Jeremy Bentham, Michel Foucault

Jeremy Bentham‘s nineteenth-century prison reforms provide Michel Foucault with a representative model for what happens to society in the nineteenth century.note Bentham argued in The “Panopticon” that the perfect prison would be structured in a such a way that cells would be open to a central tower. In the model, individuals in the cells do not interact with each other and are constantly confronted by the panoptic tower (pan=all; optic=seeing). They cannot, however, see when there is a person in the tower; they must believe that they could be watched at any moment: “the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so”.

2 thoughts on “Jeremy Bentham, Michel Foucault

  1. shinichi Post author

    Modules on Foucault

    by Dino Franco Felluga


    I: on history

    MICHEL FOUCAULT in The Archaeology of Knowledge rejects the traditional historian’s tendency to read straightforward narratives of progress in the historical record: “For many years now,” he writes, “historians have preferred to turn their attention to long periods, as if, beneath the shifts and changes of political events, they were trying to reveal the stable, almost indestructible system of checks and balances, the irreversible processes, the constant readjustments, the underlying tendencies that gather force, and are then suddenly reversed after centuries of continuity, the movements of accumulation and slow saturation, the great silent, motionless bases that traditional history has covered with a thick layer of events” (3). Foucault, by contrast, argues that one should seek to reconstitute not large “periods” or “centuries” but “phenomena of rupture, of discontinuity” (4). The problem, he argues, “is no longer one of tradition, of tracing a line, but one of division, of limits” (5). Instead of presenting a monolithic version of a given period, Foucault argues that we must reveal how any given period reveals “several pasts, several forms of connexion, several hierarchies of importance, several networks of determination, several teleologies, for one and the same science, as its present undergoes change: thus historical descriptions are necessarily ordered by the present state of knowledge, they increase with every transformation and never cease, in turn, to break with themselves” (5).

    Foucault adopts the term “archaeology” to designate his historical method and he articulates what he means by that term by specifying how his method differs from both traditional history and the traditional history of ideas:

    1) “Archaeology tries to define not the thoughts, representations, images, themes, preoccupations that are concealed or revealed in discourses; but those discourses themselves, those discourses as practices obeying certain rules” (138). Foucault does not examine historical documents in order to read in them “a sign of something else” (138), for example the “truth” or “spirit” of a given historical period. Rather Foucault tries to make sense of how a period’s very approach to key terms like “history,” “oeuvre,” or “subjectivity” affect that period’s understanding of itself and its history.

    2) “Archaeology does not seek to rediscover the continuous, insensible transition that relates discourses, on a gentle slope, to what precedes them, surrounds them, or follows them” (139). Instead, Foucault wishes to understand how disparate discourses function by their own distinct sets of rules and strategies. Archaeology wishes to “show in what way the set of rules that [discourses] put into operation is irreducible to any other” (139). In other words, different discourses have a disjunctive or discontinuous relation to each other.

    3) Archaeology “does not try to grasp the moment in which the œuvre emerges on the anonymous horizon. It does not wish to rediscover the enigmatic point at which the individual and the social are inverted into one another. It is neither a psychology, nor a sociology, nor more generally an anthropology of creation” (139). Rather, archaeology examines how a single œuvre can be shot through with different “types of rules for discursive practices” (139). It treats “different rules for discursive practices” as distinct from each other, and therefore never subsumable into some all-encompassing concept (e.g., the “author” or the “spirit of the age”).

    4) Finally, archaeology “does not claim to efface itself in the ambiguous modesty of a reading that would bring back, in all its purity, the distant, precarious, almost effaced light of the origin” (139-140). Archaeology does not seek to reconstitute the “truth” of history but how any period is made up of a series of discourses: “It is not a return to the innermost secret of the origin; it is the systematic description of a discourse-object” (140).


    II: on panoptic and carceral society

    MICHEL FOUCAULT seeks throughout his work to make sense of how our contemporary society is structured differently from the society that preceded us. He has been particularly influential precisely because he tends to overturn accepted wisdom, illustrating the dangers inherent in those Enlightenment reforms that were designed to correct the barbarity of previous periods (the elimination of dungeons, the modernization of medicine, the creation of the public university, etc.). As Foucault illustrates, each process of modernization entails disturbing effects with regard to the power of the individual and the control of government. Indeed, his most influential work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, paints a picture of contemporary society that sometimes resembles George Orwell’s 1984. He explores the ways that government has claimed ever greater control over and enforcement of ever more private aspects of our lives.

