(This summary runs the length of Foucault's chapter on "Panopticism", if you want the short simple way tryFoucault's panopticism explained)
"Panopticism" is a chapter in Michel's Foucault's book "Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison" (1975). The book examines developments in Western penal systems and the formulation of contemporary prisons. Foucault's main argument in "Discipline and Punish" is that measures that presumably serve to "rehabilitate" offenders and thus society are in actual fact power mechanism of discipline which is not unique to prisons and can be found to be employed by other institutions like armies, schools, factories and so on.
Foucault claims in " Discipline and Punish" that modern prisons are in fact paradigmatic of a wider social process that changes to way power is wielded. According to Foucault the need to oversee a growing number of people in production systems of growing complexity has led to the development of elaborate systems of power, a new range of control tactics and new forms of knowledge and knowledge production. Discipline for Foucault is "a technology of power" aimed at turning the human multitude into something manageable and controllable. Discipline produces docile and obedient bodies in a manner which is useful for the needs of large scale systems of modern production. But when Foucault says "production" he does not mean only economics (this is a difference between Foucault and Marxism) but also the production all forms of power such a knowledge (see Foucault on power and knowledge). In "Discipline and Punish" Foucault shows how discipline works together with discourse to produce the modern individual who is apparently unique and independent but is in fact controlled. The chapter "Panopticism" in Foucault's book deals with exactly that.
Our summary will break down Panopticism into 4 parts :
Foucault begins with a description of measures to be taken against the plague in the seventeenth century: partitioning of space and closing off houses, constant inspection and registration. Processes of quarantine and purification operate. The plague is met by order. Lepers were also separated from society, but the aim behind this was to create a pure community. The plague measures aim at a disciplined community. The plague stands as an image against which the idea of discipline was created. The existence of a whole set of techniques and institutions for measuring and supervising abnormal beings brings into play the disciplinary mechanisms created by the fear of the plague. All modern mechanisms for controlling abnormal individuals derive from these.
Foucault then discusses Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, a building with a tower at the center from which it is possible to see each cell in which a prisoner or schoolboy is incarcerated. Visibility is a trap. Each individual is seen but cannot communicate with the warders or other prisoners. The crowd is abolished. The panopticon induces a sense of permanent visibility that ensures the functioning of power. Bentham decreed that power should be visible yet unverifiable. The prisoner can always see the tower but never knows from where he is being observed.
The possibility that the panopticon is based on the royal menagerie at Versailles is raised. The Panopticon allows on to do the work of a naturalist: drawing up tables and taxonomies. It is also a laboratory of power, in which experiments are carried out on prisoners and staff. The plague-stricken town and the panopticon represent transformations of the disciplinary programme. The first case is an exceptional situation, where power is mobilized against an extraordinary evil. The second is a generalized model of human functioning, a way of defining power relations in everyday life. The Panopticon is not a dream building, but a diagram of power reduced to its ideal form. It perfects the operations of power by increasing the number of people who can be controlled, and decreasing the number needed to operate it. It gives power over people's minds through architecture. As it can be inspected from outside, there is no danger of tyranny.
The panopticon was destined to spread throughout society. It makes power more economic and effective. It does this to develop the economy, spread education and improve public morality, not to save society. The panopticon represents the subordination of bodies that increases the utility of power while dispensing with the need for a prince. Bentham develops the idea that disciplines could be dispersed throughout society. He provides a formula for the functioning of a society that is penetrated by disciplinary mechanisms. There are two images of discipline: one) the discipline blockade—an exceptional enclosed space on the edge of society; and two) the discipline-mechanism—a functional mechanism to make power operate more efficiently.
The move from one to the other represents the formation in the seventeenth and eighteenth century of a disciplinary society. Other increasingly profound processes operated: one) the functional inversion of disciplines; two) the swarming of disciplinary mechanisms; mechanisms begin to circulate openly in society, and are broken down into flexible methods of control; three) the state control of discipline, as in the formation of a central police power.
We can talk of the formation of a disciplinary society in the movement from enclosed disciplines to an infinitely extendible "panopticism". The formation of a disciplinary society is connected to several historical processes: one) disciplines are techniques of assuring the ordering of human masses that elaborate tactics of power that operate economically and invisibly. These tactics aim to increase the docility and utility of all elements of the system. This corresponds to a population increase, and a rise in the numbers to be supervised. The development of a capitalist economy led to a situation where these techniques could be operated in diverse regimes. Two) the panoptic modality of power is not independent. The disciplines and panopticism are the reverse of a process by which rights are guaranteed. The Enlightenment, which invented the liberties, also invented the disciplines. Three) what is new in the eighteenth century is the combination of disciplinary techniques. This occurred within a development of other technologies. The eighteenth century invented the examination, just as the middle-ages invented the judicial inquisition; much of modern penal techniques reveal the penetration of the examination into the inquisition.