The Fiction of Total Vision in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Computer models visualize design limitations in prison architecture.
A case study of two famous prisons, the first imaginary and the second real.

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Section of Author’s Computer Model

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Question: How would the panopticon have appeared if built to Bentham’s exact specifications?

Abstract: By translating Bentham’s descriptions and measurements into a computer model, we visualize how the panopticon would have appeared if built. Typically, historians relied on drawings, which hide key aspects of Bentham’s design

I introduce and visually analyze two structures. First is the panopticon, a type of prison, designed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham, popular in the 19th century. Second is Eastern State Penitentiary, the first prison to follow the panopticon plan, completed 1829 by architect John Haviland. By analyzing descriptions and measured plans of both buildings, I created computer models that can be explored in virtual reality. From this digital perspective, I contrast Bentham and Haviland’s claims of what their architecture accomplishes versus what this architecture actually accomplishes – intention vs. reality. Bentham claims his ideal prison is all-seeing; Michel Foucault accepted this dubious claim without question when writing Discipline and Punish in 1975. The computer model, more than drawings or measured plans, allows interrogation of the panopticon design. This process allows us to (1) examine Foucault’s assumptions about the panoption and (2) arrive at a more accurate analogy of how the panopticon symbolizes the surveillance state.

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The Panopticon

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Jeremy Bentham (b.1748 d.1832), an English Utilitarian philosopher, designed the panopticon c.1787. Panopticon comes from a Greek word: pan (all) + opticon (seeing) = all-seeing. He describes how this architecture monitors and reforms souls over 21 chapters contained in the Panopticon Letters (link to read e-book).

Bentham’s proposal is simple: a 100-foot diameter circular room with cells ringed around the perimeter and stacked in up to six floors. In the circle’s center, a tower rises from which guards (standing in corridors marked D below) survey all the surrounding cells (marked H). The tower’s one-way blinds allow the jailer to look out, but prohibit prisoners from looking in. Bentham claims a guard can survey all the incarcerated individuals with a single sweep of the eye. The panopticon articulates how a prison that facilitates total surveillance in the pre-CCTV era.

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To accompany his descriptions, Bentham commissioned architect Willey Reveley c.1791 to draw the panopticon’s plan and section. As the panopticon spread in popularity and inspired the design of around 300 other prisons, Reveley’s drawings recirculated in trade journals and academic writing. Although architects stopped building panopticons and radial prisons in the 1930s, the panopticon’s image still circulates. Today, this image is often evoked as the symbolic representation of the surveillance state. Spread across the internet and on thousands of web-pages the same few tired images of Bentham’s creation appear again and again. It is, perhaps, the most influential prison ever imagined but never built to Bentham’s exact specifications. Nor has anyone followed Bentham’s instructions to visualize the panopticon’s appearance if built. It remains a perverse dream building.

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Click ► to launch 3D experience.

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To digitize Bentham, I built the first, accurate-to-the-inch, and open-source panopticon computer model. The model is featured online and displayed above. It is free for anyone with CAD software to download and edit from 3D Warehouse. To navigate through this space:

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– Click the numbered annotations to fly through and learn about individual features
Click and hold to rotate the model
Shift click and drag to pan across surfaces
Zoom in and out with two fingers on trackpad

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To understand how Bentham’s building operated, I base this model on the exact dimensions Bentham gives in his letters and from Reveley’s drawings. For instance, Bentham writes:

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Taking the diameter 100 feet, this admits of 48 cells, 6 feet wide each at the outside, walls included; with a passage through the building, of 8 or 9 feet. I begin with supposing two stories of cells. In the under story, thickness of the walls 2 feet. From thence, clear depth of each cell from the window to the grating, 13 feet. From thence to the ends of the partition walls, 3 feet more…

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Bentham’s text is incomplete. He only provides dimensions for the panopticon’s major features. He does need to specify minor details like window size, staircase location, or railing height. By following Bentham’s measurements for the overall structure, I estimate measurements of features Bentham overlooks.

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The images above show the exterior and interior. The exterior is a 48-sided circle with one window per cell. The interior has rows of metal gangways that link the cells to spiral stairs that go from floor to floor. It is a self-contained circular world.

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Above are two views. The first is what the guard sees looking into cells. Windows back-light the prisoners, like shadow puppets. The second is what the prisoner sees looking to the guard tower: a blank wall of Venetian blinds. This one-way visibility ensures the guards watch the prisoners without the prisoners’ knowledge. Thus, the prisoner must guard his actions at all times because he does not know when he is watched. Michel Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish how:

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Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions. He is seen, but he does not see: he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. The arrangement of his room, opposite the central tower, imposes on him an axial visibility; but the division of the ring, those separated cells, imply a lateral invisibility. And this invisibility is the guarantee of order. If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at escape. (page 200)

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The above claim becomes questionable when assessed in light of what the computer model tells us. Reveley’s drawing show cell bars flush with the partition end. Standing in the cell’s middle and staring forward to the guard tower, it is true prisoners cannot see into other cells. But, by merely standing near the cell’s front and shifting his angle of view sharply left or right, the prisoner can see his neighbors, due to the space’s  internal curvature. The photo below approximates his view; the Venetian the guard tower is at left and cells are at right.

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Prisoner’s View of Other Cells

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To prevent visual communication between cells, bars cannot be flush with partitions. The bars must be recessed behind the side walls as shown below at right. Bentham writes in 1787: “To cut off from each prisoner the view of every other, the partitions are carried on a few feet beyond the grating into the intermediate area: such projecting parts I call the protracted partitions” (Letter II). It is surprising that four years later, when Bentham commissioned Reveley, protracted partitions were neglected and bars were flush with partitions to produce as large a cell as possible.

However, adding protracted partitions makes each cell ~30% smaller, with much of the prisoners’ living space wasted. The figure below left shows where Reveley positions the bars. The figure at right shows where they need to be positioned to prevent visual communication. Regardless of how effective these side walls are, they fail to prevent sound from traveling. Circular interiors are known for echoing qualities that permit sound to travel farther. Unless prisoners are prohibited from speaking, sound will travel; they will communicate.

