Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1999


Sonia Kruks
Panopticism and Shame:
Reading Foucault trough Beauvoir

The best of what "postmodern feminism"[1] has so far developed is a series of radical glosses on Simone de Beauvoir's now classic starting point: "one is not born a woman: one becomes one." For, like the work of Beauvoir, postmodern approaches enable us to de-essentialize and de-naturalize the concept of "woman." In particular, creative appropriations of Foucault's genealogical methods have enabled feminist scholars to explore the ways in which representations of "woman" have shifted over time. His insights into the inseparability of power and knowledge, and his explorations of the disciplinary practices that produce "subjectified" subjects, have also made his methods a valuable resource for a wide range of feminist analyses of women's subordination.

But there are also difficulties for feminism and other emancipatory movements in appropriating Foucault too fully or too uncritically. In reading Foucault both through and against Beauvoir in this paper, I seek to illuminate and address some of these difficulties. By pointing not only to the divergences but also to the striking complementarities between the two thinkers, I aim to challenge views of Beauvoir and Foucault as advocates, respectively, of "Enlightenment" and "postEnlightenment" philosophies that are starkly antithetical. For the binary oppositions between Enlightenment and postEnlightenment thought, between modernity and postmodernity, that too many protagonists on either "side" of recent debates have accepted, are themselves highly problematic.

More specifically, I argue that Foucault's insightful account of the production of "subjectified" subjects is, as it stands, still inadequate and incomplete. It either remains at the level of description or else, at an explanatory level, falls into a version of crude functionalism. In reading Foucault through the lenses of Beauvoir we can find means more adequately to explain what Foucault describes. I also argue that reading Foucault through Beauvoir enables us to reintroduce into his analyses notions of personal agency and moral accountability that remain important for any project of emancipatory politics. Foucault claims to deny the importance of such notions, yet his work still tacitly presupposes them. Beauvoir's concern with the ethical aspects of subjectification can be used to bring both greater intellectual coherence and explicit moral import to Foucault's work.


Foucault's work is, of course, far from monolithic. In what follows I am concerned with the Foucault of the mid-1970s; that is, the Foucault whose focus is less on the "care" of the self than on the anatomo-political production of the self. For this is the Foucault with whom feminist theory has most pervasively engaged: the Foucault of Discipline and Punish [French 1975], the first volume of The History of Sexuality [French 1976], and the essays published in English in Power/Knowledge (1980), a thinker whose focus is on the inseparability of power and knowledge, and on their constitutive role in the production of the subjectified subject through disciplinary and normalizing practices. This is a Foucault for whom subjectivity is so thoroughly produced "from the outside in" (Grosz 1994), by the micro-practices of power, that to ask questions about the degree to which freedom or moral capacity might be attributes of subjecthood appears simply irrelevant.

It is also the Foucault whose work has a distinctly functionalist, even a teleological, cast insofar as disciplinary practices are said to take on purposive attributes that have traditionally been ascribed to the individuated human subject. Discipline is frequently personified or anthropomorphized. It knows what it is doing; it acts in an intentional, goal-oriented, rational manner, to perform necessary social functions. For example, Foucault writes: "discipline had to solve a number of problems for which the old economy of power was not equipped . . . it arrests or regulates movements; it clears up confusion . . . It must also master all forces that are formed from the very constitution of an organized multiplicity; it must neutralize the effects of counter-power that spring from them and which form a resistance to the power that wishes to dominate it" (1977a: 219; emphases added).

