Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Shai Gortler, (2022). Participatory panopticon: Thomas Mott Osborne’s prison democracy. Constellations, 00, 1– 16.
Open access

Thomas Mott Osborne’s early-20th-century experiment in prison democracy shows us how domination can be disguised as participation. Osborne knew a thing or two about disguise. As the mayor of Auburn, NY, he would go about his business in disguise to eavesdrop on citizens’ conversations. When the Governor of New York asked him to prepare railroad reform recommendations, Osborne dressed as a “hobo” and snuck onto trains. As a cautionary measure, he had “TMO, Auburn, NY” tattooed on his arm so that he could be identified in case of an accident and he did, indeed, die in costume, in 1926 (Chamberlain, 1935; Tannenbaum, 1933).

Foucault’s conceptualization of productive power is key to questioning how a person’s actions, even if participatory, can be used to extend control over them. Discipline and Punish (1977) differentiates between subjection (sujétion) as the mere use of force versus subjectification (assujettissement) as subject formation that relies on the subject’s action. For this reason, Discipline and Punish is central to the proposal presented here to reevaluate participatory practices. Yet, to achieve this goal also requires revisiting Foucault’s work. Despite the framing of Discipline and Punish around principles of productive power, the book’s periodization (roughly 1790−1830) leads it to focus on penological theories that left little room for incarcerated people’s actions or interrelations. If Foucault suggests that we utilize Bentham’s panopticon design to locate “panopticism” as a “generalizable model of functioning” (Foucault, 1977, p. 205), then reading Osborne’s participatory panopticon reveals even more sophisticated control mechanisms.

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