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September 11, 2014

Foucault used the term “panopticism” to describe a (the?) form of power that exists in modern society. As he suggested in a 1973 lecture, “we live in a society where panopticism reigns” (1994, p. 58). In outlining how this form of power differed from those that operated previously, Foucault described a shift in the penal justice system occurring in the nineteenth century – a shift that involved exercising control over not just what individuals did (i.e., punishing an offense that was committed), but over what they might do or were capable of doing (i.e., controlling people’s behavior). Such control of individuals at the level of their potentialities could not be performed by the judiciary itself, but by a network of institutions, including the school, psychological or psychiatric institutions such as the hospital, the asylum, the police, and so on (Foucault, 1994). Foucault described this as an age of “social orthopedics,” a “disciplinary society” that differed from the penal societies known previously (p. 57).

Specifically, Foucault identified Bentham’s concept of the “panopticon” as the idealized representation of this form of power. The panopticon is a “ring-shaped building in the middle of which there is a yard with a tower at the center. The ring is divided into little cells that face the interior and exterior alike” (p. 58). Foucault suggested that the panopticon served equally well institutions such as “schools, hospitals, prisons, reformatories, poorhouses, and factories” (p. 58). Thus, in each of the cells in the ring of the panopticon there is, depending on its purpose, “a child learning to write, a worker at work, a prisoner correcting himself, a madman living his madness” (p. 58). In the central tower, meanwhile, there is an observer who watches through shuttered windows so as to be able to see everything without anyone being able to see him/her. Further, since each cell is open to both the inside and outside, the observer’s gaze can traverse the entire cell, making everything the individual does exposed to the observer.

Unlike previous forms of judicial power that rested upon the inquiry, a procedure in which one tried to ascertain what has happened via evidence and testimony, panopticism involved “supervision and examination” – specifically, a “constant supervision of individuals by someone who exercised a power over them–schoolteacher, foreman, physician, psychiatrist, prison warden–and who, so long as he exercised power, had the possibility of both supervising and constituting a knowledge concerning those he supervised” (p. 59). Panopticism involves a knowledge that “was no longer about determining whether or not something had occurred”, but “whether an individual was behaving as he should, in accordance with the rule or not, and whether he was progressing or not” (p. 59).

Perhaps a current example of panopticism an be found in the trend toward “evidence-based sentencing”, in which courts use predictions of defendants’ future crime risk to shape sentences (Starr, Aug. 10, 2014, New York Times). In other words, the severity of individuals’ sentences are determined not just by the offense committed, but by such factors as ” unemployment, marital status, age, education, finances, neighborhood, and family background, including family members’ criminal history”. Notably, “at least 20 states have implemented this practice, including some that require risk scores to be considered in every sentencing decision”.

Source: Foucault, M. (1994). Power. New York: New Press.

Knowledge and the world to be known; the politics of truth

October 26, 2013

What is the connection between knowledge and the world to be known? In considering this question, Foucault (1973: 8-9) provides a comparison between the views of Kant and Nietzsche. He notes that Kant was the first (among Western philosophers) to say explicitly that the conditions of experience and those of the object of experience were identical. Nietzche, on the other hand, believed that there is no resemblance or prior affinity between knowledge and the things that need to be known  that there is human nature, a world, and something called knowledge between the two, without any affinity, resemblance, or natural tie between them. In other words, there is not necessarily any connection between human knowledge and the world to be known. Rather, knowledge must struggle against a world without order, connectedness, form, or law.

So how to best understand knowledge? Given the discord between knowledge and the world to be known, Nietzche declared that philosophers are the most likely to be wrong about the nature of knowledge, because they tend to think of knowledge in the form of congruence. Rather, if we truly wish to understand knowledge, Foucault (1973: 12) suggested we must look not to philosophers, but to politicians; we must understand what the relations of struggle and power are. In other words, one can understand what knowledge consists of only by examining relations of power  the manner in which people fight one another, try to dominate one another, and seek to exercise power relations over one another. This is a key aspect of what Foucault (1973: 13) refers to as the “politics of truth.” Rather than knowledge and power being separate entities, behind all knowledge is a struggle for power; “political power is not absent from knowledge, it is woven together with it” (Foucault 1973: 32).

In examining the politics of truth, Foucault (1973: 14) highlights the importance of understanding the “perspectival character” of knowledge. By this Foucault (through his interpretation of Nietzsche) means that there is knowledge only in the form of actions by which human beings violently take hold of things, react to situations, and subject them to relations of force. In other words, knowledge is always a certain strategic relation in which humans are placed  there is a battle, and knowledge is the result of this battle.

Foucault’s view of knowledge differs from the traditional Marxist concept of ideology, in which the subject’s relation to truth is understood to be obscured and violated by conditions of existence, social relations, or the political forms imposed on the subject of knowledge from the outside. In contrast, Foucault (1973: 15) suggests that the political and economic conditions of existence are not a veil or an obstacle for the subject of knowledge but the means by which subjects of knowledge and, in turn, truth relations are formed. Political conditions are the very ground on which subjects of knowledge and relations of truth are formed. What Foucault seeks to do in his work is examine the history through which models of truth have come into existence (e.g., truths regarding juridicial forms, punishment, insanity).

Foucault, M. (1994). Power. New York: New Press.

Athletes and criminality

June 24, 2010

It is quite common for writers and pundits in the sports media to rail about the behavior of athletes in professional and college sports. Much of this commentary focuses on why criminal behavior by athletes has gotten so bad in recent years. I am compelled to ask, however, if the behavior of athletes is significantly worse now than it has been in the past.

For example, Smith (2009) points out that “the marriage between sportswriters and teams and players from the past allowed many bad deeds and violent crimes by athletes to go unreported…today, bad behavior is more likely to be reported” (p. 175). He goes on, however, to argue that sport used to have a sense of civility that has been lost, leading to the bad behavior we see by athletes today. I see a problem with this argument, in that it lacks support in the form of direct evidence showing that criminal/uncivil behavior by athletes is worse than it has been in the past.

Thus, I return to my question about the extent to which athletes are engaging in an increased amount of criminal behavior, compared with the extent to which such incidents are reported and/or prosecuted more than in the past. What evidence is available that might help provide insight to this question?


Smith, Earl. (2009). Race, sport and the American dream (2nd ed.). Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.