Deconstruction

Part 1: Repetition, Nominalism, and Knowledge/Power

Why Repetition?

Introduction. This week starts part 1 of 3 on a series of recordings on “repetition,” which is a foundational term to describe reading strategies for secrets. In the coming weeks, we will focus on three French post-structuralist theorists: Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida. This set of recordings focuses on Michel Foucault. Foucault is an early theorist of surveillance, and introduces the “panopticon,” a form of prison architecture that maximized the observability of incarcerated persons. I want to talk about how Foucault uses the concept of repetition to read for secrets in a public or political setting, and how repetition relates to the historical reference, for instance, a famous painting, confession practices of the Catholic church, or a specific prison architecture like the Panopticon. As an introduction to this unit, I first want to draw attention to repetition because it is a core theoretical and stylistic feature of post-structuralist philosophies including genealogy (Foucault), psychoanalysis (Lacan), and deconstruction (Derrida).

Second, Repetition is a sensible foundation for rhetoric. It is what rhetoric is before there were speech teachers in ancient Greece. Even before the word rhetoric, eloquent speech and storytelling is coded into musical meter or song, then as poetry, then as speeches created to compete against other speakers by creating dramatic effects. Repetition is also the basic function of rhetorical tropes, like anaphora, metonymy, or metaphor, which can intensify and diminish our language choices through stylistic arrangement. Anaphora repeats the sounds at the beginning of words. Metonymy creates a repetitive image of an object by summarizing it using one of its parts. Tropes create a taxonomy for repetition, and point the way toward how we might style our own arguments about secrecy.

The way that different scholars employ repetition in their own work gives away what is rhetorical miabout their work. What we are after in this unit are the focal tropes of genealogical, psychoanalytic, or deconstructive analysis. In other words, I am more interested in these theorists for how they read, or the strategic mobilization of repetition to accomplish some critical goal.

Why is Foucault against repetition? In the first place, there is a kind of repetition that Foucault rejects, which is ‘naive’ repetition, or the idea that history always repeats itself, and has similar formal tendencies that describe not just one moment but all past moments. This can be understood as a rejection of Hegelianism, for instance, because Hegel conceives of the progress of history as a series of similar ‘overturnings’ of the past. As Foucault writes:


I am very suspicious of … presupposing the repetition and extension of the same mechanisms throughout the history of our societies. From this, one derives the notion of a kind of cancer that spreads in the social body. It is an unacceptable theory. The way in which we used to confine certain segments of the population in the seventeenth century, to return to this example, is very different from the hospitalization we know from the nineteenth century, and even more from the security mechanisms of the present. (Foucault, “The Risks of Security” in Power, p. 368)

Rather than describing history in general terms as a repetition of past events, Foucault elects to describe repetition as a feature of historically specific practices. So repetition for Foucault is less about how, for instance, surveillance today “repeats” something essential about panopticism, and instead about habits, routines, and rituals that fade into the background precisely because they are repeated.

Why is he also for it? Because repetition is how meaning, ritual, and practice are made. They are how these are normalized and made “natural” even if not especially when they lead to human suffering. Foucault, for instance, takes issue with the “repressive hypothesis” which assumes that sexuality is something innate rather than cultivated, and that “repression” consists in punching down on sexuality in a way that pushes it out of our conscious mind and into our unconscious mind. Foucault’s counter-argument is that there is only consciously-produced sexuality that emerges out of a tension or conflict; sexuality is not something hidden, but instead something produced or made. Sexuality emerges because of the policing of sexuality, both in medical and religious settings, such as confession. Repetition is crucial because it’s not about extinguishing sexuality, it’s about repeating practices that cultivate norms of pleasure and deviancy according to a governing institutional code. As Cousins and Hussain write,

“[Foucault’s] analysis of repressive tactics and the claims of sexual repression bears a striking resemblance to a particular rendition of the Freudian view of repression. … Repression is … a mechanism determining the form of expression of the repressed material and prompt[s] its repetition.” (Cousins and Hussain, Michel Foucault, p. 208)

In summary, Foucault is ‘against’ the idea of repetition as a broad principle for “all of history.” repetition is something that cultivates thought action behavior and practice at a “micro” level. It produces sexuality, for instance, as something to be studied, as something to take pleasure in, as something that can or should be hidden from view. For Foucault, repetition is why we have secrecy: it is because of the repeating and reinforcing practices that make secrets into knowledge that it can be studied.


