“First, a strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town on pain of death, the killing of all stray animals; the division of the town into distinct quarters, each governed by an intendant. Each street is placed under the authority of a syndic, who keeps it under surveillance; if he leaves the street, he will be condemned to death. On the appointed day, everyone is ordered to stay indoors: it is forbidden to leave on pain of death. The syndic himself comes to lock the door of each house from the outside; he takes the key with him and hands it over to the intendant of the quarter; the intendant keeps it until the end of the quarantine. Each family will have made its own provisions; but, for bread and wine, small wooden canals are set up between the street and the interior of the houses, thus allowing each person to receive his ration without communicating with the suppliers and other residents; meat, fish and herbs will be hoisted up into the houses with pulleys and baskets. If it is absolutely necessary to leave the house, it will be done in turn, avoiding any meeting. Only the intendants, syndics and guards will move about the streets and also, between the infected houses, from one corpse to another, the ‘crows’, who can be left to die: these are ‘people of little substance who carry the sick, bury the dead, clean and do many vile and abject offices’. It is a segmented, immobile, frozen space. Each individual is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment.
Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere: ‘A considerable body of militia, commanded by good officers and men of substance’, guards at the gates, at the town hall and in every quarter to ensure the prompt obedience of the people and the most absolute authority of the magistrates, ‘as also to observe all disorder, theft and extortion’. At each of the town gates there will be an observation post; at the end of each street sentinels. Every day, the intendant visits the quarter in his charge, inquires whether the syndics have carried out their tasks, whether the inhabitants have anything to complain of; they ‘observe their actions’. Every day, too, the syndic goes into the street for which he is responsible; stops before each house: gets all the inhabitants to appear at the windows (those who live overlooking the courtyard will be allocated a window looking onto the street at which no one but they may show themselves); he calls each of them by name; informs himself as to the state of each and every one of them – ‘in which respect the inhabitants will be compelled to speak the truth under pain of death’; if someone does not appear at the window, the syndic must ask why: ‘In this way he will find out easily enough whether dead or sick are being concealed.’ Everyone locked up in his cage, everyone at his window, answering to his name and showing himself when asked — it is the great review of the living and the dead.
This surveillance is based on a system of permanent registration: reports from the syndics to the intendants, from the intendants to the magistrates or mayor. At the beginning of the ‘lock up’, the role of each of the inhabitants present in the town is laid down, one by one; this document bears ‘the name, age, sex of everyone, notwithstanding his condition’: a copy is sent to the intendant of the quarter, another to the office of the town hall, another to enable the syndic to make his daily roll call. Everything that may be observed during the course of the visits — deaths, illnesses, complaints, irregularities — is noted down and transmitted to the intendants and magistrates. The magistrates have complete control over medical treatment; they have appointed a physician in charge; no other practitioner may treat, no apothecary prepare medicine, no confessor visit a sick person without having received from him a written note ‘to prevent anyone from concealing and dealing with those sick of the contagion, unknown to the magistrates’. The registration of the pathological must be constantly centralized. The relation of each individual to his disease and to his death passes through the representatives of power…”
My apologies for the long quotation. The book fell open at this page, so to speak, and I wanted my reader to have the experience of coming across this passage without context. From the vantage point of 2021, as we come to the end of the first year of our global pandemic, it struck me forcefully. For a moment I thought I was reading some satirical, cyberpunk version of the strange, anachronistic nightmare we are living through.
The book is Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, by Michel Foucault, published in 1975 and translated from the French by Alan Sheridan © 1977. The details of a town’s response to an outbreak of plague are taken from a late seventeenth century ordinance. The title in the original French is not ‘Discipliner’ but ‘Surveiller et Punir’: that is, ‘Monitor and Punish’.
These three paragraphs, so evocative of the bizarre return of the plague ordinance to our modern experience, are the opening of Section III: ‘Discipline’; Part 3: ‘Panopticism’. Foucault could not have foreseen the strange afterlife of this chapter, its shocking resonance with the quasi-medieval plague-doctrines inflicted on their citizenry by governments acting in concert across the developed world. It’s not prescience, exactly —simply that Foucault was writing from an earlier vantage point on the same timeline. In Foucault’s argument the plague ordinance represents the birth of modern power-relations, the ‘disciplinarian’ society that took shape over the next three centuries. The eighteenth century was the incubator of change, with its increased floating populations, urbanisation and industrialisation, and higher capital investment necessitating the maximisation of human productivity. The plague stands as a metaphor for all forms of disorder and multiplicity, and the plague ordinance germinates ‘a swarming of disciplinary projects’ that would resolve into the social architecture of the disciplinary society.
