Michel Foucault and the Examining Gaze.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984), prominent French historian and philosopher (closely aligned to the structuralist movement) had significant influence over the sociological understanding of the examining gaze and its connection to modernity. The ‘gaze’ is a term that Foucault introduces in his 1963 book The Birth of the Clinic.  “It can mean glance, gaze, look…Foucault uses the word to refer to the fact that it is not just the object of knowledge which is constructed but also the knower.”  (O’Farrell, 1997) This paper will give an account of Foucault’s contribution, through the history of the emergence of the examining gaze and aspects prevalent in contemporary society, primarily medicine, education and the criminal justice system. This paper will focus on Foucault’s concept of bio power, of which he argued is “a technology which appeared in the late eighteenth century for managing populations… biopower is about managing the births, deaths, reproduction and illnesses of a population.”  (Ibid.) I will draw on primary texts of Michel Foucault’s as well as contemporary Sociologists to support the account and relate historical references to contemporary situations.

Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1977) gives an historical overview pertaining to the Seventeenth Century, the Enlightenment period, Industrial revolution up to contemporary society. He presents the reader with an account of the rise of the Church’s control through the idea of damnation of the condemned body.

The concept around the word soul dates back as far as Homer. Foucault argued that although punishment of the soul is relatively new, the concept is old. The Homeric poems (dated approximately at 850BC) state that

“by the end of the fifth century — the time of Socrates’ death — soul is standardly thought and spoken of… as the distinguishing mark of living things, as something that is the subject of emotional states…responsible for planning and practical thinking, and also as the bearer of such virtues as courage and justice.” (Henrick, L. 2009)

The soul is deemed separate from the body, yet intrinsically linked at the same time. Simply put the soul leaves the body at the point of physical death of the body and it is then that one is freed of the burden of the body with all its desires and failings, a topic of which has been the subject of discourse for centuries. A vertical separateness or mind/body dualism between body (flesh/desire) and soul (spirit/sacred) was created by the Church and used throughout the ages as a tool to govern control. Foucault argues (Discipline and Punish) that the body has been the subject and the methodology through which it has been applied and from which the ‘gaze’ originates.

St Augustine (354 Ad- 430AD) framed the concepts of original sin and just war and was instrumental in indoctrinating the idea of sin coming from the fall of man, originating from The Holy Bible.  After his death the Catholic Church adapted the concept and considered sex to be purely procreative which led to belief in the Middle Ages of

“control, discipline, even torture of the flesh is, in medieval devotion, not so much the rejection of physicality as the elevation of it…as a means of access to the divine.” (Feher et al. 1989)

This belief system of bodily repression took deep root in religious thought and the emergence of the examining eye over the body, education, law, sexuality is argued by Foucault to have arisen from this.

Throughout the Seventeenth Century, forms of punishment and torture which were on public display were effectively used as a way of frightening people into a ‘good way of life.’ As Christianity adopted a more openly hostile attitude and relationship to the body, (indicated through public hangings and executions) they also, more subtly used archetypal images to manipulate (for example the Virgin Mary), instilling aspiration to a non-sexual, pure, correct and conforming self.  These ideals, coupled with a separation between the body and soul enhanced ideas of polarity, of opposites. The body was a tool to gain enlightenment from the sensual to the spiritual and used by the Church to control the passions of its congregations (Skillington 2011).  From this time forward society progressively looked upon the body as an object of knowledge and observation. Foucault writes in depth on the use of the confession:

“People were incited to confess to their innermost desires and sexual practices. These confessions then became data for the social sciences which used the knowledge to construct mechanisms of social control.” (O’Farrell, 1997)

His argument challenges the religious dogmatic, engrained belief structure within the collective conscious and shines academic thought onto the manipulation of power. He further emphasised the control over the concept and belief of ‘the soul’ that this in turn had, stating that “the soul is the prison of the body” (Foucault, 1977:30). In this regard Foucault is putting a mirror up to the quite opposing Christian belief that the body is the prison of the soul.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes Bentham’s Panoptican, an architectural design which enables the examining gaze, or panoptic eye to have 360 degree visibility and to see everyone present at all times.  Based on the cell based, monastic structures surrounding a central tower, stark light would then allow the eye to be seeing on all subjects. Although the structure was never built the concept has been used in all institutions, education, medicine, law and your general high street. The concept of the Panopticon (of which Foucault uses as a metaphor for the gaze) saw a subtle shift in attitude away from the dungeon. It was found that by changing 2 of the 3 fundamental techniques that people would do as was required without the use of force. ‘In short it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions-to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide-it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two.’ (Foucault, 1977: 200) The concept seen in contemporary life, across the board.