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Section revealing diminished living spaces in cells

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The section above shows several cells. People are included for scale. We see how each cell is, in fact, quite small. Bentham proposes to employ prisoners with machinery in each cell, such as looms or potter’s wheel. Bentham does not account for how it is possible to fit a workshop, running water, and a bed into space measuring only 4’4″ by 9′ (1.33 by 2.74 meters) or ~40 square feet. The present-day standards of the “European Committee for the Prevention of Torture suggest a minimum (not a norm) of 65 square feet for a prison cell occupied by one person,” well above Bentham’s proposal. If the bars were pushed forward to produce larger cells, the area would be 60 square feet, still small. Ironically, Bentham’s prison, planned as a utopian experiment, could not be built today for legal reasons.

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Guard’s View of Cells

Recessing the cells with protracted partitions prevents prisoners from seeing each other. But, this also prevents guards from seeing prisoners. Because the panopticon is six floors high, a guard standing at the ground floor cannot see six stories up. The photo at left shows the guard’s point of view standing at the ground floor. He sees into the ground floor cells. But above the second floor, the passages, stairways, and angle of view obscures all visibility.

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Panorama from Guard’s Viewpoint

Section showing guard’s cone of vision

 

Recognizing this problem, Bentham placed surveillance corridors at every other floor. For every two floors of cells, there was one viewing platform for guards. Instead of one central point, there were now three viewing points, each with its cone of vision over two floors of cells.

This solution still does not solve the visibility problem. The photo above is a 180° panorama from the guard’s viewpoint. From any angle, the guard can see into no more than eight cells. The rest are made invisible by odd angles and poor optics. To continually survey, the guard must walk circles round and round as shown in the plan below. Bentham describes three guards surveying 288 prisoners total. If each of the three guards only sees eight cells at a time and is continuously walking, then only 24 inmates (3×8) out of 288 are visible at a time, about 8% of inmates.

It might be unnecessary for guards to see everything at once. Bentham, Foucault, and Deleuze describe members of surveillance society as “self-disciplining.” That is, the knowledge they could be watched at any moment but do not know when they are watched causes them to act as if they were always watched. Bentham suggests the guard does not need to be staffed; architecture alone becomes the means of “obtaining power of mind over mind” (from Preface). However, I remain skeptical this architecture would succeed at self-disciplining people, in light of the small cell sizes, the inability to prevent auditory communication, and the reliance on guards to continually walk a “treadmill.” By analogy, everyone knows their internet search history could be watched and that it is unsafe to use a non-password protected public wifi network. And yet, upwards of 70% of people continue checking their emails and exposing their passwords on public networks. The knowledge you could be watched seems partial but not full deterrent.

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The plan below shows the guard’s cone of vision from a stationary position. The areas visible to him are in white, and his blind-spot is in red.

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Calculations that only 8% would be visible at a time are at odds with when Bentham writes the panopticon:

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[…] affords a perfect view, and the same view, of an indefinite number of apartments of the same dimensions: that affords a spot from which, without any change of situation, a man may survey, in the same perfection, the whole number. (Letter V)

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Or when Foucault writes:

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The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately. […] Full lighting and the eye of the supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap. (page 200)

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As Ivan Manokha writes in Surveillance, Panopticism, and Self-Discipline in the Digital Age: “Bentham’s Panopticon had an important flaw, namely, the possibility that the watched might one day try to find out whether they are indeed being watched. An inmate could hazard, entirely at random, a minor pardonable transgression; if this transgression goes unnoticed, then he could commit another, this time more serious, transgression” (pages 231-32).

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Above and below are two views of the chapel situated in the prison’s center. All cells, walkways, and tunnels radiate from this sacred point. A glass oculus lights the space (evocative of heaven). A hole in the ground permits light to penetrate the kitchens and service areas beneath (evocative of hell). Bentham designed heating shafts through the structural, iron support columns and through the walls (like a Roman hypocaust) so that smoke and heat produced in the basement rose through and heated each cell.

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Visual analysis of this chapel reveals further design challenges. Reveley’s drawing indicates no dividing wall separating central chapel from perimeter cells. This is a problem. Prisoners could see other prisoners through from across the chapel, as indicated in the photo below left. Bentham goes so far to suggest the prisoners attend chapel without leaving their cells, as if they were theatergoers with a private box. During mass, the panopticon is inverted; the many watch the few. Bentham writes how:

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[…] the prisoners remaining in their cells, and the windows of the lodge, which is almost all window, being thrown open. The advantages derivable from it [the chapel] in point of light and ventilation depending upon its being kept vacant, it can never be wanted for any profane use. It may therefore, with the great propriety, be allotted to divine service, and receive a regular consecration.

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To solve this problem, a screen wall must be erected, as shown below right. This addresses visibility but makes the guard’s surveying job yet more difficult. This also allows prisoners to carry out transgressions without being seen by other prisoners.

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This model illustrates technical aspects of panopticon design. How would it be built? What would be the guard’s angle of view into a cell, or the prisoner’s view outside? How would the blinds be oriented to prohibit prisoners from seeing guards? How much would natural light penetrate the interior? (It is possible natural light alone would be insufficient to illuminate the interior by day.) How long would the protracted partitions be? (Bentham might have underestimated prisoner communication.) How would the architecture prevent escape? (Our model shows several blind-spots.)  If built, how would this architecture feel?

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Before commissioning Reveley, Bentham created the two sketches above. These are among the earliest known images of the panopticon. Over his career, Bentham refined his design through prison visits and interactions with prison reformers like John Howard. Although my model is based on Reveley’s later drawings, these earlier drawings show evolution in Bentham’s thinking. Compared to Reveley, the initial drawings shows still more blind-spots, but that is for another essay.

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Radial Prisons

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While no panopticon was built to Bentham’s exact measurements, numerous architects drew on Bentham’s design. Philadelphia’s Eastern State (1829) and London’s Pentonville (1842) Prisons were the first. Architects modified Bentham’s circle to form a radial prison with guardhouse in center and long, rectangular cell-blocks radiating out. See the plan below of Eastern State Penitentiary.