    In particular, Foucault explores the transition from what he terms a “culture of spectacle” to a “carceral culture.” Whereas in the former punishment was effected on the body in public displays of torture, dismemberment, and obliteration, in the latter punishment and discipline become internalized and directed to the constitution and, when necessary, rehabilitation of social subjects.

    Jeremy Bentham’s nineteenth-century prison reforms provide Foucault with a representative model for what happens to society in the nineteenth century.note Bentham argued in The “Panopticon” that the perfect prison would be structured in a such a way that cells would be open to a central tower. In the model, individuals in the cells do not interact with each other and are constantly confronted by the panoptic tower (pan=all; optic=seeing). They cannot, however, see when there is a person in the tower; they must believe that they could be watched at any moment: “the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so” (Foucault, Discipline 201).

    Bentham saw this prison reform as a model for how society should function. To maintain order in a democratic and capitalist society, the populace needs to believe that any person could be surveilled at any time. In time, such a structure would ensure that the people would soon internalize the panoptic tower and police themselves: “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (Foucault, Discipline 202-203). This system of control has, arguably, been aided in our own culture by new technological advancements that allow federal agencies to track your movement and behavior (the internet, telephones, cell phones, social security numbers, the census, ATMs, credit cards, and the ever increasing number of surveillance cameras in urban spaces). By carceral culture, Foucault refers to a culture in which the panoptic model of surveillance has been diffused as a principle of social organization, affecting such disparate things as the university classroom (see right for a prison school that resembles some classroom auditoriums); urban planning (organized on a grid structure to facilitate movement but also to discourage concealment); hospital and factory architecture; and so on. As Foucault puts it, the Panopticon is polyvalent in its applications; it serves to reform prisoner, but also to treat patients, to instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars and idlers to work. It is a type of location of bodies in space, of distribution of individuals in relation to one another, of hierarchical organization, of disposition of centres and channels of power, of definition of the instruments and modes of intervention of power, which can be implemented in hospitals, workshops, schools, prisons. Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behaviour must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used. (Discipline 205).

    “The panoptic schema, without disappearing as such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body,” Foucault explains; “its vocation was to become a generalized function” (Discipline 207). The ultimate result is that we now live in the panoptic machine: “We are neither in the amphitheatre, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism” (Discipline 217).

    Some of the effects of this new model of organization include :

    1) the internalization of rules and regulations. As we naturalize rules, society could be said to become less willing to contest unjust laws. Of course, Foucault has Nazi Germany in mind when he thinks about conformity; however, studies of American society (Philip Zimbardo, Stanley Milgram) have suggested that Americans are, in fact, just as willing to follow authorities even when it means doing violence to innocent subjects.

    2) rehabilitation rather than cruel and unusual punishment. This reform was implemented because of nineteenth-century outcries over the inhumane treatment of prisoners and the insane. Foucault however questions the subsequent emphasis on the “normal,” which entails the enforcement of the status quo on ever more private aspects of our lives (for example, sexuality). As he puts it, “The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social-worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements” (Discipline 304).

    3) surveillance into ever more private aspects of our lives, which, once again, is aided by new surveillance technology.

    4) information society. All of this surveillance and information-gathering leads, of course, to huge challenges for the organization and retrieval of data. Perhaps the very move of society into this new mode of social organization made the invention of the computer inevitable since it allows us to organize ever more vast amounts of data.

    5) bureaucracy. A new white-collar labor force is necessary to set up the procedures for information retrieval and storage. This form of organization encourages a separation from real people since it turns individuals into statistics and paperwork. A classic example is Nazi Germany’s Adolf Eichmann.

    6) efficiency. Value is placed on the most efficient means of organizing data and individuals to effect the mass production and dissemination of more goods and information, even if at the expense of exploitation or injustice.

    7) specialization. Members of the workforce are organized into increasingly specialized fields, so much so that we increasingly rely on other “experts” to complete tasks that had previously been shared or common knowledge (the preparation of meats and other food products, building construction, transportation, etc.).


