Michel Foucault's Panopticism

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Who Possesses Agency?

Michel Foucault’s work in which he titled Panopticism, he explains his views on power; how it is operated, obtained and sustained. He based the word panopticism on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon - an architectural design of a building that enables the one who possesses agency to see each cell that a subject of power is incarcerated to. Foucault writes that “Visibility is a trap” (Foucault, 286) because the tower is used to “induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault, 288). Foucault views that Bentham’s panopticon is a physical representation of a power dynamic that he sees in play in culture - the one in which he so aptly named panopticism. For this essay, we were asked to try and explain the similarities that we see between Foucault’s essay and the other works that we have read this semester. Finally I see the cohesion to the works and the purpose for reading them. All the authors - Berger, Bordo, and Kipnis - discuss power in their works. Each author gives an example of the power dynamic that Foucault describes.

Though the authors give examples of Foucault’s panopticism, they each have their own opinion on how it works. The authors all try to explain their perception on the way we live in the world and the way that we understand it. In a way, these are the basic foundations of everything that we do.

Throughout his essay, Foucault stresses the idea that one acquires power and knowledge through observation and examination. He then elaborates that panopticism symbolizes certain types of power, or agencies. Agency being the capacity of the ability to act upon something or someone. The panopticon embodies the theory that people become disciplined when they are being watched. Once this power dynamic is applied to other things, these things can become more efficient. This type of disciplinary program is spread throughout society and is used in schools, prisons, hospitals and factories; this is the reason why all these places resemble each other. Methods that are used to control the delinquent also control the citizen. This power dynamic can be exercised in a much more subtle manner where people will listen and participate in a way that they wouldn’t if power were exercised in a different way.

Foucault spends a great amount of his essay going into detail about the measures that used to be taken when a plague strikes and the panopticon’s focus and ability. This is because he wants the reader to understand that knowledge hold agency. Trying to understand things in and about our society and world becomes a goal of all our scholarly work and that’s a major part of all the works we have read and written about this semester.

Susan Bordo’s Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body is an important work because it demonstrates the exchange of power over time in the advertising business. Throughout her essay, Bordo meticulously explains the evolution that agency holders have undergone, using male advertisements as her outlet. Women used to be the only ones who were ‘watched’ in the public eye. They were the only ones who were willing to expose themselves in that way. While men refused to be put into the public, women were visible on billboards, commercials, and on runways. This is where Foucault’s panopticon comes into play. Figuratively, the men were in the central tower. They could see the women without being seen themselves. On the other hand, the women were in the peripheral ring, totally exposed, without ever seeing. By doing so, this allowed the men in the world to hold agency. Bordo quotes in her essay, “Men act and women appear” (Bordo, 210). By this she conveys the message that men exist to take action and not be observed while women only exist to be seen and therefore be judged based on only her appearance. This type of attitude and outlook resulted in females becoming the object of power with men being the power...
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