Is Bentham's Panopticon a Suitable Analogy for Power ?

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The Benthamite Panopticon (pan= all, optic= seing) is a prison model modelled in 1791 in a way that allows guards total observation and surveillance over inmates. It consists of a circular building with a watchtower at the centre and cells around it that enables the guards to see the cells without being seen by the jailers. This architectural design which expanded to other institutions like the psychiatric asylum, the reformatory, the school and the hospital seems to fit in only one framework of power_ the disciplinary power. Michel Foucault develops this postmodern social theory of power that turns away from the traditional third-dimensional view of power. Rather than see power as localised in an individual, in a state acting or in a ruling ideological class, the French philosopher claims that power is ‘employed and exercised through a net-like organisation’ (1980 : 98). To him, the Panopticon stands for the ideal architectural model of modern disciplinary power also known as the ‘anatomo-politics of human body’ (Foucault, 1990 : 139 ). This subtle power resides in the unverifiable gaze upon the individual which creates a powerful and sophisticated internalized coercion and shapes his behaviour. The Panoptic device stands for a strong psychology of control, a ‘power of mind over mind’ as Bentham put it (Foucault, 1977 : 206).

As a result, this essay will argue that Bentham’s Panoptic device is a suitable analogy for Foucault’s disciplinary power. Indeed, the building design maps out the six features of this power paradigm, those being its omnipresence or constant visibility, its dissymmetrical relationship, its examination, its close link with knowledge, its normalization and its diffusion. Yet, this essay will finally point out that, with the intensification and evolution of the form of power across time, the Panoptic schema may no longer be accepted as the best metaphor for the most recent power conception. The Panoptic limit has led to the elaboration of an architectural design more analogous for this current power paradigm based on sousveillance and equiveillance, known as the Catopticon.

First and foremost, Bentham’s Panoptic device is a suitable analogy of Foucault’s theorization of power because it reflects constant visibility, a significant component that ‘assures the automatic functioning of power’ (1977 : 201 ). The architectural configuration allows for a single guard’s gaze to continually view all inmates. Indeed, two windows built in each cell make the cell entirely transparent because of the penetration of light. By contrary, a contrived system of lighting and the use of wooden blinds prevent those inmates from knowing exactly when they are being observed. Bentham compares this situation to a ‘secular parody of divine omniscience’ in which the prisoner has always a feeling he’s been watched even if he’s aware constant supervision is impossible (Lyon, 1994 : 23-24). The surveillance should be perceived as permanent in its effect although it is discontinuous in its action (1977 : 201). Monitors will not in fact always see each inmate. But the point is that they could at any time. Guards are like ‘God, invisible’ (Lyon, 1994 : 25). This very uncertainty is a condition of automatic control mechanism on individuals. Since inmates never know whether they are being observed, they must act as if they are always objects of observation. This internal coercion forces inmates to self-restraint and discipline in order not to risk of being caught. In this sense, the awareness of the constant watchful eye of the Panopticon exerts a disciplinary power that affects inmates’ behaviours. Therefore, the piercing gaze of the watchtower is the mechanism of power by which the latter impregnates and transcends the individual.

The Benthamite Panopticon can also be regarded as an accepted analogy for power because of the asymmetrical surveillance that defines power in relational terms. The real efficiency of the...
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