“Antiquity had been a civilisation of spectacle,” writes Foucault. “‘To render accessible to a multitude of men the inspection of a small number of objects’: this was the problem to which the architecture of temples, theatres and circuses responded.”
These ritual architectures embodied in stone and wood the communal life of the societies that built them. In the turbulence of the eighteenth century, insecure and fragile power structures sought a reversal of the visual relation.
“With spectacle, there was a predominance of public life, the intensity of festivals, sensual proximity. In these rituals in which blood flowed, society found new vigour and formed for a moment a single great body.
The modern age poses the opposite problem: to procure for a small number, or even for a single individual, the instantaneous view of a great multitude.”
This inversion of the number-relation marks the beginning of a ‘whole new type of society’ — ‘one not of spectacle, but of surveillance’. Foucault quotes Julius to the effect that this reversal of the gaze is so radical a change as to constitute ‘an event in the history of the human mind’.
But it was not until the closing decades of the eighteenth century that the reversal found its architectural expression in the design of the Panopticon prison by the British Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham.
“The Building circular – an iron cage, glazed – a glass lantern about the size of Ranelagh – The Prisoners in their Cells, occupying the Circumference – The Officers, the Centre. By Blinds, and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed from the observation of the Prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of invisible omnipresence. – The whole circuit reviewable with little, or, if necessary, without any, change of place.”—Jeremy Bentham (1791). Panopticon, or The Inspection House
As Bentham developed his prison design, he began to see applications of the model across the full range of disciplinary projects:
“It is polyvalent in its applications; it serves to reform prisoners, 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 organisation, 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.”
This is the ‘exact reverse of the spectacle’, as the multitude — the multiplicity — becomes the observed, while the ruling power — the unity — becomes the observer; or rather, the potential observer, since the subject can never be sure whether he is being watched or not, and therefore must behave as if under constant surveillance. The act of observation, therefore, is internalised, the watched effectively watching themselves, the Panopticon inducing in the inmate ‘a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power… in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.’
This effect is intensified by ‘strict spacial partitioning’ which severs all horizontal or peripheral relationship and communication, imposing an ‘axial visibility’ with ‘lateral invisibility’.
“And this invisibility,” writes Foucault, “is a guarantee of order.”
“If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at collective escape, the planning of new crimes for the future, bad reciprocal influences; if they are patients, there is no danger of contagion; if they are madmen there is no risk of their committing violence upon one another; if they are schoolchildren, there is no copying, no noise, no chatter, no waste of time; if they are workers, there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents. The crowd, a compact mass, a locus of multiple exchanges, individualities merging together, a collective effect, is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities.”
The effect, whether in prisons, schools, factories or army barracks, is increased docility and utility, the maximised extraction of time and energy from the individual. The inmate internalises the gaoler, who therefore becomes effectively redundant, and can graduate to an experimental, scientific role — that of naturalist rather than mere zoo-keeper. Further refinements of productivity can then be achieved by exploiting the Panopticon as a ‘laboratory of power.’
“To alter behaviour, to train or correct individuals. To experiment with medicines and monitor their effects. To try out different punishments on prisoners, according to their crimes and character, and to seek the most effective ones. To teach different techniques simultaneously to the workers, to decide which is the best. To try out pedagogical experiments… one could bring up different children according to different systems of thought, making certain children believe that two and two do not make four or that the moon is a cheese, then put them together when they are twenty or twenty-five years old; one would then have discussions that would be worth a great deal more than the sermons or lectures on which so much money is spent; one would have at least an opportunity of making discoveries in the domain of metaphysics. The Panopticon is a privileged place for experiments on men, and for analysing with complete certainty the transformations that may be obtained from them.
…Thanks to its mechanisms of observation, it gains in efficiency and in the ability to penetrate into men’s behaviour; knowledge follows the advances of power, discovering new objects of knowledge over all the surfaces on which power is exercised.”
