The basic gist of the argument is that there has been a historical shift in the mechanisms of power in western society. This transition took place in disciplinary institutions and has grown from focusing on the body of its subjects, to their minds. Michel Foucault references Jeremy Bentham’s architectural design, the Panopticon, as a model for the new form of power that keeps control over society. He postulates that this architectural design is at its foundation a hierarchical system of surveillance that is not confined to prisons. Its universal application divides and controls those subjected to it. The Panopticon was a plan for a penitentiary that divided the prisoners and kept them under constant surveillance, with the purpose of reforming morals, preserving health, invigorating industry, diffusing instruction, and lightening public burdens. Foucault argues that this architectural system of surveillance and control extends beyond its physical consequences into the domain of consciousness through disciplinary mechanisms.
Prisoners are placed in an environment in which there is no escape, they are constantly exposed to a central watchtower and separated from each other. Yet the key feature of this facility is the inability of the prisoners to observe their captors. This technique creates a state of mind in them that nourishes self-surveillance. Although the prisoners are free to rebel against authority, those who wish to avoid punishment must continuously abide by the rules. With time they eventually internalize the surveillance they are placed under. Prisoners no longer have the option of hiding their behavior for fear of being caught due to their state of exposure. Despite the promise this model of power, Foucault also discusses another key aspect of this system, its reproducibility. The Panopticon is capable of functioning with a regular change in prison staff. This feature renders it more powerful because its staff is replaceable.
Foucault relates this relatively new form of prison, to other infrastructural institutions that are capable of achieving the same behavioral results. He draws similarities between factories, hospitals, schools, and barracks, to resemble prisons. Their connection is drawn along the lines of their disciplinary and hierarchal models of function. Yet, one of his main examples for the development in the history of this system of control is the quarantine of Vincennes in France and other towns. Foucault examines the mixture of reasoning for public control during the outbreak of plague. Authorities took coercive measures to prevent the spread of contagion, confining residents to their homes, similar to the measures used in Bentham’s Panopticon. Residents faced death by illness or punishment for breaking the rules and were therefore bound by a double standard, favoring the power of the authorities. The similarity between the prisoners and the plague-stricken town are important because it allows Foucault to present an application of the mechanisms of control characteristic of the Panopticon. Residents were placed under constant surveillance and every aspect of their lives during the quarantine were regimented and registered by those in power. Ultimately, any body of people subject to this form of control are no longer subjects of communication but objects of information.
This is evident in the segmentation that took place during the quarantine, everyone was analyzed, distributed and surveilled. They had neither communication with officers on the street nor their neighbors. Alternatively, officers had complete control over provisions. In order to safely proceed in eliminating the contagion they registered everyone and studied the population. This results in two mechanisms of exclusion which Foucault calls, “binary division and branding, and coercive assignment of differential distribution.” The first is evident in the status of officers, as worthy of mobility and power, and the residents, bound to their classification as the “at risk.” The latter is evident in the analyzation of the residents, similar to the situation of the prisoners. Both subject to experimentation through registration and changes in techniques of control.
The assumptions Foucault calls into question are those that find the development of western society as a process of humanity. The disciplinary systems underlying prison institutions are not the consequence of an ethical progress. They are the products of experimentations with mechanisms of power exemplified in the Panopticon. These developments in the control of society are overlooked and are not standard in compulsory education. N. H. Julius coins the panoptic principle, “as an event in the history of the mind.” Foucault places this history, "in the dark recesses of our memory." The end of the chapter leaves the reader with a rhetorical question asking if it is surprising that many other institutions central to western society’s functioning resemble a prison. Inviting the reader to question the mechanisms of discipline and punishment under which they are subject. What implications this position within the schemata of the Panopticon may mean for the reader’s conditioned behavior, what internalization has taken process as a result of this.