Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Short Summary of Panoptic Surveillance in Foucault

Heh, here's a brief exegisical summary I wrote for a class a while back. I found it while sorting through some of my old papers, and I thought it was a nice condensation and explanation of Foucault's key concepts in Discipline and Punish. It isn't an essay per se, but It seems worth posting all the same.

As Foucault lays it out, in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, much of the western world saw a sudden shift in the strategies on punishment. The system before this shift Foucault refers to as the "society of spectacle"; afterwards, "disciplinary society." Each system was a strategy of the hegemony of the time to exercise power and control over the lower classes, but they each used entirely different strategies and techniques.

Under the regime of spectacle, Foucault uses the example of the execution of "Damiens the regicide" in 1757. This gruesome public execution showed in the most explicit way the strategy of a "society of spectacle" in exercising power of the bodies of its subjects. In this manner, the regime in charge made it known to its subjects what crime was and what the consequences of crime would be. Damiens showed, in the most literal sense, what it was to attack the "The King's Body," (or its double in the "crown"/state). It was the hope that this punishment onto the body of the individual for everyone to see would serve to repress criminal tendencies in other individuals in the population. However, what it also did is set up the criminal as "the symmetrical, inverted figure of the king," who represents "the 'lack of power' with which those subjected to punishment are marked." Thus, the criminal is often the more sympathetic figure, especially when it is the case that "the punishment was thought to equal, if not to exceed, in savagery the crime itself." When this occurs, it has the ability "to make the executioner resemble a criminal, judges murderers." Thus, a new mode of punishment was needed—one where the perception of the infliction of punishment was not on the body, but on the soul.

This new mode of punishment is best informed by and illustrated for Foucault by Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. The Panopticon is a building designed for complete, constant, anonymous surveillance of its subjects. Under this surveillance, never knowing if or by whom one is being watched, the subject is trained to resist any impulse of misbehavior or "abnormality" for fear of being caught, never knowing if such a display is safe or not. In this way, the enforcement of rules is shifted from the spectacle of the power of violence enacted upon the body to the power of discipline essentially coded into the "soul" of the subject under the gaze of the Panopticon. Thus, the body of the subject is made into an "object of knowledge" that can be studied, catalogued, and completely individualized in every way available to the human sciences. As Foucault puts it, the body is turned into a site of "political technology" that, as it is further studied, increases the knowledge base of the human sciences and thus allowing the dominant hegemony ability to exercise greater power through better individualization and surveillance in an ever-increasing cycle of "power-knowledge." Foucault explains then how the idea of the Panopticon can infiltrate the rest of society through these methods, ultimately creating a state where people police themselves unconsciously.

All this ties, for Foucault, most strongly into the idea of the penal system. This is where those who are not adequately "normalized" through these discourses end up. The judge no longer is a punisher, but one who decides, with the help of specialists of the human sciences, how to understand and cure (or "normalize") the criminal in question. Thus, punishment of the body and sympathy for punishment that arose in the "society of spectacle" in response to this punishment is short-circuited by the "humane" system and its stated goal of "rehabilitation." Punishment is no longer on the body of the punished, but on his soul through endless surveillance and individualization in the social Panopticon.


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