Nominalism and Repetition

Foucault’s approach to history is novel because he foregrounds “continuity-with-discontinuity or repetition-and-difference: from solid being or empty nothing toward fluid becoming.”

Nominalism. Nominalism is sometimes defined ‘against’ two traditional forms of philosophy: Platonism, or the belief in abstract forms, and Realism, or the doctrine that there are universals. Nominalists either believe that (1) the only forms that exist are material, or otherwise that (2) there are only particular rules, grounded in context. Foucault is an example of both. On the one hand, his histories are material because they are concerned with bodies, which are really affected as an effect of discourse. The Discipline and Punish is a “material” history in the sense that it shows ad nauseum how human bodies have been materially affected by other humans’ governing discourse and rule-systems. On the other hand, Foucault also shows how history doesn’t have universal tendencies. Instead there are moments of contingency and rupture that didn’t have to go as they did; or otherwise, are unique permutations of previously separate discourses. History is always particular from this point of view. It is full of accidents that gain momentum until they become present-day concepts like surveillance and sexuality.

Finally, (3) nominalism is also a theory of the name. Nomos signifies “law” in Greek, and refers to the human creation of a transcendental counterpart to “nature” (Physis). In that context, it also refers to the power granted something by the act of naming and the name. Naming the object subjects it to power, and brings a specific kind of subject into existence. In that way, Foucault’s analysis of criminality and the prison consists in proving how naming people and places as “criminals” and “prisons” gave them a particular force and subjected them to a material power. Nominalism performs the work of reference because it shows us actual subjects to which (for instance) the disciplinary modes of criminality were applied, and at a moment when these concepts were new or novel.

Repetition. Foucault and folks who have adopted his work give repetition a special status. At the beginning of The Order of Things, Focault writes that at the end of the 16th century, “representation - whether in the service of pleasure or of knowledge - was posited as a form of repetition: the theatre of life or the mirror of nature, that was the claim made by all language, its manner of declaring its existence and of formulating its right of speech.” (p. 17) Before the 16th century, the forms of resemblance: emulation, analogy, sympathy, and convention functioned as ways of understanding the world in terms of repetition by drawing connections, for example, between the shape of walnuts and their effects upon the human brain.

In This is Not a Pipe, Foucault offers a distinction between resemblance and similitude which should also illustrate to us how important the concept of repetition is. I’ll explain each of these concepts, paired with a brief (30s-1m) example for each.


Discourse and Knowledge/Power

By ‘discourse', Foucault meant ‘a group of statements which provide a language for talking about - a way of representing the knowledge about - a particular topic at a particular historical moment. ... Discourse is about the production of knowledge through language. But ... since all social practices entail meaning, and meanings shape and influence what we do - our conduct - all practices have a discursive aspect’ (Hall, 1992, p. 291).

Discourse is not just visual or verbal “language.” It is not the same, for instance, as the “language” of fashion or the “language” of war.  Instead discourse should be understood as a combination of language and practice. Discourse attempts to overcome the traditional distinction between what one says (language) and what one does (practice). Foucault’s subjects are always engaged in illocutionary speech acts, “doing in the saying” by creating a social reality through names and practices of reference. Discourse, Foucault argues, constructs the topic. It defines and produces the objects of our knowledge. It governs the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked and reasoned about. It also influences how ideas are put into practice and used to regulate the conduct of others.

Just as a discourse ‘rules in’ certain ways of talking about a topic, defining an acceptable and intelligible way to talk, write, or conduct oneself, so also, by definition, it ‘rules out’, limits and restricts other ways of talking, of conducting ourselves in relation to the topic or constructing knowledge about it. Discourse both enables and constrains. It never consists of one statement, one text, one action or one source. The same discourse, which is characteristic of the way of thinking or the state of knowledge at any one time (what Foucault called the episteme), will appear across a range of texts, and as forms of conduct, at a number of different institutional sites within society. However, whenever these discursive events ‘refer to the same object, share the same style and … support a strategy ... a common institutional, administrative or political drift and pattern’ (Cousins and Hussain, 1984, pp. 84-5), then they are said by Foucault to belong to the same discursive formation.

