Constructing the Panopticon: World-Making and Determination in Foucault

Constructing the Panopticon: World-Making and Determination in Foucault

By Aldo, Monica, Pamela, and Rami

As power mechanisms and society structure change, the world-making process develop drastically. From “atrocity” in monarchical law to manipulated representations in the public sphere, as seen in the “punitive city”, to the educational practices that come with the development of prison as a deprivation of liberty. Throughout the advancement of disciplinary and punishment practices, the developments of technique allow for power to be diffused throughout society and to work more thoroughly and efficiently, therefore, shaping the world.  



In terms of power system and structure, the creation of panopticon realizes an ideal form for power to organize people and design the entire world. As he states, “Panopticism constituted the technique, universally widespread, of coercion (222).” Foucault’s panopticism represents a mechanism of power in which the subjects are being seen, but can’t see the source of surveillance. In the building “panopticon”, there is a central tower surrounded by rooms that having light coming in from behind them. Due to the backlighting, people in the tower can very clearly see the silhouettes of the people in each room, but the people in the rooms cannot see the people in the tower. Power has more efficiency and stronger impact, as it is exerted through invisible means. The people in the rooms are constantly left in an anxious state because the possibility of being watched at any time.

According to Foucault, the panopticon is a more efficient multiplicity of power, as it is a “substitute for a power that is manifested through the brilliance of those who exercise it, a power that insidiously objectifies those on him it is applied; to for a body of knowledge about these individuals, rather than to deploy the ostentatious signs of sovereignty” (220). This mechanism of power is observed in almost any institution in the modern society. We keep detailed written records, follow a chronology, and compare them to “what is normal” in order to create efficiency of power.


In Foucault’s society, norms are established and validated, but there are people who either fall out of the range of normality or try to resist and fall out of the range. The act of resisting the norms dictated by a power-system is a threat to the current power, so it must be criminalized. The current power always aims to criminalize actions and ideas that destabilize power as it is. Civil disobedience is a way that people attempt to shape their world, without the influence of the people in the tower. In society today, the panopticon can be expanded to more than just a room. It is the internet, the television, our phones, any social media that we use. The panopticon as a structure that allows power to monitor us while we cannot tell if and when we are monitored is quickly made more efficient by the advent of technological communication. While we do not have a lens into other groups who may exercise power the same way they have a lens into our browsing activity, we are subject to panopticism, and the panopticon gives a structure to our world where we have the people who use power on others and the people who act out the effects of power, the watchers and the people who are watched. If the panopticon is meant to hierarchically structure our world, acts of defiance against that structure are acts of world-making in their own right. Civil disobedience is the resistance to the current form that attempts to create new world order.

“The minute disciplines, the panopticisms of every day may well be below the level of emergence of the great apparatuses and the great political struggles. But, in the genealogy of modern society, they have been, with the class domination that traverses it, the political counterpart of the juridical norms according to which power was redistributed. Hence, no doubt, the importance that has been given for so long to the small techniques of discipline, to those apparently insignificant tricks that it has invented, and even to those ‘sciences’ that give it a respectable face; hence the fear of abandoning them if one cannot find any substitute; hence the affirmation that they are at the very foundation of society, and an element in its equilibrium… hence the persistence in regarding them as the humble, but concrete form of every morality, whereas they are a set of physico-political techniques.” (Foucault, 223)



When the Black Panther Party was originally formed in 1966, their purpose was to monitor the behavior of the police force and challenge police brutality. The Black Panther Party, however, represented a direct challenge to current power and was criminalized heavily as we can see in this quote from the FBI vault page:

“The Black Panther Party (BPP) is a black extremist organization founded in Oakland, California in 1966. It advocated the use of violence and guerilla tactics to overthrow the U.S. government. In 1969, the FBI’s Charlotte Field Office opened an investigative file on the BPP to track its militant activities, income, and expenses. This release consists of Charlotte’s file on BPP activities from 1969 to 1976.”

With the use of the term “extremist” to characterize the group, we see how the United States officials found them a direct threat, more similar to ISIS and not as bad as the KKK. And so, the director of the FBI would exert his power in as many ways as he could to damage the Black Panthers. According to a huffington post article, “After President Richard Nixon’s election in 1968, Black Panther party members said his administration gave Hoover even more of a sense to ‘oppress without restriction.’” While the KKK has not been treated as a terrorist group by the FBI because they do not, nor have they before represented a critique of current power, the Black Panther Party was forced to disband due to people’s increasing hesitations to join, as the government oppressed the party as much as it could, criminalizing and putting as many Black panthers in jail as possible.