This is the perfect illustration, perhaps the origin, of Foucault’s conception of the circularity of the knowledg-power relationship. ‘Knowledge is power’ is only half the story; in the Panopticon, power is also knowledge.
And yet, despite all its potentialities, the Panopticon as a physical structure of bricks, steel and glass would remain on the drawing-board for the rest of Bentham’s life. His grandiose vision of cities dominated by the domes of multiplying panoptica never materialised. He spent sixteen years obsessively developing his ideas and lobbying for the building of a showcase prison on the south bank of the Thames, but it never happened — no such building accurately reflecting his blueprint was erected in his lifetime. There were scattered examples, in time, around the world — India, the Netherlands, Cuba… but what Bentham envisioned, a society in which such buildings became the dominant architectural form in schools, workhouses, factories, hospitals, army barracks and so on, never came to pass.
Bentham dreamed whole skylines of panoptic domes, whole cities of darkened towers and bright, segmented peripheries. None of it happened, and eventually he became embittered, railing against a ‘sinister interest’ which he believed had blocked his efforts to improve society.
Foucault has a more sociological take on his failure: that the Panopticon already existed, as a social architecture, or at least ‘a swarming of disciplinary mechanisms’. The disciplinary society is panopticism without the Panopticon, which must be understood, writes Foucault, ‘not… as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.’
Panopticism is the organising principle of the ‘disciplinary society’ which Foucault believed had come to maturity in his own lifetime, the fulfilment of a historical process. And yet the system, as Foucault knew it, was still riddled with interstitial spaces. It was still possible to drop out, opt out, go off-grid. The spaces were steadily shrinking, as Ted Kazynski found out; but there were bohemian enclaves and freedom ghettoes, traveller convoys and squatter movements, free festivals and artists’ colonies to be found. Shreds of the map of Bohemia still clung, here and there, to the territory, or seemed to at least. Some of those enclaves, like Laurel Canyon, turned out to be crawling with spies and agents. And everywhere, it would be revealed in time, the drugs, LSD, ecstasy or cocaine, were funnelled through intelligence agencies, police forces and informancy networks. The supervisors were always there behind their blinds, but we couldn’t see the tower. We shuddered at 1984 and loved Easy Rider, On the Road, Streetcar and Beautiful Losers; soon, the new genre of cyberpunk would romanticise the illusion that the gaps and cracks would always exist, even in a digital future.
Foucault, a self-described ‘juvenile delinquent’, sought the interstices all his life, and found them in the underground gay and avant-garde scenes in Paris in the forties and fifties, and wherever he could in his sojourns in Poland, Sweden, Tunisia and Germany. I did too, engaging in sporadic but reckless and self-destructive searches for my own Bohemia. Innocent and delinquent, I was blissfully unaware how penetrated these spaces already were. Foucault had some idea. By 1975 he understood that “the police as an institution… is an apparatus that must be coextensive with the entire social body… and not only by the extreme limits that it embraces, but by the minuteness of the details it is concerned with… the dust of events, actions, behaviour, opinions — ‘everything that happens’; the police are concerned with ‘those things of every moment’, those ‘unimportant things’, of which Catherine II spoke in her Great Instruction… With the police, one is in the indefinite world of a supervision that seeks ideally to reach the most elementary particle, the most passing phenomenon of the social body. It had to be a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception: thousands of eyes posted everywhere, mobile attentions ever on the alert, a long, hierarchized network which, according to Le Maire, comprised for Paris the forty-eight commissaires, the twenty inspecteurs, then the ‘observers’, who were paid regularly, the ‘basses mouches’ [‘low flies’], or secret agents, who were paid by the day, then the informers, paid according to the job done, and finally the prostitutes.”
In the late fifties he ran foul of a low fly himself while lecturing in Poland, in a sexual involvement with a man who turned out to be a security agent aiming to use him to discredit the French embassy. The diplomatic scandal that ensued forced him to leave the country. Ending up in West Germany, he made Hamburg’s Reeperbahn his second home, and entered into a relationship with a transvestite. In 1980 he secured a visiting professorship at UC Berkeley; his lectures, on both coasts, drew huge crowds. Meanwhile the philosopher spent his leisure hours in sado-masochistic orgies in the bath-houses of San Francisco. He was, after all, something of a connoisseur of punishment.