What distinguished Foucault’s position on discourse, knowledge and power from the Marxist theory of class interests and ideological ‘distortion’? Foucault advanced at least two, radically novel, propositions captured by the combined phrase power/knowledge..

First, if ideology critics have argued that knowing the ‘truth’ about our material conditions changes our ability to act and react to them, then Foucault argues that “knowledge” is not just a way to awaken to conditions of oppression but also a means to enact that oppression.

Foucault argued that not only is knowledge always a form of power, but power is implicated in the questions of whether and in what circumstances knowledge is to be applied or not. This is often summarized with the phrase power/knowledge. Knowledge is linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has the power to make itself true. All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has real effects, and in that sense at least, ‘becomes true’. Knowledge, once used to regulate the conduct of others, entails constraint, regulation and the disciplining of practices. Thus, ‘There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time, power relations’ (Foucault, 1977a, p. 27)
According to Foucault, what we think we ‘know’ in a particular period about crime has a bearing on how we regulate, control and punish criminals. Knowledge does not operate in a void. It is put to work, through certain technologies and strategies of application, in specific situations, historical contexts and institutional regimes. To study punishment, you must study how the combination of discourse and power — power/knowledge — has produced a certain conception of crime and the criminal, has had certain real effects both for criminal and for the punisher, and how these have been set into practice in certain historically specific prison regimes.

This led Foucault to speak, not of the ‘Truth’ of knowledge in the absolute sense — a Truth which remained so, whatever the period, setting, context — but of a discursive formation sustaining a regime of truth. Thus, it may or may not be true that single parenting inevitably leads to delinquency and crime. It is absolutely false. But if everyone believes it to be so, and punishes single parents accordingly, this will have real consequences for both parents and children and will become ‘true’ in terms of its real effects, even if in some absolute sense it has never been conclusively proven. In the human and social sciences, Foucault argued:

Truth isn’t outside power. ... Truth is a thing of this world; it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth; that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true, the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statem ents, the means by which each is sanctioned ... the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true. (Foucault 1980, p.131)

Second, Foucault departs from thinkers of ideology and de-mystification by advancing a novel conception of power. We tend to think of power as always radiating in a single direction — from top to bottom — and coming from a specific source — the sovereign, the state, the ruling class and so on. For Foucault, however, power does not function in the form of a chain’ - it circulates. It is never monopolized by one centre. It ‘is deployed and exercised through a net-like organization’ (Foucault, 1980, p. 98). It does not radiate downwards, either from one source or from one place. Power relations permeate all levels of social existence and are therefore to be found operating at every site of social life - in the private spheres of the family and sexuality as much as in the public spheres of politics, the economy and the law. What’s more, power is not only negative, repressing what it seeks to control. It is also productive. It doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but ... it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms of knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be thought of as a productive network which runs through the whole social body’ (Foucault. 1980. p. 119). Hopefully, this description resonates with what we’ve already discussed in terms of “erasure” as a dual process of both removal and production. If asked to comment on the scheme of erasure discussed in earlier recordings, Foucault would likely stress erasure’s productive aspects, or the way that it brings secrets into being as knowledge through technique, practice, ritual, and their repetition.

Rather than seeing this soul as the reactivated remnants of an ideology, one would see it as the present correlative of a certain technology of power over the body. It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished - and, in a more general way, on those one supervises, trains and corrects, over madmen, children at home and at school, the colonized, over those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives. (Foucault Discipline and Punish, pp. 29)

The punishment system, for example, produces books, treatises, regulations, new strategies of control and resistance, debates in Parliament, conversations, confessions, legal briefs and appeals, training regimes for prison officers, and so on. The efforts to control sexuality produce a veritable explosion of discourse - talk about sex, television and radio programs, sermons and legislation, novels, stories and magazine features, medical and counselling advice, essays and articles, learned theses and research programmes. Without denying that the state, the law, the sovereign, or privileged classes or castes have positions of dominance, Foucault shifts our attention away from the grand, overall strategies of power towards a plurality of localized circuits, tactics, mechanisms and effects through which power circulates - what Foucault calls the ‘meticulous rituals’ or the ‘microphysics’ of power. These power relations ‘go right down to the depth of society’ (Foucault, 1977a, p. 27). They connect the way power is actually working on the ground to what he calls a capillary movement (capillaries being the thin-walled vessels that aid the exchange of oxygen between the blood in our bodies and the surrounding tissues). This approach foregrounds ‘behaviour, bodies and local relations of power, which should not at all be seen as a simple projection of the central power’ (Foucault, 1980, p. 201). In other words, we breathe power into being through the micro-practices people enact and adopt as natural or normal.