    III: on power

    MICHEL FOUCAULT’s understanding of power changes between his early work on institutions (Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, Discipline and Punish) and his later work on sexuality and governmentality. In the early work, Foucault sometimes gives a sense that power somehow inheres in institutions themselves rather than in the individuals that make those institutions function. Of course, what Foucault explores in those books is how the creation of modern disciplines, with their principles of order and control, tends to “disindividualize” power, making it seem as if power inheres in the prison, the school, the factory, and so on. The Panopticon (see previous module) becomes Foucault’s model for the way other institutions function: the Panopticon “is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up” (Discipline 202). Indeed, Bentham’s goal was to create an architectural idea that, ultimately, could function on its own: it did not matter who exactly operated the machine: “Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine: in the absence of the director, his family, his friends, his visitors, even his servants” (Discipline 202). The idea of discipline itself similarly functions as an abstraction of the idea of power from any individual: “‘Discipline’ may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a physics’ or an ‘anatomy’ of power, a technology” (Discipline 215). Bureaucracies, like disciplines, contribute to the process of disindividuation since they promote the facelessness of the bureaucrat (“I’m just doing my job”; “I’m just a cog in the machine”) and tend to continue functioning even after major revolutions. (After the fall of Nazi Germany, for example, the general bureaucratic structure, and most of its workers, remained in place.)

    The effect of this tendency to disindividualize power is the perception that power resides in the machine itself (the “panoptic machine”; the “technology” of power) rather than in its operator. For this reason, one can finish reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish with the paranoid feeling that we are powerless before such an effective and diffuse form of social control. Foucault makes clear in his later work, however, that power ultimately does inhere in individuals, including those that are surveilled or punished. It is true that contemporary forms of disciplinary organization allow ever larger number of people to be controlled by ever smaller numbers of “specialists”; however, as Foucault explains in “The Subject and Power,” “something called Power, with or without a capital letter, which is assumed to exist universally in a concentrated or diffused form, does not exist. Power exists only when it is put into action” (219). Foucault therefore makes clear that, in itself, power “is not a renunciation of freedom, a transference of rights, the power of each and all delegated to a few” (220). Indeed, power is not the same as violence because the opposite pole of violence “can only be passivity” (220). By contrast, “a power relationship can only be articulated on the basis of two elements which are each indispensable if it is really to be a power relationship: that ‘the other’ (the one over whom power is exercised) be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts; and that, faced with a relationship of power, a whole field of responses, reactions, results, and possible inventions may open up” (220). Power always entails a set of actions performed upon another persons actions and reactions. Although violence may be a part of some power relationships, “In itself the exercise of power is not violence” (220); it is “always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action” (220).

    Foucault therefore turns in his later work to the concept of “government” in order to explain how power functions:

    Basically power is less a confrontation between two adversaries or the linking of one to the other than a question of government. This word must be allowed the very broad meaning which it had in the sixteenth century. “Government” did not refer only to political structures or to the management of states; rather it designated the way in which the conduct of individuals or of groups might be directed: the government of children, of souls, of communities, of families, of the sick. It did not only cover the legitimately constituted forms of political or economic subjection, but also modes of action, more or less considered and calculated, which were destined to act upon the possibilities of action of other people. To govern, in this sense, is to structure the possible field of action of others. The relationship proper to power would not therefore be sought on the side of violence or of struggle, nor on that of voluntary linking (all of which can, at best, only be the instruments of power), but rather in the area of the singular mode of action, neither warlike nor juridical, which is government. (221)

    The turn to this concept of “government” allowed Foucault to include a new element to his understanding of power: freedom. “Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free” (221), Foucault explains. Conversely, “slavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains. (In this case it is a question of a physical relationship of constraint.)” (221). Indeed, recalcitrance thus becomes an integral part of the power relationship: “At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom” (221-22). Foucault thus provides us with a powerful model for thinking about how to fight oppression when one sees it: “the analysis, elaboration, and bringing into question of power relations and the ‘agonism’ between power relations and the intransitivity of freedom is a permanent political task inherent in all social existence” (223).

  2. shinichi Post author






    by ミシェル・フーコー



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