Thursday, December 13, 2007

Abstract of "Panopticism," pages 200-209

Foucault lauds the Panopticon as "a functional mechanism that must improve the exercise of power by making it lighter, more rapid, more effective, a design of subtle coercion for a society to come"(209). He calls it a "perfect disciplinary institution" that will "strengthen the social forces--to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality; to increase and multipy"(208).

Some of the reasons why the Panopticon "perfects the exercise of power"(206):
1. "It can reduce the number of those who exercise [power]" (206).
2. It can "increase the number of those on whom [power] is exercised"(206).
2. "The constant pressure acts even before the mistakes and crimes have been committed"(206).
3. "It assures its efficacity by its preventative character, its continuous functioning and its automatic mechanisms"(206).
4. "The disciplinary mechanism will be democratically controlled, since it will be constantly accessible 'to the great tribunal committee of the world'"(207).

The theory behind the Panopticon as the perfect disciplinary design is that "he who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection"(202-3). In other words, "it gives 'power of mind over mind'"(206).

We skirted around this issue in class on Tuesday. Diane brought up the example of her faculty member colleague who treats TA's and staffers in ways that she would never dream of with a boss or administrator. Tom mentioned the surly checkers at Boise Co-op. I think that all mature, productive members of society have an internal disciplinary mechanism that self-regulates behavior. We decide what it is we want out of life, what our goals are, and we (try to) discipline ourselves in ways that will help us achieve those goals, be it friendship, work promotions, academic success, athletic accomplishment, etc. We don't discipline ourselves to "behave" if we don't believe our misbehavior will interfere with our goals. For example, if my main goal in life is to avoid contention, I am not going to stand up for myself when I have been wronged. If my goal is to do whatever it takes to get a job promotion, I am going to devote long hours to my work, neglecting other human relationships.

What we call disciplinary mechanisms in our society today are really nothing more than inducements to encourage the individual to perform the actual job of disciplining and self-regulation. That is the theory behind the Panopticon and it is effective because it doesn't require corporal punishment, deprivation, or anything else besides the constant threat of surveillance to encourage one to exercise discipline upon one's own behavior.

However, there are several things that confuse me about the concept of the Panopticon:
1. Foucault says that this model can be applied to "barracks, schools, and workshops"(209). He also mentions its use in hospitals. I don't understand if he is simply referring to the idea of constant surveillance? Or does he actually advocate this architectural design for classrooms and workplaces--each person holed up in a cell with a distant and inaccessible supervisor in a central tower?
2. Foucault talks repeatedly of the ability the public would have to come in and observe human behavior within the Panopticon. So anybody could have access to the central tower? What is the purpose of that and wouldn't it disrupt the normal operation of the Panopticon if untrained "supervisors" were occupying the tower instead of official surveillance officers?
3. He also says that it "enables everyone to come and observe any of the observers"(207). Any ideas what he means by that?

Finally, it seems really idealistic to me that the Panopticon will make it "not necessary to use force to constrain the convict to good behaviour, the madman to calm, the worker to work, the schoolboy to application, the patient to the observation of regulations [...]no more bars, no more chains, no more heavy locks; all that [is] needed [is] that the seperations should be clear and the openings well arranged"(202). I discussed in class how the physical arrangement of the Panopticon makes it physically impossible for the supervisor to immediately discipline a wrongdoer. And of course, the supervisor is vastly outnumbered and even though he is at a vantage point to see all, that doesn't mean that he actually does see all. I would be interested in actual evidence of this theory working as anticipated in any of the aforementioned settings.

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