Online Articles

“The Fetishization of the Panopticon” by Kailey Giordano

An analysis of the transformation of the Panopticon from Foucault to the present.

The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.1

I. Punishment

In order to understand the intended function and purpose of the Panopticon and why it arose, I must explain the premier transition that occurred in forms of punishment during the Enlightenment. Prior to the eighteenth century, punishment consisted largely of gruesome public executions; however, as the eighteenth century progressed, a movement arose advocating against capital punishment and, more specifically, public display of capital punishment.2 This movement against public forms of punishment was a result of none other than a “disenchantment with the theatrical, dramaturgical aspects of public execution” and an increasingly “humanitarian impulse” that concerned itself with the dignity and rights of man. This concern for the rights of man led to the establishment of privacy as a natural right of the individual, and when combined with the Enlightenment disenchantment with public punishment caused forms of punishment to enter an increasingly private, and less public, setting.3

The Enlightenment ideal of the individual’s right to privacy, however, was not the only ideology that influenced the creation of the Panopticon. A new preoccupation with vision and transparency arose in the Enlightenment, deriving from the prevailing idea that reason could make transparent and illuminate the nature of man and the nature of the world.4 The ideal disciplinary institution would then operate on this notion of reason, serving as both “the source of light illuminating everything and a locus of convergence for everything that must be known.”5 Bentham’s Panopticon perfectly embodied the Enlightenment notions of vision and transparency by placing the individual in a virtually omniscient setting as a means to discipline him. The new developments in forms of punishment during the Enlightenment found physical manifestation in Bentham’s Panopticon, which united the movement for private forms of punishment with the Enlightenment preoccupation with transparency.6

II. Panopticon

To reconcile the Enlightenment desire for private punishment and fixation on visibility, Bentham created the Panopticon, a mechanism of surveillance applicable in prisons, schools, workhouses, mental hospitals, and several other institutions.7 In the Panopticon Papers, Bentham describes the design:

The building circular—the cells occupying the circumference—the keepers, etc.—the centre—an intermediate annular well, all the way up, crowned by a sky-light usually open [. . .] by blinds and other contrivances, the keeper concealed from the observation of the prisoners, unless where he thinks fit to show himself: hence, on their part, the sentiment of an invisible omnipresence.—The whole circuit reviewable with little, or, if necessary, without any, change of place.8

A complex arrangement of windows, slits, and reflectors along with the cylindrical design of the Panopticon enables the principle overseer to observe each inmate at any one time while preventing the inmates from viewing the overseer in return. Each inmate then becomes a subject of perpetual observation. Operating on the subject’s fear that at any moment he could be observed with or without this observation actually occurring, the Panopticon leaves no incentive to misbehave if one could be observed doing so.


Figure 1. Bentham’s original design of the Panopticon [Matthew Taunton, “Escape from Panopticon” (New Statesman 137, no. 4889, 2008), p. 48.

This apprehension as the subject of observation, along with a fear of punishment for misbehavior leaves inmates with no rational choice but to cooperate and comply with prison guidelines, creating a form of self-discipline independent of the overseer’s discipline. This external surveillance internalizes itself so efficiently within the inmates that the need for the overseer disappears, and this mechanism of control can operate on its own, fed by the anxiety of being seen and a simple fear of punishment.9

III. Foucault and the Anxiety of the Gaze

Bentham’s theory of panopticism received little attention until the latter end of the twentieth century when Michel Foucault deemed the Panopticon a perfect embodiment of his concept of power-knowledge. Foucault believed that power and knowledge operated together to produce and exercise control over the individual.10 To examine Foucauldian panopticism however, I must explain Foucault’s contribution to the history of punishment. Foucault noticed that the decentralization of power in the Enlightenment, with its rejection of absolute monarchy and the rise of democratic ideals, changed the type of power a ruler could exercise over his subjects, shifting from the power over death to the power over life. As power shifted to a control over the protection of life (i.e. biopower), punishment became less about extermination and instead directed toward reform.11 Two marked changes in forms of punishment in society then emerged in the Enlightenment: the shift from a public to a private setting and the shift from destructive to reformatory motives. The Panopticon then embodied these penal developments, coalescing two seemingly incongruent ideals in one mechanism of discipline and reform: surveillance at once private and transparent, sequestered and omniscient.

