Response – Panopticism

April 18, 2012

In his text Panopticism Foucault makes a very clear argument of on what over all principles our society is built. He is describes how a disciplinary society along with its disciplinary institutions emerged at the end of the seventeenth century.

Foucault describes how society began the urge for “ordering of human multiplicities” (p. 218) and make all citizens a part of a larger system of society, by starting to describe how society in the seventeenth century dealed with diseases such as plague and leper. This is where he at first finds the disciplinary mechanisms that then goes on to form the society during the 17th and 18th centuries. These disciplinary methods form the making of institutions such as hospitals, schools and prisons. In the late 17th century the Enlightenment starts to focus on individualism rather than tradition. Using Bentham’s diagram of the Panopticon Foucalt shows how a whole new type of society emerges, opposing the society based of spectacle as in Antiquity. “In a society in which the principal elements are no longer the community and public life, but, on the one hand, private individuals and, on the other, the state, relations can be regulated only in a form that is the exact reverse of the spectacle:“ and goes on “Our society is not one of spectacle, but one of surveillance;” (p. 217) In this society the individual is carefully fabricated to be a part of a well behaved whole.

Foucaults thorough passage of how houses and individuals were surveilled and controlled during purifying quarantines during the plague is an example of how efficient disciplinary mechanism work. “This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place (…) in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead.” (p. 179) Foucault then also shows how the plague gave rise to disciplinary projects used to control other unwanted behavior in society. He writes: “Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.”

By demonstrating this urge to make order Foucault then continues to make his argument of how panopticism is spread in society. He writes “On the whole, therefore, one can speak of the information of a disciplinary society in this movement that stretches from the enclosed disciplines, a sort of social ‘quarantine’, to an indefinitely generalizable mechanism of ‘panopticism’. Not because the disciplinary modality of power has replaced all of the others; but because it has infiltrated the others, sometimes undermining them, but serving as an intermediary between them, linking them together, extending them to above all making in possible to bring the effects of power to the most minute and distant elements. It assures a infinitesimal distribution if the power relations.” (p. 216) Later he writes “panopticism constituted the technique, universally widespread, of coercion.” (p. 222)

Panopticism is argued to spread in society as discipline makes a relation, a private link, between individuals, and that this inevitably creates uneven power relations. Foucault writes about disciplines: “the way in which it is imposed, the mechanisms it brings into play, the non-reversible subordination of one group of people by another, the ‘surplus’ power that is always fixed on the same side, the inequality of position of the different ‘partners’ in relation to the common regulation.” (p. 223) He continues to describe how panopticism then operates on the “underside of the law” as it “supports, reinforces, multiplies the asymmetry of power and undermines the limits that are traced around the law.” He writes that the small tactics for discipline is crucial to how society operates even though it might go under the radar of great societal strategies. He writes “The minute disciplines, the panopticism of every day may well be below the level of emergence of great apparatuses and the great political struggles.” (p. 223)



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