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ACCESS HALLWAYS     CELLS     INDIVIDUAL RECREATION YARDS

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If the panopticon is the most influential unbuilt prison, Eastern State was the most influential built one in the 19th century. Architects and authors like Alexis De Tocqueville and Charles Dickens visited Eastern State. Most major 19th century prisons follow this radial model. From Transforming the Treatment: Architecture and Moral Management by Carla Yanni:

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Each inmate had his or her own exercise yard, available for one hour a day. A central tower made it possible for a guard to observe some of the exercise yards, but not all, and the guard could not actually see the prisoners in their cells: Bentham’s notion of surveillance and Foucault’s concept of internalized control were not quite activated here. Rather, it was the isolation of the person, the total distance from others, that would serve to control. The radial plan was copied more by European than by other American prison builders, and Eastern State became known as a tourist attraction; in 1839, four thousand visitors, including school-children, toured the prison. (page 49)

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I continued my study by building an accurate-to-the-foot model of Eastern State (embedded in the window below). I followed the same methodology as I did for Bentham. Measurements are deduced from original plans, the report for the National Parks Service, and measurements of satellite images. From this process, the differences emerge between the panopticon as proposed and as ultimately realized at Eastern State.

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Click ► to launch 3D experience.

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With some modifications, the panopticon’s generalized form survives. Eastern State addressed some of Bentham’s challenges. Prisoners were now separated; visual and auditory communication between cells was now impossible. Cell size increased from 40 square feet with Bentham’s plan to between 90 and 120 square feet with Haviland. Each of Haviland’s prisoners had an individual exercise yard for use one hour per day; it measured between 104 and 144 square feet. Room was also given for building expansion as needed including up to seven more cellblocks, a chapel, and hospital, etc. The panopticon, by contrast, was designed had fixed capacity and could not be expanded without either building a new structure nearby or by putting more people per cell (thereby defeating Bentham’s goal of solitary confinement).

This model shows Eastern State as it appeared from 1829-71 during this prison’s most culturally influential period. The current Eastern State is much modified from the original. Later population growth required abandoning solitary confinement and demolishing the triangular garden wedges between cellblocks. Almost all individual recreation yards were later demolished. Originally, the red cells were entered from the exterior and not via the green access hallways. Later, doors were cut into the walls to give direct access between cells and access corridors. Construction post-1871 obscured the visual and aesthetic clarity of Haviland’s initial plan. Today, given these additions and decay, it is harder to see the geometric order early visitors admired. My model thus “restores” Eastern State and visuals the prison as architects saw it before.

This model also illustrates how radial prisons are not truly all-seeing. The plans below show how from the central guard tower, fewer than half the yards and ground areas were visible. Invisible areas are shaded black. Only the tops of the cells and roofs but no prisoners in their cells and exercise yards – were visible. The guard tower was symbolically but not actually all-seeing.

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Years later, on account of blind-spots, this guard tower was rebuilt ~30 feet higher. The panorama below recreates the 360° view from the original 1829 tower. From this angle, no prison cells are visible. The top of some exercise yards are visible, but not the prisoners in them Only when prisoners attempted escape would they enter the tower’s cone of vision.

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“Panoramic” view from guard tower. Click image for full size.

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Section Showing Blind-spots

The section above shows a single cellblock. Areas visible to guards are colored. Areas invisible are grayed out. Down the center runs a double-height corridor. To either side, are two rows of stacked cells. The cell doors were made of solid wood with peepholes to permit guards to view. The peephole produced a limited cone of vision into each cell. The exterior areas in color fall within the central guard tower’s cone of vision.

Prisoner surveillance here, contrary to impressions the radial form may give, was not any more continuous than in Bentham’s panopticon. Originally, the guard had walk through the corridor, with padded shoes to muffle footsteps, and open the peephole into each cell, one by one. Yet, interrupted surveillance was less a problem here (than it would be with Bentham) considering prisoners could not see or speak to neighbors and could not get up to trouble because rooms were sparsely furnished with items difficult to use in escape. Total vision seem unnecessary for total control.

Similar to our first model, this restoration process encourages interrogating the architecture. Questions emerge: How much of the prison did guards actually see? How much space was obscured from the “all-seeing” center point. How did this architecture feel? Here too, the suggestion of total vision was partial fiction. There was no central point. But the architectural form with radiating wings radiating suggests illusions of total vision and control. Perhaps, the guard tower is as much practical surveillance tool as it is symbol of oppression. In later years, prison wardens mounted a clock on the tower, as if to remind prisoners of who gives or takes time from their lives.

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The Digital Panopticon

Why do these conclusions matter?

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The panopticon is a dream structure, a building that must be abstracted from architectural reality. The moment it is built, the panoptic ideal is victim to imperfections brought by faulty construction, decay brought by time, or prisoner revolt brought by negligent guards.

Contrary to Bentham and Haviland’s initial thinking, architecture alone cannot possibly reform souls. When Haviland and Philadelphia Quakers constructed Eastern State, they predicted architecture could inspire penitence. The prison’s somber, castle-like exterior with gargoyles and lancet windows silently evoked the punishments behind doors; the crime-deterrent exterior was a warning to potential criminals of punishments awaiting them. Yet, reformers soon realized inmates’ mental and physical health was little better at Eastern State than in earlier, non-reform prisons. The problem was the guards. They are the social dimension of prisons individuals who, through their success or failure to do their job, make the architecture powerful or powerless. As Bentham asks: “Who guards the guards?”

Bentham’s panopticon succeeds as metaphor for institutional power and surveillance because it remains unbuilt. Foucault can claim the panopticon “makes it possible to perfect the exercise of power” (page 206) so long as there is no evidence to the contrary from any Bentham’s pantopticon no complaints from prison wardens, records from frustrated Parliament, or evidence of prisoner escape. Of the radial prisons inspired from Bentham, most were later demolished, abandoned, or upgraded. The scheme is not so simple as Bentham describes, as its success depends on correctly executing small details. If the protracted partitions were too short, blinds incorrectly angled, or windows too small to illuminate interiors, then prisoners could have exploited these flaws, eroding the illusion of an infallible and perfect architecture. If built to Bentham, perhaps the panopticon would descend in history not as an ideal structure but as an extravagant folly from the mind of an eccentric philosopher turned dilettante architect.

Is the goal of total control and total power impossible to realize? The architectural panopticon when applied to the design of prisons, institutions, and cities relies on optics. It depends on physical upkeep and uninterrupted sight lines. Today’s digital panopticon that relies on internet, social media, and phone surveillance seems more powerful. This digital system no longer relies on optics; its hardware is dispersed over innumerable servers in silent warehouses that collect and analyze limitless data. This system can, in theory, be remotely controlled and monitored from anywhere.