Part 2: Visual Reference, Confession, and Panopticism

The Work of  Reference in Las Meninas


The following is the account which Foucault accepts about Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Foucault’s book The Order of Things (1970) opens with a discussion of a painting by the famous Spanish painter, Velasquez, called Las Meninas. It was part of the Spanish court’s royal collection and hung in the palace in a room which was subsequently destroyed by fire. It was dated ‘1656’ by Velasquez’ successor as court. By 1666, it had acquired the title of ‘A Portrait of the Infanta of Spain with her Ladies In Waiting and Servants, by the Court Painter and Palace Chamberlain Diego Velasquez’. It was subsequently called Las Meninas - ‘The Maids of Honour’. Some argue that the painting shows Velasquez working on Las Meninas itself and was painted with the aid of a mirror - but this now seems unlikely. The most widely held and convincing explanation is that Velasquez was working on a full-length portrait of the King and Queen, and that it is the royal couple who are reflected in the mirror on the back wall. It is at the couple that the princess and her attendants are looking and on them that the artist’s gaze appears to rest as he steps back from his canvas. The reflection artfully includes the royal couple in the picture.

Las Meninas shows the interior of a room - perhaps the painter’s studio or some other room in the Spanish Royal Palace, the Escorial. The scene, though in its deeper recesses rather dark, is bathed in light from a window on the right. ‘We are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us,’ says Foucault (1970, p. 4). To the left, looking forwards, is the painter himself, Velasquez. He is in the act of painting and his brush is raised, ‘perhaps ... considering whether to add some finishing touch to the canvas’ (p. 3). He is looking at his model, who is sitting in the place from which we are looking, but we cannot see who the model is because the canvas on which Velasquez is painting has its back to us, its face resolutely turned away from our gaze. In the centre of the painting stands what tradition recognizes as the little princess, the Infanta Margarita, who has come to watch the proceedings. She is the centre of the picture we are looking at. but she is not the ‘subject’ of Velasquez’ canvas. The courtiers stand behind, towards the back on the right. Her maids of honour stand on either side of her, framing her. To the right at the front are two small people, one a famous court jester. The eyes of many of these figures, like that of the painter himself, are looking out towards the front of the picture at the sitters.

Who are the figures at whom everyone is looking but whom we cannot look at and whose portraits on the canvas we are forbidden to see? In fact, though at first we think we cannot see them, the picture tells us who they are because, behind the Infanta’s head and a little to the left of the centre of the picture, surrounded by a heavy wooden frame, is a mirror, and in the mirror at last - the people sitting for the painting, who are in fact seated in the position from which we are looking (Foucault writes, ‘a reflection that shows us quite simply what is lack in everyone’s gaze’ (p. 15). The figures reflected in the mirror are, in fact, the King, Philip IV, and his wife, Mariana. Beside the mirror, to the right of it, on the back wall, is another ‘frame’, but this is not a mirror reflecting forwards: is a doorway leading backwards out of the room. On the stair, his feet placed on different steps, ‘a man stands out in a full-length silhouette’. He has just entered or is just leaving the scene and is looking at it from behind, observing what is going on in it but ‘content to surprise those within without being seen himself’ (p. 10).

Who or what is the subject of this painting? In his comments, Foucault uses Las Meninas to make some general points about his theory of representation and specifically about the role of the subject:

  1. It produces its own kind of knowledge.
  2. It is not a neutral reflection of reality.
  3. Its meaning depends on what is and what is not shown.
  4. It stages displacements of a visual reference.
  5. We as subjects occupy the positions available in the discourse.
  6. Discourse makes the spectator into a subject.
  7. The subject is both inside and outside of the painting.
  8. It stages spectatorship as sovereignty.

1 Las Meninas produces its own kind of knowledge. As well as being a painting  that represents a scene in which a portrait of the King and Queen of Spain is being painted, it is also a painting which tells us something about how representation and the subject work.

