Project: Looking, observation or surveillance?

Text Panopticism by Michel Foucalt


  • Foucault describes the measures taken when plague appeared in town. In essence they included closing (the town), prohibition (to leave), killing (stray animals), division (of town into different areas), surveillance and governance (by town appointed officials). He sums up the system as ‘the registration of the pathological must be constantly centralised’ (Foucault, 1999 p.61).


  • The chaos of the plague is met by a series of ordered responses by those in power, involving divisions of people and places, and a hierarchy.
  • This chaos led to the idea of the ‘festival’ where everyone was free to be themselves. This is contrasted with the plague which is the apotheosis of control and order.
  • The plague is also contrasted with the disease of leprosy and lepers. Whilst lepers are simply separated, marked and ignored, plague victims are controlled segregated, and analysed- it’s more complicated.
  • In a broader political sense leprosy represents ‘ a pure community’ , and control through separation; plague represents discipline and control of  ‘a perfect governed city’ (Foucault, 1999 p.62).


  • These two ideas came together in the 18th C when those simply excluded from society- beggars, the insane, criminals… started to be segmented, organised, analysed (but still separated), whether in schools, prisons, hospitals, or asylums etc.
  • The two basic contrasting modes of power which are illustrated by these examples are
  1. Binary separation and a marking/branding (mad/sane etc……NB Binary oppositions!)
  2. a coercion into different assignments and distributions.
  • These mechanisms and modes can still be seen today- operating on those considered ‘abnormal’.
  • Jeremy Bentham’s Opticon is an idea of a building designed to allow this control. It’s described by Foucalt- and has a central tower, surrounded by an annular ring of buildings and rooms. The windows are designed so that one ‘supervisor’ in the tower can see clearly into each surrounding room, where the occupant’s actions are highlighted by the back light.
  • The rooms can be occupied by any ‘abnormals’ that need surveillance…. prisoners, workers, schoolchildren, the sick ….. (the list is theoretically and politically endless)


  • continuing to describe the characteristics of the architectural opticon, the author states that any prisoner: is seen, but cannot see, cannot communicate with others (as a subject), but is always the object of communication.
  • This arrangement has great benefits in practical terms, for control … think of workers denied unions, disease being isolated from new bodies, prisoners become harmless.
  • The crowd has become separate individuals, they feel more lonely and powerless, but the observer gains in power.
  • ‘Hence the major effect of the opticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that ensures the automatic functioning of power’ (Foucault, 1999 p.65).
  • Fundamental to this control is that the prisoner needs to know he is being watched, whereas it is not necessary to actually watch him (he must never be able to verify (see) that he is being watched…….
  • ‘The panopticon dissociates the see/being seen dyad’ (Foucault, 1999 p.65). (the prisoner is seen but cannot see, the controller sees but cannot be seen)

P 66.

  • The panoptican is a power machine- it automates power. Unlike the old world power of a sovereign king or queen- with its silly visible ceremonies and individualisms, this power can be wielded by anyone, and for any reason… ( curiosity, punishment, research, sadism…….).
  • Bentham was quite surprised at how little mechanical (bars/chains…) or physical power (restraint/etc..) was needed in the buildings designed upon the panopticon .


Surely there must sometimes be displays of physical power/punishment/ to prove that the elements of seeing/being seen and possible punishment are all working and ready to go if needed??  Like a weekly fire alarm test. Otherwise, if seeing or physical reaction were not functioning properly disorder may result?

  •  The panopticon also allows a myriad of things which follow from surveillance…or more specifically Observation – measuring (behaviours such as work, attitudes, aptitude, work rates), distinguishing results ( eg. Laziness v ineptitude)


  • As well as observation, the panopticon allows for the changing of behaviour and experimentation.
  • Eg. Testing different drugs on different patients, different work techniques to see which is most efficacious, different punishments, etc……… It sounds like a good instrument for research – but not ethical research !!!
  • The opticon can allow analysis of its own working systems (like a computer scan ?). At each level in the hierarchy of possible observers, the greater can observe the lesser, whether doctors observed in the rooms treating patients, or whether inspectors drop in unobserved to measure how the warden is managing the unit.
  • The difference between the plague situation and the panopticon ( separated by c. 150 years) is that the first is a response to a one-off , exceptional event, the second is a generalised response enabling control of an ideal society.
  • The panopticon is not an actual building, but is a political /abstract/generalisable representation of power relations
  • Shortly after Bentham, Julius stated that the society of antiquity was one of the spectacle- the many seeing the few, but that modern society was the opposite- based on how the few could observe the many.- the state observing and controlling the society.


  • Julius saw that the panopticon method of Bentham, had actually come to be a historical progression which had affected social structure in society.
  • Napolean is cited as a character who’s strength is due to the fact that he is both sovereign power, but also the head of the newer power – seen as the surveillance/ opticon mediated power of the state ……
  • The image of king’s rule punishing man was decapitation of the felon, which somehow cleansed the crime completely.
  • This has developed along the lines of the modern penal system (through the opticon characteristics)- involving constant surveillance, investigation, experts on labelling/separating – guilty/not guilty, insane/sane, …(the judge/ magistrates)……
  • In today’s prison the opticon principle is seen working everywhere……….and the buildings of prisons look similar to workplaces, schools, hospitals etc ( where the opticon is translated for a different master).


Foucault, M. (1999) ‘Panopticism’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   p. 61-71




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