Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison


Theoretical arguments in favor of rejecting the Foucauldian model of Panopticism may be considered under five general headings:

1) Displacement of the Panoptical ideal by mechanisms of seduction,

2) Redundancy of the Panoptical impulse brought about by the evident durability of the self-surveillance functions which partly constitute the normal, socialized, ‘Western’ subject, 3) Reduction in the number of occasions of any conceivable need for Panoptical surveillance on account of simulation, prediction and action before the fact, 4) Supplementation of the Panopticon by the Synopticon,

5) Failure of Panoptical control to produce reliably docile subjects.[11]

The first point concerns Zygmunt Bauman’s argument that the leading principle of social order has moved from Panopticism to seduction. This argument is elaborated in his 1998 essay ‘On postmodern uses of sex’.[12]

The second argument concerns surveillance redundance, and it is increasingly relevant in the age of Facebook and online self-disclosure. Is the metaphor of a panopticon appropriate for voluntary surrender of privacy?

The third argument for post-Panopticism, concerning action before the fact, is articulated by William Bogard:

The figure of the Panopticon is already haunted by a parallel figure of simulation. Surveillance, we are told, is discreet, unobtrusive, camouflaged, unverifiable – all elements of artifice designed into an architectural arrangement of spaces to produce real effects of discipline. Eventually this will lead, by its means of perfection, to the elimination of the Panopticon itself . . . surveillance as its own simulation. Now it is no longer a matter of the speed at which information is gained to defeat an enemy. . . . Now, one can simulate a space of control, project an indefinite number of courses of action, train for each possibility, and react immediately with pre-programmed responses to the actual course of events . . . with simulation, sight and foresight, actual and virtual begin to merge. . . . Increasingly the technological enlargement of the field of perceptual control, the erasure of distance in the speed of electronic information has pushed surveillance beyond the very limits of speed toward the purest forms of anticipation.[13]

This kind of anticipation is particularly evident in emergent surveillance technologies such as social network analysis.

The ‘Synopticon’ concerns the surveillance of the few by the many.[14] Examples of this kind of surveillance may include the theatre, the Coliseum, and celebrity tabloid reporting. This “reversal of the Panoptical polarity may have become so marked that it finally deconstructs the Panoptical metaphor altogether”.[11]

Finally, the fifth point concerns the self-defeating nature of Panoptical regimes. The failure of surveillance states is illustrated by examples such as “prison riots, asylum sub-cultures, ego survival in Gulag or concentration camp, [and] retribalization in the Balkans.”[11]

In their 2007 article, Dobson and Fisher[15] lay out an alternative model of post-panopticism as they identify three panoptic models. Panopticism I refers to Jeremy Bentham’s original conceptualization of the panopticon, and is it the model of panopticism that Foucault responds to in Discipline and Punish. Panopticism II refers to an Orwellian ‘Big Brother’ ideal of surveillance. Panopticism III, the final model of panopticism, refers to the high-technology human tracking systems that are emergent in this 21st century. These geographical information systems (GIS) include technologies such as cellphone GPS, RFIDs (radio-frequency identification tags), and geo-fences. Panopticism III is also distinguished by its costs:

Panopticon III is affordable, effective, and available to anyone who wants to use it. Initial purchase prices and monthly service fees are equivalent to cell-phone costs. In less than five years, the cost of continuous surveillance of a single individual has dropped from several hundred thousand dollars per year to less than $500 per year. Surveillance formerly justified solely for national security and high-stakes commerce is readily available to track a spouse, child, parent, employee, neighbor, or stranger.[15]

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