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[ Jointing ]

1. Panopticon

In Sara Ahmed’s What’s the Use? (2019), she brings up the term ‘Panopticon’ in order to introduce the way in which we are disciplined by systems and in turn perpetuate them. Ahmed cites Foucault’s theories on the Panopticon as a historical model of power and how it’s notions of discipline have become embedded in our everyday behaviors. Ahmed describes how different uses produced by systems of power can have specific operations; ‘use can be restrictive as well as a directive or restrictive by virtue of being directive. If the same paths are used more, the fewer paths are available to be used.’[1] As a physical architecture and system, the Panopticon includes elements that restrict by being directive in quality. Foucault developed a theory that expands on this notion of social control, through Jeremy Bentham’s design and conceptual apparatus for the Panopticon prison. Foucault describes Bentham’s Panopticon as a symbol of social control that is not just based in the prison system but has extended itself through social conventions. Bentham’s prison model invented a mechanism of social control that was used to discipline, as opposed to punish, prisoners. The Panopticon design consisted of a circular architecture with an inspection tower at the center. From the tower, guards were able to watch the prisoners but the prisoners could not see into the tower, so they did not know when they were being surveyed. As a result of not knowing when they were being watched, the prisoners were motivated to act as though they were being watched at all times. Foucault refers to the architect of the Panopticon and his writings on the disciplinary apparatus, in order to describe the infrastructures and mechanisms that distribute power within a prison complex and wider society. 

Foucault describes the Panopticon as, ‘a way of organizing space as series, a way of ensuring the prisoner is always seeable without always being seen such that the prisoner takes on the gaze of the prison guard by seeing himself.’[2] In the Panopticon, the prisoner is living in a well-serviced interrogation chamber that is encircled by what could be described as a one-way mirror. A mirror that appears opaque and reflective on one side but as transparent on the other, similar to a one-way mirror found in police interrogation rooms. The prisoners are conscious of the potential gaze that is looking at them through the mirror and imagine it as there all the time. However, what they are really looking at is a reflection of themselves or their imagination’s idea of how power wants them to perform.

-Boken CCTV-

In the Panopticon, prisoners do not know the exact time and direction of their monitoring. They can only see themselves in the reflection of their minds, so they imagine the monitor and in doing so monitor themselves. Foucault asserts that for the prisoners there is a continual desire to want to look through the mirror, to find out who or what is behind it. Therefore, this mirror is causing a continual introspection in the prisoner, in which the prisoner mirrors what they think they are being asked to perform. Foucault states that, ‘…the Panopticon was also a laboratory; it could be used as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter behaviour, to train or correct individuals. To experiment with medicines and monitor their effects.’[3]

Ahmed draws a link between Bentham’s Panopticon and the plan he made for a school based on useful knowledge, ‘Bentham’s treatise “Chrestomathia,” which also makes use of the panoptical principle among other principles in its design of a classroom.’[4] Bentham’s Chrestomathic school used the Panopticon as its architectural organizing principle to keep middle-class students under constant inspection. The best students were to be appointed as master (or monitor) in the class. Alongside the teacher, the masters from the student body were to monitor and educate as many other students at one time as possible. In this model, the education system also draws on the inspection or introspection principle but in the prison complex the monitor is a ruling person (guard) and in the latter they are a more like a mole or spy (student from within the class). Ahmed notes that Foucault clarifies the role of the student master, ‘The monitor’s task is to give assurance, and is understood not to detect crime or deviation but to prevent it.’[5]  In the case of both the Panopticon prison and Chrestomathic school, there is a system that pre-empts behaviour in order to channel it and guard against misdemeanors even forming. At the heart of each model, there is an economic motivation that speaks to capitalist concerns. Both systems streamline the staffing structure to make it cheaper to run the prison or school and, therefore, rely on the instrumentalization of students or prisoners (as opposed to paid staff). Model students and prisoners are encouraged to provide examples of self-discipline in order to limit misdemeanors, so that it would only require a small number of guards and staff for the controlling mechanism to operate efficiently. Therefore, punishment received from the outside (teacher) is turned inwards into self-discipline (student monitor) and is promoted to the rest of the class.

