What is the panopticon?

The panopticon is often associated with Foucault in the same way as previous key terms heterotopia and dispositif.

Given that Discipline and Punish is Foucault’s most popular book, and that he discusses the panopticon there, it is not surprising that a lot of people associate the panopticon with prisons. But he actually first introduced it in his lectures on psychiatry.

Foucault first presents the panopticon on 21 November 1973, two years before Discipline and Punish was first published and more fully on 28 November. It is a disciplinary power.

(Update: the research for D+P seems to have been done by the time of these lectures, and was written by August 1974.)

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 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.

Psychiatric Power: 73-4

Foucault goes on to describe the ideal form, a circular building, cells, a viewing gallery, a central tower, etc.

Perhaps surprisingly, he argues that it was wrong to see this as a typical example of 18th C. utopias. Why?

It is individualizing; one body per cell, a kind of “pinning down in space” (75). It ends collective action and phenomena.

Second, the power exercised is “entirely anonymous” because it cannot be seen back (now known as inverse surveillance or more generally “sousveillance“).

Those surveilled are examinable and transparent: the panopticon achieved this by having a window behind each individual. They are permanently visible.

Finally, this is all linked to extraction of knowledge.

Summary: “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” (79).


3 Responses

  1. […] What is the panopticon? […]

  2. […] aberrant sexuality. We were not supposed to have any private body or self. Michel Foucault’s panopticon is never more appropriate than when employed to describe the black woman’s existence. As such, […]

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