Inside the Panopticon

Written by Jason Kerr

During my time as an undergraduate, I’ve slogged through my fair share of twenty-something page academic articles (that’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed many of them). Over the years I’ve come to see one person name-dropped in a handful of these papers—Michel Foucault. Maybe you have studied this philosopher before, and although I never formally have in any of my classes, I eventually set out on learning about some of his ideas. Foucault was a 20th-century intellectual giant who impacted myriad academic fields including anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and more. I found his idea of the panopticon very instructive as well as applicable to and thought-provoking about our daily lives as students and citizens.

Foucault explained the power which internalized authority exercises over us with the metaphor of a “panopticon.” He derived this from 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s ideal form of a prison—with “pan-” meaning “all” and “optic-“ denoting sight. Bentham designed a prison compound that would maximize security and number of inmates while minimizing cost; he planned a round building with a guard tower in the center observing one layer of cells. In this way, authorities could view all inmates from one spot, and the inmates were positioned such that they couldn’t tell where the guards cast their gaze. The tower may even have no guards inside and remain effective. The design instilled within prisoners a constant fear of the possibility of being surveilled, and thus they disciplined themselves as though a guard were always watching—whether or not that was the case.

 Foucault extended this to forms of social control. He argued that people unconsciously internalize the authority of powers such as the police and the government, and therefore regulate themselves even in their absence. For example, one stops one’s car at a stop sign even when no policemen and no other people are around. Foucault said that people tend to impose laws upon themselves, which forms another avenue of power granted to the state. As he writes, a person “inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles.” Foucault also generalized the panoptic model to school, the workplace, and more. Of course I don’t mean to argue that you should break rules at every opportunity you’re seemingly not under surveillance, but it’s still interesting to reflect on how we may allow society’s expectations and laws to affect our behavior regardless of the setting.

Thinking about the state’s power in this way is useful, but it can also have ramifications for us as students. Being at UNC and not being a progressive atheist is literally like living in 1984! I’m kidding, but it can feel a little bit like living in yet another panopticon with surreptitious surveillance. I’m sure students of nearly any background can recall times they decided to censor themselves after considering that they may even slightly contradict the maxims of progressivism, without even knowing for sure they would face censure—the guard doesn’t have to be present in the watchtower. A group of professors released a report on free expression within the UNC system (which the DTH summarized well) last year that revealed 15% of students at UNC-CH considered themselves conservative—and of those, over half attested to self-censoring more than once. Furthermore, over 1/3 of students of all ideologies reported feeling concerned about other students’ opinion of them as a consequence for “expressing sincere views.” Students without a doubt allow peers and themselves to police their thoughts with internalized authority.

Things grow even more concerning when also considering how “biopower” affects our lives, another term that Foucault coined. He defined it as a power over population seeking to influence life itself with “precise controls and comprehensive regulations.” Basically, this idea can go hand in hand with the aforesaid self-disciplinary authority, but focuses more on topics like governments’ administration of public health, their sovereignty over life and death, their concern with birth rates, and more.

The pandemic clearly demonstrates the ability of the state to exercise control over our corporeal selves and encourage self-enforcement. For the purposes of this I don’t wish to opine on the political debates surrounding COVID or imply that I think the disease is wholly unthreatening. Regardless, with the onset of the disease, governments around the world were largely able to compel citizens to shift their lifestyles and confine themselves to much fewer physical spaces than normal. Privileges and access to spaces were and may still be limited by vaccination status and/or the wearing of protective measures on your person. Citizens also undoubtedly governed one another and themselves to encourage compliance. Whether the measures governments took against COVID were necessary or not is beside the point of this exercise in thought; scores of people almost unquestioningly allowed states to implement more control over our persons and free range of motion even if for a little. Governments use emergencies to seize more power and although many of them have obviously let up since the pandemic, maybe people will be less surprised with and more used to intrusions in general.

How do you escape the panopticon and the state’s biopolitics? I don’t know if that can even be answered; I just know that the government will only grow in scope. Self-regulation is probably also just part of being a socialized human being. And the contract we all are in with governments of course requires that they wield power in exchange for protections against all that may come with an anarchic society. Regardless, having the vocabulary and desire to think about how power of all forms manifests itself, I believe, is crucial.

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