Panopticon

The panopticon was conceived in 1785 by social theorist Jeremy Bentham.1 It was originally designed as a new type of prison facility, in which the inmates could be watched and controlled by a minimum number of guards. The simplicity and power of the system came through the designed relationships between prisoner and guard. The prison was designed as a circular building with a tower standing in the middle. The periphery of the building was filled with cells, each one with bars on the inside and a large window on the outside. The large windows drastically backlit the prisoners, making them, and their movements, easily visible to the guards occupying the central tower. In contrast to the pervasive visibility of the prisoners in the cells, the guards were to be completely hidden and concealed in the tower. The guards could easily see what the prisoners were doing, while the prisoners had no idea whether they were being watched at any given time. They had to assume that they were always under the watchful eye of the guards. According to Hille Koskela, “While the panopticon ostensibly keeps the body entrapped, it is in fact targeted at the psyche: in this mechanism ‘the soul is the prison of the body.’”2 The dynamic of the prison, and indeed power relations, changes with this concept. While the body may be free to move about, the mind is controlled through visibility. “Visibility is a trap,” because each prisoner became “perfectly individualized and constantly visible.”3 The prisoners did not have to be physically controlled. Because of their pervasive and constant visibility, they would control their own behavior, assuming they were being scrutinized at all times. The design also increased power and control through “axial visibility and lateral invisibility.”4 Because prisoners could not see or otherwise communicate with one another, there was no possible way for a plan or revolt to form. The prisoners were only objects of information, and had no way to participate in communication.

Many people see modern surveillance and society as a corollary to the panopticon, especially considered through Michel Foucault’s analysis in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. The last several hundred years have given rise to urban systems and power relations that Foucault describes as a “discipline society,”5 and related to Bentham’s Panopticon. Foucault traces the development of this society back to the time of the plague in Europe. A strict hierarchy implemented a highly developed form of surveillance in order to monitor and control the citizens. Houses were locked from the outside, entire populations becoming quarantined in their homes. Each day, the syndics would come by to observe the health of each member of each family in each home. This way, no one could be hidden if they were ill, dead, or otherwise abnormal. The plague was fought by order, with an omniscient and omnipresent power placed on each individual.6 In addition to the plague, Foucault briefly examines the binary separation of lepers, in which mass exclusion and division was established between one group of people and the other. The response to the plague took this simplified approach and began to create “disciplinary projects…an organization in depth of surveillance and control, and intensification and ramification of power.”7 This gave rise to the strict hierarchy and separation found in plague-afflicted towns and the omnipresent and omniscient power placed on the individual. The responses to the lepers and the plague were implemented upon the advent of a binary difference in the health of people in society; plague-free or plague-stricken, a leper, or not. This division is a common function, as Foucault observes, “all the authorities exercising individual control function according to a double mode; that of binary division and branding (mad/sane; dangerous/harmless; normal/abnormal)…”8 Power structures and discipline projects are a response to the fear of the abnormal.

Foucault sees panopticism operating today because of how it functions, and how it functions in society. He sees the panopticon as a “figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.”9 The panopticon should not only be used as a prison, or as a way to control a plague outbreak. The key to its successful invasion in culture is the principles that can be widely applied, and the system allowing nearly anyone to control it. It uses flexible methods of control that can be transferred and adapted. The system is not concrete, attached to one group of people or one function, but can be used in a variety of functions, and once the system is established, anyone can supervise it. Foucault considered the panopticon to also be a laboratory, to be used as a machine to experiment, to alter behavior, to produce health, to produce knowledge, and so on.10 This laboratory operating in society produces individuals within its framework and allowances. Individuals are still individuals, free to do as they will, but act according to their formation within the “panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanisms.”11 According to this view, people brought up within the panoptic machine act in ways to perpetuate its existence. They are not only shaped by the machine, but participate in it. Today that implies that surveillance is an accepted practice because surveillance is a way to continue the panoptic society we have grown up in. Video-surveillance and CCTV are just modern tools to do what the panopticon prison proposed in the 18th century. Whether we fight for it or against it, the panoptic machine is watching.

1. “Panopticon.” 7 Oct. 2008. 8 Oct. 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/panopticon>.

2. Koskela, Hille. “‘The gaze without eyes’: video-surveillance and the changing nature of urban space.” 2000. University of Helsinki. 25 Sept. 2008 <http://www.geog.psu.edu/courses/geog497b/readings/koskela.pdf>.

3. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York City, NY: Pantheon Books, 1977. 200.

4. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York City, NY: Pantheon Books, 1977. 200.

5. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York City, NY: Pantheon Books, 1977. 208.

6. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York City, NY: Pantheon Books, 1977. 197.

7. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York City, NY: Pantheon Books, 1977. 198.

8. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York City, NY: Pantheon Books, 1977. 199.

9. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York City, NY: Pantheon Books, 1977. 205.

10. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York City, NY: Pantheon Books, 1977. 203.

11. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York City, NY: Pantheon Books, 1977. 217.

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