Foucault situates the Panopticon within this reformatory and private form of punishment; however, why the panoptic gaze generates anxiety within the inmate must receive attention before one can fully understand the effectiveness of panoptic power. During the classical age, “observatories” arose that relied upon “eyes that [. . .] see without being seen” and disciplined individuals by placing them in a setting of constant observation, thereby preserving individuals in their subjection.12 Foucault explains that the individual is effectively disciplined by means of observation because:

In [observation] the “subjects” were presented as “objects” to the observation of a power that was manifested only by its gaze. They did not receive directly the image of the sovereign power; they only felt its effects [. . .] on their bodies, which had become precisely legible and docile.13

Observation objectifies the subject, fostering an apprehension for the gaze that enables a power outside the individual to exercise control over said individual. I employ Sartre’s look to enhance Foucault’s explanation of the anxiety of the gaze. Nick Crossley describes the effect of Sartre’s look as “no longer belonging to oneself, but belonging, as an object, in the project of the other.”14 Thus, the Self is estranged by the Other and is recognized as possessed or captured by the Other. Sartre explains that anxiety arises when the individual realizes that the Self no longer holds claim over itself but instead lies under the gaze, and therefore control, of the Other.

Merleau-Ponty’s gaze then strengthens Sartre’s argument and, by extension, Foucault’s argument. Central to Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the gaze is the subject of perception, which “does not predate perception but is effected through it.”15 Perception produces and effects the subject at the moment when said subject experiences the distinction between himself and the world, between “immediate me” and “imaginary me.”16 If the subject can identify the distinction between Self and Other, then the subject can likewise comprehend the possibility of the capturing of the Self by the Other, the possession of the subject in the perception and observation of the Other. This alienation from the Self that the gaze produces causes the subject to feel increasingly objectified in the eyes of the Other, termed the “inhuman gaze” by Merleau-Ponty to emphasize the gaze’s capacity to transform interhuman relationships from that of subject-subject to subject-object relationships.17 Herein lies the true source of the anxiety of the gaze.

With an understanding of the origins of this anxiety as examined through Foucault, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, one can more fully understand how the awareness of being seen has a controlling effect over the individual and how panoptic power exercises itself over the individual. The panoptic effect capitalizes on the objectification and apprehension created by the gaze, effecting an internalization of discipline within the individual that renders unnecessary the original external source of observation.18 After examining the derivations of the anxiety of the gaze, I arrived at a fuller understanding of the operational techniques and effectiveness of panopticism as described by Foucault.

IV. The Decentralization of the Panopticon

With a stronger grasp of Foucault’s argument, I will now provide modern-day examples of the Panopticon to demonstrate how the Panopticon has transformed since Foucault—from a centralized power structure to a decentralized, commodified, and fetishized mechanism of surveillance. Although Foucault viewed the Panopticon as a decentralized mechanism of surveillance to some extent,19 he focused primarily on the centralized Panopticon to demonstrate his concept of power-knowledge. His discussion of the decentralized Panopticon was but an embryo and has more fully developed since his time—why I contend that the Panopticon has become only increasingly decentralized in the post-Foucauldian world.

An important distinction to make between the explicit seer-seen relationship of Foucault’s Panopticon and the Panopticon of today, denoted the “participatory panopticon” or “sousveillance,” is that the post-Foucauldian Panopticon seer-seen relationship is less polarized than the Foucauldian panoptic relationship.20 Sousveillance was first coined by Steve Mann in 1998 as ‘watchful vigilance from underneath’ or the surveillance of oneself as a form of self-maintenance.21 While this self-surveillance seems no different than the end result of Benthamite and Foucauldian panopticism, sousveillance stretches beyond surveillance of oneself. Sousveillance is distinguished from the internalized surveillance and discipline of Foucault’s Panopticon due to its reflection of self-surveillance outward so that the individual not only monitors himself but also monitors each man around him. Thus, each individual in a society is at once the prisoner and the guard, the surveyed and the surveyor, the Seer and the Seen.22 Since Mann’s coinage of the term sousveillance in 1998, surveillance has assumed a dual role—the individual assumes the role of the Seer and the Seen in the panoptic relationship. If the individual monitors himself as well as the people around him, this modern panopticon becomes “participatory” as the individual must voluntarily monitor both himself and others.23 Panoptic power then is no longer exercised by one overseer but rather by many individuals serving as the Seer and the Seen. Because panoptic power is now exercised voluntarily by each member of society—both exercising and serving as subject to such power—and is no longer concentrated in a single overseer, the Panopticon has become increasingly decentralized since the time of Foucault.