However, the digital panopticon might not be so centralized. Information collection is accomplished by different agencies working at cross-purposes, such as Facebook, Google, government, marketers, etc. Although information is collected, information is not centrally analyzed, at least not yet. Foucault identifies the panopticon as all-seeing and all-powerful. Foucault claims the panopticon metaphorically follows us through all stages of life, through various disciplinary institutions from the school, through university, military, workplace, and old age home. Bentham writes the panopticon “will be found applicable, I think, without exception, to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection.” Foucault similarly speaks of panopticons as monolithic institutions. The irony of Foucault’s analogy is that the architectural form on which he bases his analogy is not, in fact, monolithic or all-powerful. Nor is digital surveillance monolithic, at least not yet. From Jan Kietzmann and Ian Angell’s Panopticon Revisited:

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The data that are available are stored in departmental silos, and are not always directly coupled or connected. By and large, activities within the justice system are recorded and treated independently of each other. Individual database systems manage various categories of offence, and in most cases allow for little data flow between systems. Even when feedback loops do connect systems to each other (such as one database to another, or human agents to technological systems), updating the respective entries rarely happens in real-time. (page 137)

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Based on self-reported data, Google thinks I am a 97 year old female with March birthday. When I search the internet, Google shows me ads for mobility scooters, hair products, and depression drugs. Despite all Google collects, there is little to tell Google my real age and birthday, although my medical records, telephone bill, and bank statement all indicate otherwise. Similarly, Bentham’s panopticon is a single structure that claims to be all-seeing but is, in fact, divided into as many “departmental silos” as there are surveillance corridors. The guards in these corridors act autonomously, cannot see each other, and cannot survey each other’s prisoners.

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Centro de Operações: Rio de Janeiro

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Here is Rio de Janeiro’s central operations center. Completed 2010 by city government in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, this center integrates data from ~50 city agencies into a single workspace. About 900 cameras in public transport and streets are linked to the screens. From this location, bureaucrats monitor traffic, weather, flooding, fires and then issue public warnings and dispatch emergency teams from the crisis room. When opened, this was compared to a NASA space launch or to a James Bond style science fiction film.

Does this digital system accomplish total control and surveillance? Nine years later, evidence is inconclusive. This command center does speed up some city operations and does symbolize government commitment to improving quality of urban life. But, in other aspects, it does not succeed. Data is retained for no more than 90 days, thereby hindering long-term planning and studies of urban change over time. Nor is data publicly available to view, download, and understand, which raises questions of accountability and transparency. The public knows they are watched, but not when and not how. Bentham’s questions re-emerges in digital form: “Who guards the guards?”

Only in the future, as more cities construct or attempt to construct – surveillance systems for total control will we answer this question: Is the digital panopticon subject to the same human flaws and blind-spots as the architectural panopticon? Our analysis of Bentham’s panopticon and Eastern State question an all-powerful and all-seeing architecture. Instead, we might speak of an imperfect architecture with multiple surveillance areas and agents who cannot communicate with each other.

Foucault assumes the panopticon is all-seeing. Based on this assumption, he presents the surveillance state as all-seeing. He cites disciplinary institutions that follow us through life, controlling everything. Foucault’s surveillance argument is totalizing and all-encompassing. However, re-assessing Bentham’s surveillance structure as multi-nodal and dispersed produces a stronger analogy of the digital surveillance state we actually live in. By analogy, the surveillance state is not centralized but dispersed. In the future, these disciplinary institutions may converge and share data. For instance, Facebook and Google might link data collection to the NSA, or all a country’s surveillance cameras might link to a central database. We do not yet live in that kind of society. But it is conceivable we one day will. Until we do, our digital panoticon remains as fragmented as Bentham’s architectural panopticon.

This question leaves us at the frontier. At the moment, unlike the prisoners in Eastern State who were confined there against their will, we modern netizens can still opt out of the digital panopticon simply by turning off our phones, or not using a phone. And on that note, it is time I end this essay and power off my own phone.

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Related Links:

Read Bentham’s Panopticon Letters
See the original architectural drawings in UCL

View panopticon in virtual reality
Download panopticon from 3D Warehouse (requires software to edit)

View Eastern State in virtual reality
Download Eastern State from 3D Warehouse (requires software to edit)

Exhibition Design

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To hear my interview about this jail and exhibit, please listen to this podcast from Pod & Market.
Since 1971, the old Essex County Jail has sat abandoned and decaying in Newark’s University Heights neighborhood. Built beginning in 1837, this is among the oldest government structures in Newark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The building desperately needs investment and a vision for its transformation. Few structures in this city reflect the history of racial segregation, immigration, and demographic change as well as this jail.
In Spring 2018, a graduate studio at Columbia University’s architecture school documented this structure. Eleven students and two architects documented and explored the jail’s condition, context, and history. They built upon this historical analysis to form preservation strategies. Each student developed a reuse proposal for museum, public park, housing, or prisoner re-entry and education center. By proposing 11 alternatives for a site long abandoned, the project symbolically transformed a narrative of confinement into a story of freedom.
Inspired by this academic project and seeking to share it with a larger audience, Zemin Zhang, Myles Zhang, and Newark Landmarks proposed to transform the results of this studio into an exhibit in the Hahne’s Building. With $15,000 funding from Newark Landmarks, the curators and a dozen collaborators translated Columbia’s work into exhibition. We enriched this exhibit with primary sources and an oral history project, recording the experiences of former guards and people who witnessed this site’s trauma.

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Our curatorial work required translating a strictly academic project into an exhibit with language, graphics, and content accessible to the public. Columbia examined the jail’s architecture and produced numerous measured drawings of this site. While some of these drawings and all eleven reuse proposals are included in the exhibit, the focus shifted away from examining the jail as a work of architecture. Instead, we shifted focus toward the jail’s social history – to use the jail as a tool through which to examine Newark’s history of incarceration. As a result, much of the work required supplementing Columbia’s content with additional primary sources – newspaper clippings, prison records, and an oral history project – that tell the human story behind these bars. Few structures in this city reflect the history of racial segregation, immigration, and demographic change as well as this jail. As a youth in Newark, I frequently explored and painted this jail – I am therefore hoping for its reuse.
The finished exhibit will be on display from May 15 through September 27, 2019. We are making the case for preserving the buildings on this site and integrating them into the redevelopment of the surrounding – and largely blighted – neighborhood. The hope is that, by presenting this jail’s history in a public space where several thousand people viewed it per week, we can build support for its preservation and raise awareness of the need to stabilize this site. Over the next year, an architecture studio at the New Jersey Institute of Technology: College of Architecture and Design is conducting further site studies. Before any work begins, the next immediate step is to remove all debris, trim destructive foliage, and secure the site from trespassers. These actions will buy time while the city government and the other stakeholders determine the logistics of a full-scale redevelopment effort.