Ahmed points out that Foucault also describes the educational system designed by Joseph Lancaster, which was envisaged as a training ground to turn the poor into the useful working-classes, to further clarify the disciplinary instrumentalization in educational institutions. Lancaster’s educational system was similarly designed to be built up ‘cog by cog’ or ‘cell by cell’, in order to be efficient through the modelling of self-improvement (another mode of self-discipline). In this instance, Foucault highlights that student have become cogs in the educational machine, as they become mechanisms for their own self-development. Foucault suggests that through producing student monitors, the disciplinary regime is inserted into the student body. Foucault states that education in the Monitorial School in the nineteenth century rested on a notion of self-improvement, ‘The machinery is, however, about more than the freedom to master. The machinery works because of how becoming monitors affects the students in a moral sense by improving them.’[6] In this instance, the school structure became a machine for instructing how to refine and divide labour; according to ability or level, every student in the class is profitably employed to instruct or follow. This monitorial system also binds students tightly together, through the awareness of being observed and the aim for self-improvement (to become a monitor), as well as the fear of being caught out or punished. Lancaster’s monitorial system was implemented with the objective to stifle individuality and create conformity, enabling students to be accepted by others through normative performances.

Although we are born and will die alone, our society trains us to live collectively. Expanding on Ahmed’s notion of the well-used path, we can also interpret the path as platonic (ideal) because the most socially accepted or idealized route, which is built to support the majority. However, this one size fits all approach means that the path is not bespoke so it will fit the general (those that fit within the general bounds of what is assumed to be the universal human body) public quite well but not perfectly. So, we have to shape ourselves to fit this collective and majority mold, rather than the system being designed to support difference. In the previous chapter, Naming, I reflected on my own experience in Taipei, Taiwan as a student in a classroom and the depersonalization that I felt was produced through the coercive control of the educational environment. Similarly, to Foucault’s cog, as a student in in the classroom I was made aware that I had to be responsible for contributing to something larger (such as the entire group of classmates) as opposed to the self.

The classroom required synchronicity, which meant that everyone had to be moving in the same direction and in unison. This style of education imports a form of soft power into the classroom; it does this through wiring the students’ modes of thinking towards collective development. This is enforced through the very same impetus towards collective development because this plays on the students’ fears that any out of joint actions could cause their classmates to disown or shun them.[7]

Ahmed states that paths can direct use and when used regularly in one particular way then they become easier to use, so the use of use encourages more use of use. Ahmed elaborates, ‘The incentive to create new paths, to do what does not come naturally, derives from the pressures of environmental change. Gradually, over time, a path becomes easier, which is to say, the effort required is lessened.’[8] My education was designed to create well-trained students that followed the path most used by the majority, and to obediently, or even desire, to follow that path. This circuitous process relates to Ahmed’s claims that the path most used is the easier one to follow and will, as a result, endlessly encourage the next user to follow this smooth well-used method. As a result of ease and efficiency, the well-used path is the one that is repeated, and an incentive is required to alter or create new paths.

These historical narratives of discipline through the unknowable surveyor, can be compared to people surfing on Social Media [SM]. The territory that an SM user approaches is based on the user’s personal interests and these interests are constantly being monitored (or mined for data by corporations). As internet users, we can only see ourselves through the one-way mirror, so we focus on building up an image of who we are through our consumer decisions and SM posts. However, as users we can only see ourselves in the reflection of the screen’s mirror, so we project a virtual image of ourselves to an imagined audience that we think will view our profile and/or consumer choices. When conscious of being watched, users begin to self-monitor. Therefore, we reclaim our behavior and decision making (as we are conscious of it and are acting as prosumers – producers and consumers simultaneously) but it becomes highly stylized towards potential monitors. Both the Panopticon and the spreading of its form across education and society, enacts a perpetual self-monitoring. In a sense, we mostly attempt to present good behaviour to the unknowable but all knowing Other, which concurs with Jacques Lacan notion of the Other/other. In Lacanian thinking, the big Other forms a radical alterity and an otherness which transcends the illusory otherness of the imaginary because it cannot be assimilated through identification. Lacan suggests that symbolic and omnipresent Other produces a, ‘… gaze [that] I encounter…, not a seen gaze, but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other.’[9] Lacan equates the Other with language and the law, and hence the Other is inscribed in the symbolic order. The Other also has the potential to ‘other’ individuals who do not uphold its unwritten social rules. Therefore, the imagined Other is perpetuated through the fear of being othered. However, a negative result of encouraging this enactment of artificially good or cultured behavior, is that the disciplinary system could trigger the loss of difference in the prisoner, student and user population.

[1] Sara Ahmed, What’s the use? (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019), 42.

[2] Sara Ahmed, What’s the use? (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019), 104.

[3] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish-The Birth of the Prison, Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House,1975), 203. < >

[4] Sara Ahmed, What’s the use? (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019), 104.


[6]Ibid., 116.

[7] Soft Power in politics (and particularly in international politics), soft power is the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce (contrast hard power). In other words, soft power involves shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction.

[8] Sara Ahmed, What’s the use? (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019), 73.

[9] Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. trans. Alan Sheridan, New York: Norton, 1998. 84. Quoted in Mats Carlsson “The Gaze as constituent and annihilator,” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture Vol. 4, 2012


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