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On Michel Foucault’s Surveillance Society

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The concepts “modem” and “post-modern” have become common currency in intellectual debates. Within such debates, the postmodern is perceived as an epoch, a perspective, or an entirely new paradigm of thought. Such a conception of the aforementioned term stems from its rootedness in the conception of the modern. Chia notes that what distinguishes the postmodern from the modem is “a style of thinking which eschews the uncritical use of common terms such as ‘organizations’, ‘individuals’, ‘environment’, ‘structure’, and ’culture’, etc” (1995, p. 579). These terms refer to the existence of social entities and attributes within a modernist conception of social reality. The rationale behind this lies in the ontological conception of being which privileges thinking in terms of discrete phenomenal states, static attributes and sequential events.

As opposed to such an ontological conception of reality, the postmodern stands as the champion of weak forms of ontology that “emphasize a transient, ephemeral and emergent reality” (Chia, 1995, p.579). If such is the case, it thereby follows that a postmodernist perspective of reality adheres to thought styles wherein reality is deemed to be continuously in flux and transformation and hence unrepresentable thereby impossible to situate within a static conception of reality. An adoption of a post-modernist perspective of reality thereby leads to a rethinking of the modern conceptions of social reality since adherence to postmodernist perspectives lead to the de-emphasis on forms and attributes. Such a conception of reality; however tends to emphasize the importance of local methods, which collectively define a social reality. In a sense, the shift from a modern to a postmodern conception of reality thereby leads to the re-definition of existing ontological conceptions of reality that determine the various forms of intellectual priorities as well as theoretical stipulations in the study and conception of being. Such a perception of reality [that is highly characterized by the postmodern turn] is evident in Michel Foucault’ perspectives as to the workings of social reality.

            Michel Foucault’s use of Jeremy Bentham’s concept “panopticon’ in his book Discipline and Punish presents a discussion of the aspect of surveillance while placing emphasis on a fundamental change and break resulting from the changes in the social and theatrical arrangements during the 1800’s. The difference in methodology is evident if one considers that as opposed to the old methodology wherein the many see the few, modern methodology has enabled the shift wherein the few see the many. Foucault notes that such a shift shows the manner in which “the instantaneous view of a great multitude” is procured for a small number or even for a single individual (1974, p. 216). He further notes that the implications of such show the manner in which

Our society is one not of spectacle, but of surveillance…We are much less Greek than we believe. We are neither in the amphitheater, nor on the stage, but in the panoptical machine, invested by its effects of power which we bring to ourselves since we are a part of its mechanism. (Foucault, 1974, p. 217)

            Such a perspective is based on the assumption that society stands as the locus for the interplay of various forms of power relations. Such forms of power relation determine the manner in which an individual situates himself/herself within his/her surroundings. Surveillance, in this sense, may be seen as a method which society inscribes upon an individual as he/she chooses to regulate his/her actions dependent upon the form of power relation in which he/she has direct access. It is important to note, that Foucault’s notion of panopticonism also emphasizes the existence of freedom within a predefined space.

           Understanding power is central to understanding Foucault’s analysis of subjectivity. Foucault explicitly rejects the paradigm of power as repression, arguing that power is not only negative but also productive. He rejects the juridical model of power, wherein power is characterized as repressive, rule-based, uniform, and prohibitive. According to this model, the subject is constituted as one who obeys this negative unilateral power. Foucault characterizes power as positive and productive. Power is everywhere, a multiplicity of force relations; it is always local and unstable. This ubiquity of power does not preclude resistance. On the contrary, resistance(s) can only exist in the strategic field of power relations. Power is action that runs through and between things; power is first and foremost relational. Not only is power always a relationship, but power relationships exist everywhere.

           Freedom, in this sense, is to be understood as composed of positive and negative aspects. Although one exists within panoptical society, it is possible to engage in cases of positive freedom through the engagement of actions, which contradicts the dominant discourses. In the popular feminist movements, for example, such an act involves the redefinition of the feminine as opposed to the presumed patriarchal conception of the female. Such is the manner in which Foucault’s philosophy emphasizes the fluidity of structures despite its existence within a panoptical realm.


Chia, R. (1995) “From Modern to Postmodern Organizational Analysis”. Organizational Studies 16: 579-604.

Foucault, M. (1974). Discipline and Punish The Birth of the Prison.  New York: Vintage.

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