This is not to deny that one can still find reflections on freedom in Foucault's work; but freedom is not an attribute of the subject, or of individual agents. Rather, freedom is cast as the "insurrection" of subjugated knowledges (1980: 84), or as the emergence of "transgressive" discourse that has purpose of its own: transgression too has agency, but no specific authors. One might talk not only of a history without a subject, or of a text without a subject, but also of agency and freedom without a subject. As with discipline, Foucault personifies transgression, attributing to it intentional agency, rather than attributing such agency to persons. He writes, for example, that "transgression does not seek to oppose one thing to another . . . . its role is to measure the excessive distance that it opens at the heart of the limit and to trace the flashing line that causes the limit to arise," (1977b: 35)[2]


"What difference does it make who is speaking?" In his essay, "What Is an Author?" Foucault suggests that the notion of individual authorship emerged at a particular moment in the history of ideas: a moment when "individualization" came to be privileged. That moment, he argues, has now passed: "it is a matter of depriving the subject (or its substitute) of its role as originator, and of analyzing the subject as a variable and complex function of discourse" ([1979] 1984: 118). The issue of authorship, then, is part of a wider debate about the status of "the subject," about whether human actors are knowing and volitional subjects, and about freedom. But above all, for Foucault (and here we must focus on his particularity) "the subject" in question is the subject of French phenomenology. For there is (to psychologize in a way he would have detested) something obsessive in Foucault's relationship to phenomenology: the Sartrean Father has to be killed over and over again. Long after we might have thought phenomenology to be dead in France, Foucault continued to feel the necessity repeatedly to exterminate it. For example, in a 1977 interview he stated:

I don't believe the problem can be resolved by historicizing the subject, as posited by the phenomenologists, fabricating a subject that evolves through the course of history. One has to dispense with the constituent subject, to get rid of the subject itself, that's to say, to arrive at an analysis which can account for the constitution of the subject within a historical framework . . . genealogy . . . is a form of history which can account for the constitution of knowledges, discourses, domains of objects etc., without having to make reference to a subject which is either transcendental in relation to the field of events or runs in its empty sameness throughout the course of history (1980: 117).[3]

This statement opposes as stark alternatives, on the one hand a conception of the subject as "constituent" (or constituting) and as "transcendental" to history, that is, unsituated; on the other a conception of the subject as constituted and to be analyzed (through genealogy) as no more than an "effect" of its historical framework. In it we find posed those overly simple dualities, between humanism and anti-humanism, between "Enlightenment" and "postmodernity," that we need to put into question. For in order to account (with Foucault) for the weight of social structures, discourses and practices in the formation of the subject, and yet still to acknowledge (against Foucault) that element of freedom which enables us also to consider the self as a particular and intentional agent that is to some degree responsible for what it does, we need a far more complex account of the subject than Foucault would appear to grant us.[4]

It is with this in mind that I return to Beauvoir and read Foucault through and against her. For much of her painstaking and detailed account in The Second Sex of the young girl's formation[5] and the perpetuation of "femininity" could be re-told in the Foucauldian modes of "the political technology of the body," of "discipline," of "normalization," and of "panopticism." Yet Beauvoir still adheres to a notion of the repression of freedom that Foucault would not endorse. However suppressed, however "disciplined," it is still freedom-made-immanent that distinguishes even the most constituted human subject from a trained animal. A real repression or oppression of the self is always possible for Beauvoir. For Foucault at least as he expressly presents his position this is not the case. I will pursue this divergence primarily through the notion of "panopticism," of the place of the gaze or look in producing docility, as Foucault and Beauvoir respectively treat it. For Beauvoir, "becoming a woman" also involves subjectification through what Foucault will call panoptic practices. But to understand this process of "becoming" we must also explore the ways in which subjectification is lived and taken up by the subject, be it in modes of complicity, of resistance, or both. This "lived" aspect of subjectification cannot be accessed through Foucault's explicit framework of analysis yet, I suggest, his own analyses actually require that we acknowledge and consider it.


