Panopticons and Reality Television

Michel Foucault´s reflections on Jeremy Bentham´s Panopticon

By Rodrigo Toledo, on 12th Sep, 2013 22:36

photo : a scene from Jaques Tati´s film Playtime.

Part 1

"Power is anything that tends to render immobile and untouchable those things that are offered to us as real, as true, as good."Michel Foucault. Power, Moral Values, and the Intellectual. An Interview with Michel Foucault by Michael Bess, History of the Present 4 (Spring 1988), p. 1.

This text is an attempt to understand how Michel Foucault´s reflections on Jeremy Bentham´s Panopticon can provide a critical panorama on how today´s society is producing forms of power based on images. Throughout this text, this idea of the visual will be addressed in terms of its changing condition between having and not having a physical – architectural – body that exercises it. With this in mind, the Panopticon is to be held as both a conclusive definition, presented as an architectural layout, of an efficient model of surveillance; and as a starting point for new ways of power distribution in the twentieth and twenty first century that rely on the sense of sight to perpetuate themselves.

Foucault´s Panopticism starts by explaining the methods of control used on the seventeenth century during the plague. Instead of implementing a binary division system between the infected and the healthy, the strategies developed for managing the Black Death in European towns consisted on a hierarchic structure of government and military officers with specific functions of information gathering and punishment. However, the inhabitants themselves were also part of this structure...they had to report their own health state to the officer. This means that the source of control for this situation came from the ones being controlled…they are the ones giving the information; they are the ones under systematic self-exposure. What the plague provided was a scenery for self-imposed discipline.


Jeremy Bentham´s Panopticon

In the late eighteenth century, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed an architectural layout for a prison that united both the binary division based system of control with the self-disciplinary project developed during the plague. The Panopticon then is a confinement space where the inmates are placed in individual cells around a tower in which a guard is watching them. Here, the act of vigilance is based on a configuration of the visual relations between the guard and the inmates by a series of architectural devices that reveal the prisoners, madmen or patients and hide the supervisor so that the ones under surveillance do not know precisely when they are being seen. This creates a machine of automatic power where, like in the plague, the inmates are the bearers of control. Being seen without seeing produces the feeling of being under constant surveillance, therefore the modification of behavior is accomplished without the use of force. The latter causes the building to lose mass, to be lighter; the heavy architectural body of the dungeon has become transparent, and the role of the supervisor can be performed by anyone. This can be seen in early twentieth century modern architecture where transparency was associated with the technology of glass construction in favor of light and with the inclusion of landscape as a retaken architectural value. The “modern” inhabitant is the supervisor in his own private Panopticon…he is an observer of the outside world from the privacy of his home. This sentence could be rewritten like this: the modern inhabitant is the inmate in his own transparent cell…society observes him from the outside world into the privacy of his home. Modern architecture is a Panopticon that works both ways.