Foucault on Panopticon

The All Seeing Eye

Along with other social theorists, Foucault believed that knowledge is always a form of power, but he took it a step further and told us that knowledge can be gained from power; producing it, not preventing it. Through observation, new knowledge is produced. In his view, knowledge is forever connected to power, and often wrote them in this way: power/knowledge. Foucault’s theory states that knowledge is power:

Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has the power to make itself true. All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has effects, and in that sense at least, ‘becomes true.’ Knowledge, once used to regulate the conduct of others, entails constraint, regulation and the disciplining of practice. Thus, ‘there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time, power relations (Foucault 1977,27).

For him, power exists everywhere and comes from everywhere; it was a key concept because it acts as a type of relation between people, a complex form of strategy, with the ability to secretly shape another’s behaviour. Foucault did not view the effects of power negatively. For him, power didn’t exclude, repress, censor, mask, and conceal. Foucault saw it as a producer of reality: “it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth” (Foucault 1977,194). The importance for him always lay in the effect that power has on entire networks, practices, the world around us, and how our behaviour can be affected, not power itself.

One of the techniques/regulatory modes of power/knowledge that Foucault cited was the Panopticon, an architectural design put forth by Jeremy Bentham in the mid-19th Century for prisons, insane asylums, schools, hospitals, and factories. Instead of using violent methods, such as torture, and placing prisoners in dungeons that were used for centuries in monarchial states around the world, the progressive modern democratic state needed a different sort of system to regulate its citizens. The Panopticon offered a powerful and sophisticated internalized coercion, which was achieved through the constant observation of prisoners, each separated from the other, allowing no interaction, no communication. This modern structure would allow guards to continually see inside each cell from their vantage point in a high central tower, unseen by the prisoners. Constant observation acted as a control mechanism; a consciousness of constant surveillance is internalized.

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