Foucault, the Panopticon, and Cool-Hand Luke

Cool Hand Luke

PanopticonIn discussing the influence of the Panopticon on the subject, Foucault writes, “The efficiency of power, its constringing force have, in a sense, passed over to the other side – to the side of its surface of application…he [the prisoner] becomes the principle of his own subjection,” (108). He goes on to write that when a prisoner takes on role of ensuring his/her own punishment, there is less of a need for physical violence. This section struck me because it was a reminder that the strongest form of power is that which infiltrates our own mind. The movie Cool Hand Luke (1967) illustrates this point.

Luke, played by Paul Newman, is a prisoner who shows an extraordinary spirit to both his cellmates and the prison guards, in spite of a culture that is extremely repressive. The lead prison guard sees Luke as the biggest threat to his authority, because Luke’s spirit is contagious to the other prisoners.

While the prisoner guards implement physical forms of violence to threaten Luke, their primary goal is to break his spirit. When they finally succeed in breaking his spirit (or so they think), the security guards make a point to show the other prisoners what an ideal prisoner should be: loyal and subservient to his superiors, who in turn act in a strict but fatherly way. Luke acts the part of a subservient kid to run away (again) and becomes an idealized hero for the remaining cellmates. I loved this movie because it shows a transformation from a group of cellmates who move from being subjects of their own spiritual imprisonment to resistant prisoners with transcendent spirits. So while it is depressing to think of a prison system that makes prisoners their own prison guards, this statement does I think imply that the prisoner then has the power to reject this role, a silver lining.

Foucault describes some of the specific power strategies that arise from a discipline form of power. He focuses continually on visibility, for instance, which he proposes is a method for controlling individuals. In The History of Sexuality, I was surprised to read the ways in which making sexuality more visual succeeded in suppressing individuals more than ignoring or silencing “abnormal” forms of sexuality. Similar to the way that a visible prison system (the Panopticon) would be a more effective form of criminal “justice,” using a variety of institutions to create discourses about taboo forms of sexuality was more effective in controlling sexuality than censorship. Making sexuality more visible combined with categorizing and diagnosing certain behaviors as abnormal is extremely powerful. Foucault writes, “Subjects whose identities must be figured out through an interpretation of their actions become both an object of analysis and a target of intervention,” (1473). One example is how conversion therapy is used as an intervention for those with “abnormal” sexuality.