Panopticism is, according to Foucault, the quintessential form of the method of "hierarchical observation" that is integral to much disciplinary power. It is a mechanism "in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power" (1977a: 170-71). It is a crucial (though certainly not the sole) component of those modern disciplinary practices which produce the normalized subject, both in formal disciplinary institutions and beyond. In Bentham's ideal prison, in which each isolated inmate lives and knows himself to live under continual inspection from the all-seeing (but anonymous) eye of the guard, the major effect of the Panopticon is "to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power" (1977a: 210). Interiorizing the scrutinizing gaze to which he (or she) is subjected, the inmate becomes effectively (and efficiently) self-policing:

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. (1977a: 202-03; emphases added)

Panopticism is not confined to particular institutions, such as the prison or the asylum. On the contrary, Foucault conceives it to be a general "modality of power" in normalizing societies such as ours. Moreover, women are subject to (and subjects of) what Foucault refers to as "the minute disciplines, the panopticisms of every day" (1977a: 223), in a particularly all-encompassing and complex manner that he does not himself explore. Indeed, Beauvoir's account of how one "becomes a woman" intriguingly anticipates Foucault's later account of panopticism. As she describes it, becoming a woman requires developing an awareness of one's "permanent visibility," learning continually to view oneself through the eyes of the generalized (male) inspecting gaze and, in so doing, taking up as one's own project those "constraints of power" that femininity entails. But becoming a woman is, for Beauvoir, still an intentional process, even though it is enacted within the constraints of power. Thus questions that Foucault leaves hanging in mid-air, concerning how this modality of power functions, are more adequately addressed by Beauvoir.

Foucault is (to put it politely) sometimes a slippery thinker. His previously cited claim, that we need "to get rid of the subject itself," and his affirmations that the subject comes into being as simply the effect of power, are tacitly put into question by passages such as the one I just quoted from Discipline and Punish. Such passages imply something else: an active, even, one could argue, a quasi-constituting, subject; a conscious subject who "knows" that he is visible; one who "assumes responsibility" for the effects of power on himself, and who is active in playing "both roles," that of scrutinizer and scrutinized. But just how and why does the panoptic gaze induce such an active compliance? It is not clear. "Just a gaze," Foucault says. "An inspecting gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorizing to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself" (1980: 155). But how and why does an individual interiorize the gaze? What kind of subjectivity is capable of such an interiorization? Or most importantly of resisting it? For, as Foucault acknowledges, there has also been "effective resistance" to various forms of panoptic scrutiny (1980: 162).

But while Foucault's own analyses actually call for an account of the subject as both constituted and constituting, as playing "both roles," his concern to distance himself from his phenomenological fathers precluded him from acknowledging this. Thus his explicit pronouncements, that "the subject" is produced through panoptic and other disciplinary "subjectifying" practices, and the implicit presuppositions of his account come to be at odds with each other. Foucault claims that, "power relations can materially penetrate the body in depth, without depending even on the mediation of the subject's own representations. If power takes hold of the body, this isn't through its having first to be interiorised in people's consciousnesses" (1980: 186). Yet, we have seen, panoptic power does have to be interiorized in a way that engages consciousness; and if its interiorization can be resisted this implies also that, in some manner and to some degree, individuals may choose how to respond to it. Resistance cannot be explained solely as the result of the self-functioning of transgressive discourses, or of the deployment of subjugated knowledges (though it might be incited or invited by these). On the contrary, it also involves individual responses that imply some play of intentional consciousness, even of what we might call freedom.

Foucault reverses traditional forms of mind-body dualism by privileging the body as the site of the formation of the self, yet he is still caught up in this dualism. If the interiorization of power takes place through "the body," then it can of course bypass that allegedly distinct entity called "consciousness." But if, with Beauvoir (who here draws on Merleau-Ponty) we insist that the body is not distinct from consciousness but rather is the site of their interconstituency, and the site of a sentient and intentional relation to the world, then the modalities through which we interiorize and/or resist the panoptic gaze can be explored more adequately.

Judith Butler has suggested that there are ways in which "the body" comes to be a substitute and an inadequate one at that for the psyche in Foucault's theories (1997: 94). She rightly argues that Foucault leaves us with the problem of how to understand "not merely the disciplinary production of the subject, but the disciplinary cultivation of an attachment to subjection " in the modern self (1997: 102). Butler turns to a psychoanalytic framework to address this problem, but in what follows I offer an alternate route. I return to Beauvoir and to her phenomenological explorations of the look, or gaze, in order further to examine some of the issues of complicity and resistance to power that Foucault implicitly raises yet never adequately addresses.


