PHIL 231H Student

what the Foucault

Let’s talk about panopticism and the panopticon. So, panopticism, to me, (and stay with me here don’t go anywhere) is like communism. Let me explain. Communism, how I’ve heard it described by some, looks good on paper but is, to put it very lightly, lacking in practice. Very much like how Russia was called a “paper tiger” in World War 1; on paper, they looked ferocious in number and assumed skill but in reality, they were a train wreck waiting to happen. Or like those “deals” you see on sketchy shopping sites, but you just can’t help yourself; who cares if it’s not really a good deal, it looks like it is…and then you get a lower quality product. But I digress. The point is, the idea of a panopticon looks good on paper, but in practice, you may get some moral and/or ethical issues which, you know, isn’t great.

Throughout Foucault’s Panopticism, Foucault mentions the different varieties in which a panopticon could be employed. He mentions prisons, hospitals, asylums, workhouses, and even schools. Now, again, on paper, the idea of having contained areas where there is no room for cheating, physical harm, contagion, rioting, and a boatload of other “bad” things, is a good thing. Having the surveyor be able to actually survey everyone at the same time in a separate area from the rest of the subjects in the panopticon, seems a good thing. There’s no immediate danger for the watcher or any distractions to keep them from their task of watching.

Where for me this becomes gross in a sense is the absolute removal of any privacy. Foucault states, in a perfect panopticon, that just anyone should be able to come in and take a look at the subjects of the panopticon, as if it’s working perfectly there will be no danger. A “human zoo.” I have my own qualms with many animal zoos, but I think as a human there’s this innate disgust and bias against the very idea of a “human zoo.” The phrasing even makes me think in the vein of work camps. Of course, one could make the claim that prisons are like that now (human zoos) but the separation of the general public from the inmates, as well as allowing inmates to go outside and interact with other inmates, changes the ethical implication in my mind.

The idea that the panopticon is “more humane” is a joke. It shouldn’t have to be said that it is a basic human right to privacy. The constant fear and anxiety that would be employed by the use of the panopticon with the separation of subjects and veiled surveyor (or maybe not apparently) are inhumane. One should not have to fear being watched in their own home. One should not have to worry about their computer or cell phone or whatever being used to surveil them.

Big brother is indeed watching.

3 replies on “what the Foucault”

Seems more like a capitalist technique to me; it’s capitalism that works on paper, but not so well in practice. The system that promises individual freedom creates a society of fearful, impoverished, dependent people who seem nearly unable to think for themselves. The system that has developed the deepest surveillance techniques for the most nefarious purposes is the one we live in. Not only do we have to worry about the NSA, CIA, Homeland Security, the FBI, etc. watching us, but every major corporation has a data analytics department through which our purchases, likes, desires, interactions, are monitored, catalogued, aggregated and used to envelop us more and more into the net of consumerism, private debt, and social media…the panopticon is not merely restrictive; it creates us as the fearful, easily manipulated masses that we seem to be.

I find it interesting how you compared the panopticism to a human zoo. Just like in an animal zoo anyone who lives in the enclosure loses all sense of privacy, people from the outside looking in and pointing. Even the argument that the threat of the surveyor is watching does not work. For example, people know that they might be able to be watched through the internet, and yet it does not stop them from doing not legal things. Same thing with security cameras lining buildings, people will still do drug deals despite being caught on camera. The idea, like you said, is good on paper but in practice is not good at all.

I can definitely see where you’re coming from. Communism and panopticism are similar in that they look good on paper, but don’t work in practice. Same with capitalism. And I think that it’s because the ideal, pure version of the idea doesn’t exactly work in a world where people have multiple viewpoints and agendas. You already pointed out that ‘pure’ panopticism would reduce our society to a human zoo. In practice, it’s become a (debatably) subtle force society uses to enforce normality and good morality, definitely not on the levels of Big Brother. Communism was advertised as equality among the people in everything, including assets that were given to the government and redistributed equally. In practice, people like Stalin seized the opportunity to corrupt the system by keeping power and assets for themselves, turning ‘all animals are equal’ into ‘some animals are more equal than others.’ Capitalism in its purest state is essentially economic survival of the fittest, but as Lichen pointed out, we don’t live in a pure capitalist society. There are people who would and have used this system to their advantage, without a care to who or what they step on (child labor, long work hours with no extra pay, zero health benefits, significant environmental damages, etc.). That’s why our government passes regulations that monitor and limit what massive corporations can do (admittedly with debatable effectiveness).

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