Michel Foucault

Together Pan-optically

Ah, recording it all and then repeating it.
[Source – Pixabay]

A humble looking, I mean just two lines long, definition took such a grim turn that it never left the abandoned penitentiary.

Definition –

Panopticon – a prison with cells/ rooms arranged in a circle, so that the prisoners in them can be seen at all times from the centre, without them knowing whether or not they are being watched.

After taking this same turn, one Michel Foucault – French philosopher, philologist, historian and social theorist – observed things differently, trying to understand why the penitentiary was made in the first place. To control and rule perhaps, but what about the good old methods of confinements in dungeons, solitary cells, and the public displays of torture? With the death of the monarchy, these methods rusted away quickly.

The new progressive democratic modern world needed a much more sophisticated method to control, to rule. Panopticon with a panoptic (pan= all, optic=seeing) tower cheered for itself, gaining a decent fan following.

Doubly jailed!
[Source – Purdue University]

Foucault in his work Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) shows, with great detail and pain, how a structure like panopticon guarantees internalization of the idea of surveillance.

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

Michel Foucault – Discipline and Punish

Walking ahead, leaving this grim lane behind, rushing past the dullness, the dilapidated mood and tiring heavy air, you realise someone is following you, a shadow appears now and then, it is eager to manipulate, and then a crisp clear voice says, ‘Big Brother is Watching You.’

The Panopticon is polyvalent is its applications; it serves to reform prisoner, but also to treat patients, to instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars and idlers to work. It is a type of location of bodies in space, of distribution of individuals in relation to one another, of hierarchical organisation, of disposition of centres and channels of power of definition of the instruments and modes of intervention of power, which can be implemented in hospitals, workshops schools, prisons. Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behaviour must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used.

Michel Foucault – Discipline and Punish

To discipline and punish a society that loves power-knowledge* equally and functions “pan-optically” allowing the power of mind over mind to flourish, what feelings, emotions then nourish the individual…?

A very lonely affair, this panopticon business, it inevitably breeds fear, snatching away life, pinning a number, tagging a label instead. This number, this label becomes reality unbeknownst by the one numbered/labelled.

The prison cell and the panoptic machine thus are two similar moulds that create same order in society, though with drastically different labels. So different that they are always seen in opposition.

“I know… yet I don’t know…”
[Source – Pixabay]

The humble looking definition that took a grim turn is essentially noble. It is not at all bleak in nature for it gives rise to questions and doubts, it confuses and bothers, if one stays longer with it, allowing us to see, that too in no time, how the two moulds – a prison cell and panoptic tower – are similar, and when seen so closely, one even gets to see its foundation – fear.

And when you see fear, directly, you find that fear is nothing but you, a concoction of some ideas, a darkness that simply dissipates when seen, it ends at that very instant, and with it, so do the two moulds.


“Am listening”, “am listening too”, “am listening three”, “sssshhh!”
[Source – Pixabay]

*For Foucault, knowledge is connected to power, his critical theory states –

Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has the power to make itself true. All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has effects, and in that sense at least, ‘becomes true.’ Knowledge, once used to regulate the conduct of others, entails constraint, regulation and the disciplining of practice. Thus, ‘there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time, power relations.

Michel Foucault

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