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December 20, 2015

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Panopticon

December 20, 2015

 

 

MICHEL FOUCAULT

28 November 1973

 

Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon

 

In actual fact, there was an extremely clear and quite remarkable formalization of this microphysics of disciplinary power. It is found quite simply in Bentham's Panopticon. What is the Panopticon? It is usually said that in 1787 Bentham invented the model of a prison, and that this was reproduced, with a number of modifications, in some European prisons: Pentonville in England, and, in a modified form, Petite Roquette in France, and elsewhere. In fact, Bentham's Panopticon is not a model of a prison, or it is not only a model of a prison; it is a model, and Bentham is quite clear about this, for a prison, but also for a hospital, for a school, workshop, orphanage, and so on. I was going to say it is a form for any institution; let's just say that it is a form for a series of institutions. And again, when I say it is a schema for a series of possible institutions, I think I am still not exactly right. In fact, Bentham does not even say that it is a schema for institutions, he says that it is a mechanism, a schema which gives strength to any institution, a sort of mechanism by which the power which functions, or which should function in an institution will be able to gain maximum force. The Panopticon is a multiplier; it is an intensifier of power within a series of institutions. It involves giving the greatest intensity, the best distribution, and the most accurate focus to the force of power. Basically these are the three objectives of the Panopticon, and Bentham says so: "Its great excellence consists, in the great strength it is capable of giving to any institution it may be thought proper to apply it to." In another passage he says that what is marvelous about the Panopticon is that it "gives a herculean strength to those who direct the institution." It "gives a herculean strength" to the power circulating in the institution, and to the individual who holds or directs this power. Bentham also says that what is marvelous about the Panopticon is that it constitutes a "new mode of obtaining power, of mind over mind." It seems to me that these two propositions—constituting a Herculean strength and giving the mind power over the mind—are exactly typical of the Panopticon mechanism and, if you like, of the general disciplinary form.

 

"Herculean strength," that is to say, a physical force which, in a sense, bears on the body, but which is such that this force, which hems in and weighs down on the body, is basically never employed and takes on a sort of immateriality so that the process passes from mind to mind, although in actual fact it really is the body that is at stake in the Panopticon system. This interplay between "Herculean strength" and the pure ideality of mind is, I think, what Bentham was looking for in the Panopticon. How did he bring it about? There is a circular building, the periphery of the Panopticon, within which cells are set, opening both onto the inner side of the ring through an iron grate door and onto the outside through a window. Around the inner circumierence of this ring is a gallery, allowing one to walk around the building, passing each cell. Then there is an empty space and, at its center, a tower, a kind of cylindrical construction of several levels at the top of which is a sort of lantern, that is to say, a large open room, which is such that from this central site one can observe everything happening in each cell, just by turning around. This is the schema. What is the meaning of this schema? Why did it strike minds and why was it seen for so long, wrongly in my view, as a typical example of eighteenth century Utopias? First, one and only one individual will be placed in each cell. That is to say, in this system, which can be applied to a hospital, a prison, a workshop, a school, and so on, a single person will be placed in each of these boxes; each body will have its place. So there is pinning down in space, and the inspectors gaze will encounter a body in whatever direction taken by his line of sight. So, the individualizing function of the coordinates are very clear. This means that in a system like this we are never dealing with a mass, with a group, or even, to tell the truth, with a multiplicity: we are only ever dealing with individuals. Even if a collective order is given through a megaphone, addressed to everyone at the same time and obeyed by everyone at the same time, the fact remains that this collective order is only ever addressed to individuals and is only ever received by individuals placed alongside each other. All collective phenomena, all the phenomena of multiplicities, are thus completely abolished. And, as Bentham says with satisfaction, in schools there will no longer be the "cribbing" that is the beginning of immorality; in workshops there will be no more collective distraction, songs, or strikes; in prisons, no more collusion; and in asylums for the mentally ill, no more of those phenomena of collective irritation and imitation, etcetera.

 

You can see how the whole network of group communication, all those collective phenomena, which are perceived in a sort of interdependent schema as being as much medical contagion as the moral diffusion of evil, will be brought to an end by the panoptic system. One will be dealing with a power which is a comprehensive power over everyone, but which will only ever be directed at series of separate individuals. Power is collective at its center, but it is always individual at the point where it arrives. You can see how we have here the phenomenon of individualization I was talking about last week. Discipline individualizes below; it individualizes those on whom it is brought to bear.

 

 

As for the central cell, this kind of lantern, I told you that it was entirely glazed; in fact Bentham stresses that it should not be glazed or, if it is, one should install a system of blinds, which can be raised and lowered, and the room be fitted with intersecting, mobile partitions. This is so that surveillance can be exercised in such a way that those who are being supervised cannot tell whether or not they are being supervised; that is to say, they must not be able to see if there is anyone in the central cell. So, on the one hand, the windows of the central cell must be

shuttered or darkened, and there must be no backlighting which would enable prisoners to see through this column and see whether or not there is anyone in the central lantern; hence the system of blinds and the internal partitions that can be moved as desired.

