Jeremy Bentham @261

Jeremy Bentham @261

The Presidio Modelo was a model prison of Panopticon design by you.

Presidio Modelo, Cuba, photo by Friman

Jeremy Bentham (February 15 , 1748June 6, 1832)  was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer, best-known today for devising the Panopticon. He was a political radical and a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law. He is best known as an early advocate of utilitarianism and animal rights who influenced the development of liberalism. In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation he wrote of sexual ethics.

The Panopticon is a type of prison building designed to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the “sentiment of an invisible omniscience.”

Bentham himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

Sholem Stein remarks:

It was among Jeremy Bentham many proposals for legal and social reform. Although it was never built, the idea had an important influence upon later generations of thinkers. Twentieth-century French philosopher Michel Foucault in his approach to New Historicism argued that the Panopticon was paradigmatic of a whole raft of nineteenth-century ‘disciplinary’ institutions.

Foucault’s discussions of the panopticon are particularly useful for New Historicism. Bentham stated that the perfect prison/surveillance system would be a cylindrical shaped room that held prison cells on the outside walls. In the middle of this spherical room would be a large guard tower with a light that would shine in all the cells. The prisoners thus would never know for certain whether they were being watched, so they would effectively police themselves, and be as actors on a stage, giving the appearance of submission, although they are probably not being watched.

Foucault included the panopticon in his discussion of power to illustrate the idea of lateral surveillance, or self-policing, that occurs in the text when those who are not in power are made to believe that they are being watched by those who are. His purpose was to show that power would often change the behavior of the subordinate class, and they would often fall into line whether there was a true need to do so or not.

But the way the panopticon really entered the public consciousness was via the term Big Brother, named afterBig Brother, a character from George Orwell‘s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is now a byword for authoritarianism as inforced by any omnipresent, seemingly benevolent figure representing oppressive control over individual(s) exerted by an authoritarian power, as well as surveillance in general and any surreptitious spying such as by way of closed-circuit television.

7 thoughts on “Jeremy Bentham @261

  1. neil

    Jeremy Bentham’s preserved body is still on display at University College, London, in a special “Auto-icon” cabinet he designed for the purpose. It takes you by surprise the first time you come across it, and you’re certainly not sure whether you’re being watched or not… Apparently (I’ve just read this on Wikipedia) the Auto-icon is trundled into special meetings of the College Council, at which Bentham is registered as “present but not voting”.

  2. pancime

    Oh, I wish I had something sensible and easily condensed to say about this. But I don’t at the moment. Suffice to say that I think the Foucault/Bentham thing is a bit of a diversion from the key Benthamite influence, which is in the area of democratic (constitutional) reform. Moreover I am hardly a fan of Foucault after his silence in relation to the Brigitte Dewevre case. Not a big fan of Ranciere for the same reason, nor Satre for his attitude in relation to the Papin sisters. One thing the Benthamites were about, through and through, was ***peaceful*** democratic change. That wins many stars for me. He was certainly not into the surveillance state, in fact the reverse – he designed the modern public service, with the intention it be under the constant and active scrutiny of the public.

  3. jahsonic

    Pancime … diversion … yes, I guess that’s 90% of what Jahsonic is about … Lichanos … thanks for remarking Pancime’s knowledgeability … you two are again out of my league …. I am feeling particularly glad with your comments.

    Update: Digression is probably the better term, as in Tristram Shandy.

  4. pancime

    Golly we are all online at the same time – hi guys!
    First thanks for your fab sites and insights Jan and lichanos. Second, I love the debate. And third, yep, diversion is a fine thing. Blogging at its essence I suppose. Nevertheless in the circles I inhabit (somewhat reluctantly) the panopticon via Foucault is the central part of awareness of JB, and I really think he is worth more than that. But, by the sounds of it, in your own circles lichanos it has all gone too far in another (silly) direction.

  5. pancime

    If I knew how to do updates I would use that system to agree wholeheartedly with digression over diversion – oh, except that I sometimes think that Foucault and others might really have wanted to *divert* attention from Bentham’s democratic writings and ideas for social change in order to elevate the genealogy of their own thought.

  6. lichanos

    Pancime – the circles in which I move have never heard of Bentham…they don’t know they are his children, errant or not!

    I like your take on Focault. I have always felt that he and his ilk are obsessed with power relations in a very distorted and unproductive way. Of course they are central to understanding history, but that’s not exactly news.

    I know nothing of Ranciere other than what I just happened across here:
    but he sounds like someone I don’t want to know! I have always distrusted Sartre’s work, and thus I know little of it. I guess that makes me a know-nothing.

    Bentham, on the other hand, I now feel I should read more comprehensively!

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