2 The painting is not a neutral reflection of the reality in which it was painted. Clearly, representation here is not about a ‘true’ reflection or imitation of reality. Of course, the people in the painting may ‘look like’ the actual people in the Spanish court. But the discourse of painting in the picture is doing a great deal more than simply trying to mirror accurately what exists.

3 Representation works as much through what is not shown, as through what is. Meaning  is as much constructed around what you can’t see as what you can. You can’t see what is being painted on the canvas, though this seems to be the point of the whole exercise. You can’t see what everyone is looking at, which is the sitters, unless we assume it is a reflection of them in the mirror. They are both in and not in the picture. Or rather, they are present through a kind of substitution. We cannot see them because they are not directly represented: but their ‘absence’ is represented. This is a theme we will return to in This is Not a Pipe (and which resonates in phrases like “This Page Intentionally Left Blank.” The meaning of the picture is produced, through a complex interplay of presence (what you see, the visible) and absence (what you can’t see, what has displaced it within the frame).

4 The painting stages substitutions or displacements of a visual reference. For example, the ‘subject’ and centre of the painting we are looking at seems to be the Infanta. The center is also the King and Queen, whom we can’t see but whom the others are looking at. You can tell this from the fact that the mirror on the wall in which the King and Queen are reflected is also almost exactly at the centre of the field of vision of the picture. So the Infanta and the Royal Couple, in a sense, share the center as the principal ‘subjects’ of the painting. It all depends on where you are looking from — in towards the scene from where you, the spectator, is sitting or outwards from the scene, from the position of the people in the picture. If you accept Foucault’s argument, then there are two subjects to the painting and two centres. And the composition of the picture - its discourse - forces us to oscillate between these two ‘subjects’ without ever finally deciding which one to identify with.

5 We take up the positions indicated by the discourse and become its ‘subjects’. You can tell a great deal about how the picture works as a discourse by following the path of who is looking at what or whom. For example (a) our look - the eyes of the person looking at the picture, the spectator - follows the relationships of looking as represented in the picture. We know the figure of the Infanta is important because her attendants are looking at her. But we also know that someone even more important is sitting in front of the scene whom we can’t see, because many figures - the Infanta, the jester, the painter himself—are looking at them! So the spectator (who is also ‘subjected’ to the discourse of the painting) is also (b) projecting themself into the subjects of the painting. Looking at the scene from outside the picture, and then, looking out of the scene, by identifying with the looking being done by the figures in the painting.

6 Discourse makes the spectator into a subject. Velasquez, of course, could not know who would subsequently occupy the position of the spectator. Nevertheless, the whole ‘scene’ of the painting had to be laid out in relation to that ideal point in front of the painting from which any spectator must look if the painting is to make sense. The spectator, we might say, is painted into position in front of the picture. In this sense, the discourse produces a subject-position for the spectator-subject. For the painting to work, the spectator, whoever he or she may be, must first ‘subject’ himself/herself to the painting’s discourse and, in this way, become the painting’s ideal viewer. the producer of its meanings - its ‘subject’.

7 The subject is neither inside or outside of the painting, but both at once. Then there is the painter who painted the scene. He is ‘present’ in two places at once, since he must at one time have been standing where we are now sitting, in order to paint the scene, but he has then put himself into (represented himself in) the picture, looking back towards that point of view where we the spectator have taken his place. We may also say that the scene makes sense and is pulled together in relation to the court figure standing on the stair at the back, since he too surveys it all but - like us and like the painter - from somewhat outside it.

8.  Las Meninas stages spectatorship as sovereignty. Finally, consider the mirror on the back wall. If it were a real mirror, it should now be representing or reflecting us, since we are standing in front of the scene. But it does not mirror us, but shows the King and Queen of Spain. Somehow the discourse of the painting positions us in the place of the Sovereign. This substitution also authorizes us to understand spectatorship as the visual equivalent of sovereignty. Velasquez chooses to ‘represent’ sitting in this position before the canvas is The Sovereign - ‘master of all he surveys’ - who will always be the ‘subject of’ the painting (what it is about) and the ‘subject in’ the painting - the one who gives it meaning and therefore wields supreme mastery.

