The Complexity of Panopticism by Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault’s Panopticism is easily recognized as being one of the most complex works to English literature. It encompasses many multifaceted ideas and intertwines them by the end of the passage to one, throwing readers for a loop and often leaving them only more confused after reading it than before. By being able to critique some of the most difficult parts and trying to make meaning out of them, readers gain a new perspective of the works and may be able to connect more with the passage at hand.

One of the most complex parts for myself while reading this excerpt was at the very beginning, when the measures taken when the plague appeared in a town at the end of the 17th century are presented. I don’t think necessarily that this is a hard concept to understand, but moreso hard to fathom that in such an unestablished time, people were taking harsh measures against disease. I strongly believe that this is due to the fact that in history classes, students are led to believe before a certain time those who lived were very simple and not highly educated, but in this particular society, that is not the case.

This kind of reminds me about what I learned in high school about the holocaust, where guards visited the ghettos to make sure the people who were supposed to be there in fact were, and serve as a way for guards to enforce their power to the lesser class at hand.

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This sort of exemplifies and sets the stage that history will repeat itself, as many ideas presented later is this passage are familiar to stories that I have been informed about in my lifetime, just of course this one in a much more complex manner. Moving on from this idea of a somewhat up and coming civilized in a preexistent time, there are many symbols inscribed throughout the passage, that no matter how easily it is to make sense of these meanings, they are somewhat important to what Foucault is trying to get across. One that I found extremely difficult to wrap my head around was the presence of windows. Foucault emphasizes about how in one building in particular, which in this case served as a prison, had very large windows that let a large amount of light in, and of course kept the people described as being ‘crazy’ from escaping.

These same windows serve another underlying purpose, though, and this was to allow those supervising to easily observe those locked up and make sure they are doing what those in charge expect. This window is a simple piece of glass, that is pretty simple and transparent, but in this passage it is a complex object. Not only protected those unwanted from getting out, but allowing those in charge to see in and gage information from the masses as to keep a grasp on their own power. I think that when the mechanism of panopticism is broken down further in the pages to follow, another powerful symbol is presented – the tower. Though this tower is not dabbled over nearly enough at this part, I find this to be of the utmost important in comprehending the society as a whole. To me, the tower symbolizes a building of stature and power, but within the walls of the tower secrecy, control and knowledge.

It seems simple, but the control of knowledge almost forces those in a position of power to be on high guard to keep their power and the masses in a state of powerlessness. Lastly, there are many confusing passages where the underlying meaning is the balance of knowledge and power. When the passage came up about how panoptic institutions were light, and how there were no bars or chains for prisoners anymore, I became very confused, and even more so when Foucault expresses that “he becomes the principle of his own subjection” I only got more panicked (294). I continued to read the excerpt and finished the passage worse off than before I had started it. I think this particular part is trying to express how after a certain amount of time of being almost controlled and abused, people resort to their own ways when they are finally free. I could be way off in my interpretation but I equated it as to those in an abusive relationship – many stay in one unfortunately because it is what they are forced to know and when people come in and try to save either the women or men victims of these relationships, they often become so trained to this terrible way of life that they go to the extent of even defending their abuser.

So, relating back to the passage, when the chains are removed or the bars or even locks, the prisoners are so trained of how much they were deprived of it is almost impossible to go back to a state of normalcy again. A more applicable example relating to the passage is kind of like when prisoners are released from jail after serving a long sentence; sure the freedom for them is great but many often end up back in a cell shortly after being released due to the fact we are human and tend to resort back to what we are comfortable with. Luckily in this case for the supervising government, they have such a grasp on these people that they don’t even have to take any action as to enforce control over the prisoners in this society, because they understand that they will perform what those in power will want. Even after depicting a few of the passages and structures of this excerpt with my own interpretation and two sense, I am still quite confused on this difficult piece. I must say though, by making small connections and trying to make meaning out of what Foucault is saying the second time around reading this, I have a much greater appreciation for his writing and the messages he is trying to get across for readers. I think I will further extend this idea of trying to make meaning out of confusion in many hard readings to come, because it is very helpful in being able to get the most out of a passage.

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The Complexity of Panopticism by Michel Foucault. (2022, Jul 01). Retrieved from

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