Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Study task 3: Culture that is panoptic


Panopticism as defined by Foucault is an exact science. A science which was created during the plague of the 17th century in order to remove disruptive elements such as chaos and uncertainty from a clearly defined area. Order and discipline took their place. This state of affairs would be imposed by the use of a flawless surveillance system, which was implemented and maintained by a meticulous and efficient bureaucracy;

“Everything that may be observed during the course of the visits – deaths, illnesses, complaints, irregularities – is noted down and transmitted to the intendants and magistrates.” (Foucault, 1977)

We see, then, that the system existed to acquire and then place power and knowledge under the arbitrary control of a centralized authority. However, panopticism was not invented so that officials could gain and exercise power merely for the sake of it. As Foucault (1977) shows, panopticism was a means to an end, which required an opportunity; “in order to see perfect discipline functioning, rulers dreamt of the state of plague.” The objective was to secure absolute control of an area which would be observed, analysed and then remodelled to create perfection;


“The plague-stricken town, traversed thorought with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly-governed city.”  (1977: 62)

When considered from a modern point of view, Foucault's use of the word “utopia” is intriguing. At the time of its invention, panopticism was evidently viewed as a method of making a perfect society. In contrast, the attitudes of the modern world encourage us to distrust any attempt to implement a system which creates “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” (1977: 65)

There are many among us who object to the amount of CCTV cameras which exist on our high streets. Any talk of introducing ID cards in Britain usually provokes outrage from those who wish to protect our civil liberties. Often the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” is chosen in order to conjure up images of an Orwellian dystopia in which individuals have virtually no freedom of movement or privacy. Amidst all these fears, panopticism does indeed exist in modern times. As Foucault demonstrates, the evidence can be found in panoptic architecture; “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (1977: 70)

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