P. 92: Panopticism: Ex. 4.2

Write a short summary of Foucault’s arguments and comment on the relevance of his theory to digital culture.


1.   End of 17th C. steps to be taken in the event of a plague striking a town: Order is to be paramount: omnipresent & omniscient power is subdivided into roles of people in authority; the individual’s every personal detail were to be made known.

2.  Politically:  Discipline was strong & to be enforced: death penalties for the slightest infringement of the ordered measures taken in the event of a plague. Political power had ramifications into every minute aspect of everyday life: pure community & disciplined life.

3.  Utopia of a perfectly governed city: hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing, disciplinary  power controls the town.  The leper, the damaged individual, is excluded.  The image of the plague stands for all forms of confusion and disorder.

4.  Double mode of authority: brand & remould.

5.  Jeremy Bentham’s (1748 – 1832) unrealised Panopticon has a central tower in which are walls and rooms which cannot be seen from the outer surrounding walls housing the inmates.  The front and back walls of this surrounding structure are built to let light in so that, regardless of where the prisoner is, s/he is always illuminated whereas the observer /guard is not.  Key concept: he is seen but he does not see: visibility is a trap.  The invisibility of the guard (authority) guarantees order.  This is the opposite of the dungeon where the prisoner is deprived of light, in an enclosed space and never seen.   the permanent visibility of the inmate assures the automatic functioning of power.(Gk Panoptes = a giant with 100 eyes).

6.  The inmates must never know if they are being watched, but they have constantly in their consciousness the tower – symbol of that authority.

7.  Power has its principle in the mechanism of authority in which the inmates are caught up.  Any individual can operate the machine.

8.  Main principle of the Panopticon: He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.

9.  It’s a place for conducting experiments on men, for testing ideas, for keeping an eye on employees.

10.  A way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men.  It is a diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; a figure of political technology with no specific attachment to a particular use centred on discipline.

11.  N.H.Julius, French philosopher, said that the panopticon was an event in the history of the human mind.  Antiquity had been a civilisation of spectacle: temples, theatres, colosseum & the circus. In the modern age, the community has gone, public life ditto,  but the private individual & the state still oppose one another & the aim is to build structures intended to observe masses of men simultaneously. (Skyscrapers with glass walls).

12.  NHJ “Our society is not one of spectacle but of surveillance: under the surface of images, one sees bodies in depth.  The circuits of communication are the supports of an accumulation and a centralisation of knowledge … the individual is carefully fabricated.  Constant surveillance is the equivalent of indefinite discipline, an endless interrogation.

13.Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?

14.  A great aim of governments is to distribute buildings intended to observe a great multitude of men at the same time.

Relevance of the Panopticon & Foucault’s theory to digital culture.

To what does digital culture relate?  It relates not only to images but also to documents as expanded views of the image.

There are many expressions in the document which reference the image, some of which are: surveillance, observation, visibility, seen, being watched, keeping an eye on, panopticon, spectacle, theatre, circus, resemble …All deal with overt or covert aspects of looking and each one is relevant today.
Today there are the obvious & ubiquitous CCTV cameras placed on every street corner, in every shop, petrol station, doctors’ surgery, schools, classrooms, universities, hospital … and in parliament – every aspect of human life is covered by one.

Then there are the public quality control inspections and their concomitant reports in every aspect of human experience (except parliament) which are condensed to one snapshot word: poor, failing, good, excellent which are emblazoned on the mandatory website of every institution – even the corner café has to have a food hygiene assessment on its front door.  Of course, the OCA has the same philosophy: students are expected to have personal learning logs which are not submitted to be assessed but which are expected to be evident on a blog/website: students are the ‘prisoners’ of the institution’s panopticon where we think the tutor – the guardian – will see what we have done but we don’t know when or if s/he will do so – they are totally unseen while our work is in full view.

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Our every touch of the keyboard is recorded and messages concerning it sent to interested bodies, usually with a financial interest in our activities, so that we can be targeted to conform to what society requires us to do; the images we download or upload all form part of some exquisitely complex algorithm which transforms us into disembodied numerical terms operated by anyone, reported to everyone.  The Wikileaks furore will testify to the availability of every computed move being recorded; the phone tapping scandals testament to big brother watching and hearing every thing we say, every song we play, our every move tracked on the wonderful world of Google maps.  I find it interesting to read the request to log my location on whatever device I happen to be on at the time: it makes no difference what my reply is – my location is known anyway.   Every app we make or download is another check on what we do,  where we go and how different enterprises can exploit us; every shop we go past can access our phone and send us a message to entice us in & disgorge our purses or max out our credit cards.  We are encouraged in our modern thinking to believe that we have the world at our fingertips through our mobile phones: ‘to procure for a small number, or even for an individual, the instantaneous view of a great multitude.’  The community is no longer the central concern of governments.  What is important is 14 above – buildings intended to have great multitudes of men being observed at the same time.

How often have we heard our society referred to as the nanny state in which every authority is taken away from the individual and taken on by the state which then is ordered in a system of hierarchies developed to control individuals of whom every detail is known.

We are complicit in all this – we encourage observation by buying the devices which are digital in our regulated lives because we don’t want to be left behind in the technology that ‘everyone is seen to be using.’

Axiomatic in this document is ‘Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance.’  The important is not that we are watching but that we are being watched.  We have gradually given up our independence & the autonomy of our communities.

The concept of ‘spectacle’ is differently used by Foucault and Debord.  The former uses it in terms of political control of the masses through ‘spectacle’ such as in a colosseum or the theatre, the latter uses it in analysing the values which society puts on copies of originals,  particularly in feeding consumerism and on the appearance of things rather than on the essence of ideas/things.   Although both men lived in the middle of the 20th C., they interpreted the word differently and both are relevant to digital culture.  Our uploading of images on to social media has long been criticised by photographers: Penelope Umbrico and Erik Kessels to name but 2 current and contemporary practitioners who recycle images to make endless copies of originals and to entertain.



Debord,G.1983. Society of the spectacle. Black & Red

Foucault, M. Panopticism: Essay in Evans & Hall (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader



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