Last Updated 27 Jul 2020

Society: Comparison to the Panopticon

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According to Wikepedia, a panopticon is a type of prison where the observer is able to watch the prisoners without the prisoner knowing when they are being watched. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners thereby conveying what one architect has called the "sentiment of an invisible omnisciece. The panopticon was invented by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1785. Bentham himself described the Panopticon as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.

Michel Foucault, a French philosopher and historian of ideas uses this term in his book Discipline and Punish the Birth of the Prison as a metaphor to explain society. I will try to breakdown this metaphor to explain what Foucault means by this. Foucault explains we are living in a system where everything we do is survellience, thus we are living in a panopticon. We may feel that we have total privacy, but if we really sit back and observe we will come to an understanding that we are always being surveillance. Everything we do is recorded and monitored just like in the panopticon.

We can not go to the store without cameras watching us or drive down the highway freely speeding without fear of getting caught by a police watching us. As similar to the panopticon we do not exactly know when we are being watched, but when we get the feeling we are being watched, we tend to try and behave perfectly. . “The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.

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But he also proposes that not only prisons but most ordered structures like schools, factories, hospitals, workforces all resemble Benthams panopticon. The purpose of this panoptcicon is to tame ind ividuals in a way of functioning power and discipline in order to have a structured society. Foucault says, “The panoptic schema, without disappearing as such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body, its vocation was to become a generalized function”. (Discipline 207) We are under a power because we are forced to behave in a way that is not our own to refrain from being disciplined.

In our society we have places for people who refuse to follow the structure of our society they are places of restraints to tame the threats of society like hospitals, correctional facilities, and alternative schools that applies the panoptic schema. Panoptic living not only affects physically but also mentally. We know that we are being watch, because cameras are all around but the point is we do not know when we are being watched therefore we are forced to have good behavior at all times. The workforce can be a good example of this.

Take into account a customer service representative in the call center must answer questions and assist with any concerns or complaints a customer may have. Even if a customer is rude, the representative is under a restraint because all calls are recorded at random and the representative is forced to be enthusiastic, kind and patient with the customer even if it results in verbal abuse by a customer. This creates a problem because the person is being forced to be perfect in an imperfect society.

We are all under some form of power to conduct ourselves in a way that is acceptable to our society. Therefore we are constantly watching each others’ actions and if society disapproves then we are being disobedient to the power and therefore must suffer discipline. But because most of us fear punishment we continue to try to behave appropriately and then it becomes a norm we are use to doing. When we do something out of the norm, we are then frowned upon at as some type of threat to society.

An example of this given is from the book Tess of the Durbyvilles, the character Tess is living in a panopticon because her society is based in a time where she is suppose to have a husband, but her society gossips about her because she has a baby out of wedlock. People looked at her as abnormal because she did not follow the moral structure they are used to. No one bothered to ask any questions they only assumed she was different which is something they did not like. This panopticon serves a good purpose even though it focuses soley on discipline and power.

Although we are being watched everyday, if we did not have discipline then our society would not function well, and we would be among murders, thieves, and would fear for our lives. We are among criminals now but because we have institutions to tame them and force them to be a part of society or if they choose not to be then they are kept away from the perfect society we are constantly trying to form and improve. Although we are under power of the panopticon, we are given a sense of protection within our society and therefore we are willing to accept the control we are under.

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