Panoptic Power and the Pathologisation of Vision

Critical Reflections on the Foucauldian Thesis

This article attempts to evaluate theoretically the applicability of Foucault’s Panopticon to the practices of public surveillance utilising CCTV technology. The first part maps out three “strands” in the reception of panopticism in surveillance studies, suggesting that it tends to fall into one of three broad kinds: its wholesale appropriation and application; its wholesale rejection as inadequate with respect to a supposedly “post-disciplinary” society; and its qualified acceptance subject to some empirically-dependent limitations. I then attempt in a preliminary way to supplement these three positions. In particular, I question the logical adequacy of equating visual surveillance with effective subjectification and self-discipline by drawing upon a range of philosophical and sociological perspectives. Philosophically, it is suggested that the Foucauldian thesis may well “pathologise” the relationship between subjectivity and visibility, and thereby overlook other dimensions of our experience of vision. Sociologically, it is suggested that the precise relation between surveillance and self-discipline requires us to attend, in ethnomethodological fashion, to the situated sensemaking activities of subjects as the go about everyday practical activities in public settings.

Released: Replika 89, 83–100.
Replika block:
Ágoston Fáber