This is Not a Pipe

This is Not a Pipe is like Foucault’s analysis of Las Meninas because he is also looking at a piece of artwork. The relationships of looking are similarly important in this chapter. Instead of the different ‘glances,’ for instance, the ‘glance’ of the King or of the Infanta Margarita, however, it is the way that elements of the caption point at the image of the pipe, and the way that the image of the pipe points back at the caption. The caption and the pipe are looking at one another, and the juxtaposition of pipe and words create many different ways of looking. It is a formal exercise because this is a place where Foucault’s strategy of reading a text is put front and center.

Rene Magritte’s painting, which has the caption, this is not a pipe, is a contradiction. A reasonable reaction might be: What do you mean that it’s not a pipe? It’s right there, in front of our faces. There is a pipe there, it is just not a real pipe. It is a drawing of a pipe, or more precisely, a calligram, an image that would have been used as an educational text. The calligram is also a companion piece to a second piece of artwork, which shows the first image inside of a frame in which it is clear that the drawn pipe is an imitation of another drawing rather than the ‘thing itself.’ The fact that the caption resists the easy interpretation of the image is what disqualifies it as *just* educational material, making it a parody of a ritualized act of representation. What is being represented? Is it a pipe? Is it a drawing of a pipe? Is it a drawing of a drawing of a pipe? And so on and so on and so on. It is meme culture before meme culture; a repetition of the reference such that the “original” reference drops out, and is no longer the essential feature of meaning-making or interpretation.

The text of the image is disconnected from the drawing. That is why it is “unraveled.” Usually calligrams are an instructional tool for the alphabet, and “makes the text say what the drawing represents.” Usually calligrams are “tautological” or use a circular logic in which text refers to the image and the image refers to the text. This allows us “to fix words, as a line, it lets us give shape to things.” But Magritte denies the viewer that ability by saying that the major elements on the canvas are not related, that there is no proof that they were ever related to one another.

Foucault also offers several diagrams to show how the work of reference is interrupted in the image. Just looking at the calligram, he notices the following relationships or indications break the act of representation apart.

  • First, there is the fact that the image or drawing is not the same or identical to “a pipe,” in the sense of a word. It’s not a pipe, it’s a drawing!
  • Next, there is the fact that this, the written statement “This is not a pipe,” is not actually a pipe. It’s not a pipe, it’s a written statement!
  • Finally, there is the fact that the combination of the text and the drawing is not “a pipe” It is not a pipe, it is a calligram, or a parody of a calligram!

As Foucault says “nowhere is there a pipe.” But how do we know? Through repetition. Through a series of repetitive relationships between image and text that undermine the work of reference, that make the reference to a pipe impossible. In other words, What’s on the canvas? I don’t know. But I do know it’s not a pipe. That in itself resembles the repetitive logic of secrecy. What’s being hidden? What don’t I know? Well I have no idea. All I know is that I don’t know, just like all I can really know is that this thing, right here, is not a pipe, it is must pretending to be a pipe.

The last thing to note is that the image is malleable, it can change because there is no limit to the way that the illusion can be used to show how representation pulls one over upon us. Whether it is the addition of the “GIF,” the iconic Mario, or my poodle Mildred, the form of the caligram puts the image into tension with a text that is supposed to, but cannot, capture the thing that it is seeking to reference.






Now that I’ve gone over two examples of visual analysis that use reference and repetition in order to draw conclusions about how the image creates a sense of mystery and depth, we will now turn to two other examples that are not rooted in painted visual images. These include confession and panopticism. I hope to show how the analysis of these practices, rituals, and techniques uses a similar kind of analysis as the explanation provided for the paintings. This is because both confession and panopticism involve acts of reference, or of ‘pointing,’ in which visual and interpersonal cues ‘point’ at one another so as to create a system of secrecy and surveillance. Just as there are two positions in Las Meninas -- in front of and behind the painting -- in confession, the confessor extracts information from the person who is confessing; and that person in turn offers up information to the confessor.  Similar dynamics of watching and being watched are at play in the Panopticon, and are even more pervasive because of the way it spreads surveillance out over society. Confession and the panopticon also bring us back to secrecy in a very concrete way because in both cases, what is at stake is control over the individual’s secrets, and the effort to make them visible. However, Foucault’s point is that secrets are not out there to be found, they are produced by the rituals that people invent, participate in, and repeat.