 

So, as you can see, it will be possible for power to be entirely anonymous, as I was saying last week. The director has no body, for the true effect of the Panopticon is to be such that, even when no one is there, the individual in his cell must not only think that he is being observed, but know that he is; he must constantly experience himself as visible for a gaze, the real presence or absence of which hardly matters. Power is thereby completely de-individualized. If necessary, the central lantern could be completely empty and power would be exercised just the same. There is a de-individualization and disembodiment of power, which no longer has a body or individuality, and which can be anyone whomsoever. Furthermore, one of the essential points of the Panopticon is that within the central tower, not only may anyone be there—surveillance may be exercised by the director, but also by his wife, his children, or his servants, etcetera—but an underground passage from outside to the center allows anyone to enter the central tower if they wish and to carry out supervision. This means that any citizen whomsoever must be able to supervise what is going on in the hospital, school, workshop, or prison: supervising what is going on, supervising to check that every thing is in order, and supervising to check that the director is carrying out his functions properly, supervising the supervisor who supervises. There is a sort of ribbon of power, a continuous, mobile, and anonymous ribbon, which perpetually unwinds within the central tower. Whether it has or does not have a figure, whether or not it has a name, whether or not it is individualized, this anonymous ribbon of power perpetually unwinds anyway and is exercised through this game of invisibility. What's more, this is what Bentham calls "democracy," since anyone can occupy the place of power and power is not the property of anyone since everyone can enter the tower and supervise the way in which power is exercised, so that power is constantly subject to control. Finally, power is as visible in its invisible center as those who occupy the cells; and, due to this, power supervised by anyone really is the democratization of the exercise of power.

 

 

Another feature of the Panopticon is that, to make the interior of the cells visible, on the side facing inwards there is, of course, a door with a window, but there is also a window on the outer side, indispensable for producing an effect of transparency and so that the gaze of the person in the central tower can pass through all the cells from one side to the other, seeing against the light everything the person—student, patient, worker, prisoner, or whomsoever—is doing in the cell. So the condition of permanent visibility is absolutely constitutive of the individual's situation in the Panopticon. You can see that the relationship of power really does have that immateriality I was just talking about, for power is exercised simply by this play of light; it is exercised by the glance from center to periphery, which can, at every moment, observe, judge, record, and punish at the first gesture, the first attitude, the first distraction. This power needs no instrument; its sole support is sight and light.

 

Panopticon means two things. It means that everything is seen all the time, but it also means that the power exercised is only ever an optical effect. The power is without materiality; it has no need of all that symbolic and real armature of sovereign power; it does not need to hold the scepter in its hand or wield the sword to punish; it does not need to intervene like a bolt of lightning in the manner of the sovereign. This power belongs rather to the realm of the sun, of never ending light; it is the non material illumination that falls equally on all those on whom it is exercised.

 

Finally, the last feature of this Panopticon is that this immaterial power exercised in constant light is linked to an endless extraction of knowledge. That is to say, the center of power is, at the same time, the center of uninterrupted assessment, of the transcription of individual behavior. The codification and assessment of everything individuals are doing in their cells; the accumulation of knowledge and the constitution of sequences and series that will characterize these individuals; and a written, centralized individuality constituted in terms of a general network, forms the documentary double, the written ectoplasm, of the body's placement in its cell.

 

The first effect of this relationship of power is therefore the constitution of this permanent knowledge of the individual—pinned in a given space and followed by a potentially continuous gaze—which defines the temporal curve of his development, his cure, his acquisition of knowledge, or the acknowledgement of his error, and so forth. As you can see, the Panopticon is therefore an apparatus of both individualization and knowledge; it is an apparatus of both knowledge and power that individualizes on one side, and which, by individualizing, knows. Hence Bentham's idea of using it as an instrument for what he called "discovery in metaphysics.

 

 

" He thought that the panoptic apparatus could be used to conduct metaphysical experiments on children. Imagine taking foundlings, he said, right from birth, and putting them in a panoptic system, even before they have begun to talk or be aware of anything. In this way, Bentham says, we could follow "the genealogy of each observable idea" and, as a result, repeat experimentally what Condillac deduced without any equipment for metaphysical experimentation. As well as verifying Condillac's genetic conception, we could also verify the technological ideal of Helvetius when he said, "anyone can be taught anything." Is this fundamental proposition for the possible transformation of humanity true or false? An experiment with a panoptic system would suffice to find out; different things could be taught to different children in different cells; we could teach no matter what to no matter which child, and we would see the result. In this way we could raise children in completely different systems, or even systems incompatible with each other; some would be taught the Newtonian system, and then others would be got to believe that the moon is made of cheese. When they were eighteen or twenty, they would be put together to discuss the question. We could also teach two different sorts of mathematics to children, one in which two plus two make four and another in which they don't make four; and then we would wait again until their twentieth year when they would be put together for discussions.

 

And Bentham says, clearly having a bit of fun, this would be more worthwhile than paying people to give sermons, lectures, or arguments; we could have a direct experiment. Finally, of course, he says it would be necessary to conduct an experiment on boys and girls in which they are put together until they reach adolescence to see what happens. You see that this is the same story as La Dispute by Marivaux: a kind of panoptic drama that we find again, basically, in the piece by Marivaux. At any rate, you can see that the Panopticon is the formal schema for the constitution of an individualizing power and for knowledge about individuals. I think that the principal mechanisms of the panoptic schema, which we find at work in Bentham's Panopticon, are found again in most ol the institutions which, as schools, barracks, hospitals, prisons, reformatories, etcetera, are sites both for the exercise of power and for the formation of a certain knowledge about man. It seems to me that the panoptic mechanism provides the common thread to what could be called the power exercised on man as a force of work and knowledge of man as an individual. So that panopticism could, I think, appear and function withm our society as a general form; we could speak equally of a disciplinary society or of a panoptic society. We live within generalized panopticism by virtue of the lact that we live within a disciplinary system.

 

from:

Psychiatric Power

LECTURES AT THE COLLEGE DE FRANCE,

1973-74

 

Lecture four

28 November 1973

 

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