Thursday, 13 December 2012


Choose an example of one aspect of contemporary culture that is, in your opinion, panoptic. Write an explanation of this, in approximately 400 words, employing key Foucauldian language, such as 'Docile Bodies' or 'self-regulation, and using not less than 5 quotes from the text 'Panopticism' in Thomas, J. (2000) 'Reading Images', NY, Palgrave McMillan. 
refer also to the lecture, 'Panopticism' (25 /10 /12), and the accompanying seminar.

The social theory of panopticism stems from the panopticon, first proposed by Jeremy Bentham in 1791.  An architectural form of a circular institutional building where the inmates are stationed around the perimeter.  The inmates are then subjected to constantly stare into the central observational tower, having to conform as they are the object of continual scrutiny.  “An annual building; at the center, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring…divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one to the other. All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy… one can observe from the tower” (Thomas, J. (2000) 'Reading Images')

Although the panopticon as an architectural form did not come to fruition whilst Bentham was around, the theory of panopticism was developed by Michael Foucault as a model of how modern society organises its knowledge, its power, its surveillance of bodies and its ‘training’ of bodies.  The main traits of panopticism can be seen heavily throughout todays society, with the most obvious being CCTV cameras. 

There are 1.85 million CCTV cameras in the UK, and although there are obvious reasons as to why these are a part of modern society, for example, crime prevention, safety benefits etc. it is still a panoptic device designed to bring order and control within society, framing our behaviour and effecting our consciousness.  'A society of self-regulating, docile bodies in fear of exposure- of themselves or of their deviant actions. Visibility is a trap.'  (Thomas, J. (2000) 'Reading Images')

           The Panopticon internalises in the individual the conscious state that he is always being watched, until eventually the panopticon doesn't even need guards to watch over the inmates allowing doubt or fear to subconsciously creep in 'A cruel, ingenious cage' (Thomas, J. (2000) 'Reading Images') as they start to behave themselves without supervision.  This is similar in modern day society with technology such as CCTV and speed cameras.  It is known that some devices aren't actually functional yet it is just the visual representation that forces society to conform creating “the utopia of a perfectly governed city”  (Thomas, J. (2000) 'Reading Images')

 The understanding that we are under constant surveillance has had a massive impact on society, the use of panopticism is all around us, from monitoring driving through speed cameras to observing employees in an open plan office.  It has become a vital part of everyday life and now more than ever, is pressuring society to behave in a certain way, 'He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power;' (Thomas, J. (2000) 'Reading Images')

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