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Our Foucault reading deals heavily with the concept of the Panopticon. Designed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 1700s, the Panopticon provides the architectural means to enhance control while minimizing the actual supervision required. The physical structure of such a building maximizes the isolation and visual exposure of prisoners while obscuring the appearance of the observer. As a result, one person could effectively monitor all the prisoners. Additionally, because the observer himself could not be directly viewed, prisoners must assume they were constantly under surveillance and act accordingly.

Although Bentham proposed his design for a prison, he suggested that it also could be of use in “houses of industry, work-houses, poor-houses, lazarettos, manufactories, hospitals, mad-houses, and schools.” You can read Bentham’s Panopticon Writings online. You also can read more about the concept in the Panopticon Wikipedia entry.  The images below show a blue print for Bentham’s concept and photos from a Cuban prison that utilized the panoptic model.

The Panopticon Through the Eyes of Foucault

While Bentham was not actually able to convince English officials to build the Panopticon, the idea regained currency when Michel Foucault analyzed the metaphor in Discipline and Punish. Foucault called the Panopticon a “kind of laboratory of power” and notes:

Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions. He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. The arrangement of his room, opposite the central tower, imposes on him an axial visibility; but the divisions of the ring, those separated cells, imply a lateral invisibility. And this invisibility is a guarantee of order. If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at collective escape, the planning of new crimes for the future, bad reciprocal influences; if they are patients, there is no danger of contagion; if they are madmen there is no risk of their committing violence upon one another; if they are schoolchildren, there is no copying, no noise, no chatter, no waste of time; if they are workers, there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents. The crowd, a compact mass, a locus of multiple exchanges, individualities merging together, a collective effect, is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities. From the point of view of the guardian, it is replaced by a multiplicity that can be numbered and supervised; from the point of view of the inmates, by a sequestered and observed solitude (Bentham, 60-64).

Foucault argues that the increased visibility found in modern society allows for a greater level of control over the individual. Modern society exercises its control via power and knowledge; power and knowledge it access via the panoptic connections embedded in our everyday lives.

Two audio recordings of Foucault commenting on Discipline and Punish are available on YouTube:

Video not available

Video not available

Background on Foucault

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Born Oct. 15, 1926, Paul-Michel Foucault was the son of an eminent French surgeon. Michel Foucault experienced mixed success in his early academic career. He suffered from acute depression and after seeing a psychiatrist became fascinated with the field of psychology. He earned a license (equivalent to a BA) in psychology and a degree in philosophy in 1952. Foucault was a member of the French Communist party (inducted by his mentor Louis Althusser) but later became disillusioned with its politics and philosophy.

Foucault completed his doctorate in 1960 and held a variety of university posts until being appointed in 1969 to the Collège de France, where he was Professor of the History of Systems of Thought until his death. He was often grouped with thinkers such as Jacques Lacan, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes.

Starting in the early 1970s, Foucault spent much time in the United States both at the University of Buffalo and the University of California Berkley. He was politically active; often protesting on behalf of homosexuals and other marginalized groups. Foucault died in Paris on June 25, 1984 from AIDS-related complications.

For more information on Foucault, you might want to peruse the following sites:


  1. Foucault notes: “There is no risk, therefore, that the increase of power created by the panoptic machine may degenerate into tyranny; the disciplinary mechanism will be democratically controlled, since it will be constantly accessible ‘to the great tribunal committee of the world.'” Do you agree? Why or why not?
  2. Do you see evidence of the “panoptic machine” in current social media? [connection to Albrechtsund reading]

19 Responses to “Panopticon”

  1. […] that many fear invasions of privacy (either from a Big-Brother-style government or the advent of Foucault’s disciplinary society). Following are four videos. One is a CNN news report on NY city surveillance cameras. The others […]

  2. […] “Designed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 1700s, the Panopticon provides the architectural means to enhance control while minimizing the actual supervision required. ” Digital Cross Rhodes […]

  3. Crystal says:

    Visibility is a trap. -Foucault

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  8. […] The Prisoner, 1967-68 2. Presidio Modelo, Cuba 3. Who is watching whom? 4. A companion to the FBI’s Anti-Piracy […]

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