Foucault, “Panopticism”

Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. (36 pages)


Foucault again focuses his attention to the ways disciplines organize and control discourse. In this piece, he looks at the ways space and specifically architecture (as opposed to the distribution of bodies) contributes to power.

He opens with the plague as an extended example. In particular, the plague becomes an interesting example where the reaction to it was developing order through disciplinary mechanisms of surveillance and control. However, what makes the plague unique—as opposed to leprosy—is its binary division, multiple separations, and individualizing distributions. The panopticon (Bentham) is the “architectural figure of this composition” mentioned above (200).


Foucault outlines some if this structure’s key features. Of central focus is visibility: each actor, for example, is “perfectly individualized and constantly visible” (200). In this way, “visibility is a trap” (200) where the actor is both seen, and yet he, himself, does not see; “he is the object of information, never a subject of communication” (200). The tower imposes a axial visibility (actor seeing tower) and implies a lateral invisibility (actor unable to see neighbors). The lateral invisibility, thus, maintains order as actors are unable to convene, cooperate, or communicate. The crows (“a compact mass, a locus of multiple exchanges” 201) is relegate to a “collection of separated individuals” (201).

One of the key features of the panopticon is its automatic functioning of power. In other words, the architectural apparatus sustains power through the actors incased in it; in other words, “the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers” (201). This is achieved through the visibility and verifiability of power. While inmates can see the tower, he is unable to verify whether he is being observed; thus, “he must be sure that he may always be so” (201). Accordingly, the panopticon functions even without bars, chains or locks: “he who is subjected to a field of visibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relations in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (203).

As an analogy, the panopticon becomes “a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men” (205). Such a structure can penetrate other institutions of life such as hospitals, schools, offices, and domestic life. Foucault also notes that while such a structure may seemingly lead to tyranny, it is, in fact, maintained democratically: any member of the public has an opportunity to offer surveillance. In this way, the panopticon is more than “merely the solution of a technical problem”; rather, it si a “whole type of society” (216).


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