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Launch Virtual Exhibit Website

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Architecture of Exclusion in Manhattan Chinatown

 

 

 

Canal & Mott Streets

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act restricted Chinese immigration to the US, prohibited Chinese females from immigrating on grounds of prostitution, and revoked the citizenship of any US citizen who married a Chinese male. The consequences of this xenophobic legislation led Chinese immigrants to flee racial violence in the American West and to settle in Manhattan’s Chinatown. With a population now of around 50 thousand (2010 US Census), this remains the largest ethnically Chinese enclave in the Western Hemisphere.

Doyers Street – Barbershop Row

Thanks to New York’s geographic location as a port city with high industrial employment easy connections to the American interior, this city became the primary point of entry for waves of immigrant groups in the 1800s: Irish, Germans, Italians, and Eastern Europeans. What makes the Chinese different, though, is the survival and resilience of the immigrant community they created. Other immigrant groups – namely the Germans and Irish – converged around large neighborhoods and surrounded themselves with familiar language and businesses. Of these 1800s enclaves, all have since disappeared as the children of these first-generation immigrants successfully assimilated into American society, earned higher incomes than their parents, and therefore chose to disperse to non-immigrant neighborhoods with better housing stock and schools. Yet, the Chinese remained.

The resilience of this community results from a confluence of factors: cultural, geographic, and (most of all) racial. Of innumerable immigrant groups to the US, the Chinese were among the only to have the most restrictive laws placed on their immigration. This stigma drove them toward three types of low-skilled manual labor – with which white Americans still deeply associate with the Chinese – laundries, restaurants, and garment manufacturing. Like the Chinese, other groups – particularly Irish-immigrant females – began working in these professions, but they soon climbed the social ladder.

Mosco & Mulberry All

As an architectural historian, I am fascinated about how this political and racial agenda of exclusion is imprinted in the built environment of Chinatown. To present this neighborhood’s geography: For most of its history, Chinatown was bordered to the north by Canal Street, to the east by Bowery, and to the South and West by the city’s federal courthouse and jail. The center of this community lies on the low wetland above a filled-in and polluted lake, called the Collect Pond. Historically, this area contained the city’s worst housing stock, was home to the city’s first tenement building (65 Mott Street), and was the epicenter for waterborne cholera during the epidemics of 1832 (~3,000 deaths) and again in 1866 (1,137 deaths). The city’s first slum clearance project was also in Chinatown, at the present-day Columbus Park.

Race-based policies of exclusion can take different forms in the built-environment. The quality of street cleaning and the frequency of street closures are a place to start. Some of the city’s dirtiest sidewalks and streets are consistently located within Chinatown – as well as some of the most crowded with street vendors (particularly Mulberry and Mott Street). Yet, as these streets continue northward above Canal Street, their character markedly changes. The sections of Mulberry Street in Chinatown are unkempt and always open to traffic and truck deliveries.

The street sections immediately north (in the enclave of Little Italy) are frequently cleaned and closed for traffic most of the year to create a car -free pedestrian mall bordered by Italian restaurants. These policies continue when examining the proximity of Chinatown to centers of political power and criminal justice. Since 1838, the city’s central prison (named the Tombs because of its foreboding appearance) is located just adjacent to Chinatown. The Fifth Police Precinct is also located at the center of this community at 19 Elizabeth Street.

Bayard & Mulberry Grocery

Yet, although this neighborhood was ranked 58th safest out of the city’s 69 patrol areas and has a below-average crime rate, the incarceration rate of 449 per 100,000 people is higher than the city average. NYC Open Data also reveals this neighborhood to be targeted for certain – perhaps race-specific and generally non-violent crimes – like gambling and forgery. Or, the only financial institution to face criminal charges after the 2008 financial crisis was the family-owned Abacus Federal Savings Bank – on allegations of mortgage fraud later found false in court by a 12-0 jury decision in favor of Abacus.

When it comes to tourism, Americans seem to have a paradoxical relationship with Chinatown’s “oriental” culture and cuisine. On the hand, there is a proclaimed love of Chinese cuisine and art, as evidenced by the profusion of Chinese-themed restaurants for tourists in Chinatown, or as evidenced by the phenomenon in art history for western artists (and particularly French Impressionists) to incorporate decorative motifs from East Asian woodcuts and ceramics into their work. There is simultaneously exclusion of the people – from the society who created this food and art – from political power and social mobility. Still today, Americans seem to want competitively priced Chinese products without suffering the presence of the foreigners who produced these products.

Forsyth & Delancey Grocery

Let us clarify one thing: the division in Chinatown is by no means “apartheid.” It is perhaps a division more subtle and difficult to notice. It expresses the kind of unequal treatment – antiquated housing, crowded conditions, and municipal apathy – that face many immigrant groups in the US. What we see in Chinatown is something altogether more complicated – as this neighborhood is also active in the process of gentrification with rising rents pushing out older Chinese businesses. If and when Chinese immigrants become fully integrated into American society, to what extent should the architectural fabric of this Chinese enclave be preserved, considering that its very existence is possibly a marker of race-based exclusion and the century-long challenge of the Chinese in America?

This essay originally appeared in the spring 2019 edition of the Asia Pacific Affairs Council journal at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute. Click here to read this essay in its original format.

Trouble in Utopia

Ironically, the most unequal and dystopian of societies are often founded on utopian principles. Utopias, almost by their very nature, are oppressive. From Plato’s Republic of strict castes and rampant censorship to Thomas More’s Utopia of puritanical laws and slavery, a utopia for the few is often a dystopia for the many. The question then arises: How do the benefactors of utopia confront its detractors? Utopia has several choices. It can maintain its monopoly on media and education, strangling nascent free thought before it grows into free action. Or… It can physically punish and oppress free thought, which requires systems to detect and punish dissent. Detection requires gathering information about the populace. Punishment requires control and physical torture: the police, the army, and the prison. Ironically, to maintain power, utopia often adopts trappings of dystopia.[1]

Despite the seeming differences between them, most dystopias share one common trait: they resemble the panopticon, a model of the ideal police state. In fact, panopticon, dystopic police state, and utopian society share common goals: total observation, total power, and unquestionable control.