Confession in The History of Sexuality


Foucault argues sexuality’, as a specific way of talking about, studying and regulating sexual desire, its secrets and its fantasies, Foucault argued, only appeared in western societies at a particular historical moment (Foucault, 1978). There may always have been sexual forms of behaviour. But ‘the homosexual’ as a specific kind of social subject was produced and could only make its appearance within the moral, legal, medical and psychiatric discourses, practices and institutional apparatuses of the late nineteenth century, with their particular theories of sexual perversity (Weeks, 1981, 1985).

Similarly, it makes nonsense to talk of the ‘hysterical woman' outside of the nineteenth-century view of hysteria as a very widespread female malady. In The Birth of the Clinic (1973), Foucault charted how ‘in less than half a century, the medical understanding of disease was transformed’ from a classical notion that disease existed separate from the body, to the modern idea that disease arose within and could be mapped directly by its course through the human body (McNay, 1994). This discursive shift changed medical practice. It gave greater importance to the doctor’s ‘gaze’ which could now ‘read’ the course of disease simply by a powerful look at what Foucault called ‘the visible body’ of the patient - following the ‘routes ... laid down in accordance with a now familiar geometry ... the anatomical atlas’ (Foucault, 1973, pp. 3-4). This greater knowledge increased the doctor’s power of surveillance vis-a-vis the patient.

In The History of Sexuality, Foucault describes ‘the secret of sex’ as the effect of a specific arrangement between speaking subjects  in confessional discourse. Priests or ‘confessors’ enjoyed “the pleasure that comes of exercising a power that questions, monitors, watches, spies, searches out, palpates, brings to light.” (p. 45) The confessed enjoyed “the pleasure that kindles at having to evade this power, flee from it, fool it, or travesty it.”  (ibid) According to Foucault, the term ‘secret’ designates neither what the former sought nor what the latter hid, but the tension produced by this juxtaposition. ‘Secrets’ name the recurring tension between these competing pleasures: as long as something remains unknown in this transaction, a secret is in play.

Foucault attributes four characteristics to confession, and all gloss over the differences between the wide range of confessional techniques. These include:

  1. It is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement, the narrative is in the first person and concerns the subject.
  2. It is a ritual which unfolds in the presence of an authority who conducts the confession.
  3. It is a ritual in which the expression alone produces an effect such as atonement, therapy, or consolation -- i.e. it is a ‘therapeutic’ ritual all on its own.

The characteristic of confession that raises a special problem is that confession is a ritual in which the truth of the confessed material is corroborated by the obstacles and resistances it has had to surmount in order to be formulated. This may be true in Catholic confession or psychoanalysis, but not in many other forms of counseling. Psychoanalysis is a likely reason why Foucault turns our attention to the topic of confession, namely, to show us how something like psychoanalysis in which we confess, reveal, and discover secrets, was ever possible in thought or practice. Ultimately, we should think of confession as a cluster-term grouping together diverse techniques hed together by a network of partially overlapping similarities and differences.

Panopticism in Discipline and Punish

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault places the body at the centre of the struggles between different formations of power/knowledge. The techniques of regulation are applied to the body. Different discursive formations and apparatuses divide, classify and inscribe the body differently in their respective regimes of power and ‘truth’. This book analyses the very different ways in which the body of the criminal is produced' and disciplined in different punishment regimes in France. In earlier periods, punishment was haphazard, prisons were places into which the public could wander and the ultimate punishment was inscribed violently on the body by means of instruments of torture and execution, etc. — a practice the essence of which is that it should be public, visible to everyone. The modern form of disciplinary regulation and power, by contrast, is private, individualized; prisoners are shut away from the public and often from one another, though continually under surveillance from the authorities; and punishment is individualized. Here, the body has become the site of a new kind of disciplinary regime.

“The expiation that once rained down upon the body must be replaced by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations. Mably formulated the principle once and for all: 'Punishment, if I may so put it, should strike the soul rather than the body' (Mably 26).” (16)

[Can] one write such a history against the background of a history of bodies, when such systems of punishment claim to have only the secret souls of criminals as their objective? (25)

The explanation of the Panopticon illustrates a major transition in how punishment was conceived in Western Europe, going from something inflicted upon the body to something inflicted upon the soul. It is as an affliction upon the soul that the panopticon arises as a way to train the incarcerated person. It is also how surveillance is understood as a kind of common sense, because the logic of the prison spills out of its walls and becomes part of the logic of social and commercial institutions.

