Foucalt begins by outlining the conditions of the plague in the 17th century and how the authorities were organised to deal with it. There was a very strict hierarchical system that filtered from the top down (“capillary functioning of power”) and restored order to the population, the plague itself being the disorder. He also references lepers, who were banished into exile and excluded from society altogether, there being no point in attempting to segment or differentiate their numbers as with the plague. Nice.
He goes on to make the point that these conditions of surveillance and observation were in fact the political utopia of a perfectly governed city. In the absence of any better excuse to wield absolute power over a society, a horribly deadly and contagious disease would do just fine.
Now he comes to the concept of panopticism itself, and describes a situation where there is a central observation point, and cells arranged in a circle around it. Inmates (though it works just fine for workers, patients, schoolchildren etc. too) can’t see or talk to each other. They can never know if they are being watched at any moment, but they are aware that they may be being observed at any time. This also has the advantage that the observer in the middle doesn’t even necessarily need to be there all the time, since he can’t be seen by the inmates. This has the powerful effect of disindividualising those being watched. When this kind of system is at work, we are no longer dealing with a life or death situation, but embedding into people that feeling that they are being watched can increase production, develop economies, spread education and so on.
This form of discipline can spread outside of the original institutions where it started, and permeate into society as a whole. Networks of surveillance are established to supervise the public at large – “faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception.” This can be used to monitor organisations and prevent revolts and oppositional movements.
This marked a shift from the ostentatious singular figure of authority, eg. the monarch, to a subtler, though arguably more effective, and definitely cheaper to run, system where the notion of being observed exists in the very heart of the person themselves. Ultimately, it’s argued, this leads to greater production of knowledge in schools, greater production of health in hospitals, and greater production of wealth in society. This happens continually in a self-perpetuating way, but will also lead to inequalities in the judicial system for example, where the perception of fairness gets undermined by inequalities and hierarchies that develop into an uneven balance of power.
We did the reading in the historic women’s gaol, and were given a tour of a section of it first. I found it a kind of an odd experience, struggling to get some sense of the original conditions through the lens of the heritage centre potted history and wax dummies. Was struck by the punishments they would give out, being forced to break up big stones for no reason at all for example. The discussion afterwards was interesting and broad-ranging though. A lot of discussion around how the systems of panopticism still exist today more than ever in different forms, and also how it relates to institutions that deal with the housing of art.