Reading from Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), Panopticism translated from the French by Alan Sheridan in 1977 at Cork City Gaol 13th February 2018

Foucault begins with a description of the measures needed to be taken against the plague in the seventeenth century such as, partitioning of space and closing off houses and constant inspection. Extreme order was required to control the spread of disease. All modern mechanisms for controlling abnormal individuals derive from these as Foucault examines a text about plague measures, rather than an account of an actual plague. To him, this is unimportant because texts and reality interact closely.  It was not because the plague represents a loss of order, it was because when plague strikes, the boundaries of normal and abnormal are blurred. Anyone can become sick, and therefore abnormal, anyone could be next. We discussed the idea of surveillance within the old Gaol in the Women’s Prison, sitting in a circle (where we could all survey one another!) and what are the deeper meanings of being on the“outside or inside” of societys norms? How, during the plague, there was confinement and regulations which could be likened to adopting punitive measures alongside illness management.

Foucault then discusses Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a building with a tower at the centre from where it is possible to see each cell in which a prisoner is incarcerated. Visibility is a  trap and all are seen but cannot communicate with the wardens or other prisoners. The panopticon induces a sense of permanent visibility that ensures the functioning of power. Bentham decreed that power should be visible yet unverifiable. The prisoner can always see the tower but never knows when he/she is being observed. It is also a lab-site of power, experiments are carried out on prisoners and staff to perfect the operations of power. It increased the number of people who can be controlled and decreased the number needed to operate it. It gives power over people’s minds through architecture. I find it impressive that a building design can have such an effect on the human mind. As it can be inspected from outside, there is no danger of tyranny. This can be seen as a perfect model for one individual to control many.

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The panopticon was destined to spread throughout society. It makes power cheaper and more effective. It does this to develop the economy, spread education and improve public morality, not to save society. The panopticon represents the subordination of bodies that increases the utility of power while dispensing with the need for a Monarchy. Bentham develops the idea that disciplines could be dispersed throughout society.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the cellular, observational prison is the modern design, or that prisons resemble factories, schools, asylums and hospitals. For Foucault, the panopticon represents the way in which discipline and punishment work in a modern society. It is a diagram of power in action because by looking at a plan of the panopticon, one realises how the processes of observation and examination operate.

Foucault adopts the panopticon as a symbol of his whole argument. The theory of discipline in which everyone is observed and studied is epitomised in a building that makes this action simple to carry out. The panopticon develops out of the need for surveillance and control shown in the plague. Plague measures were needed to protect society, the panopticon allows power to operate efficiently. It is a functional, permanent structure.

Schools, factories, hospitals, and prisons resemble each other, not just because they look similar, but because they examine pupils, workers, patients, and prisoners They classify them as individuals and try to make them conform to the “norm”. The fact that the modern citizen spends much of his life in at least some of these institutions reveals how far society has changed.

Atkins Hall, former 19th and 20th century asylum for the mentally ill towers and looms above Cork city on a hill in a threatening manner.

The dissolution and individualisation of the crowd within this text are reminiscent of the strategies of the colonists to “divide and conquer”. I am also reminded of how extreme nationalism can seem to appear as a “push back” against extreme individualism, for example, the election of Donald Trump. There are many theories and views on the Politics of the USA in current popular culture but it can be seen more often than not that corruption and abuse of power often result in anger and the search for a solution during hard times. This, I believe led to the influence that President Trump has had on his supporters.

There is one notion that the individual exists independently of the society, and it views the society is a service or vehicle to the individual for his/her needs, There is another notion that individuals have no identity other than their identity as members of a discrete and exclusive society, with members and non-members distinguished from one another. At a glance, one might imagine these two ideologies to be at odds with one another, both are brutally deficient, each in its own way, particularly in their more extreme forms (i.e., when individualism is so extreme that equity and fairness cease to be valued within the society, and when nationalism is so extreme that compassion and humanity cease to be valued without). Is it possible for them to coexist? Perhaps it is necessary that they do. This is the current situation in the USA, where contemporary patterns in power can be observed: one society with a deep rich-poor division sways too far towards the extremes of one notion or there is an abuse of power and there is a rebuttal from the other idealistic notion and so on, over and over.

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The M.A. group discussed individualism and responsibility and the internal mechanisms that the panopticon has instilled in most of us at least in Western society. Visibility is used as a trap or a tool and there is certainly more difficulty in remaining anonymous with so many of us living out our lives in the online sphere.

Foucault looked at large swathes of history for patterns, repetition, and stages of culture to come to his conclusions, he does not tell us what side he takes but we know that he is a left-leaning Parisian. Rather than write about a facet of society, he decides instead to look at the bigger picture of why and how we operate in society and the reasons and historical origins of our behaviour.