 

 

The panopticon models the workings of a society.

The panopticon was initially an architectural concept for the ideal prison. Conceived in 1791 by Jeremy Bentham, a social reformer and utopian thinker,[2] the panopticon embodies the ideals of observation, control, and discipline. In its physical form, the panopticon is a circular prison with cells ringed around a central tower from which prisoners can be watched at all times. This slender central tower contains a covered guardroom from which one guard simultaneously surveys hundreds of prisoners (see diagram below). The panopticon aims for constant surveillance and prisoner discomfort. In this all-seeing system, dissent is detected and discipline is enforced.

Article on the Panoptic Surveillance State

2013 Article on the Panoptic Surveillance State

The panopticon is also a system of ingrained injustice. In Discipline and Punish, a 1975 treatise on the origins of the modern prison, author Michel Foucault describes the absence of real communication in the panopticon, “He [the prisoner] is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. The arrangement of his room, opposite the central tower, imposes on him an axial visibility; but the divisions of the ring, those separated cells, imply a lateral invisibility” (Foucault 200). The panopticon is defined by visibility, or the lack thereof. The guard sees the inmates, but the inmates see neither the guard nor each other. In this unbalanced relationship, there is unhindered visibility between center and periphery, guard and prisoner. But, there is not comparable visibility between prisoners; they are firmly divided. Whereas in the panopticon, this is a physical arrangement of walls, windows, bars, and brute force, in dystopian society, this is a metaphysical or political arrangement where the government values control and observation over communication between citizens.

The panopticon is more than a structure; it is a model for the workings of the dystopic police state. Foucault describes the panopticon’s practicality, “Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behaviour must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used. It is – necessary modifications apart – applicable to all establishments whatsoever” (205). The panopticon and the police state are the ideal systems of control for three main reasons. Firstly, both control a “multiplicity of individuals.” In the panopticon, one guard watches hundreds of prisoners. In the police state, the powerful few watch the powerless many. Secondly, both impose “a particular form of behavior.” In the panopticon, this behavior is penitence and fear of observation. In the police state, this behavior is obedience to the government, its social norms, and its interests. Thirdly, both are systems of enforced inequality where prisoner and citizen are watched with neither their approval nor their knowledge. In both systems, control is simultaneously anywhere and nowhere. Anywhere: the state is all knowing. Nowhere: its power is implacable. In this way, the power of the panopticon translates into the power of the police state. Though specific methods may vary from panopticon to police state, their objectives are the same: to centralize power, to manipulate the citizen, and to ensure order.

 

 

Panopticon and police state are tools for psychological control.

Even in its manifestation as police state, the panopticon is more than a political or social structure; it is a psychological tool. Foucault describes the panopticon as an independent microcosm,

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; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. (201)

The panopticon exhibits three forms of power. Firstly, there is the power of the architecture: walls, windows, doors, and bars. Secondly, there is the power of the intendants: the panopticon’s guards and the police state’s bureaucrats. Thirdly, there is the psychological power that stems from the latter two forms: the “power relation” in which the inmate is its “bearer.” Desire to avoid possible detection leads the inmate to self-censor her behavior. Desire to avoid possible punishment leads the inmate to suppress her instincts. Only then does the pernicious system triumph; the individual oppresses herself independently of direct coercion. In other words, panopticon and police state use physical power for psychological ends.

The panopticon as psychological tool is explored in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Winston, the protagonist in the empire of Oceania, describes the one-way telescreens that spy on every room. Telescreen and panopticon bear three main similarities. Firstly, both panopticon and telescreen are like one-way mirrors: the state sees the citizen but the citizen does not see the state; Winston does not know when he is watched for he could be watched at any moment. Secondly, both are all knowing: “As long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard” (Orwell 3). No matter what Winston does, the telescreen of the state is watching. Thirdly, both are psychological tools. Winston describes: “You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized” (3). Winston, like the panopticon’s inmate, is the “bearer” of his own “power situation;” the mere presence of a telescreen leads Winston to self-censor his behavior. Thus, the Orwellian police state is merely a manifestation of the “panoptic schema.”

The panopticon as psychological tool is also explored in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, the protagonist in the theocracy of Gilead, describes the anxiety and fear she feels daily. When the commander’s chauffer merely winks at her, she wildly speculates: “Perhaps it was a test, to see what I would do. Perhaps he is an Eye”[3] (Atwood 18). When attending a religious service, Offred warns herself: “We’re on the sidewalk now and it’s not safe to talk, we’re too close to the others and the protective whispering of the crowd is gone” (223). When meeting a new handmaid, she censors herself: “I should give it a week, two weeks, maybe longer, watch her carefully, listen for tones in her voice, unguarded words” (284). Anyone could be an informer. Anyone could be an Eye of the state. Anyone could turn you in. In every situation, one must guard one’s body, one’s language, and one’s thoughts for fear of detection. In Gilead, so pervasive is this culture of fear that the individual becomes the “bearer” of her own “power situation”, like Offred. By infiltrating society with informers and by brainwashing its citizens, the resulting culture of fear ensures obedience to the theocracy.[4]

Both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrate panoptic principles. Though actual observation may be discontinuous, fear of observation is continuous. And, this constant fear of observation produces self-censorship, which, according to Winston, is a “habit that becomes instinct”. Consequently, the panopticon’s monopoly on the body gradually becomes a monopoly on the mind. It indirectly controls the mind by directly controlling the body.

 

 

Panopticon and police state suppress communication.

In Oceania, Big Brother government controls all communication. Through Newspeak, the system “simplifies” language at the expense of creative writing. Through censoring words such as freedom, equality, and justice, it purges the citizen’s mind of revolutionary ideas. Through suppressing sexual expression, it transforms sexual tension into hate for enemies of the state. Through monopolizing media and education, it ensures that communication occurs through the “appropriate channels.” Through brainwashing the minds of the young, it creates citizens who will blindly obey the system.

