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“Panopticism” by Michel Foucault Essay

“Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance; under the surface of images, one invests bodies in depth; behind the great abstraction of exchange, there continues the meticulous concrete training of useful forces; the circuits of communication are the supports of an accumulation and a centralization of knowledge; the play of signs defines the anchorages of power; it is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.” (240, Foucault)In the essay, Panopticism, by Michel Foucault, he makes the argument that we live in a society of “surveillance”. It is mainly this surveillance that forms the basis of authority that draws the individual to believe that the world he lives in is one that is continually watching over him. This becomes another aspect of power where it underlies the main idea of separation as one of the many forms of forces in the Panopticon.

The effects of surveillance are clearly discussed in Foucault’s essay. The infected population was always observed by presenting themselves at their windows for attendance. If they did not look out the window at that time, they would be considered and marked as dead. Their family would be removed, the house would be cleaned out, perfumed, and then, mere hours later, people would move back in. Obviously, the fear of not being watched would be strong in this situation, resulting in drastic measures taken once someone could not be watched. The plague stands as a representation against which the idea of discipline was created. The existence of a whole set of techniques for measuring and supervising abnormal beings brings into play the disciplinary mechanisms created by the fear of the plague.

The Panopticon, is a prison that is “a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing.” (228, Foucault) This means that those who are being seen can not see one another and the one who sees everything can never be seen. For the observer, the benefit of being observed is that is establishes the ability to control, change and influence the person. The observer separates the individual from the group by observation, thereby making them individually aware of themselves, but mainly the observer. This helps obscure the concept of cohesion with others and prevents organization and conspiracy. The panopticon architecture in which everyone is observed and analyzed is incorporated in a building that makes these operations easy to perform. The theory of discipline develops out of the need for surveillance shown in the plague. Plague measures were needed to protect society, which as a result allowed the panopticon to operate power efficiently.

Foucault makes this assumption about today’s society by saying that we are always being watched whether we know it or not. One always keeps an eye over their shoulder as a result of the constant fear that someone is watching them. The power gives those in charge a safety net, making the individual conscious of the presence of a hidden watcher, causing them to think twice before acting.

An example found in today’s society would be the notion of Santa Claus and how Santa Claus can be used as a form of power to make children behave. “He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good. So be good for goodness sake.” The song about Santa Claus is more than a Christmas carol, it is used to plant the constant fear in the mind of a child that they are being watched even when they can’t see who is doing the watching. The mere threat at Christmas time of this hidden force is enough to keep children well behaved.

Another example is that when we are born, we are given a social security number and a record of our birth. Information goes into a database that is accessible to many people. The government and head offices in the United States can track us with ease since ever job and school we can attend uses our social security number. There is not a single bank account we can open or a loan we can receive without people in higher places knowing about it. Even though we can not see people watching us, we are constantly being watched and tracked by our government. These are examples of many in our society.

Also, verbal communication in the Panopticon was not an option. The prisoners were not allowed to speak to one another. This limit on communication dehumanizes the inmate. If one cannot communicate, not only is new knowledge difficult to gain, but one cannot feel comfort in the simple knowledge that they are not alone.

Throughout this endless mind-game, people do not have the idea that they are fabricated and reshaped. Being under surveillance has brought discipline. “In the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.” (226, Foucault) Foucault describes the inside of the Panopticon where in the center stands a guard. Whenever we walk into a retail store, we are always under observation. There is a circular glass piece on the top of the ceiling with a rotating camera looking down upon each of our movements. We think someone is watching us. And from that, we react with discipline. It has proven to be a form of behavior to give us a guilty conscious or the simple fear of being caught.

In conclusion, Foucault’s argument may not be easily understood given the difficulty of his writing, but with the examples and proof of such the mind-games that we live in in our society today is a good way of understanding his point of view. Michel Foucault’s Panopticism shows that society is under surveillance. The panopticon represents the way in which discipline and punishment work in modern society, where it shows how the processes of observation and examination function. Schools, factories, hospitals and prisons resemble each other, not just because they look similar, but because they examine pupils, workers, patients and prisoners, classify them as individuals and try to make them conform to the “norm”. The fact that the modern citizen spends much of his life in at least some of these institutions reveals how far society has changed. We live in a society that watches over one’s movement to judge if their behavior is wrong. It is in ultimate fear and anxiety that we live out our lives everyday.

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