Frederick Douglass and Panopticism on the Plantation

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault develops what one might call his “panoptic theory of institutions.”  Drawing upon Bentham’s Panotpicon, a tower-like structure designed to facilitate simultaneous surveillance of prisoners from a stable centralized location, Foucault describes how prisons and other institutions continue the panoptic tradition albeit with ever-increasing technological sophistication.   As Foucault explains, the architectural construction of the Panopticon creates a situation in which the gaze of warden upon the prisoners is perpetual and inescapable.  Through various means—from psychological manipulation to the application of physical violence—the prisoners are made aware of this ever-present gaze and over time the external surveillance is internalized.  Although Frederick Douglass wrote his first autobiography more than a century before Foucault penned Discipline and Punish, Douglass’s vivid descriptions of life in a racialized society parallel and corroborate Foucault’s analyses.  In the passage below, Douglass gives an account of the ways in which, Mr. Covey, a well-known slave-breaker, exerted his own pantoptic gaze upon the slaves.Panopticon Image

His [Covey’s] work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us.  This he did by surprising us.  He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly.  He always aimed at taking us by surprise.  Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among ourselves, “the snake.”  When we were at work in the cornfield, he would sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out, “Ha, ha!  Come, come! Dash on, dash on!”  This being his mode of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute.  His comings were like a thief in the night.  He appeared to us as being ever at hand.  He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation. […] Mr. Covey’s forte consisted in his power to deceive.  His life was devoted to planning and perpetuating the grossest deceptions.[1]

Covey’s maneuverings, though lacking the sophistication of twentieth century surveillance technologies, nonetheless produced the same effect on the slaves.  That is, Covey was able to make his gaze always present even when he was in fact absent.  Covey, like the Panopticon, is seemingly omnipresent even when unseen.  Though limited by his physical existence, his regular surprise attacks coupled with the penalties that were exercised upon those caught idle or not working efficiently, allowed Covey to transcend his spatial limitations.  Having created an atmosphere of fear in which the slaves lived and moved and had their being, Covey’s actual physical presence was no longer needed.  That is, the sign of a broken slave was the internal inscription of the master’s gaze, or in more Foucaudian terms, the interiorization of the panoptic gaze and the subsequent creation of a new subjectivity, the slave.


[1] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 56-57.