In Foucault's general discussions of power of power as capillary and circulating normalization proceeds through panoptical and other disciplinary practices in which, as subjectified subjects, as both the effects of power and the bearers of power, we are all implicated. As he puts it, "power is employed and exercised through a net-like organisation. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising power . . . The individual . . . is not the vis--vis of power; it is I believe, one of its prime effects" (1980: 98). However, in discussing the generalized masculine gaze, under and through which women become and remain women, Beauvoir suggests that men and women are not subjected to the same forms of power, nor subjected to power to the same degree. At one level Beauvoir agrees with Foucault: the generalized power of men over women is possessed by no specific individual. Thus, she points out, an individual man who wishes to cease participating in the privileges of masculine power finds that he cannot withdraw from it; it is not his to renounce. "It is useless to apportion blame and excuse . . . a man could not prevent himself from being a man. So there he is, guilty in spite of himself and burdened by this fault he did not himself commit" ([1949]1989: 723; cited in the text hereafter as TSS).

Even so, men and women, as socially distinct groups, are differently positioned within generalized networks of power in ways that Foucault does not recognize. Furthermore, as Beauvoir sees very clearly, their differential positionings may easily permit the actual "possession" of power by a particular man over a particular woman. In Beauvoir's France the marriage contract still brought into being a form of "sovereign" power, in which a husband unambiguously controlled his wife's finances, domicile, access to her children, and so on. Beauvoir was acutely aware of the significance of what we might call the institutional dimensions of masculine power, as they mutually enabled and reinforced those more diffuse forms of power that Foucault describes as disciplinary or normalizing. For it was not the case that "power [was] no longer substantially identified with an individual who possesses or exercises it by right of birth" (Foucault 1980: 156). On the contrary, in marriage, right of birth alone still conferred juridical grants of "sovereign" power to husbands in Beauvoir's world. Although such power does not formally exist today, at least in most Western liberal democracies, the institutional dimensions of continuing masculine privilege should not be underestimated.

If we are to understand women's complicity in sustaining those normalizing practices through which their subordinating "femininity" is perpetuated, we will need also to look at juridical, economic, and other institutional arrangements in which women find themselves located. For these often still produce de facto relationships of personal privilege and dependency that make compliance a rational survival strategy for many women.[6] We will need also to look at the ways in which women become invested in their femininity, not only as a material survival strategy but as a mode of lived experience that is integral to the self. It is in exploring the less calculating ways in which women become invested in their femininity that Beauvoir allows us to examine also "from the inside out" (Grosz 1994) Foucault's account of the disciplinarily constituted subject. When discussing the Panopticon, Foucault writes, "we are talking of two things here: the gaze and interiorisation" (1980: 154). However, he does not ever explain how the latter, the interiorization of the gaze, is effected. Nor does he show how it brings into being the complicity of the self-surveilling subject; nor (more generally) does he reveal how the continuous and minute disciplining of the body that he describes produces its correlative "soul."

It is, on reflection, quite remarkable that in the three hundred or so pages of Discipline and Punish we get absolutely no sense of what it feels like to be subjected to the panoptical gaze; nor any sense of the experiential dimension of becoming a self-surveilling "subject" of panopticism.[7] Foucault's disciplinary subjects do not appear to feel fear, anxiety, frustration, unhappiness. Such emotions, not to mention pain, are strikingly absent from his account. It is here that Beauvoir's analysis adds another necessary dimension to Foucault's. We do not need to posit a Cartesian knowing subject, or a pure constituting consciousness to understand how the practices of power are taken up, or interiorized, by an individual self or "soul" that may inflect, deflect, accept, or resist them in multiple and idiosyncratic ways. However, we do need to posit a subject that is active and intentional to some degree. Beauvoir's account of an embodied and situated subject, a subject that while never being an absolute freedom or pure consciousness, has a view-point on the world and an intentional relationship with it, offers us what Foucault lacks.