This is the historical reality of this soul, which, unlike the soul represented by Christian theology, is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather out of methods of punishment, supervision and constraint. This real, non-corporal soul is not a substance; it is the element in which are articulated the effects of a certain type of power and the reference of a certain type of knowledge, the machinery by which the power relations give rise to a possible corpus of knowledge, and knowledge extends and reinforces the effects of this power. On this reality reference, various concepts have been constructed and domains of analysis carved ouu psyche, subjectivity, personality, consciousness etc.; on it have been built scientific techniques and discourses, and the moral claims of humanism. (29-30)

Secrecy is an essential component because it is the soul that is secret; that remains elusive but is the ultimate target of disciplinary practices and punitive rituals. Surveillance seeks the secret out ‘in’ the criminal’s soul; surveillance also produces the secret in so many ways by creating the conditions for new forms of hiding, seclusion, and resistance to being watched.

Before the panopticon, Foucault lays out a series of conditions that allowed for a new way of imagining and thinking about discipline as something that was exercised on the soul. The soul was brought forth because it was named and because a number of rituals or practices developed to control it. These included ...

“The exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power, and in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible.” (171)

“A whole problematic then develops: that of an architecture that is no longer built simply to be seen (as with the ostentation of palaces), or to observe the external space (cf. the geometry of fortresses), but to permit an internal, articulated and detailed control -- to render visible those who are inside it; in more general terms, an architecture that would operate to transform individuals: to act on those it shelters, to provide a hold on their conduct, to carry the effects of power right to them, to make it possible to know them, to alter them.” (172)

The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly. A central point would be both the source of light illuminating everything, and a locus of convergence for everything that must be known: a perfect eye that nothing would escape and a centre towards which all gazes would be turned. (173)

The ultimate embodiment of these principles was Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, which put so-called ‘curative’ social exclusion and disciplinary techniques for adjusting the soul of the incarcerated person into practice. The panopticon is the name which Bentham gave to his “ideal” prison, and which he repeatedly tried to sell to the British government. The architectural principles of the panopticon were eventually realized in 19th century Britain and the United States. The panopticon consisted of a circular building to house prisoners in individual cells at the periphery, with an inspection “guard” tower at the center. Each cell was to have two windows, one facing the outside and the other facing the inspection tower, which itself was dotted with windows rendering each cell fully visible to the central tower. Windows in the tower were to be covered with venetian blinds to make the guards invisible to the incarcerated.


Dungeons had been meant to secure custody, to hide the incarcerated from view and to deprive them of light. Foucault points out that the Panopticon kept the first goal, and turned the other two on their heads: it set out to make the incarcerated person visible by putting them in full light. But that is not all: the Panopticon was a mechanism cleverly designed to …

  1. … Inculcate the feeling among incarcerated persons that they were being watched constantly, regardless of whether they were or not. This was what Bentham called “the sentiment of invisible omnipresence.” This was meant to install policing in the prisoners themselves; they would become watchful and vigilant because they themselves were always at risk of being watched.
  2. The panopticon was also designed to redistribute the use of force by using observation and surveillance as expedient ways to control the prison population. The fact that the inspector in the central tower could see the cells on the periphery was meant to reduce the number of police who would run the facility.
  3. Bentham planned to house incarcerated people in individual cells, avoiding “a jumble of detainees” and creating forced solitude to perform the function of reform through penitence and reflection.

However, for Foucault the Panopticon was not a clever and idiosyncratic prison. Instead what was significant was Bentham’s idea that the panopticon could easily become the plan for a school, an asylum, workshop, or hospital. It is no coincidence that one of the camera monitoring technologies used by instructors to watch students as they take exams is called “Panopto.” That polyvalence is the Panopticon’s central and defining feature. Embedded in it is a general model of exercising power over daily life.

Foucault uses the Panopticon to exemplify two theses: first, that the techniques employed in the prison are not specific to it but bleed out to other parts of social life. Second, that the adoption of imprisonment as a common punishment for crimes is one component of a general process of the emergence of a new modality of power relations. At the end of his discussion of the panopticon, Foucault asks, “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schoos, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”