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The Power of Observation Essay

The power of sight and observation are two actions that are generally associated with one another. However, what we fail to acknowledge is that these two actions, although associated with the same sense, have different responsibilities to fulfill. Although seeing is a habitual act we perform the second we open our eyes to when we fall asleep, we are not always observing our surroundings. Observation differs from sight due to the fact that when we observe, we are vividly noticing aspects of something or someone in order to gain information whereas sight is simply the faculty, or driving force, of seeing.

We are able to obtain more powerful knowledge if we go about our days observing rather than just living a life full of brief sights. Michel Foucault, a French philosopher explores several elements in the ways in which our humanity and social sciences work. In his work, Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison he uses Jeremy Bentham’s design for a panoptic prison in which prisoners are watched constantly to explore how observation can change an individual’s behavior. Similarly Foucault believed, observation works as a disciplinary tool that forces individuals to act a certain way under constant surveillance, creating permanent effects.

Foucault was correct in the sense that surveillance works in the same manner continuously within our society however, although an individual’s behavior is altered by the observation of another person, he is wrong to believe that their actions remain static. An individual’s behavior can be altered in several different circumstances due to the type of audience and the fear of being misjudged. Foucault explores the concept of a prison imagined by Jeremy Bentham called the Panopticon. The Panopticon was initially created to establish discipline and “to induce in the inmate and state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects even if it is discontinuous in its action.” (288)

The idea that the tower is located centrally is important in order to see all of the prisoners. However, what truly exercises the power of observation is that they feel they are constantly under surveillance even if no one is utilizing it in the panopticon. The prisoner is constantly “seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never the subject in communication.” (287) Foucault believed that anyone could obtain this power simply by remaining invisible in this tower and their “invisibility [was] a guarantee of order” and that this power could be mobilized in institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons as long as observation was intact. (287) Furthermore, what gives the observer absolute potency is the fear the prisoners have that they will be punished for acting incorrectly in the eyes of the observer as well as being mislabeled.

Foucault extended his theory by observing that not only would the power of observation work inside the walls of the prison but that “on the whole, therefore, one can speak of the formation of a disciplinary society in this movement that stretched from the enclosed disciplines, a sort of social quarantine.” (300) By taking the idea of the Panopticon and stretching the power outwards, we would be creating “useful individuals” who ultimately mask themselves to behaving a certain way in public. While Foucault believed that our masked identities consisted of only one side, he failed to acknowledge that within society there are different views of what one considers to be a “useful individual.”

There are several different groups within the community that we can be a part of, ultimately giving us several different masks we can put on. In order to be seen positively in the eyes of each individual group we must become that “useful individual” they believe in. As seen in Foucault’s Panopticism, the labels given to us by society automatically brand us and we are required to fulfill a type of role or expectation based on the title given to us.

The labels given to us are assigned because of how an individual perceives us whether they are based off of appearance or our actions. Unlike the Panopticon, there is not just one central tower that has an observer watching us but rather the people we pass on the street have the power to observe as well. There is no longer just one observer who has the central power but several people who can watch our every move and perceive us in certain ways. As Foucault states the “power of spectacle” still maintains the same effect and “our society is one not of spectacle, but of surveillance.” (301) However with all this surveillance, “his ‘true’ name, his ‘true’ place, his ‘true’ body” starts to be defined; thus the formation of labels. (284)

The pressure to behave accordingly has increased because we are constantly under the surveillance of society and having our every move be recorded and observed. Furthermore, while those surrounding us have the power to observe, as individuals we begin to take in those around us and begin to judge them as well. Nevertheless, it is not the label that first defines us, it is the observer. They are the ones who have the initial power to influence our actions simply by feeling as though those around us are judging us. Once we are branded into our label, we feel obligated to act these different roles and put on several different masks in order to please those around us who are associated in our group.

As individuals we constantly feel the need to be accepted into a group and are highly concerned with how we are being perceived, especially if we do not know the people observing us. The gaze that has the strongest influence on our actions is the gaze of a stranger. Although we may not personally know those who pass us on the street and surround us a majority of the time, these are the observers we fear most because we worry about the way they are perceiving us. We constantly care about how we will be perceived even if we do not know those forming opinions on us because we were designed to feel the need to be socially accepted. The feeling that a strangers “gaze is everywhere” compels us to do what we feel those around us consider to be socially acceptable.

We are most restricted in public places because as Foucault states the power of observation “reaches the threshold of a discipline when the relation of the one to the other becomes favorable.” (304) For instance, when I am in public I certainly do not sing songs that play on my iPod because I fear what those around me will think about what type of person I am; perhaps I will receive a reputation for being known as the weird girl who sings to herself. Once we start to care more about what those around us see in ourselves we become a prisoner of their examination, behaving in ways that those around us do. We never become comfortable when surrounded by several strangers because we will never know what their opinions of us are.

Authority figures such as professors, officers and adults, also have a great deal of control over our actions. Unlike the stranger we encounter and never get to know, these authority figures are people we interact with on several occasions and generally reappear in our daily lives. When first interacting with these people who possess authority over ourselves, we generally want to make a good impression and desire to be in their good graces because we feel they have the power over us. Figures such as professors, adults and even the police officers Foucault addresses are members who are associated within this group.

These authority figures work in the same manner as the traditional panoptic situation where we are constantly aware of how we are being observed and put on a lasting mask of how to behave in front of them. However, what alters our comfort between a stranger and an authority figures’ gaze is that we have the opportunity to become comfortable with those who have authority. As we encounter those authority figures on a daily basis, we begin to form a comfort with the assumed role we are required to fulfill.

For instance, when first encountering my professors I felt that I needed to be depicted as the “perfect student” because I did not know them. Although they are figures where I am under my best behavior, a level of comfort is created as the semester progresses and an appropriate relationship begins to form between my professors and I. It ties together two important elements that while we become more comfortable with those around us, we start to become more of who we are and are able to unveil the many masks we must put on to those we feel most comfortable around.

While Foucault argued that family was the first panoptic system we felt most pressured under, the observation of our family and friends are the ones we actually are most comfortable and acquainted with. He may have asserted that we have “made the family the privileged locus of emergence for the disciplinary question of the normal and the abnormal.” (300) However, while we generally are concerned with what those who are close to us believe, we are able to break the barrier of being a stranger because we know these are the people who are most accepting of the actions we take.

These are the people who we in fact feel we can be ourselves around because we spend so much time with them and there is a comfort level within that relationship. These observations being made are so frequently that we are eventually able to take off our masks and be who we truly are. We simply have internalized our behavior, which forces us to be ourselves because we do not fear what judgment will be passed.

Although Foucault discusses how institutions are able to exercise the power of observation and the effect on our behaviors, today those observations are beyond the walls of a prison, hospital or school. The eyes of observation follow us everywhere we go, and the most restraining observers are the ones we do not know. By being surrounded by those we are comfortable with, we are able to take off our several masks we are forced to put on while in the community or in front of those we do not know. Unlike Foucault, it is not a matter of surveillance but a matter of who we feel the most comfort with.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Ways of Reading, 9th Edition. Eds. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petroski. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2011 282-309.


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