Theory II

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  • Michel Foucault. Discipline & Punish (1975), Panopticism Summary
  • #70897

    Tasfia Amir

    The panopticon is a prison system that is designed by Jeremy Bentham. It has a circular plan where a security guard observes prisoners from an observation tower positioned in the middle of the plan, and the peripheral building that is surrounding the tower is divided into prison cells. These cells have windows both on the inside and outside. This provides light and allows people from the outside and the guard from the tower to constantly observe them, but “visibility is a trap.” The prisoners have no idea who is watching them and whether they are always being watched or not. The idea is to make the prisoners feel like they are always under surveillance even though the guard or staff may or may not be watching the inmates. It helps the system to exercise its power over the criminals by encouraging them to be more disciplined which allows them to control their action better and there is less chance of them trying to escape. Bentham believed that “power should be visible but unverifiable.” The power of constant surveillance and the panopticon can easily make people aware of their own actions.

    Michel Foucault in his writing Discipline & Punish (1975), Panopticism criticized the panopticon by comparing it to the village that was under disciplinary observation which was cruel and harsh. Foucault began his writing by talking about the plague that happened in the seventeenth century and how citizens were strictly under surveillance all the time. They were constantly being inspected and separated from the society to purify the community. The consequence of breaking the quarantine was death. All of these were to keep people under control and to regulate the community to establish a better disciplined society which started the idea of a systematic approach to controlling individuals. We see some similarities to that quarantine life today in this pandemic and how rules are being imposed on us so that we can maintain our distance and stop the virus from spreading. However, people of today have more freedom, and our punishment for breaking rules is less severe. This results in people denying reality and exposing themselves to the virus and risking their lives as well as others.

    Therefore, the panopticon offers a solution to situations like this where people are needed to be regulated and disciplined. In a panopticon, cells are separated by walls placed in between. There is no opportunity to interact with others, no confirmation of who is watching, and it leaves them with no choice but to follow all the rules and regulations. It creates a “disciplinary blockade” that makes people conscious of their action in their everyday life no matter how small it is which ensures a “utopia of the perfectly governed city.” Bentham’s proposed design was for a prison system; however, this system is seen to be used for institutions like hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, and asylums that require more discipline. Foucault argues that “it is polyvalent in its applications; it serves to reform prisoners, but also to treat patients, to instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars and idlers to work.” Because the “permanent visibility assures automatic functioning of power,” the cells act like a laboratory where people are forced to do something for experiment purposes. It takes away one’s freedom of communication and action. It violates our human rights while trying to play a positive role. Does that make it better than our regular, overcrowded prison system which is also a penal institution? And should we be worried that other institutions like schools and hospitals in many ways function like a panopticon?

    • This topic was modified 3 years, 4 months ago by Tasfia Amir.
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