Foucault and the Panopticon

After talking about Pierre Bourdieu last week, I’ve been feeling really excited about cultural and social theories. Thinking about why the world works the way it does is cool and exciting! Since I think about the panopticon almost daily, I reread “Panopticism” from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish this week. Which brings us to another installment of… Pontifications from a Dead White Dude!

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher, literary critic, and social theorist who lived from 1926-1984. I’m quite partial to Foucault’s ideas. Today, I’m going to talk about the panopticon.

The panopticon is prison building designed by Jeremy Bentham- another white philosopher and social theorist. (I feel the need to point this out to emphasize the very Western nature of my education. I promise we’ll talk about non-white and non-male theorists, soon!) The goal of the panopticon is, essentially, to act as the opposite of a dungeon. Whereas a dungeon thrusts prisoners into darkness, hidden from view, Bentham’s panopticon shines a light on prisoners and makes them visible at all times.

The architecture of the panopticon features a central guard tower. Encircling this tower is a building comprised of cells housing inmates. The cells face the guard tower; it is always visible to the prisoners. Okay, here’s where things get interesting: there are no lights in the guard tower. It is always dark. But the prisoner’s cells are constantly illuminated.

Have you ever experienced the significantly unsettling feeling that comes with leaving your curtains open after sunset? With the lights on inside, you can’t see out into the darkness. We feel watched, even if we can’t confirm if someone really is looking in. Even if we’re not participating in any kind of social deviance- if we’re just eating dinner in front of an open window- we become hyperaware of our actions, of the potential of observation. That’s the panopticon! Let’s break down the etymology of this Greek word: -pan means all, -opticon means observe. In the darkness, illuminated spaces can be completely observed.

Back in the prison, the inmates are living with the lights on and the curtains open, all the time. Constantly. They know the tower is there, but are there guards in the tower? Maybe. Maybe not. There is literally no way to tell. Maybe the guards are asleep, but are you going to risk doing something deviant if they could be wide-awake and watching you? The tower is thus a site of symbolic power, one to which the prisoners must constantly defer. This results in self-regulation, always in deference to the Power Tower. (I will henceforth be referring to the guard tower as the Power Tower, and I hereby make a formal motion that everyone follow suit.)

The panopticon is effective because it creates an ideal power. More people can be controlled by fewer operators. The Power Tower might be utterly unstaffed, but still has the ability to completely control those who are aware of it. But the panopticon is still an isolated structured. Tyrannical guards are prevented from abusing their position in the Power Tower because the whole system can be observed and critiqued by those outside it.

Bentham’s panopticon is ingenious, if ethically and morally murky.  It’s a very clever system, but not one that places particular value on human rights. Prisoners are people. Prisoners have rights. I am looking you straight in the eye, Guantanamo. Foucault steps into the discussion by considering a metaphorical, social panopticon rather than the physical prison structure.

Foucault argues that the panoptic schema strengthens social forces by functioning to “increase production to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality”. The panopticon creates a disciplinary society, one in which we self-regulate our actions in response to the constant, if unseen, presence of guards. In this way, we see that our daily lives closely resemble that of inmates in a panopticon. At work, in schools, in hospitals, we find ourselves conforming to a norm, again deferring to the Power Tower.

Control, observation, examination, and the threat of unknown surveillance, inform our actions. This isn’t always a bad thing; we have freedoms and liberties within the context of these controlled areas. But I think it’s important to consider the functions of power and control in our lives. I wasn’t kidding when I told you that I am constantly thinking about the panopticon.

At least once a day, I wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing at any given moment: how much is free will and how much is free will within the context of a system of control? Today, when I put on a dress and rode my bicycle, when I was in the library, when I watched televised sports in a bar, when I ordered pasta… how many of those moments were dictated by the invisible Power Tower of society? When my friend caught a fly in a restaurant and carried it outside, even though other people were pointing and laughing, how many layers of control and observation were at work?

When I came home and shut my curtains, I felt the relief of being alone- a kind of freedom from performance. But my whole day was filled with freedom and I don’t feel like I’m performing when I’m out with my friends. I’m just being myself, enjoying fun things with fun people! And yet… I know that every choice we make is within the context of social order. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But I do wonder what ethical and moral lines are being blurred by social power.

I don’t know who is watching. I don’t even always know where the tower is. But I know that as an active member of society, I am an inmate under lights. My choices are informed by the presence of Eyes. In addition to the panopticon, I also have a particular fascination with the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. Eyes and panopticons are everywhere! (Help! The male gaze!!) It’s not always easy to know when, if ever, the lights are off. What Power Towers are watching you?

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