Exercise 4-1: Gaze and control

Read the article ‘On Foucault: disciplinary power and photography’ by David Green and summarise the key points made by the author.

I have looked at the work of Foucault in my previous course Understanding Visual Culture (see here). I was particularly interested in Foucault’s thoughts about Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and how this relates to surveillance and disciplinary society in the modern world. The notion that behaviour can be moderated/controlled through the use of a surveillance method where it is not obvious whether or not the subject is being watched seems particularly relevant to modern CCTV systems. The proliferation of digital photography and citizen journalism means this is something that will become increasingly important and the limits/future of this and how it will affect power relations in photography is fascinating.

The paper we are asked to study here is in my view a poor introduction to Foucault and his work. Looking at other students blogs I was not surprised that most found it difficult to see the relevance of the essay in relation to the course. The references at the end to the work of John Tagg and his explorations on the relationship between photography and disciplinary power while difficult, provide a provoking analysis and reminded me that these are works I will have to return to and study further.

Notes from ‘On Foucault: disciplinary power and photography’:

Behind Foucault’s difficult, diverse and eclectic subjects and writings lie two central, interconnecting themes:

1. The development of certain forms of rationality which posit ‘man’ as both the subject and object of knowledge.

2. The complex relations of power and knowledge.

In western culture, the period of late 18thC/early 19thC constitutes “that which must be conceived of and that which must be known.”

Foucault’s work is an attempt to understand the historical conditions that allowed the human/social sciences to come into existence.

Human/social sciences = forms of knowledge about ‘man’ and forms/modalities of power over ‘man’.

Power is often regarded as negative (repression, exclusion, limitation, censorship) but is also positive when it enables the production of knowledge.

Foucault’s analysis of the positive aspects of power is an alternative to the critique of power as a corrupt and destructive force.

‘Disciplinary society’: a new form of power which replaces punishment as a form of violent retribution with a more subtle means of correction targeted not at the body but at the ‘soul’.

However – this is not simply the triumph of humanity over brutality but a more pervasive and calculated form of discipline.

The Panopticon:

A prison system based on surveillance – a central tower allows an observer to gaze upon occupants without being seen themselves. Discipline is achieved as the occupants do not know if/when they are being monitored.

The disciplinary idea of the panopticon and surveillance has become diffused throughout society.

Initially developed as a repressive function the subsequent proliferation indicates a productive and positive capacity.

Power and knowledge are interdependent – disciplinary power is impossible without the field of knowledge that sustains it.

E.g. Surveillance, documentation, and administration of individuals which are bound to disciplinary institutions (prison, asylum, factory, hospital, school, factory) Foucault termed the ‘carceral network’.

This had been the greatest support in modern society of normalising power.

Modern power/knowledge relations is not exercised through a central nexus of domination but through a myriad of institutions/discursive practices which exist at all levels of social lives.

What Foucault termed a ‘microphysics of power’ which operates routinely at the level of everyday life.

The politics of the body:

The way forms/tactics of power are directed towards the body is one of Foucault’s consistent themes, particularly on his analysis of discipline.

Tactics are not manifested as physical violence but realised by the subjection of the body as the object of knowledge:

“the function of this power lies in its ability to extract knowledge, not from pain, from the body.”

Through/following the industrial revolution, the mechanisms of disciplinary power and apparatuses of surveillance became politically useful and lent themselves to economic profit.

The rigidity and imposition of activities became common features of both the prison and workplace:

“The techniques of disciplinary power enabled the improvement of the efficiency and profitability of labour.”

Disciplinary power engaged the body as a ‘species’ and gave rise to the ‘politics of population’ – regulatory controls became effective at the level of the ‘social’.

Discourses on sexuality in the 19thC produced a new conception of the body which focused on discipline as a means to render it more productive, and morally/physically healthy.

Effect was the subjection if the body to more detailed medical/psychological examination and the mechanisms of surveillance.

Photography and Power:

Photography is important in the discourses of the body vital to disciplinary power due to the belief in the objective nature of the photographic process meaning “the photographic image would be regarded as a form of empirical truth or evidence of the real.”

Photography enabled the comparison of visible physiological features of individuals and was used to observe, classify, as surveillance and to normalise disciplinary power.

Photographic records became common practice in a variety of scientific disciplines.

E.g. anthropology, medicine, criminology, eugenics.

The subject of the cameras gaze focused on the body and looked for evidence of physical, mental and moral inferiority – particular organised along the axes of race, class and gender:

“From this science of corporeal semiotics there emerged new forms of knowledge about the individual and new ways of mapping depravity.”

John Tagg (Green and others) analysed late 19thC photography:

“the traces of power, reduplicated in numberless images, repeated countless times, wherever the photographer prepared an exposure, in police cell, prison, consultation room, asylum, home or school.” Tagg, 1980, ‘Power and photography’.

Foucault argues that modern society is characterised and increasingly defined by the forms of discipline and mechanisms of surveillance he identified.

Criticism of Foucault’s assertions are that the presence of power in society is so pervasive the resistance is impossible.

He countered this with the argument that wherever there is power there is the potential for resistance, but, this should be localised and specific in the same way that these forms of power are.

Because there cannot be an overall strategy for an oppositional cultural politics of photography alternative ways of working need to be formed suitable to the varied contexts in which the photograph is placed and used.


Green, D. (2005) On Foucault: disciplinary power and photography. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/onfoucault [accessed 5th June 2018]

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