MICHEL FOUCAULT seeks throughout his work to make sense of how our contemporary society is structured differently from the society that preceded us. He has been particularly influential precisely because he tends to overturn accepted wisdom, illustrating the dangers inherent in those Enlightenment reforms that were designed to correct the barbarity of previous periods (the elimination of dungeons, the modernization of medicine, the creation of the public university, etc.). As Foucault illustrates, each process of modernization entails disturbing effects with regard to the power of the individual and the control of government. Indeed, his most influential work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, paints a picture of contemporary society that sometimes resembles George Orwell's 1984. He explores the ways that government has claimed ever greater control over and enforcement of ever more private aspects of our lives.

In particular, Foucault explores the transition from what he terms a "culture of spectacle" to a "carceral culture." Whereas in the former punishment was effected on the body in public displays of torture, dismemberment, and obliteration, in the latter punishment and discipline become internalized and directed to the constitution and, when necessary, rehabilitation of social subjects.

Jeremy Bentham's nineteenth-century prison reforms provide Foucault with a representative model for what happens to society in the nineteenth century.note Bentham argued in The "Panopticon" that the perfect prison would be structured in a such a way that cells would be open to a central tower. In the model, individuals in the cells do not interact with each other and are constantly confronted by the panoptic tower (pan=all; optic=seeing). They cannot, however, see when there is a person in the tower; they must believe that they could be watched at any moment: "the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so" (Foucault, Discipline 201).

Bentham saw this prison reform as a model for how society should function. To maintain order in a democratic and capitalist society, the populace needs to believe that any person could be surveilled at any time. In time, such a structure would ensure that the people would soon internalize the panoptic tower and police themselves: "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" (Foucault, Discipline 202-203). This system of control has, arguably, been aided in our own culture by new technological advancements that allow federal agencies to track your movement and behavior (the internet, telephones, cell phones, social security numbers, the census, ATMs, credit cards, and the ever increasing number of surveillance cameras in urban spaces). By carceral culture, Foucault refers to a culture in which the panoptic model of surveillance has been diffused as a principle of social organization, affecting such disparate things as the university classroom (see right for a prison school that resembles some classroom auditoriums); urban planning (organized on a grid structure to facilitate movement but also to discourage concealment); hospital and factory architecture; and so on. As Foucault puts it, the Panopticon

is polyvalent in 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 organization, 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. (Discipline 205).

"The panoptic schema, without disappearing as such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body," Foucault explains; "its vocation was to become a generalized function" (Discipline 207). The ultimate result is that we now live in the panoptic machine: "We are neither in the amphitheatre, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism" (Discipline 217).

Some of the effects of this new model of organization include :

1) the internalization of rules and regulations. As we naturalize rules, society could be said to become less willing to contest unjust laws. Of course, Foucault has Nazi Germany in mind when he thinks about conformity; however, studies of American society (Philip Zimbardo, Stanley Milgram) have suggested that Americans are, in fact, just as willing to follow authorities even when it means doing violence to innocent subjects.

2) rehabilitation rather than cruel and unusual punishment. This reform was implemented because of nineteenth-century outcries over the inhumane treatment of prisoners and the insane. Foucault however questions the subsequent emphasis on the "normal," which entails the enforcement of the status quo on ever more private aspects of our lives (for example, sexuality). As he puts it, "The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the 'social-worker'-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements" (Discipline 304).

3) surveillance into ever more private aspects of our lives, which, once again, is aided by new surveillance technology.

4) information society. All of this surveillance and information-gathering leads, of course, to huge challenges for the organization and retrieval of data. Perhaps the very move of society into this new mode of social organization made the invention of the computer inevitable since it allows us to organize ever more vast amounts of data.

5) bureaucracy. A new white-collar labor force is necessary to set up the procedures for information retrieval and storage. This form of organization encourages a separation from real people since it turns individuals into statistics and paperwork. A classic example is Nazi Germany's Adolf Eichmann.

6) efficiency. Value is placed on the most efficient means of organizing data and individuals to effect the mass production and dissemination of more goods and information, even if at the expense of exploitation or injustice.

7) specialization. Members of the workforce are organized into increasingly specialized fields, so much so that we increasingly rely on other "experts" to complete tasks that had previously been shared or common knowledge (the preparation of meats and other food products, building construction, transportation, etc.).


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Foucault: On Panoptic and Carceral Society." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/newhistoricism/modules/foucaultcarceral.html>.






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