Similarly, in Gilead, government control of social norms impedes communication between individuals. When Offred goes on her daily walks with a fellow handmaid, their conversation is limited, regimented by socially acceptable phrases like “Praise be” or “Blessed be the fruit.” When individuals from different classes pass each other on the street, they spit, glare, and stare, envious of each other’s government-granted privileges and clearly “different” from each other, as proven by their government-granted uniforms. When in bed, government dictates the socially acceptable coital position. When speaking, one must guard one’s words. Anyone is an informer. Everyone is watched. Government power is omnipresent, from the sidewalk to the bedroom. And, punishments for human communication and self-expression are draconian: public shaming, prison, or even death. Clearly, the theocracy of Gilead values its monopoly on power over honest communication between people.

As Virginia Woolf writes, “He who robs us our dreams robs us our life.” In the name of enforcing discipline, the panopticon robs society of her dreams, her freedom, and subsequently her life. Revolution stems from the right to hope, dream, and communicate. Without dreams, there is no communication. Without communication, there is no revolution. Kill the dream, cut the communication, and the panoptic system will prevail.

 

 

The panopticon realizes the ideals of an autocratic and all-knowing police state.

The autocratic system, in its many forms, relies on injustice. According to Foucault, “[the panopticon] is a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine” (Foucault 202). In the ideal autocracy, the system is self-perpetuating. As already discussed, the citizen becomes the “bearer” of her own oppression. But, the state also starts to function independently of its operators. This consequently insures control and order, two of the primary tenets of autocracy.

The panopticon is the ideal autocratic police state for several reasons. It reduces the number of people needed to exercise power, ensuring that a dedicated minority controls a complacent majority. It predicts revolutionary thought before it becomes revolutionary action because it is all seeing. Its strength is one that never intervenes; the system acts independently of its operators.[5] Ironically, the perfection of power renders its actual use unnecessary.

 

 

Utopian endeavors often lead to dystopic panopticons.

Utopia must make concessions to reality. Nathaniel Hawthorne describes: “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Utopia concedes to reality. The graveyard is an acceptance of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. The prison is a concession that all societies, no matter how perfect, will have victims and revolutionaries. As Atwood warns: “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some” (Atwood 211). Ultimately, utopia is forced to reconcile contradictory aims: the freedom utopia promises vs. the oppression it delivers, the collective spirit utopia promises vs. the collective misery the panopticon creates, and the ideals of utopia vs. the realities of human nature. Seemingly peaceful utopia cannot ignore these glaring contradictions; these contradictions undermine utopia leaders and legitimacy. Consequently, to maintain its semblance of perfection and peace, it often adopts the most dystopian of institutions: the prison. The prison, be it physical or psychological, is utopia’s dystopian tool.

Both utopia and dystopia contain elements of each other. In Utopia, an essay anthology, Frédéric Rouvillois writes: “On the one hand, the most blatant utopias, with their obsession to rehabilitate man and condemn him to happiness, do indeed reveal traits that we habitually attribute to totalitarian systems. On the other hand, totalitarian systems – Fascism, Nazism, Stalinist or Chinese Socialism – even when they don’t acknowledge the connection, invariably remind us of utopias, whose goals, mottoes, and means the appropriate” (Schaer 316). Although utopia espouses noble ideals, it often realizes them on the tip of a metaphorical bayonet. The individual is “condemned to happiness”, systems of surveillance impose an oppressive peace, and the stability of the state is valued over the autonomy of the individual. Indeed, utopia exists primarily as an ideal whose every manifestation is totalitarian and dystopic. The word utopia is doublespeak for all that it claims to stand for: “the perfectibility of man [and woman]”, the creation of happiness, and the protection of liberty.

As Orwell writes, “Inequality was the inalterable law of human life” (Orwell 202). Despite its best efforts, utopia is marked by inevitable inequality. Humans, by their very nature, are born with different outlooks and attitudes. Utopia, by its very nature, prescribes one outlook and attitude to all, regardless of circumstance. The interests of the individual and the demands of utopia will conflict. One must prevail, the individual or the system. The panopticon emerges; the system prevails.

 

 

Afterword: Panopticism and Contemporary Society

Foucault, writing in 1975, traces the appearance of the panopticon to the disappearance of a collective culture he calls the “spectacle”,

Antiquity had been a civilization of spectacle. “To render accessible to a multitude of men the inspection of a small number of objects”: this was the problem to which the architecture of temples, theatres and circuses responded. With spectacle, there was a predominance of public life, the intensity of festivals, sensual proximity. In these rituals in which blood flowed, society found new vigour and formed for a moment a single great body. The modern age poses the opposite problem: “To procure for a small number, or even for a single individual, the instantaneous view of a great multitude [i.e. a panopticon].” In a society in which the principal elements are no longer the community and public life, but, on the one hand, private individuals and, on the other, the state, relations can be regulated only in a form that is the exact reverse of the spectacle. (Foucault 216)

Foucault differentiates between the spectacle of the past and the panopticon of the present. In the spectacle, the many observe the few, be they actors or gladiators. In the panopticon, the few observe the many, be they wardens or doctors. They are different systems of control; while a collective spirit of “sensual proximity” and communication defines the spectacle, individualization and isolation defines the panopticon. Foucault claims these two systems are polar opposites.

Yet, does this disconnect between spectacle and panopticon still exist in contemporary society? Discipline and Punish was written before all-inclusive government spying on its citizens and before our digital age of the internet. Today, unlike in Foucault’s time, the panopticon is part of the spectacle. On the one hand, the spectacle of creates conformity and groupthink, through the currency globalization, the proliferation of digital entertainment, and the spread of generally Eurocentric social norms. On the other hand, the panopticon is ingrained in the technology of the spectacle: the computer, the cellphone, and the credit card. To name a few, Google provides one’s search history, Facebook describes one’s personality and preferences, and credit card transactions reveal one’s purchases. The panopticon thrives off of the spectacle of technology. Therefore, the two are no longer disconnected entities from separate eras, as Foucault claims. Rather, in our modern society, they are almost interchangeable.

The panopticon is core to modern society. Jeremy Bentham’s simple invention has evolved from a concept for the punishment of felons to a method of societal control. The physical panopticon may seem a harmless enough tool employed in factories, barracks, hospitals, and schools.[6] But, the technological panopticon is far more frightening for it reveals the darker side to governance and human nature. Foucault writes:

There were many reasons why it [the panopticon] received little praise; the most obvious is that the discourses to which it gave rise rarely acquired, except in the academic classifications, the status of sciences; but the real reason is no doubt that the power that it operates and which it augments is a direct, physical power that men [and women] exercise upon one another. An inglorious culmination had an origin that could be only grudgingly acknowledged. (225)

According to Foucault, the panopticon “augments” or realizes the human thirst for power. In doing so, it exposes humanity’s darkness: the desire to control others in body and mind and the desire to seize and maintain power by any means whatsoever. In other words, the panopticon permits the prosecution of thoughtcrime. Naturally, the frightening darkness of panopticism is only “only grudgingly acknowledged” for when one stares at the panopticon, the darkness and depravity of human nature stares back.

