Analysis of Michel Foucault's Theory of the Panopticon

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Based on the theory of the Panopticon by Michel Foucault, this essay considers the view that the existence of power is intrinsically linked to the existence of resistance to it, with his idea being true for power within the media as well. I argue that power is part of the function of the media as it is for any institution and therefore there will always be some form of resistance such as unplugging movements or Edward Snowden’s actions against the monitoring of our media and digital consumption. For Foucault power was structured like a Panopticon and prevented people from wrong-doing through visibility, thus making them unable and unwilling. For him, the power was in the anonymous gaze of the Eye of Power. This high concentration of power in one place at the expense of the right to privacy, within itself brings forth conflict; as Foucault puts it, ‘the problem of the cost of power.’ (Foucault, Gordon, and translated by Colin Gordon. [et al.], 1980, p154). The number of overseers is an issue and thus this resulting economic cost. Additionally, there is also a political cost as well, the demonstration of this power has to exist between parameters in order not to provoke revolt against it.

Michel Foucault took the idea of the Panopticon conceptualized by Bentham and applied it to the modern age. For Foucault, ‘Bentham didn’t merely imagine an architectural design calculated to solve a specific problem,’ (Foucault, Gordon, and translated by Colin Gordon. [et al.], 1980, p148), he’d ‘invented a technology of power designed to solve the problems of surveillance’ which in itself whilst trying to maintain order is intrinsically an ‘exercise of power’. This gives the idea that the structure is fundamentally an instrument and demonstration of power just by being the structure that it is. On its own it answers any questions it presents. The ring like building contained rooms with purposefully placed windows ‘one opening on to the inside, facing the windows of the central tower, the other, outer one allowing daylight to pass’, (Foucault, Gordon, and translated by Colin Gordon. [et al.], 1980, p148) and with an overseer in a tower in the center of the ringed structure with a view of all these rooms. This allowance of light into the rooms and the possibility of being seen by whomever is in the tower strips the prisoner of his or her privacy; this fact means that the overseer possesses some sort of power over those he is viewing, for his gaze can ‘capture the inmate more effectively than darkness which after all is a sort of protection,’ (Foucault, Gordon, and translated by Colin Gordon. [et al.], 1980, p148).

This idea of privacy having some sort of power is central to the Panopticon’s function as an instrumet of power, for having the ability to negate privacy indicates the presence of power over that which privacy is inhibited. Essentially the Panopticon was a tool to ‘prevent even the possibility of wrong-doing by immersing people in a field of total visibility where the opinion, observation and discourse of others would restrain them from harmful acts,’ (Foucault, Gordon, and translated by Colin Gordon. [et al.], 1980, p153) further perpetuating the idea of visibility equating power. However, where there is an exertion of power there will always be opposition to it. In recent times this opposition or rather resistance was shown through publications by WikiLeaks and the continuing existence of the group Anonymous. These groups function solely to combat the use of government and organisational power over the masses. Without the existence and use – whether just or excessive – of power these resistance groups would not exist. Ironically they use the idea of visibility to counteract the structures of power that make our lives visible and so controllable. Intrinsically this shows the power of ‘an inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorizing to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself.’ (Foucault, Gordon, and translated by Colin Gordon. [et al.], 1980, p155)

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Resistance to media power can also be individual, and not only orchestrated through collectives. Movements to ‘unplug’ from media outlets have gained traction throughout the increasingly global and connected media age, such as the articles detailing how one can go about it on the Huffington post website for example ‘How To Turn Off Your Phone, Shut Down Your Computer And Totally Unplug Every Single Week,’ (How to unplug, 2011) Although not observed on a mass scale, it has the potential too and would hinder the power of media surveillance in possibly a more effective way than any WikiLeaks revelation or Anonymous post, as there would be no consumer to exert the power of media visibility to. This idea of avoiding media content or technologies for a period of time is thus a resistance to the hold media has over our daily lives. The presence of any kind of resistance is a sign of a fundamental flaw of the use of power within media or other medium, and supports the notion that power creates resistance to it, just by being so.

Edward Snowden’s actions are a clear form of resistance to the idea of our media consumption being made visible and monitored. ‘It is Foucault’s thesis that our own societies are maintained not by army, police and a centralized, visible state apparatus, but precisely by those techniques of dressage, discipline, and diffused power,’ (Sheridan, 1990) therefore it can be deduced that power is held within the ability to monitor and so the monitoring of public media is an exertion of power. Snowden thought that ‘the balance of power is changing as a post-terror generation turns away from reaction and fear in favour of resilience and reason.’ (Ratcliffe, 2015) This idea of power and its balance being skewed further supports the view of power resembling a Panopticon; therefore, Snowden’s actions ‘driven by “the power of an informed public” added to the end of the mass surveillance of private telephone calls under the US Patriot Act and was a “landmark victory for the rights of each citizen’ (Ratcliffe, 2015). This intrinsic resistance to the media demonstrates that there is a level of power held within it. This power is broad and fluid; it’s the power of suggestion over what is ordinary and acceptable and right and so resistance such as that produced by Snowden, is inevitable.

Resistance is part of the human condition and according ‘people are completely dominated by and subject to power,’ (Danaher, Schirato, and Webb, 2000), therefore, where there is power, there will always be some form of resistance to it, this includes power within the media. The idea that ‘people are not really free to think and act, because they – and their ideas and activities – are produced by the structures in which they live,’ further perpetuates the existence of a Panopticonic structure around all aspects of life. The power of the media is shown through the reproduction of the status quo which caries ideology held by those possessing power and influence. Resistance to power within media can be small or large scale, as just an act of unplugging from ‘the blob’ is a form of resistance that within such a connected age could have the same substantial impact as Snowden’s file release or Anonymous hacking.

In conclusion, power is part of the function of media and so intrinsically gives rise to opposition or resistance to it. In any structure where power is involved there will always be resistance, and in the case of the media where it is controlled by a small collective of organisations, resistance is not just justified but to some extent expected.

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