Evidence of such decentralization is found in modern day recording and distributing devices including the Internet and mobile devices (paired for reasons I will later explain) and nano-technology. The Rodney King incident and the “dog-shit girl” are two of the most relevant examples that demonstrate the decentralization of the Panopticon that has occurred since the time of Foucault. On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was chased by police for eight miles on Interstate 210 for speeding, and after coming to a stop at Lake View Terrace Road and disobeying police commands, the police proceeded to beat Rodney King for a prolonged period. George Holliday, a bystander, recorded the beating but to no avail; three of the police officers were acquitted, igniting the Los Angeles Riots of 1992.24 Kingsley Dennis marks this incident as a message:

that living in the eye of the camera meant a person, people, institutions, and organisations were no longer insular and immune. Everyone now had to watch their back, literally, as people could learn how to play at being their own witness.25

While this event is not directly related to the Internet or mobile phone, it serves to demonstrate the capacity for perpetual surveillance that the recorded image supplies, applicable to the Internet and mobile phone by virtue of their recording capacities.

More directly related, then, is the incident of the “dog-shit girl.”26 A young woman “refused to clean up the mess when the dog she was carrying defecated on the floor of a subway carriage”27 and upon being offered a tissue, continued to refuse and soon departed the subway. Little time passed before a photograph of this woman and the mess her dog made appeared on the Internet, and even less time passed before the young woman’s personal information was exposed and widespread scorn was cast upon her.28 I will not consider the dangers of a world unremittingly monitored, as this incident expresses, because they do not contribute to my argument. I wish to prove that the Panopticon has been decentralized since the time of Foucault, and the speed with which this photograph spread concerns me more than the implications its spread had on the young woman. The “dog-shit girl” event demonstrates Dennis’s concept of sousveillance and the aforementioned “participatory Panopticon.” Not only did some individual make an effort to take the photograph of the young woman and post it on the Internet, but many more individuals propagated the spread of this photograph, confirming that modes of surveillance in society have become acts of participation, that people actively monitor both themselves and others. If surveillance is no longer concentrated in a single watchman but in many watchmen, it becomes decentralized. The power of the mobile phone and Internet to record images and distribute them globally represents the decentralization of the Panopticon in that one centralized Panopticon does not exist, but miniature panopticons do exist in the members of society and the digital devices they own.

Similar to the Internet and mobile devices, the development of nano-technology further suggests that the Panopticon has evolved from a centralized to a decentralized power structure and mode of surveillance. Jeroen van den Hoven dichotomizes panopticism as a means of revealing its decentralization today.29 He splits the Panopticon into synopticism, in which “the central position allows one single observer to see everything,”30 and the continuity aspect in which “people are continuously visible”.31 He argues that failure to make this distinction in panopticism (or failure to regard panopticism as dual forces operating together) leads to the misconception of nano-technology as a centralized form of surveillance—the Panopticon. In particular, RFID technology demonstrates the decentralizing capabilities of nano-technology and discounts the possibility of nano-technology assuming the title of Panopticon.32 The details of RFID chips and tags are extraneous; what is important is that Radio Frequency Identity chips constitute some of the principal technologies in tracking, tracing (from vehicles to consumer products), and surveillance. Hoven notes that the problem with the ubiquitous nature of RFID technology lies in our failure to separate panopticism into its component parts: synopticism and continuity.33 However, when this distinction is made:

one may argue that the sting in the nano-privacy debate may not be synopticism but its continuity. The introduction of fabrics, films, and new materials and surfaces that assist in recording, storing and giving off information to the environment at close range and at a distance, constantly and systematically, may serve centralized data collection and processing, but may also accommodate highly context dependent and local information needs.34

So while nano-technology may appear traditionally panoptic (by which I mean centralized), nano-technologies such as RFID chips and tags fulfill locally specific needs, rendering these forms of surveillance decentralized. The sheer distribution and use of nano-technology proves such technology to be decentralized because tracking tags such as RFID serve local needs far more often than a central data source.

One last point concerning the decentralization of modes of surveillance in today’s society can be found in Kevin Haggerty’s Dickensian polemic against the overuse and overextension of the term ‘panopticon’ to any form of surveillance that internalizes an external power and renders this internalized power capable of operating on its own.35 He provides approximately fifteen forms of panopticism to demonstrate his point, stating that “each new ‘opticon’ points to a distinction, limitation, or way in which Foucault’s model does not completely fit the contemporary [. . .] dynamics of surveillance,”36 thereby rendering the panopticon synonymous with surveillance itself.37 While Haggerty wishes to maintain the traditional definition and functions of the Panopticon outlined by Bentham and Foucault, he recognizes that the Panopticon as a centralized source has disappeared and been replaced by many miniature panopticons observing all and each.38 Thus, the Internet, mobile phones, and nano-technology serve as physical manifestations of the decentralized Panopticon in post-Foucauldian society as nearly any mode of surveillance is now labeled panoptic.

