The Birth of the Prison: ‘Panopticism’

September 8, 2011

The gaze is alert everywhere[1].

From the end of the seventeenth century plague-stricken town towards the Panopticon establishment of the nineteenth century, Michel Foucault offers the important differences that mark the transformations of the disciplinary programme.

The plague was seen to give rise to disciplinary events of surveillance and control. In contrast to the great Confinement of the individualised leper, separated and exiled from a ‘pure community’, the plague sticken-town introduced an arrest of a disciplined society through segmentations and ‘correct-training’ by controlling relations. It played upon hierarchy, observation and recording, as a town immobilised by the functioning of an extensive power[2] that assumes above all individual bodies.

The mechanisms of power were again displayed in the Panopticon composition introduced by Bentham. Whilst the plague-stricken-town makes itself everywhere present and visible[3], separating, arresting and immobilising the town, the Panopticon provides as a visibility trap; a dyad of seeing and being seen; he is seen but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication[4]. A ring of individual cells organised about a central watch tower, the Panopticon, described by Foucault as a ‘disciplinary machine’, is applicable to varying establishments; it is a type of location of bodies in space, of distribution of individuals in relation to one another, of hierarchical organisation, of disposition of centres and channels of power[5] (of which can be implemented in hospitals, workshops, schools and prisons). The Panopticon plays upon an automatic functioning of power that places a constant pressure on the inmate through a state of conscious and permanent visibility; the power of the mind. It displays the power of observation and surveillance, offering itself as a ‘museum of human nature’. Here we see the relationship between the ideals of panopticism and the role of surveillance in Tony Bennett’s “The Exhibtionary Complex” (1995). Bennett speaks of a society watching over itself, constantly surveyed, self-watching, self regulating…self observation[6]. Foucault similarly makes note of a self-surveying institution of the Panopticon whereby there is a constant hierarchical observation; the guard over the prisoner, the director over the guards, the inspector (and society) over the director/ establishment.

It is argued that the simple economic geometry of the Panopticon can then replace the heaviness of the fortress-like architecture of tradition penitentiaries; that the Panopticon offers a lighter architecture based upon the efficiency of power. But does this not then affect the penitentiary’s projection beyond its walls towards the ‘civilised’ public? Is not the heaviness, the darkness, the discomfort and negativity of the traditional prison an intimidating reminder to the public of societal offense and wrong-doing?

Naomi Brennan

[1] Michel Foucault, ‘Panopticism’ in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,London: Penguin, 1991, p. 195

[2] Ibid., p. 198

[3] Ibid., p. 205

[4] Ibid., p. 200

[5] Ibid., p. 205

[6] Tony Bennett, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics,London: Routledge, 1995, p. 69



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: