Monday, 7 January 2013

Panopticism Writing Task

Panopticism is the idea of self sustained constant surveillance. The belief that placing placing a person under a constant watchful eye will ultimately cleanse them of their desire to do wrong. 

We can look at this concept from two different perspectives, the first being from the stand-point that social control has a positive effect towards crime prevention. If we look at Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon model, which was intended to act as an institution, we see how the theory of Panopticism can be exercised on a confined group of individuals, often criminals and the mentally unstable. It has been argued quite positively that Betham's structure was 'perfected and differentiated' 'through various sketches' (Kashadt, 2002). In this same text the system was said to have a 'rational order and efficiency'.
Kashadt also shows interest towards how the architectural structure inspired the panoramic view, and communicated the idea of 'visual control over the surroundings'. With this, we get the sense that some have marvelled at the architectural achievement that the building represents. The clever usage of lighting, the ability to look into every cell from the control tower.

Others however, have argued the moral issues that the concept creates. The idea of constant surveillance, which drives the Panopticon, has been compared to the era of the plague, where 'inspection functions ceaselessly' (Focault, 1997). Focault mentions this constant idea of surveillance, creating a very blunt tone speaking very systematically and unsympathetically about 'the sick and the dead' during the plague era. This communicates a sense of relentless monitoring combined with the fear of being found out and punished. In this text, Focault also reminds us of the intention to use the system for school facilities: ' copying,no noise, no chatter, no waste of time...' When we imagine children being exposed to the level of mental oppression the panopticon creates, the concept becomes much more compelling and emotive. The point has also been raised in the text that the Panopticon was used as a 'laboratory' for human experimentation. The panopticon could provide the means to test medicines and punishments to 'seek the most effective ones' (Focault,1997). This idea of using humans as test subjects could breach ethics considering human rights.

In my opinion, although it seems the Panopticon, if executed, would likely fulfil its purpose of monitoring its occupants, I feel the idea of constant surviellance under an ever watchful eye could be seen as a form of psychological torture. I feel that the aim is to terminate free will, and could ultimately be character destroying. As a more general concept, some elements behind the Panopticon are still applied in the industry today. The open plan office (which is sometimes present in the film and games industry) boasts the idea of a communal space where workers can interact with other workers as a team while sat at their desk. This sense of visibility however could also create the feeling of constant surveillance under one's superiors. It could be argued that although the panopticon is certainly the most extreme form of the the concept, surveillance is present everywhere in modern day society. We are constantly filmed, registered and logged as we exist.


Focault, M. 'Panopticism (extract)' in Leach, N. (ed.) (1997) Rethinking Architecture: A reader in cultural theory, London and New York, Routledge, pages 356-367

Kashadt, K. 'Jeremy Bentham - The Penitentiary Panopticon or Inspection House' in Weibel, Levin and Frohne (eds.) (2002) Ctrl [space]: rehetorics of surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, Cambridge Massachusetts, The MIT Press, pages 114-119

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