The term ‘panopticon’ is coined by Jeremy Bentham, an 18th-century English philosopher, to describe a model of prison architecture (which he conceived) enabling what he thought of as a therapeutic form of total surveillance (the literal meaning of the word). Consisting of a central observation tower situated inside a circular building where the cells are located in such a way as to be fully and constantly visible to the guards who because of their location and the relative play of light are all but invisible to the prisoners. The design effectively turns the prisoners’ space into a backlit stage where he or she is continuously on show. Bentham reasoned that this complete lack of privacy would have a remedial effect on prisoners who would be forced by this means to adopt socially approved standards of behaviour because they would be unable to escape the punitive eye of the guards. Owing to this ingenious structure, prisoners would internalize better standards of behaviour and thereby rehabilitate themselves for re-entry into society, or so Bentham thought.
Its chief virtue, in Bentham’s view was that it reduced the need for violent forms of coercion. But for Michel Foucault, who happened upon this work in the course of writing Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison (1975), translated as Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977), it was this psychological dimension that was both its most fascinating and disturbing feature. For Foucault, Bentham’s blueprints, which gave rise to just a handful of actual buildings are emblematic of an epistemic shift not only in the treatment of prisoners but more generally in the organizational rationality-what Foucault would himself later call governmentality of society as a whole. He used the term panopticism to characterize the mechanism behind this change which he charted in the transformation of the spatial disposition of factories, schools, hospitals, army barracks, and so forth throughout the 18th and 19th centuries so as to bring about what he describes as the automatic functioning of power. The panopticon is in Foucault’s view the most perfect and sublime realization of the principle of discipline, the subordination of bodies to machines and their reconfiguration as machines.
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