History of the Panopticon

Image from: crystaltrulove.wordpress.com

Jeremy Bentham, British philosopher, born in 1748, whether you are familiar with him or not, is behind the famous architectural device known as the “Panopticon”, and the social theory known as Panopticsim. Jeremy and his brother had worked out a design to improve the abominable prisms that consisted of a wheel-shaped building that at the centre had a tower, with windows that peered 360 degrees around (Wallas, 1923). The building was divided into many cells, that extended the whole width of the building, that had two windows, one facing inward, and one facing to the outside, which allowed the light to cross from one side of the cell to the other. The idea of the Panopticon was for an observer, or a guard to be placed in the central guard tower looking outward to inmates in the prison cells. It was designed so that inhabitants could not be able to tell if they were being observed, but always knew that there was the possibility of being watched, and regulate their behaviour accordingly to the notion of supervision (Foucault, 1977). The major effect of the Panopticon according to Bentham was to:

“Induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures that automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it” (Foucault, 1977).

To summarize, Bentham’s goal was to create a psychological objective of uncertainty, therefore the individuals who were under supervision would have no other option but to conform.

Along came Michel Foucault, a famous French philosopher, author, social theorist, activist and Influencal scholar, who wanted to examine how power was at work in society, as the Panopticon was a great example of this (DePeuter, 2015). Foucault published a well known, and widely acclaimed book titled Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison also known as Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison in the English language. Foucault took Bentham’s design of the Panopticon and turned it into a representation of power, and social control in a number of Western countries. He writes in his book “…but the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to it’s ideal form” (Foucault, 1997). “To Foucault, Panopticsim represents a fundamental movement or transformation from the situation where the many see the few to the situation where the few see the many” (Mathiesen, 1997). Foucault looked at the Panopticon as an apparatus of social control, a model of the society to come, and a device that was constructed around power (DePeuter, 2015).


One comment

  1. Crystal M. Trulove · December 12, 2015

    Thank you for giving credit, as so few do. I found the image in public access online, so I was also not able to give proper credit. If anyone has the correct source, I’d love to know so I can update my blog post.

    Good summary here of the main points. I find Bentham’s panopticon absolutely fascinating, and agree with Foucault that it is an expression of power, rather than a neutral way of safely holding prisoners. It’s hard to fault Bentham though, because power is exactly what a society wants to hold over the heads of criminals, right?


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