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Panoptical Power In China Essay

3080 words - 12 pages

Panoptical Power in China

Jeremy Bentham, a leading English prison reformer of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, developed an architectural plan for an ideal prison that he called the Panopticon. Such a prison would consist of a ring of individual cells encircling an observation tower. Each of the cells would open toward the tower and be illuminated by its own outside window. So, by the effect of backlighting, a single guard in the observation tower could keep watch on many prisoners--each of whom would be individually confined--without himself being seen. And because the prisoners could not see their supervisors, they would have to assume that they were being watched at all times--even if they were not. The Panopticon was designed to maximize the power of a dominating, overseeing gaze upon a transparent society of inmates. The purpose of the Panopticon was not so much to punish wrongdoers as to prevent wrongdoing by immersing prisoners in a field of total visibility in the expectation that the possibility of constant surveillance would serve to restrain the inmates (Foucault, 1980). Such surveillance would be aimed toward the interiorization of the supervisor's gaze so that each prisoner would, in effect, become his/her own overseer. Thus, through self-policing, surveillance would become permanent and pervasive in its effects--even if it was not continuously exercised.

Although relatively few prisons have been constructed according to the plan of the Panopticon given Bentham's optimism about its practical utility, Foucault (1975/1977; 1980) has articulated the Panopticon as a generalizable model of the functioning of power in modern disciplinary societies with applications beyond the prison including hospitals, the military, schools, factories, and business. In a variety of contexts the institution of hierarchical surveillance can play a prominent role in the development of the kind of productive, self-disciplined workers that populate the dreams of psychiatrists, drill sergeants, professors, and capitalists. With the de-institutionalization of surveillance--the spreading of centers of observation throughout society--its apparatuses become co-extensive with the entire social body and little remains beyond the sight and interest of report-writing, document- collecting police, bureaucrats, and veritable armies of researchers of various sorts. Bodies of detailed information based upon meticulous observation are developed on each individual. Foucault (1975/1977) refers to the compilation of such dossiers as a kind of "interrogation without end" as the files of the "all-seeing," Panoptical society are never closed.

An especially vivid historical example of the operation of Panoptical power is provided by the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In what follows I will draw primarily from the following accounts of that dark period in Chinese history: Chen Kaige's (1993) award-winning film Farewell My Concubine, Anchee Min's...

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