Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish – The Panopticon

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault explores the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon in idea and in practice. A panopticon is, in its general form, a building structured so as to have one central observation point, like the watch tower in the centre of the panopticon prison, and rooms or spaces surrounding this central point; structured in such a way so that each can all at the same time be observed from the central point.

Foucault uses primarily the example of the prison, where the guard can watch over the inmates behind Venetian blinds; whilst the inmates can never really be sure if there is someone there observing them or not. But the architectural principles of the panopticon are also used in schools, hospitals, and workplaces to the same effect. The effect is an exercise of power over a large number of people with a minimal amount of force or resources needed to exercise it.

Foucault begins his writing on the panopticon with a description of the regimented segmentation of towns and cities during the outbreak of the plague in Medieval Europe. Streets of towns and cities were divided, and divided further in to houses and the people living within the houses; with information on who was living where, where they where, and their health (well/unwell, alive/dead) being registered and recorded regularly, passed on from street watchmen to magistrates and mayors, filtering upwards from subordinates to superiors.

This kind of division, segmentation and order ensured that the plague – which depended on movement for its proliferation – was prevented from spreading across towns and cities. If somebody moved from where they were known to be without consent, they would be punished with death. If somebody were attempting to hide the body of a sick or dead person who lived in their house, they would soon be found as everybody living within a house was made to periodically show their faces to the street watchmen.

Power filtered downwards – from the mayor’s instruction at the top, to the guards occupying posts within the city’s streets, ordered to observe any unsolicited movement, to the street watchmen taking note and updating records of who and of what condition occupied each space. Discipline was inculcated by sovereignty – in the form of the mayor’s orders, – and by physical force, in the form of the guards and watchmen.

The architectural arrangement of the panopticon creates the same level of order and discipline without the need for explicit force, resources, or sovereignty. The ordering of those at the time of the plague in to streets, houses, and people within houses is replicated in the cell, the hospital bed, and the school or work space; where the observer can see all people at once; can order them therein e.g. well/unwell, sane/insane, productive/lazy; and can see in real time who they are, where they are, and what they are doing. Foucault argues that these two mechanisms – ordering according to some binary scale, and differentiating between individuals – who they are, what they are doing, where they are – is fundamental to the concept of power and the exercise of discipline. Foucault compares this meticulous ordering and classification of humans to the animals collected and held in a menagerie; a structure that came before though with similar arrangement to the panopticon.


Foucault uses the metaphor of ‘capillary’ power, of a power that splits and divides and permeates the whole of society. It is capillary power also because it permeates not only space – like the physical arrangement of the cities and towns during the plague – but also bodies. When people know that they are visible, that they could be under observation at ay time (it doesn’t matter if they are or are not – just that they could be), they regulate their behaviour according to the imposed or accepted standards put upon them. The schoolgirl doesn’t dare misbehave when she can feel the teacher’s glare: the panopticon sets up a sort of permanent glare, without the need for any physical bodies. Foucault writes:

A real subjection is born mechanically from a fictitious relation.

A King or a Queen could put somebody to death for disobeying them, but, out of sight, they could not make people’s behaviours conform to their orders. The panopticon, with its effects of self-discipline and self-regulation, make people conform to whatever rules have been set out for them. This was a triumph of Bentham’s utilitarianism: generating power over a multitude from the smallest of resources. Like the towns and cities of the plague, power is filtered through the partitions of physical space; but the need for mayors, guards, and watchmen is gone.


2 thoughts on “Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish – The Panopticon”

  1. Nice evaluation. Incredible how in other works (mostly, Birth of the Clinic) Foucault describes the idea of the “medical gaze.” Perhaps, linked directly from his evaluation of the panopticon.


    1. Yes, Foucault disagreed with the medicalisation of things – mental illness, sexuality – and I think this was at least partly linked to his belief that ordering things in to binary categories was constitutive of the exercise of power of one person over another/s.

      Liked by 1 person

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