Beauvoir's account of women's diverse interiorizations of the male gaze involves a creative reworking of Sartre's phenomenology of "the look" in Being and Nothingness. For Sartre, another's look is always experienced as a threat. For to be seen by another is to become an object in his world; and to be aware of myself as being seen by another is to be aware of myself as object-like. The look is thus always experienced as an assault on my freedom: on my ability to define for myself the meaning of my situation.[8] However, for Sartre, I am always free to reaffirm my status as a subject by turning the tables on the Other, by in turn looking at him.

I have argued elsewhere (Kruks 1990: 83-112) that Beauvoir radically modifies Sartre's account of self-other relations by insisting that, where there are relations of social equality, objectification can be superseded by forms of mutually validating "reciprocity" (TSS xxiii). The look can be a means of expressing friendship or love, of sharing, of validating another: it can, in short, be intersubjective, rather than objectifying. However, in those formal institutions that Foucault characterizes as panoptical the prison, the asylum, the school, the army parade-ground, etc. surveillor and surveilled are not equally positioned, and the look thus functions irreversibly to objectify. Indeed, in Bentham's design for the Panopticon it is essential that the inmates are illuminated and visible to the inspecting gaze of the guard or overseer, but that he is not equally visible to them. Similarly, those assembled for inspection, such as soldiers on the parade ground, may not look back at those who inspect them.

To be subjected to a gaze that one cannot reciprocally return is, indeed, to experience objectification, or an alienation of one's subjectivity. I experience a loss of my immediate, lived subjecthood as I become fixed or immobilized in my own eyes as the object that I am (or believe myself to be) in the eyes of the one who looks at me. However, this experience is not by itself sufficient to account for the production of docility and of compliant self-surveillance that Foucault attributes to the power of the Panoptic gaze.

What is also essential here is what Sartre and Beauvoir call "shame": a relation to oneself, in the presence of another, in which one evaluates oneself negatively through the look of the other. Sartre begins his discussion of shame in Being and Nothingness with the well-known example of hearing somebody else approaching while, "moved by jealously, curiosity, or vice," I am peeping through a key-hole ([1943] 1956: 259). The experience of shame in being "caught" in such a circumstance involves not only seeing myself as the object that the other sees, but seeing myself as the other will judge me: as reprehensible, faulty, inferior. Moreover, I do not just feel shame of my act, but of my self. For suddenly I am as I am seen to be: "shame . . . is shame of self; it is the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the Other is looking at and judging" ([1943] 1956: 261). Here, we have an initial account of how the power-effect of the look, which Foucault only observes, actually operates. We see how, in interiorizing the shaming look, I become not only the object of my own surveillance but also the judge of myself.

But Sartre's account of shame calls out for further elaboration which Beauvoir offers in her descriptions of feminine experience. First, I can come to feel shame by virtue of such facticities as my bodily characteristics or my social status without having engaged in any specific act. I may judge myself to be ugly, for example, if my body does not conform to the norms of beauty in my society. Or, if I am a member of a class of people, such as women, that is deemed to be socially inferior, I may judge myself to be inferior.[9] Second, although I may come to judge myself through the look of a single individual, as in Sartre's example, I may also do so through an impersonal or anonymous, an entirely non-specific, or even in the long run absent, Other. In the panoptical institutions that Foucault describes, the look is impersonal but presumed present: continuous scrutiny on the part of designated officials is part of the disciplinary regime. But in other instances, the look is generalized or non-specific; "they," "others," "society," judge certain of my characteristics to be signs of my inferiority. And, in its most strongly interiorized forms, the look may become so integral to the self that it functions in a situation of total privacy as when a woman carefully applies her make-up even if she intends to stay at home on her own the whole day and will be "seen" by absolutely nobody but herself. In these latter cases we might appear to return to notions of panoptical power as circulating and capillary, to Foucault's "minute disciplines, the panopticisms of everyday," in which nobody possesses power. Yet, when we come to look more closely, contra Foucault and as Beauvoir realizes, some are more disciplined, more normalized, and less powerful than others among them, women.