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Seduction and Panopticism

Michel Foucault (2002, p. 343) once wrote: “a society without power relations can only be an abstraction”. In contemporary sociology, the ubiquity of power is beyond contestation and forms a fundamental axiom of the field. Beyond this however, the exact nature and dimension of power dynamics are subject to varied interpretations and formulations. Foucault’s discussion of power, disciplinary society, panopticism, and related concepts offer substantive contributions to further studies of relations and economies of power within advanced capitalist societies. The notion of panopticism has enjoyed particular resonance, and contributed to the development of surveillance studies (Simon, 2005, p. 2). Moreover, Foucault’s metaphoric use of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon is a standard reference for theorists who advance the “surveillance society” thesis; such theorists contend that the primary mechanism of social control in modern society is surveillance and the internalization of surveillance by the population which in turn molds individuals into self-surveilling subjects (Boyne, 2000, p. 293; Yar, 2003, pp. 255-256). Criticisms of this thesis have stressed the importance of “mechanisms of seduction”, that within contemporary society control is largely maintained by “enjoyment imperatives” and not through surveillance (Boyne, 2000, pp. 285-286). Discussion of the so-called surveillance society and mechanisms of seduction draw into question the continued relevance of Foucault’s notion of panopticism.

Through a discussion of these issues, the conclusion to be reached in this essay will reaffirm the importance of Foucault’s panopticism, concurrent with mechanisms of seduction that engender social conformity. Hence, the thesis that modern society constitutes a surveillance society will be rejected on the basis that it over-emphasizes one mechanism of power and social control. Firstly however, to establish a firm basis for this analysis, Foucault’s theory of the formation of disciplinary society and the nature of panopticism have to be given fuller explanation. The backdrop of Foucault’s analysis is the transition away from what Gilles Deleuze’s (1992, p. 3) labeled “societies of sovereignty” that characterized Europe before the end of the 18th century. The model of sovereignty that underpinned monarchal and absolutist regimes were based upon the premise of deduction, the power of the sovereign was asserted through subtractive mechanisms (Foucault, 1998, pp. 135-136).

In the first section of Discipline and Punish, Foucault (1991, pp. 3-6) quilted together a series of eye-witness accounts to the public execution of Damiens in 1757 for the crime of attempted regicide. The punishment was carried out according to a strict symbolism that mirrored the crime; this jurisprudence, Vico had noted, formed “an entire poetics” (Foucault, 1991, p. 45). Through this method of punishment, the sovereign had confronted the criminal on the level of the body, in a purely negative form with an excess of force that demonstrated the supremacy of sovereign power in a retributive ritual. For the moralist and reformer of the 18th century, this surplus-violence betrayed a tyrannical excess and inefficiency in its economy of power (Foucault, 1991, p.73). From the 17th to 19th centuries, there was a series of subtle transformation that modified the state and disciplinary mechanisms. Toward the end of that period, social order was no longer primarily maintained through the spectacle of punishment, but increasingly through surveillance and the internalization of disciplines (Foucault, 1991, pp. 216-217).

The proliferation of disciplinary techniques and the intensification of social surveillance saw the formation of a new economy of power that reduced the costs, economic and political, related to mechanisms of control, whilst maximizing the returns of docile bodies geared toward increased utility and efficiency (Foucault, 1991, p. 218-219). This general confluence of social observation and disciplinary tactics united in what Foucault (1991, p 9) term a general “disciplinary society”. Of paramount importance for the functionality of this disciplinary society was the deployment of panoptical apparatus that served to observe individuals and their interactions. Foucault’s (1991, p.205) notion of varied panoptical apparatuses or a general social “panopticism” were derived from Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, which represented for Foucault “the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form”.