“[The art of punishing] brings five quite distinct operations into play: it refers individual actions to a whole that is at once a field of comparison, a space of differentiation and the principle of a rule to be followed. It differentiates individuals from one another, in terms of the following overall rule: that the rule be made to function as a minimal threshold, as an average to be respected or as an optimum toward which one must move. It measures in quantitative terms and hierarchies in terms of value the abilities, the level, the ‘nature’ of individuals. It introduces, through this ‘value-giving’ measure, the constraint of a conformity that must be achieved. Lastly, it traces the limit that will define difference in relation to all other differences, the external frontier of the abnormal (the ‘shameful’ class of the Ecole Militaire).” (Foucault, 182)


The Panopticon, though seemingly confined to defining political structure, is present all around us, building social norms and creating a sensation that one is always being ‘watched’ or observed. Social media sites seem to be inconsequential, but their panopticist relevance in our time is undeniable. Like the prison, sites like Facebook and Twitter allow us to participate in a structure where we are acutely aware that any outward action we make–a post, a change of one’s profile picture–is seen and judged by any number of people. Many people leave their social media public for anyone to view, cultivating and curating an image to fit the norm: that one is always happy, always law-abiding, always mentally and physically healthy. This connection is epitomised through a look at Instagram, the photo-sharing social media site infamous for its ability to complacently enforce the notion that one should always be adamantly happy and excessively skinny. Thus, what one projects about his or her personality is an image subject to scrutiny but ultimately manufactured for this purpose.


Instagram models amass a following of unknown individuals that provide them with enough publicity to make money off of their photos. However, if something the model does or says does not fit with what the public wants, the model will be severely chastised for it, losing followers, money, and popularity. In turn, models are led to constantly monitor their own actions and what they post to fit a desired norm, behaving and presenting themselves with the deep conviction that they are being watched, and that if they ‘misbehave,’ they will be punished by the social.

However, recently we have seen a trend of what could be considered “instagram civil disobedience.” These same models start to resist the expectations they are placed under and post things that go against the image of perfection they are expected to create. More photos showing unposed bodies and acne-filled faces have begun appearing on the scenes. While before, these sorts of photos would cause the models to be subjected to criticism for their “criminal behavior” (i.e. not looking perfect), it has become a movement of body positivity, a resistance to standards set by industries that cater to beauty and looks. While the models are still subjected to the current power, they have found a way to resist it and create a new image of imperfection. The panopticon of followers is forced to reevaluate their own actions as the mode of power shifts from expecting the norm of perfection to the norm of imperfection.


For an example of this, look at the British model Emily Bador, who describes how she felt the pressure to stay as thin as possible and constantly hide what would normally be considered “flaws”. If you want to see how the panopticon reacts to this resistance of power, just look in the comments of this article for how some criminalize her behavior. Instead of focusing on her message, they call her “narcissistic” for taking photos of herself and tell her that she should clean her mirror because it looks dirty in the photos. They tell her that she “looked better skinny” and should stop taking photos. When the watched resists the chosen norm, the watchers criminalize the watched.


We see how panopticon both expands the domination of power and encourages resistance. The efficiency with which panopticism works is increased by the advent of technology, but at the same time, it also creates the same space for new kinds of challenges and critiques against itself. From the political sphere to our own daily lives, the panopticon is a power-system that functions throughout our society and influences our actions. It creates the institutions through which we judge ourselves and others against normative standards, and it creates the systems through which we will attempt to find ways to resist. Panopticon creates the world we live in, establish the norms we are expected to fall into, and at the same time, “encourages” resistance against itself.


One thought on “Constructing the Panopticon: World-Making and Determination in Foucault

  1. I thought this was a well-written blog that really opened my eyes. I never thought of applying Foucault to Instagram models in that way. Also, I did not know that the Black Panther Party is considered ‘extremist’ while the KKK is not.
    I have now discovered new power structures in our society that are not just institutions. However, I am left wondering about what replaces these power structures if the ‘resistance’ wins. Or is the ‘resistance’ never going to overthrow the state/people who have power? I thought this was an interesting question because what would happen if the Instagram models did become less skinny and attractive. Would that become the normalized standard? Would we ostracize and criticize models for trying to be skinny? What I am trying to say is that if we do remove the normalized judgment, what do we replace it with? After reading this, I guess I would say that the power structure system is a cycle with changing normalized judgments.


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