In Foucault’s essay “Panopticism” the ideas expressed greatly parallel the struggles of a society attempting to maintain a government based on an ideal of democracy. The ultimate goal of democracy is to allow individuals inherent rights and freedoms.
Unfortunately, the freedom that people within a democracy enjoy does not come without sacrifices. Without regulation, society is not one of freedom. Without any type of supervision society becomes one of total chaos. Part of human freedom is the opportunity to act freely and participate in their own social activities.
Surveillance can either be viewed as a threat to freedom and democracy, if it constricts the ability to function regularly in society, or as a method of regulating activity to those that are socially acceptable.
While people in a democracy, such as America, desire freedom with little restraint there are always the exceptional few who cannot function without the constant threat of punishment for their actions. With this in mind, inside a democracy there is a predominant theme of a very visible police force. Foucault comments on this, “It 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 details it is concerned with” (242). The police become not only a disciplinary force but have merely observational intentions of the smallest facts and actions.
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This ever gazing supervision that is necessary to maintain order in a democracy is the same type of supervision required to maintain order in a panoptic prison. The same face less gaze is what will be on individuals’ minds in both situations. Before performing any action, both will reflect on the results of the action being witnessed by a higher power. This unseen yet very present power has the ability to maintain order by supplying a fear of perhaps being seen by an individual that remains hidden. This paranoia is only accelerating with the advancements in technology recently gained. The general opinion of today’s culture is that technology can be used to wholly solve the problems in society. Therefore, video surveillance has become a thing of regularity in even the most private of places. A camera in a public area while perhaps discouraging crime from that very area is doing nothing more than displacing the crime. But that illusion of safety allows people to rationalize being watched in nearly every place they go.
By allowing people nearly unconditional freedom, society inevitably trusts each individual with the task of deciding which actions are acceptable and which are not.
Those decisions are also aided by the presence of an authority that people fear. The presence of surveillance has an effect on the citizens. The purpose of all the cameras is to force the society to generate its own sense of self-control. By regulating themselves the people make the cameras less and less necessary. Like a panopticon the actions of the masses in a democracy are primarily fueled by a fear of punishment.
A democracy does not squelch the individuality of a person, it does not repress them. A democracy has the ability to intertwine the individual in with the society.
Therefore allowing the individuals to become closer to the whole, to the higher authority, and making their actions much easily observable. The more easily observable the actions of the masses become, the more easily manipulated they are.
The people in the society of surveillance are almost entirely unaware of the power that those cameras have over their every day actions. While the people understand they are there, truly understanding the psychological effect of being watched has on them goes almost completely without reflection.
Foucault understands that power is truly internal. The threat of punishment works because “it arrests or regulates movement, it clears up confusion” (246). Society interested in all the factors around them that control power and prestige when in fact the only power those people maintain is the ability to elicit the actions they desire from the citizens they govern. The charisma most often in found in politicians is the ability to manipulate people while not allowing them to realize they are being manipulated. People elect officials to ensure their freedom, when in fact the officials they elect are the ones with the best ability to control the citizen’s actions and thoughts.
The overwhelming similarity that a democracy has with panopticism spreads to a worldwide scene. It is not merely just the people within its borders that a democratic giant, such as America, surveys. All the countries around the world are subject to the roving eye of American power and influence. America has become to the world what the central tower is to a panoptic prison. It is the unseen, but undeniable power that makes leaders from around the world think about the consequences of their actions.
Foucault’s theories involving panopticism stretch far beyond a system of housing criminals, students, or lunatics. It shows the underlying methodology so commonly used to govern the masses. People desire freedom. Unfortunately, society is unable to function without a higher power to regulate that freedom.
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