On ‘Panopticism’

September 7, 2011

Foucault’s chapter on panopticism – a concept of punishment and correction through surveillance – argues that the power structure of 19th century Britain manifested itself in the architecture of Bentham’s panopticon.

Foucault begins with a discussion of the Great Plague that affected 17th century London, identifying this as the beginning of ‘panopticism’ as a power movement. During this time, powerful figures dictated that residents stay at home in the hope of avoiding the spread of disease. Society – registered and monitored by local authorities – became truly sectionalised, each family separated into a manageable and known location. Foucault labels this as “frozen space”, emphasising the power that magistrates and town officials were able to impose on society in order to both control and purify their subordinates. Foucault:

This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded… in which power is exercised without division… each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead – all this constitutes a compact of disciplinary mechanism

The plague was treated as an omen, locked away – along with society – under the watchful guard of the magistrates and (their) medical professionals.

In a similar way, Foucault connects this power structure with the panopticon prison system that emerged later in the 19th century. Like the plague victim, the offender is isolated and sectionalised into its own “space of exclusion”.  The (virtual) gaze of the magistrate is replaced by the (immediate) gaze of the prison guard, whose centrality enables views to the very extents of the prisoners’ cells.

With this analysis, retrospectively the panopticon as an architectural prison typology seems almost too obvious: the central spire, the windows looking out onto the surrounding rooms, prisoners’ silhouettes visible against the backdrop of their cells. However, the notion that this surveillant spatial typology induces a psychological self-correction within the prisoner makes me somewhat uneasy. My own interest lies more in the Tony Bennett’s so-called ‘Exhibitonary Complex’, which relies on the spectacle as a method of psychological affect. That is not to say that I would prefer to revive Foucault’s ‘scaffold’, but rather that spatio-affective conditioning of the subconscious seems somewhat less overt and unnecessarily imposing than what I would label as the rather crude panopticon model.

Danny Brookes


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