Birth of the Prison – Panopticism

September 6, 2011

In the early paragraphs of the reader, Foucault explained the birth of the social action segregation and classification on a city scale due to the control of epidemic spread. Through this action, the city of varied individuals turned into a single hierarchical body with the drastic power shift to the government and officials (Foucault 1991). The epidemic is now an invisible enemy against a singular social body.

When the epidemic is over, this understanding of power relationship can be applied similarly to lepers of the socially un-norm individuals of society, like plague or virus. In a humane context, this power control does not aim to eradicate but to reform lepers into people. Foucault also quotes, “individualize the excluded but use procedures of individualization to mark exclusion…” (Foucault 1991), in this case the individual as the societal norm while exclusions are those bodies that fails to conform, much like quarantining the ‘virus’ of the body. It is interesting to note the city as a single body while institutions of reform acts as medicine to cure and re-correct the body.

The birth of Panopticism has emerged from this concept of power control and is a device that revolves on the most primary sense of sight. Sight is the most fundamental sense we rely on to understand and read the world through colours, depth, form, in a three dimensional perspective. By taking away an individual’s sight and allowing him to be seen (like a naked body on exhibition with nowhere to hide what he wants to hide), sets the subject in disadvantageous position, a lowered plane in the hierarchical order while another subject with the reverse condition, sets him on the opposite plane, a top plane of the hierarchical order. The Panopticism allows me to make a comparison between Japanese houses where the sense of affect emerges largely from audible sounds as compared to optical sight

The affects created by the difference in power authority allows the disadvantaged to not further put himself in a more disadvantageous position by obeying what the advantage party has to say. However this is the ideal situation but in previous readings, affects is individualistic and the opposite affect of resistance can occur. Foucault recognises the explanation he gave throughout the reader is unprejudiced and untainted by the individualistic aspect of Affect. (Foucault 1991)


Michel Foucault, ‘Panopticism’ in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, London: Penguin, 1991.

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