I have recently started to study Foucault's Discipline and Punish and was wondering whether or not he is actually proposing panopticism as an efficient way for reducing crime. The reason leading me to believe this proposal is based on the following quote:

To return to the problem of legal punishments, the prison with all the corrective technology at its disposal is to be resituated at the point where the codified power to punish turns into a disciplinary power to observe; at the point where the universal punishments of the law are applied selectively to certain individuals and always the same ones; at the point where the redefinition of the juridical subject by the penalty becomes a useful training of the criminal; at the point where the law is inverted and passes outside itself, and where the counter-law becomes the effective and institutionalized content of the juridical forms. What generalizes the power to punish, then, is not the universal consciousness of the law in each juridical subject; it is the regular extension, the infinitely minute web of panoptic techniques.

  • He's theorising on how the law/prison operates; he's discounting the traditional conception of how this works ('the universal conscious of the law') in favour of the panopticon. Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 19:12
  • In a sense, and in part, he extends the regime of the prison outside of the prison; Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 19:14
  • Panopticism, isn't Foucaults idea, but an idea of the state. Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 19:49

2 Answers 2


Short version:


Longer version:

The Panopticon itself is an idealized prison that Jeremy Bentham imagined. There were some somewhat similar prisons made. The basic idea at the time was the prisoners could be reformed if they felt observed. This was a change from the idea that they were being punished. (Thus, the key idea was that observing them in a certain way and giving them a certain type of environment would lead to their reform).

Enter Foucault who writes about the panopticon and the transformation of punishment in Discipline and Punish. You could say that the "panopticon" is Foucault's idea -- as an idea to describe the sort of belief that observation modifies behavior, and thus total observation is total power.

(If memory serves in the many years since I read the book, the point is that the move from just whipping someone who steals or cutting off their hand is to trying to control their behavior is for Foucault ultimately something more invasive and controlling and linked to the machinations of power).

So it's not "his idea" if the expression means 'something he advocates', but panopticon is an idea in the Foucauldian lexicon to refer to observation as a means of power.

(the other answer might be trying to address this, but it seems garbled to me on several points).


Think of it more as a diagnosis than a cure, not as an answer to a problem. The paniopticon is a device that was made by Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault is talking about the panopticon as a structure for the dispersal of power and as method of surveillance. It was taken up by certain institutions as a method for having total and complete vision. This drive is call panopticism. The effect of the panopticon is to instill the feeling of always being watched in the subject, so that the subject will ultimately self-police her or his behavior. An example of a panopticon is the dosembodied voice heard on NYC subways, "if you see something, say something." Another example, searching images for "surveillance" returns all types of closed circuit cameras. Another example, Edward Snowden talks about the apprehension we feel when we choose to search for something because we know our searches and metadata are archived.

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