V. The Commodification and Fetishization of the Panopticon

Not only has the Panopticon been decentralized since the time of Foucault, but I argue that it has also been commodified and fetishized. I include the example of reality television to further my point. Oddly enough, reality television is widely used as an embodiment of the Panopticon’s commodification in today’s society.39 As David Lyon notes, reality television participants:

are encouraged to ‘be themselves’ and ‘wear their hearts on their sleeves.’ [. . .] There is a reward for displaying your body and its activities. It is gratifying to be watched; close surveillance is destigmatized.40

In the realm of reality television, surveillance becomes a mode of self-expression; rather than homogenizing individuals, this surveillance encourages “mass individuation” to be paraded in front of an audience.41 When examined within the context of the global market that encompasses this industry, this mass individuation becomes commodified. Lyon terms this commodification of the individual under constant surveillance the “panopticommodity” in that the “people market themselves.”42 He then states that if participants of reality television willingly display and advertise themselves on the global market, this surveillance that they undergo is participatory.43 By referencing the participatory panopticon, in which each man serves as guard and prisoner, as Seer and Seen, Lyon exposes the decentralized and commodified nature of the Panopticon today. Concerning my previous examples—the Internet, mobile devices, and nano-technology—these forms of surveillance are likewise commodified by virtue of their nature as goods bought and sold on the market and used on a global scale. Privacy loses its appeal and the anxiety of observation loses its strength as surveillance becomes a commodity to be sold on the market. The Foucauldian Panopticon that operates on a fear of observation and punishment thus loses its potency in the post-Foucauldian world, justifying my claim that the Panopticon has evolved quite significantly in form and function since its creation. The technologies of surveillance now deemed panoptic have become commodities, proving that the Panopticon—now synonymous with said technologies labeled miniature panopticons44—in the post-Foucauldian world has been likewise commodified.

If the Panopticon has been commodified in recent years, I contend that it has also been fetishized, and I cite Karl Marx for a fuller explanation of the fetishism of the commodity. Marx defines fetishism as “the definite social relation between men themselves [assuming] the fantastic form of a relation between things”45 and explicitly emphasizes the inseparability of fetishism and the production of commodities.46 While Marx uses the term fetishism in terms of labor relations, I apply this term to social relations involving not labor but the seer-seen relationship that the Panopticon operates upon. Because it has been commodified, the Panopticon, has been fetishized in the sense that the social relation of the seer-seen interaction has taken the form of a social relation between panoptic technologies. The argument against my claim may employ the Panopticon’s duality—its physical and social nature—to prove that the social relations that the Panopticon operates upon are inseparable from the structure itself and therefore that the Panopticon has always been fetishized and no difference exists between the Foucauldian Panopticon and the post-Foucauldian Panopticon. However, I discount this claim based on Marx’s statement that fetishism only relates to commodities and relations between commodities.47 The Panopticon was not commodified in Bentham’s or Foucault’s time because it was not a good exchanged on the market (on the most literal level, because the structure did not exist in the tangible sense). What enabled the Panopticon to emerge as a commodity in today’s market was its decentralization since the time of Foucault. Had the Panopticon remained a centralized power structure never constructed, commodification would not have occurred; however, because the Panopticon has become synonymous with the innumerable technologies of surveillance on the market today, it has emerged as a commodity and thus been fetishized.

I find that the social relationship between inmate and overseer, between Seer and Seen has become tied to the panoptic commodities themselves, as evident in the surveillance relations identified with the Internet and mobile devices, nano-technology, and reality television. These modern-day forms of the Panopticon are exchanged on the market and thereby fetishized, rendering the social relations existent in the function and production of the commodity identified with the commodity itself. Thus, the panoptic relationship between Seer and Seen has assumed the form of a relationship between the innumerable forms of opticons48 in the global market today.

VI. Implications of the Panopticon’s Transformation

Finally, I must concur with the conclusion several authors have arrived at in their analyses of the Panoptic on that society has approached closer to the realization of the Weberian iron cage than ever before. David Lyon cites Lyotard to catalogue the implications of the Panopticon’s evolution, stating that the “‘metanarratives’ of modernity [have been] replaced by, among other things, the categories of computerized control.”49 The overarching narratives of modernity were replaced by norms and categories determined by technological control, by the modern Panopticon, thus causing society “‘to function as a giant panoptic mechanism’ in which, to pursue the analogy, hapless consumers find themselves in atomized [. . .] cells at the periphery.”50 This image of entrapment and lack of control persuades Lyon to view Max Weber’s worries of the realization of the iron cage, of the rationalized world regulated by a teleological efficiency toward the creation of self-disciplined individuals, as perhaps not so illegitimate.51