At the end of the Seventeenth Century segregation from the plague ordered “everyone to stay indoors: it is forbidden to leave on pain of death” (Foucault, 1977:195) and, “…if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment.” (Ibid) Obedience of the people through the noting of everyone’s whereabouts, details of house occupancy and health issues, embedded the gaze further.

In 1817 the Irish psychiatric asylum was established and with it came the rise of the power of  experts and a heightening of what was deemed to be abnormal/normal and in need of expert intervention to make right again. Ireland’s system grew to hold 21,720 patients at its peak in 1956, ranking it first in 84 countries, the building of these asylums was governed by the experts over the ‘lunatic poor’ (Skillington, 2011) At this time in Irish history there was chronic poverty and the Dangerous Lunatics Act of 1838 and 1867 allowed magistrates to admit people without medical training. Many of these people were admitted to asylums by their families and many as a way to get the inheritance of land or property, a debate prominent in Irish politics today. Anyone who did not conform to the strict Catholic codes were in danger of falling into this category and understandably instilled a deep sense of fear in many people throughout the nation that is still visible today. As Foucault argues (Foucault, 1977), the mere insinuation of punishment which would initiate fearful thoughts and feelings was enough to control many people to conform to strict regulations and moral codes. With a heavy, controlling and dominating force, the Church knew their congregation intimately (through confession) and were heavily relied on by family units for moral regulation.  Foucault asks us to question our beliefs. He states how the mindful body is a repressed body, a reflection of years of intimidation and aggressive socialisation into passivity. It is through this social control that Foucault argues that bio power comes to play as a very effective way of controlling people on mass.  Foucault was far more interested in the methods used in contemporary society than the structures that stood. He believed that an understanding of these methods could then be applied to any institution in society. Foucault employed the term bio power to convey the governing of births/deaths/illness through external forms of control which are then internalised. The daily practice of self surveillance controls that which is determined to be normal by society:

The meticulousness of the regulations, the fussiness of the inspections, the supervision of the smallest fragment of life and of the body will soon provide, in the context of the school, the barracks, the hospital or the workshop, a laicized content, an economic or technical rationality…A meticulous observation of detail, and at the same time a political awareness of these small things, for the control and use of men,.. (Foucault, 1977: 140-1)

Taking  the cell like structures of the hospital, the prison base, the classroom and the factory, originating from the monastic model which encouraged the supervision, surveillance, routine of rest, prayer, work and sleep so inherent in the Marxist concept of the capitalist mode of working. This is socialised into the nature of being and the aspiration to be a good daughter/mother/worker/member of society. Through the family, schooling (infant level being characterised through learning discipline of sitting, working a normal days work, break times, rest times, eating times and sleep routines), further education and then into the world of work of which we are socially integrated and accepted.

Another example is in a cross section: the army barracks/ school/ hospital/ factory where the hierarchical structure, surveillance through ranks and strict supervision creates the ideal soldier/ Teacher/ Nurse/ Factory worker) who takes and gives orders without question.

The regimented timetable and routine of clocking in and out could be argued is present from birth to death. Foucault talks at length about this rhythm that is mirrored by the external but is primarily a condition of the internal mechanisms of the individual. Seen for example in the factory worker who becomes an artificial extension of the machine they are operating, the manipulating of oneself for any given task:

The workshop, the school, the army were subject to a whole micro-penalty of time (lateness, absences, interruptions of tasks), of activity (inattention, negligence), of behaviour (impoliteness, disobedience), of speech (idle chatter, insolence), of the body (‘incorrect’ attitudes, irregular gestures, lack of cleanliness), of sexuality (impurity, indecency) (Foucault 1977:178)

Perhaps, more important to Foucault’s contribution to the sociological understanding of the  examining gaze is the reasoning around the body being a tool for political purpose. This governmentality already spoken about is not only used over the body but through the body. A good example of this can be drawn to the medias advertising strategies to encourage the nation what to look like, what to eat, what to wear, when to marry, have kids, who with etc. The rebellion towards this can be argued shows its face through addictions of all natures and eating disorders. (Skillington, T. 2011) Using the body as a political tool of rebellion (bio politics).