Granted, we do not live in a full-fledged panopticon. But, disconcerting parallels between panopticism, dystopian society, and our post 9/11 culture are emerging. As Edward Snowden’s heroic struggle reveals, the panopticon is not as impossible as it appears; government has the technology, the means, and the desire to create the panopticon. It needs only the public’s tacit indifference and silent nod of approval. As citizens of the panopticon, what power do we have over our rights, our freedoms, and our futures?

 

Panopticons Throughout History

 

 

Endnotes:

[1] The police state has many manifestations in societies founded on utopian principles: the Stasi of East Germany, the NSA of America, the Gestapo of the Third Reich, the State Security Department of North Korea, the Eyes of Handmaid’s Tale, and Minipax of 1984. The list runs on.

[2] Ironically, Bentham popularized the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In reality, the panopticon creates the greatest power for the fewest number.

[3] Eye – a member of the state security services in Gilead

[4] In the Soviet Union, so pervasive was fear of government spying that public revolt was oppressed. For instance, in Romania, one out of every forty-two people worked for Securitate (the state security services). Yet, because the public was so fearful, rumors wildly circulated that one out of every four worked for Securitate. In this sense, fear of the state was more powerful than the actual state. Ceausescu’s Romania was not alone; Stalin’s Russia and Honecker’s East Germany had similarly frightening police states

[5] Obedience also strengthens panopticon and police state. Fear of the system induces obedience to its demands. Ceausescu, Stalin, or Hilter could never have risen to power without the public’s tacit approval of their crimes. Fear and helplessness fuels tyranny.

[6] Bentham writes, “Among schoolchildren, it [the panopticon] makes it possible to observe performances (without there being any imitation or copying), to map aptitudes, to assess characters, to draw up rigorous classifications and, in relation to normal development, to distinguish ‘laziness and stubbornness’ from ‘incurable imbecility’” (Foucault 203).

 

Works Cited:

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. 1st ed. New York City: Anchor, 1998. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd ed. New York City. Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas. Plan de la Saline de Chaux. Digital image. Wikipédia. 18 May 2007.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. New York City: Signet Classics, 1977. Print.

Schaer, Roland et al. Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World. 1st ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Essex County Jail

 

 

The former Essex Country Jail sits forlorn and abandoned amidst desolate parking lots and lifeless prefab boxes. In the so-called University Heights “neighborhood,” the jail is testimony to the past. Listed on the National Register of Historical Places, this 1837 structure is one of the oldest jails in America. Abandoned for over thirty years, no successful preservation efforts have materialized.

Gradually, the urban jungle of junk trees, vines, and garbage conquers the veritable old fortress. The warden’s garden that zealous prisoners formerly pruned and weeded is now overrun with weeds. Used syringes line the cell-block floors. Not a single window is unbroken. Not a single wall is straight or strong. The rigid geometry defined this urban castle is now blanketed in decay.

Yet, this fortress of old is still a home. A constant trail of homeless squeeze through the rusted barbed wire fencing. They carry with them their few odd “valuables,” cans to be recycled or shopping bags of discarded clothes. Every night, they sleep in the very cells their luckless brethren slept in decades before. Every day, they aimlessly wander city streets. Ironically, the physical prison of brute force and searchlights has evolved into a metaphorical bastion of poverty. Both prisons, new and old, are refuges for the luckless. As its occupants have changed, so has the prison. Both are ghosts. Both are vanishing.

Explore this jail as an interactive exhibit online.

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To see a film featuring the work above: click here

Panasonic Petition

I am often aghast when I walk through downtown Newark. The corporate towers of the “Renaissance” Center ignore the very city that gave them millions of dollars in tax breaks. They erect austere metal fences and protect their towers with zealously obedient “security” guards. They are scared of Newark.

When Panasonic decided to move their national headquarters to Newark, I hoped they would buck the trend of icy disrespect. But, I saw that their new building turned its back to the city like all the other lifeless behemoths downtown. I wrote the following petition, signed by Newark children during the opening of Riverfront Park.  On 11 June 2012, when the Central Planning Board asked Panasonic to open their grounds for public access, I read my petition.

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Panasonic Poster

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Dear Mr. Taylor,

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We are children of Newark, the new home of Panasonic North America.  We would like to start with Oscar Wilde’s story, “The Selfish Giant”:

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There was once a “selfish giant” who had a most beautiful but closely guarded garden, where, to his dismay, all the little children were found playing. Scaring the children away angrily, he built around the garden a high wall, with a sign: “Trespassers will be prosecuted.”  Children could no longer go in to play, but dreamed about all the fun behind the wall.  With the children’s absence, the trees never blossomed again, the animals disappeared, and the garden was always barren.  The selfish giant no longer heard the birds or smelled the spring air.  Then, one day, to the giant’s amazement, the garden was in blossom again.  From the window of his fortress, he saw the children had crept through a hole in the wall to play in the garden again.  Finally, the spring had melted his icy heart.  The giant “took an axe to knock down the wall,” and played with the children in the beautiful garden.

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When you moved to Newark, we were hoping to have a socially responsible new neighbor.  We expected your home to be different from the corporate winter gardens we have often seen here.

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As your glassy home steadily rose, we were mistaken.  Surrounding the building, a tall metal fence with spearheaded points rejects the surrounding world and separates the lonely giant from the city.  Strategically located at the gateway to our city’s newly energized waterfront, the Panasonic winter garden, however, tells a story of the giant in the fortress, his feebleness, his fear, and, most of all, his old urban biases.   We, the children, who were born and grow up in the surrounding neighborhoods, ask you, the giant, to “take an axe and knock down the wall,” and to open your garden to Newark and its people.  As a neighbor, this is the least you can and should do.

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Sincerely,

The Children of Newark

Panasonic Petition

This petition and the poster above were featured in a June 2017 exhibition about about planning and urban policy. The exhibit was organized by Damon Rich, former planner for the City of Newark, and exhibited at the Yuerba Buena Center for the Arts.