While Weber discusses the iron cage in terms of the inexorable power of material goods over the life of man,52 I shall not use this term so strictly. I would instead like to draw a parallel between his iron cage of capitalism and what I shall term the iron cage of panopticism that the decentralization, commodification, and fetishization of the Panopticon have brought closer to realization in the post-Foucauldian world. As modern capitalism lost its need for the Protestant ethic to operate on its own,53 so the Panopticon lost its need for the specific overseer-inmate relationship that it originally operated upon to stand on its own. As the Panopticon has been decentralized, commodified, and fetishized, panopticism has diverged from its original mode of operation and become a system of surveillance that all could participate in, a system in which individuals act as Seer and Seen (i.e. sousveillance). As the Panopticon’s single watchman has been replaced by a world monitored by many watchmen, observation has become both ubiquitous and inescapable. This inescapability of observation has only been enhanced by the application of the term panoptic to virtually any mode of surveillance today, thus forcing us into an iron cage of panopticism, of perpetual observation and surveillance we may not be able to escape. The realization of this iron cage then seems more plausible than ever before as panoptic modes of surveillance proliferate, the boundaries between the Seer and the Seen disappear as each individual becomes the inmate and the overseer, the prisoner and the guard, and surveillance becomes evermore inescapable.

VII. Conclusion

In this paper I aimed to investigate the transformation of the Panopticon from Foucault to the present in order to prove that the Panopticon has been decentralized, commodified, and fetishized in the post-Foucauldian world. I began by providing a synopsis of the original panoptic design, function, and purpose and followed this discussion with an examination of Foucauldian panopticism. Upon arriving at a stronger understanding of Foucault’s panopticism through an analysis of Sartre’s look and Merleau-Ponty’s gaze, I provided several modern-day examples of the Panopticon to demonstrate how it has been not only decentralized, but also commodified and fetishized in today’s society. Finally, I concluded in accordance with writers such as David Lyon that the state of the Panopticon today has delivered mankind closer to the realization of an iron cage not unlike that discussed by Weber. I now return to Marx’s quote that appears at the beginning of my analysis and that hyperbolizes his philosophy of the fetishism of the commodity. Upon emerging as a commodity in the time beyond Foucault, the Panopticon has been fetishized, assuming a mysterious quality that transcends its original nature and purpose. A world of opticons has been born, and the Panopticon gazes upon itself. And it weaves out of its omniscient eye bizarre designs far more wonderful than if it were to begin crying of its own free will.


1 Karl Marx, Das Kapital (Rep. of 1867 orig., Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing Inc., 2000), p. 53-54.

2 Hugo Adam Bedau and Erin Kelly. “Punishment” (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010). p. 1

3 Ibid.

4 Paul Rabinow, edit. The Foucault Reader (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), p. 190-91.

5 Ibid., p. 191.

6 Ibid.

7 Mary Peter Mack, edit. Panopticon Papers (New York: Western Publishing Company, 1969), p. 194.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid. 4, at 199.

10 Ibid., p. 259.

11 Ibid., p. 213-14.

12 Ibid., p. 189

13 Ibid., p. 199.

14 Nick Crossley, “The Politics of the Gaze: Between Foucault and Merleau-Ponty” (Human Studies 16, no. 4,

1993), p. 408.

15 Ibid., p. 411.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., p. 405

19 Ibid. 4, at 212-13.

20 Dennis, Kingsley. “Keeping a close watch– the rise of self-surveillance and the threat of digital exposure.”  (Sociological Review 56, no. 3, 2008), p. 349.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid., p. 350.

24 Ibid., p. 348.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid., p. 350.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid., p. 351.

29 Jeroen van den Hoven and Pieter E. Vermass, “Nano-Technology and Privacy: On Continuous Surveillance

Outside the Panopticon” (Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 32, no. 3, 2007), p. 291.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid., p. 292.

34 Ibid.

35 Kevin D. Haggerty, “Tear down the walls: on demolishing the Panopticon” (In Theorizing Surveillance: the

Panopticon and Beyond, Portland: Willan Publishing, 2006), p. 23.

36 Ibid., p. 26.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.

39 David Lyon, “The Search for Surveillance Theories” (In Theorizing Surveillance: the Panopticon and Beyond,

Portland: Willan Publishing, 2006). p. 7.

40 Ibid., p. 8.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid. 35, at 26.

45 Ibid. 1, at 55. Ibid.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid. 35, at 26.

49 David Lyon. The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), p. 75.

50 Ibid., p. 71.

51 Ibid., p. 75.

52 Talcott Parsons, transl. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Dover Publications Inc.,

2003), p. 181.

53 Ibid., p. 180-81.