A Summary of Discipline and Punish, Part 3, Chapter 3: Panopticism

Foucault argues in this chapter that the formation of modern disciplinary institutions can be linked (at least in a formal sense) to the treatment of plague victims in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe. Just as the great Confinement was, in Foucault’s eyes, based on the exclusion of the leper, modern disciplinary institutions and practices are based upon the rigidly segmented treatment of plague victims. Foucault states that, “Rather than the massive, binary division between one set of people and another, the plague] called for multiple separations, individualizing distributions, an organization in depth of surveillance and control, an intensification and a ramification of power” (198). Thus, while lepers were merely excluded and left to their own devices (in the darkness of a dungeon, or simply the darkness at the margins of society) the new disciplinary practices were formed under the idea that all evil must be rigidly separated and excluded.

Thus, the leper and the plague victim become combined to form a disciplinary subject.

The fully developed model of this double subject (excluded and segmented at once) is given in Jeremy Bentham’s discussion of the Panopticon. The Panopticon is literally a building in which individuals cells circularly enclose a courtyard in which there is a central watchtower. The key, for both Foucault and Bentham, is that the prisoners (or workers, or school children, or hospital patients, etc.) in the cells can all be seen in a glance by whoever is in the watchtower, but they can never see who observes them or even if they are being observed. For Bentham, the power must be always visible and never verifiable: power is thus evenly applied to separate bodies.

Thus, a new and total economy of surveillance and discipline is invoked. The previous model (that of the plague victim) was never as total as desired. In fact, through “the frenzy of passing time, bodies mingling together without respect” (197), a whole economy of transgression was inadvertently created. The totalizing specter of surveillance was, in fact, imperfectly applied; gaps between theory and practice were large and unavoidable. In addition to this theoretical and practical totality, the Panopticon promised a reduced economy (in terms of 'cost') of surveillance.

Not only is it more effective, but the Panopticon is cheaper and easier to manage than previous disciplinary systems. Foucault states that “The Panopticon is a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power” (202) and that “A real subjection is born mechanically from a fictitious relation. So it is not necessary to use force...” (202). Thus, not only does one remove the necessity for (usually expensive) force, but one removes even the necessity for constant surveillance. Rather than actual surveillance, all that is required is the constant threat of surveillance. When this is firmly ingrained, the subject becomes “the principle of his own subjection”. (203). The constant, unknown threat of surveillance (and the resulting sanctions for ‘wrong’ action) constitutes subjects who are not only afraid of this constant threat, but internalize the external and begin to police themselves. The Panopticon affects “a perpetual victory that avoids any physical confrontation and which is always decided in advance” (202-203).

All page numbers above refer to:

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan (Vintage Books: a division of Random House Inc., New York, 1977 {2nd edition, 1995})

The original french is:

Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir: naissance de la prison, (Gallimard, Paris, 1975).