The Panopticon, Control, Protocol and Networks

The way that power is maintained in the panopticon, says Michel Foucault in “Discipline and Punish,” is by means of constant surveillance and the perpetual threat of punishment. Foucault uses the example of a township ridden with plague that must participate in voluntary confinement, where an official examines and reports on the activities of each and every individual nightly, all to maintain order. Individual freedoms and the ability to be mobile in order to protect the populace from one another. “Each individual is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment.”

The panopticon operates, Foucault continues, to keep every individual in his place exercises the threat of surveillance. Like Jeremy Bentham’s example of convicts in the prison yard, the panopticon is the central tower from which the ones who would inflict punishment on the prisoners may or may not be looking at any given time. “Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.” Hence, any forbidden disruptive behaviour or dreamed-up attempts at escape would be deterred because in the back of each convict’s mind, he can picture the consequences of being seen in the yard breaking the rules, and the next step the muzzle of a rifle being lowered, pointed–exactly in his direction, and any hopes for freedom foiled by the blast of a charge.

As an undergraduate, I minored in Women’s Studies and read a lot of Feminist Theory. I found in reading this piece by Foucault that it aligns nicely with Naomi Wolf’s thesis in
The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women.
(Or rather, Wolf’s thesis aligns nicely with Foucault’s, since he is her predecessor and I am certain she was greatly informed by him).
In The Beauty Myth, Wolf argues that images of the ideal in body/skin/hair and other physical features for women are so constantly repeated in the media that they shape women’s impression of existng in the world that to be beautiful is paramount to success and happiness, and as a woman one should strive for nothing else. To summarize Wolf, this is a great detriment to women’s success in any sphere outside of the home because it distracts women’s minds and efforts away from things that men are pushed to attain, such as being strong in competition, business, being forward and agressive, physically strong, pursuing wealth and knowledge, and other traditionally held “male” arenas, because women are driven to spend most of their efforts in the fruitless pursuit of the unattainable beauty ideal. Meanwhile, women are kept in a state of constant docility and manipulability because they are rendered so self-conscious with the script of constant surveillance running all around them–measuring themselves against other women and idealized notions of beauty–that they easily pushed towards the perfect image, and thereby the perfect life, and left out of truly participating in the public sphere. It is a system of policing in which women are manipulated to try to fit in with the beauty standard, whether they are of color, have different body shapes or are older than the presented model of beauty. Of course, it begs the questions of who is behind this system of control and why. I could go into the formation of gender-governed roles and the necessity of domestic labor to support a capitalist workforce, but I’m digressing from the theories we read for this week…

The idea that Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker present about power in an Internet protocol  is interesting when examined next to Foucault’s explanation of the panopticon because Galloway and Thacker are not arguing that power does not exist within the model of networks, but that protocol holds power, yet it is not decentralized power shared by each stage of the Internet system–almost like anarchy–yet there is a clear and fluid exchange of information and parts of the protocol exist entirely to maintain the system’s functionality.

The different layers that Galloway and Thacker describe all exert a specified control over the task of each, but the purpose of each layer is simply to get the task done, not to police the other layers. The transport layer, for example, is only concerned in carrying out its function of delivering information for example, “It has no concern for the content of the information…” (Galloway, Thacker 15). While a panopticon functions to govern over what is presented and how.

Where a panopticon would be put in place specifically for the purpose of maintaining control and making a system more efficient, “The panoptic mechanism is not simply a hinge, a point of exchange between a mechanism and of power and a function; it is a way of making power relations function in a function, and of making a function function through these power relations.”

Controlling the order and operation of a work system makes everything more efficient  (Foucault ). Whereas an Internet protocol exists to make everything operate as equals; to execute seemlessly a peer-to-peer system of exchange (Galloway, Thacker 9). The protocol system works and keeps working when all the layers in place within the system are working to sustain its operation.


One Response to “The Panopticon, Control, Protocol and Networks”

  1. This is very interesting. I just read Nancy Etcoff’s book, “Survival of the Prettiest,” which looks at the biological bases of our being attracted to different physical characteristics. I guess I have two problems with traditional feminist theory, which are (a) it often only looks at objectification of women, thus sees much of sexual (e.g. visual) culture as pure objectification of women — this is unscientific since there are many other forms of sexual media expression e.g. gay porn, which are not oppressive of women. However, because feminism doesn’t see those other expression, it lumps all erotica into a bucket which is supposed to oppress women; and (b) whenever “beauty” is discussed, it is only seem from a F perspective, whereas for example I have read that the majority of eating disorders are now among young men, who have been conditioned by the likes of Abercroombie and Fitch to engage in self-destructive behaviors. (Note — the problem with Abercrombie and Fitch is not that they have hot models, but that their sadomasochistic undertones encourage consumers to see their hot models in a certain WAY, which is a system of control.) … P

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