Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Disciplinary Power: Panopticism

In Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault introduces two idea of what he term's 'technologies of punishment'. Within these technologies are two representations of punishment; Monarchal Punishment referring to the public and torturous punishment practices present during and prior to the 18th century, and Disciplinary Punishment which refers to the incarceration of offenders and their subjection to the power of the prison officers. He also argues that disciplinary power often leads to self-policing of behaviour through fear of being caught disobeying the rules.

To link these ideas to contemporary society, Foucault uses an adaptation of Jeremy Bentham's idea of the panopticon to demonstrate the impact that constant surveillance has not only on an individual in an institution such as prison, but also on society as a whole. The panopticon is a prison design; a cylindrical building where inmates are invisible to one another, but are all visible to a guard station in the centre of the building. Guards however will not always be observing each inmate to check they are behaving and following the rules. The point of the panopticon is that control is achieved through what Foucault calls 'disciplinary power', a form of power that is constant, unnoticeable and internalised. As inmates are not sure whether they are being watched at any one time, they must always act in accordance to the rules. Control is thus achieved through self-surveillance as the fear of being caught breaking the rules keeps them in line with expectations.

Foucault saw panopticism as present in many institutions, not just the prison system. Institutions such as asylums, schools, military and secret services also adopt a panoptic way of disciplining, with constant surveillance acting to maintain control of those within them. However, it could also be argued that the bureaucratic nature, and the amount of monitoring that takes place in society today could class contemporary society that we live in today to be one of panopticism.

Panopticism: "a society in which individuals are increasingly caught up in systems of power in and through which visibility is a key means of social control" - Elliott, 2007:89

A panoptic society is one whereby social norms and expectations become internalised through top-down processes. As norms become internalised, we act as though we are being watched at all times, whether that be from surveillance cameras, the government or law enforcement officials, or from other agents who are themselves under forms of surveillance as well. As behaviour becomes normalised, expectations of how one is to act in public soon translates into the private sphere where these expectations are no longer applicable. Take for example the behaviour performed when you are sick. In the public sphere, it would be expected that you would cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or elbow to stop germs from spreading into the air or onto surfaces. As a behaviour to stop others from getting sick, it would seem unnecessary to also apply it to the private sphere when home alone, yet the behaviour still occurs. What this indicates is the power of self-surveillance. The internalised discourse moves into the private sphere where surveillance from others is not possible.


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