It seems appropriate in light of the NSA’s illegal PRISIM program, online data-mining, and myself currently living in a country with the highest density of CCTV surveillance cameras, an generally living in a society where privacy has disappeared, to write a little bit about the Panopticon, its influence in contemporary society, as well as some illuminating remarks and the problems and differences between what has been called ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy.

Roughly 200 years ago, an English thinker, Jeremy Bentham (famous for utilitarianism and desiring to be stuffed and preserved after his death), designed a physical structure which could be used for prisons, hospitals, or psychiatric health wards. The basic architectural concept is a raised tower, similar to a lighthouse, surrounded by a circular structure, where each room has a window, or empty space on its inner and outer wall. He called it the Panopticon: the ‘all-seeing’. You can see the idea in practice below, at Presidio Prison, built 1926-28, in Cuba.


For Bentham and his contemporaries, this representing a huge advance on ‘institutional’ architecture from what would have been common at his time, namely some jail cells or dungeons, which would have been cramped, unhealthy, and dark.  A number of prisons and ‘institutes’ have been designed with some of the principals of observation and surveillance in mind.

In the ’70s, a French philosopher, Foucault (pronounced Foo-ko, not Foo-callt) wrote Discipline and Punish, which investigated prisons and institutionalization, and the entire modern phenomenon and rhetoric of prisons. Foucault observes that the architecture of the Panopticon makes many deeply underlying assumptions about society, crime, re-habilitation, the idea of ‘gaze’, and the idea of public opinion. The Panopticon represents a microcosm of the larger society, and the views and assumptions deployed in the creation of the Panopticon reflect the ideas and views of the larger society. At this time in English society, public society or opinion, once established, was essentially infallible; the darkness, secrecy, un-seen and unknown was where crime and transgression happened (read: masterbation, homosexuality, etc). This was partially because they had a weak conception of media and the role of media in forming public opinion (the idea that the organizations, individuals, and institutions could have a material or anterior motive or bias was largely unrealized). Thus the idea of the ‘gaze’, especially of the public was held as a force of goodness and light. Someone who committed ‘crime’ did so away from the gaze of public opinion, so subjected the perpetrator to ongoing observation would force them to ‘behave’. In essence, under continual observation of the ‘gaze’, the watched or inmate ‘internalizes’ the rules of the public world.

The second, more subtle observation about the Panopticon that Foucault makes is that everyone in the facility – watchers and watched – can see each other at all times. At first blush, the ‘watcher’ in the central, authoritarian, tower has a nearly god-like power, yet can be seen by the inmates and the other ‘watchers’ in the circular structure as well. At first we are inclined to see a hierarchy of a central, authoritative observer, allied with a portion of watchers who circulate, and then the inmates at the bottom. But the reality seems to be closer of a machine where everyone watches everyone else. Foucault describes the Panopticon as a ‘power machine’ where everyone is ultimately a prisoner.

“Hold on,” you might say, “this is simply a sanitary, efficient structure for keeping the criminally insane; how can you possible derive this dystopian, Big Brother-ish reading of it; aren’t you taking it too far?” Well, not really. This analysis of the Panopticon takes places at a level of psychology, or metaphorical understanding if you like, based on deep cultural assumptions. It’s about reading into the surface facts a psychological, emotional reality.

We all have heard to the phrase “You have nothing to fear if you have done nothing wrong.” This is what the Panopticon implicitly implies. It is important to remind ourselves of the evil that lurks behind this logic. Two basic problems with this phrase. First of all, who defines what is good and what is bad, and under what legation and authority? In a world that seems to be ‘shades of grey’, does it makes sense to hold everyone to purest white? What does it mean when someone is interested in using some sort of coercion to make everyone behave ‘purest white’? Second, there is the vast importance of privacy for privacy’s sake. I’ll admit that the days of the solitary genius laboring alone seem to be over, but I would say that the deepest, most meaningful thoughts and feelings come often when alone. Privacy, is more than just a simple human right, but an important psychological and emotional need. I do not think being spied on makes me any safer, thanks for the effort, though, PRISM.

In a latter post, I will write about the reception of Foucault’s ideas on Bentham and the Panopticon and how this reveals some tensions and disputes in academic and wider culture.



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