Bentham’s panopticon was an unrealized architectural design. Bentham (1995, p. 31) described his plan as an “inspection house” the multifaceted applications of which could lead to: “morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated – instruction diffused”. The two mechanism it utilized to attain these effects was individuation and constant visibility (Foucault, 1991, p. 201). The circular design of the panopticon, with the individual cells arranged on the outer edge of the building allowed for a central vantage point, from which it is possible to observe all occupants and impossible for the occupants to see the observer. Each individual occupant immediately individuated and identifiable, conscious of their constant condition of being under surveillance internalizes their surveillance and begins to regulate their own behavior. Foucault (1991, p. 201) identified this as the efficiency of panopticism it: “assures the automatic functioning of power”.

Panopticism contrary to the Sovereign power, is de-individualized -“a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception” – it is also “de-institutionalized” and it not centered in the state: church groups, charities, schools and private individuals can all serve as points of social surveillance (Foucault, 1991, pp. 211-214). More contemporary discussions of panopticism and the power of surveillance focus upon the dissemination of technological advancements that function like Foucault’s (1991, 211) “faceless gaze” such as closed circuit televisions or CCTVs (Simon, 2005, p. 6). It is estimated that there are approximately 21,000 surveillance cameras in the United Kingdom alone, it some locals these CCTV systems are linked up with face-recognition program which allow for the individuation of surveillance despite the open dynamics of the space (Boyne, 2000, p. 298). The importance of these new surveillance technologies is undeniable, and their panoptical dimensions are irrefutable. However, this does not preclude the importance of seduction mechanisms in the maintenance of social order.

Herbert Marcuse (1972, p. 21) argued that consumption patterns serve a further ideological function in the maintenance of capitalism rather then merely in the economic sphere. Through the development of mass culture there is a levelling out of contrast, when individuals of hostile social groups attain satisfaction through the same cultural products. This superficial “equalization of class distinctions”, as expressed by Marcuse (1972, p. 21) unifies the population in a desire for ‘needs’, which support the continuance of the establishment. The predominance of consumption and sensation seeking, Zygmunt Bauman argued, is “a condition sine qua non of being amenable to seduction” (Boyne, 2000, p. 298). In Bauman’s view then, panopticism is an outmoded form of social control given the positive incentives and imperatives indicative of conformity to social norms (Boyne, 2000, p. 298). Bauman is right to highlight the importance of seduction, however, panoptical mechanisms are not rendered redundant. Surveillance of individuals is often used in the social manipulation of their desires, advertisers utilize “cookies” to monitor individual internet usage and therefore tailor their advertisements to the observed individual (Boyne, 2000, p. 297). Mechanisms of seduction, therefore, coexist with panoptical apparatus.

Surveillance is a significant feature of modern society, technological advancement have changed the nature of panopticism as exhibited in the late19th and early 20th century. However, given the importance of seduction mechanisms and other modes of control it seems inappropriate and overzealous to describe social order predominantly in terms of surveillance. Marcuse’s analysis of varied consumption pattern’s and there ultimate conservative function underscores the point. Despite this, Foucault’s description of panopticism remains an important contribution to understanding contemporary power relations. In particular, the partial de-individualization of power-relations and the active involvement of the entire social body in exercising the ability to enable or disable modes of behavior – subject itself to the cynical manipulation of privileged discourse and institutions: at which point, seduction mechanisms and panopticism meet.

Written by Mathew Toll.

Boyne, Roy, (2000), “Post-Panopticism”, Economy and Society, Vol 29, No 2, pp 285-307.

Deleuze, Gilles, (1992), “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, October, Vol 59, pp 3-7.

Foucault, Michel, (1991), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Trans Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin Books.

Foucault, Michel, (1998), The Will To Knowledge: The History of Sexuality, Vol one, Trans Robert Hurley, London: Penguin Books.

Foucault, Michel, (2002), “The Subject and Power”, Power: Essential Works of Foucault: 1954-1984, Vol three, Edited James D. Faubion, Trans Robert Hurley and others, London: Penguin books, pp. 326-348.

Marcuse, Herbert. (1972), One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, London: Abacus.

Simon, B, (2005), “The Return of Panopticsm: Supervision, Subjection and the New Surveillance”, Surveillance and Society, vol 3, no 1, pp. 1-20.

(Written, late 2009)


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