Pierart dou Tielt, manuscript illumination in the Tractatus quartus bu Gilles li Muisit , Tournai, circa 1353

This entry is about the logic of Quarantine as a contextual backdrop for more contemporary logics of surveillance: medical, carceral, and educational. It offers a companion introduction to the secondary reading by Michel Foucault, on the topic of "Panopticism." Both infectious disease and the panopticon are imagined as important historical precedents for present-day secrecy and surveillance. This entry discusses (1) the origins of surveillance, (2) the panopticon, and (3) beyond the panopticon.

Required Secondary Reading for UMN-TC

Michel Foucault, "Panopticism"

  • What is the connection between the logic of quarantine and the contemporary logic of surveillance?
  • What kind of governing authority does public health require? Is there a kind of surveillance that is necessary for public health?
  • Surveillance is (1) often enacted in the name of greater "security" and (2) is described as a limitation upon a person or people's "freedom."  When do such appeals go awry? When are they necessary?

The Origins of Surveillance

According to historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, modern ideas about surveillance can be traced back to medieval European practices of quarantine, specifically those measures put into place for the plague. Surveillance requires rigorous compartmentalization and strictly enforced rules:  

The following, according to an order published at the end of the seventeenth century, were the measures to be taken when the plague appeared in a town:
First, a strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and is 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.

The point of Foucault's comparison is NOT to argue that public health measures in 1600s Europe are identical to those of today. Instead, he is seeking to understand the historical conditions that occasioned surveillance as a specialized form of knowledge and how, in turn, this mode of knowledge transformed into a mode of exercising power. As Foucault argues, it has evolved into a more general form of disciplinary observation, most famously understood through the example of the panopticon.

The Panopticon

The French philosopher Michel Foucault situates surveillance as a general function of the prison, specifically the panopticon. The panopticon is a prison architecture associated with the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham that foregrounds visibility and watching the incarcerated.

Diagram of a panoptic architecture.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault places the body at the center 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, the 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)
A decommissioned prison designed in the style of the panopticon. 

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 that 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, the techniques employed in the prison are not specific to it but bleed out to other parts of social life. Second, 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, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”

Beyond the Panopticon

After Foucault published the book Discipline and Punish in 1975, it became easy to imagine a range of institutions as versions of "panoptic" prison architecture, which functioned as the model for how surveillance changes public life into an endless game of watching and being watched. However, as critical race and surveillance scholar Simone Browne explains, perhaps a European prison is not the best model for the contemporary surveillance society. In other words, it is and always has been a mistake to think of the origins of "surveillance society" using institutions that do not draw attention to the way that surveillance is and has been a technique of racial oppression. "While Foucault argued that the decline of the spectacle of public torture might have marked an 'a slackening of the hold on the body,'” Browne contends that “when the body is Black, the grip hardly loosened during slavery and continued post-Emancipation with, for example, the mob violence of lynching and other acts of racial terrorism.”

Suppose there is a “foundation” for the way that we think about surveillance today. In that case, this foundation should communicate how surveillance has disproportionately enforced state-sponsored racial violence and compulsory cis-gendered heterosexuality. In Browne’s words, to ask these questions differently would mean addressing “what would happen if some of the ideas occurring in the emerging field of surveillance studies were put into conversation with the enduring archive of transatlantic slavery and its afterlife … [to make] visible the many ways that race continues to structure surveillance practices.”

Figure 1-2: Images of Panoptic Architecture cited by Foucault in Discipline and Punish. Figure 3: “The plan of the slave ship Brooks (1789),” printed in Simone Browne, Dark Matters (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015)

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