Foucault’s term ‘Bio power’ is often associated with the examining or ‘medical gaze’ of the expert. The Dr acts as a judge, deeming what is normal and what is abnormal. Foucault argues that the passivity of the docile body is reinforced through the presence of the Doctor, Teacher, Psychologist, Judge, Gardaí:

The examination, surrounded by all its documentary techniques, makes each individual a ‘case’: a case which at one and the same time constitutes an object for a branch of knowledge and a hold for a branch of power. (Foucault, 1977: 191)

Those who rebel against the structure are out casted by society and in the extreme are labelled mentally ill.  The power structures, manifesting in Bentham’s Panopticon are everywhere; the media, internet, banking, advertising, law, education, factory work, medicine. The silent message  being a case of accept and conform, or your life will be very difficult.

Skillington suggests that when looking at the area of psychiatry it’s plausible that mental health is intricately linked to belief structures and society’s pressures to achieve, conform and be normal.  If, for example you decide to take care of your own health, particularly if previously linked to the psychiatric system you are deemed ‘at risk’  either to yourself or to others and face the possibility of being forcibly medicated.  This is not 200years ago. This is today. The role of the medical Dr who holds high prestige within the community has depended almost entirely on his/her skills of the observation of the dissected body. Before the Nineteenth century the only means for obtaining a corpse was from the gallows or from digging bodies up from graveyards, thus the term grave diggers.  (Skillington, 2011) Foucault acknowledges that the use of dead bodies for dissection was necessary for medical advancement of which led to the medical gaze of the surgeon’s anatomical knowledge of the body. This historical account explains how the surgeon came to cultivate the bio power of medicine’s examining eye, not dissimilar to social issues raised in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein written at the same time as this social change was occurring. The Drs knowledge and expertise of the body came to reign over the traditional herbalist, and the power to govern one’s own health became a notion of irresponsibility and ignorance. The medical gaze comprises of certain techniques of observation and gives power to the expert. The Dr decides on the malfunction of the body, creating a patient who is passive. The parts of the body are examined like a machine, a mere carrier of disease. Foucault continues to explain how in the Eighteenth century Newtonian physics and the industrial revolution led medicine to produce a map of the body related to a machine using the metaphor of the body’s circulatory system as hydraulic pumps, for just one example.

This essay has taken a wide scope and looked over Foucault’s account of the soul, the emergence of the gaze and the evidence throughout contemporary society. In terms of modernity Foucault argues(1977) that the examining gaze, namely using fear as a technique to govern individuals and society has retreated to the background arena, using the mere insinuation of the examining gaze to control people on mass.  In contemporary society this form of power works more on the subconscious, through the insinuation of threat of which is manifested through means of media, news (the other), advertising, the legal , education and  medical institutions but similar to previous eras, initiating the internal fear response. Through the knowing that you are being watched, be it through cameras, clocking in and out for shift work, supervisors, managers, statistics or competitive goal settings comes the basis of  bio power that governs the individual and the wider society. Foucault believed that the expert professions (psychotherapists/councillors/psychologists) only serve to keep the condemned and damned body belief alive in the modern day equivalent of the confessional. Foucault argues that the subconscious belief is that something is inherently wrong, when in fact maybe there isn’t and that’s where the empowerment for change lies.





Feher, Hadeff and Tazi., 1989. Fragments of a History of the Human Body. Part One.  New York: Zone Books.

Foucault, Michel.,  1977. Discipline and Punish. London:  Allen Lane.

Hendrik, L.,2009 “Ancient Theories of Soul”, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy,  Zalta, E.N (ed.), Sourced on 10th Jan 2012. Web.

O’Farrell, C., 1997. Michael Foucault.  Sourced on 10th Jan 2012. Web.

Skillington, T., 2011. Health and Illness Lectures. Cork: UCC.


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