Foucault died in 1984, from ‘complications of HIV-AIDS’, which is another story again, with high relevance to our own tribulations; initially he dismissed it as a ‘dreamed-up’ disease. His death from sepsis — his death with HIV in Covidian parlance — was the first of a well-known figure in France to be attributed to the new syndrome. Even in death, then, Foucault was avant-garde. It’s probably how he’d have wanted to go — locked in a passionate embrace with the zeitgeist as it murdered him. It suits his rather performative personality. I have come late to his work, via this fragment stumbled across at random, these few pages blown into my house by some random breeze in this plague town. I’ve heard him dismissed as ‘obvious’ by Jordan Peterson and ‘a fraud’ by Camille Paglia, and I probably wouldn’t have read this fragment if my eye hadn’t caught a prophetic glint of glass from those plague windows. Right now, it has tremendous resonance. Read it — if you’re anything like me, there’ll be petards going off beneath your feet all the way through. Even as a stand-alone essay the chapter provides a panoramic perspective — or what they call in cinematography a ‘pull-back-and-reveal’ — that what we are witnessing (and being witnessed by) is not a revolution but the culmination of a seamless historical process. Foucault’s aperçu, and after-image of plague windows on the panopticon, gains explosive relevance when reviewed from our own time and situation — 2020-21 — Year Zero, Year One. And whatever you think of Foucault, don’t tell me the man can’t write.
Foucault, disorderly and multiplicitous, was of my tribe, surely, I thought. The kind of people the plague panoptic exists to discipline, who ‘appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.’ Brilliant and reckless, all lust for life and suicidal urges, Foucault was a Bohemian mess, if you ask me. I wondered then about his attitude to the disciplinary society of which he traces the origins — a society in which he was highly successful, of course. I can’t imagine him being a lover of the utilitarian ethic, the disciplinary machine; I suspect he’d have felt more at home in Piranesi’s carceri d’invenzione than Bentham’s dream prison. Hardly a man who’d relish the “assignment to each individual of his ‘true’ name, his ‘true’ place, his ‘true’ body, his ‘true’ disease.”
Would it show in the writing? The piece is a historical thesis, not satire, and he maintains a poised and objective tone. His style is is more sober and epistemologically responsible than his contemporary Baudrillard or his master Nietzsche, but flexible enough to incorporate some well-judged flourishes. There’s a flash of contempt for ‘the petty, malicious minutiae of the disciplines and their investigations,’ and ‘the perversity of those who take pleasure in spying and punishing’, as well as the magnificent phrase, ‘a machinery of furtive power.’
And there’s a subtle mockery, unless I am imagining it, in the passage where he develops his analysis of the Panopticon as ‘a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad…’
“In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian.”
This deftly suggests a fetishism of invisibility in Bentham’s mind. Is there not a sly mischief here, as he masterfully sets Bentham up to be remembered, as he should be for all time, as the pale, tutelary spirit of voyeurs?
But if Foucault thought the basses mouches and their post-war panopticon of eyes and ears was ‘the fulfilment of [the] historical process’ — if he believed that the panopticon had reached its final form in his lifetime — well, it’s a shame he left the theatre just as the final act was starting.
A lot has happened since his death in 1984, the same year that license-plate reading cameras were first mounted above motorways in Europe. Now the cities and arteries of the entire planet are bristling with CCTV; we take it for granted. Those who watch, watch everywhere. Even more significant has been the digital revolution, with almost all human interaction passing through the panoptic architecture of the internet.
Personal computing and mobile phones, social media and surveillance capitalism, contagion experiments and lure modules, the spacial web and augmented reality, smart meters and GPS, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, Starlink and 5G, neuralnanorobotics and brain/cloud interface, digital biology and synthetic worlds… the list of panoptic technologies goes on and on.
Now, with the advent of contact tracing, pharmacovigilance-surveillance and immunity passports, the panoptic machine reaches a new level of penetration, infiltrating the human body and brain. The Panopticon is finally to be built, a physical architecture not of steel and glass but of nanobots and neural nets, its windows not merely transparent but invisible.
Only in 2020, with the drive to vaccinate every human being on the planet, would we begin to understand on a literal and visceral level the unconscious prescience of Foucault’s phrase ‘the capillary functioning of power.’