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power” (65) Again Orwell’s 1984 and then later the TV programme Big Brother, named after the invisible power that rules the dystopian landscape, and all reality TV, seem incredibly prescient  – and it is this aspect of modern humanity that Foucault is describing with what seems to me quite some accuracy, despite the factual questions and his own stated overestimation regarding societal discipline (Wikipeida)
  • Foucault suggests that anyone can be substituted in the tower and whatever motivates that force therefore risks being unregulated, leading to “malice”, “perversity”, or indiscretion defining the power’s aims.
  • He goes on to say the result of panoptic architecture is that it becomes unneccessary to use “force to constrain the convict to good behaviour, the madman to calm, the worker to work, the schoolboy to application, the patient to the observation of the regulations” (66) This is palpably not true since prisons, many of which, especially the Victorian ones, have architecture based on Bentham’s plans and as seen in the Wandsworth Prison documentary, where ‘austerity measures’ have had a notable effect on morale, discipline and mental health in prisoners and staff, who do not always seem in any way all-powerful
  • Perhaps more useful is Foucault’s description of how a panoptic view makes it possible to observe and study, and he uses the example of patients, how it can be used in laboratory settings. “The Panopticon is a privileged place for experiments on men, and for analysing with complete certainty the transformation that may be obtained from them” (67)
  • The overriding discussion in this article refers to power relations, and relates to Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic, exploring how in modern times, as compared to the medieval practise of public display of torture for instance, the ‘master’ uses vision as a means of power over the ‘slave’. He restricts vision for the slave counterparts while at the same time creates an illusion of omnipotence, which he uses to keep the ‘slaves’ docile – in Foucault’s description
  • In the following article, refugees are said to be housed in the most humane way possible, in an underused Dutch prison building. In the photographs it is possible to recognise some elements of panoptic architecture,  namely the central open space surrounded by small boxes in which refugees will live. Even so, this seems preferable to the current, limited Calais provision of packing creates which offers little protection from heat and cold, no communal areas and renders the inhabitants ‘goods’ or ‘commodities’ that have nowhere to be. It would be interesting to find out from the people living in either place how they feel about the architecture of their surroundings.
  • From a societal structure point of view, Foucault’s statement about being “less Greek than we believe” sounds accurate. “We are neither in the amphitheatre, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism”. (70) Considering the way in which people offer up their entire lives online willingly, he does seem to have a point, although perhaps not in the way he imagined. Which is why Amalia Ulman’s project where she presented an aspect of herself within a frame so common in modern reality, ‘tricking’ her friends and followers into believing she’d bought into a certain type of social media activity, has touched such a nerve. (It seems a terrifically cynical and psycologically questionable approach to me, still.)
  • It is always a souce of immense horror that the state feels able to sponsor torture whereever it takes place, openly or privately and in fact, as pointed out in the self-professed ‘opinion peice’ on Wikipedia, public torure is probably more honest than the secretive approach that occurs today. Which I think is Foucault’s point. The moral highground we take today is misplaced since aspects of our own systems are so morally unsound for different reasons to the older practises.

John Searle on Foucault and the Obscurantism in French Philosophy

Security, Territory, Population, p.48-50 (2007)





Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999). Visual culture. London: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999). Visual culture. London: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University.

Michel Foucault – Beyond Good and Evil: 1993 Documentary Explores the Theorist’s Controversial Life and Philosophy




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