To what extent is the Panopticon a suitable analogy for power?

(Panopticon on wikipedia).

Published on International Relations, by Cedric Cordenier /King’s College London, written: January 2011 for Prof. John Meadowcroft, published March 2, 2011.

… In the first place, the Panopticon is a suitable analogy of Foucault’s conception of power because it reflects its omnipresence and visibility. The watchtower is of central importance here. It sees all, but is also seen. The watchtower is the predominant mechanism by which power is made to impregnate and transcend the individual. Indeed, it is the watchtower that assures the automatic functioning of power serving as it does to constantly impress on the individual a feeling of being watched (Foucault 201). This surveillance needs to be visible, or at the very least we must be aware of it since awareness of the “gaze” assures it functioning and constrains the inmate to become the “principle of his own subjection” (203). As such, the “gaze” of the Panopticon is closely tied to Foucault’s notion of power-knowledge, and alludes to it. 

The power-knowledge relationship does not imply that power and knowledge are synonymous, rather it suggests that power is both a cause and an effect of knowledge (Digeser 986). The idea that knowledge precedes power can be applied to the Panopticon and in particular to the awareness of the “gaze” of the central watchtower. Thus the functioning of power depends on the knowledge that the watchtower is the place where the guards reside. In contrast, the idea that power precedes knowledge does not seem to be contained within the Panoptic device, and this is a sense in which the Panopticon is not a satisfactory analogy for Foucault’s conception of power.

The second half of the power-knowledge relationship implies that power is productive of knowledge (987). Knowledge, on this account, can neither be objective nor guaranteed, since power produces the knowledge that is necessary to uphold norms (Digeser 988). It creates within society a divide between the “normal” and the “abnormal” through dichotomies such as sick/healthy or sane/insane. Hence the idea that “madness,” and in particular the criteria that serve to judge whether someone is mad or not, is produced by the state—it does not just exist (Danaher et al., 26). Foucault’s notion of “biopower,” which Rabinow and Rose suggest contains two poles—one focusing on the “anatamo- politics of the human body, seeking to maximize its forces and integrate it into efficient systems” and the other focusing on the population as a whole, seeking to ensure health, to limit mortality, increase longevity; to produce, in short, an efficient, healthy and able workforce—is the means by which this knowledge is put into effect (196). The central point of biopower is that whilst it does lead to the production of knowledge—which is one-half of the power-knowledge relationship—it also leads to classification, that is, the application of disciplinary power, through the knowledge produced (Danaher et al., 26). Indeed, knowledge of, for example, the symptoms that indicate depression, madness, or any disease in general, provides a basis for justifying the removal of those people with the corresponding symptoms from the public sphere of society to the “niche,” remote space within society of the asylum or the hospital.

The Panopticon is also suitable as an analogy for Foucault’s conception of power because it contains this notion of biopower. Indeed, the notion of biopower is essential because it analogises the Panopticon as an individualising and totalising device. Individualising—just as the discrete cells of the Panopticon, and the invisibility of each inmate to the others creates a “collection of separated individualities,” so the knowledge produced by biopower can identify from without the masses those who do not “fit in.” Totalising—just as the central position of the watchtower permits a constant observation of all cells, all inmates, at any given time, so biopower can classify, separating the normal from the abnormal, bringing “all aspects of life under its ‘gaze’ and [prodding] the thoughts, beliefs, actions, morals, and desires of individuals toward a norm of what is acceptable” (Digeser 993; Foucault 201). For it is through classification that the Panopticon reforms rather than punishes, corrects rather than reprimands. Foucault recognises the power of classification:“Classification is sanction. If you are well classified, there is reward. But if you are not well classified, there is punishment” (Michel Foucault par lui-meme).

Some critics such as Nick Crossley have suggested that a critical flaw in the use of the Panopticon as an analogy of the Foucauldian conception of power is that it is not obvious why the “gaze” produced by the central watchtower should have the effect of making the inmate the “principle of his own subjection” (Foucault 203). Crossley goes on to suggest that the “gaze” achieves its regulating effect because the inmate is “objectified in the gaze of the other”—there is a refusal to communicate on the part of the other. As a result, the inmate is alienated, and loses his sense of self. He no longer belongs to himself, but to the other: his actions and experiences take on a meaning and significance for the other that the inmate cannot understand (407–408; 414). Yet it is through the mechanism of classification, which arises from Foucault’s biopower, that this process of alienation occurs, such that it is nevertheless possible to suggest that classification may serve to explain the regulating power and effect of the “gaze.” Indeed, the inmate of the Panopticon is under constant threat of classification. In a prison, conformity to social norms and values leads to the prospect of parole. In an asylum, to the prospect of release. In a workhouse, to the prospect of promotion. Continued refusal to conform, to sanction. The “gaze” is given effect, in short, because the process of classification that is central to the exercise of disciplinary power occurs through it … (full text and works cited).

Comments are closed.