Home » All content » Step 13: The Panopticon

Step 13: The Panopticon

Prison design as a discipline system, expanded to social control through the workplace, and outward into public self-discipline through exhibitionary control. A stroll from 1790’s Benthem to 1970’s- 80’s Foucault and Bennett.

all music courtesy of Ryder’s mouth
introduction by Mistah Lisa [link]
Reflective Intelligence Meter by Jonathan Whitfill [link]

Part I

We start with Jeremy Benthem, a social reformer and philosopher who dabbles in the architectural design of prisons. His ingenious, and insidious, layout manifests two important hallmarks of power.

  1. Power must be visible
  2. Power must be unverifiable

Built for a specific reason before technology could solve the efficiency problem of manpower needed to watch every prisoner all the time, his design was a psychological manipulation of the prison.

Part II

Michel Foucault points out, in his book Discipline & Punish, that under a King the citizen’s body belonged to the Sovereign, so when he needed to make his power visible he introduced the spectacle of torturing the body of a criminal. The problem for those in Power is that when people wanted to rebel they knew exactly where the power lay: that huge castle.

The evolution is that power needed to remain 1) Visible to maintain control, but 2) needed to get better at being Unverifiable. This means less public torture, and a focus on relations within spaces, hiding the discipline and leaving the body alone. Power will now focus on reforming the mind.

Foucault discussed this power relationship in a prison or asylum (a controlled environment) where the observer works to modify the behavior of the subject through “discursive relations” or interactions. Or more simply, by observing the actions of the body it is turned into a cognitive object, and through discipline and punishment the subject (the cognitive object)modifies its behavior to achieve the norms or standards demanded. (Note the distancing language, not an “individual” or “person” but a “cognitive object.”)

If it was only the body that changed behavior, that would be one thing, but the subject eventually internalizes the normative behavior, and continuously disciplines and punishes themself without any need for the observer.

To make it worse, Foucault points out that this system is a primary means of power exerted throughout institutions and society in schools, factories, or white-collar jobs.

Part III

Tony Bennett, a sociologist, suggests that there is an authoritarian aspect to Foucault’s insights that is not the full story. He introduces the Exhibitionary Complex as a means to discuss a more open, public version of the panopticon in which we not only observe the visible spectacle made for our gaze, such as the Crystal Palace or Eiffel Tower, but we (the bodies in public at the tourist attraction) also are the spectacle of observation by being seen.

And thus we realize the power of our gaze to create and empower the spectacle, and in turn we validate it as normal, correct, and powerful. Naturally, the state can harness this touristic, popular, and public gazing -and the citizen’s need to be gazed upon- as a means to re-inculcate normative standards that reinforce their power.

Donations have been disabled

If you enjoyed the content, please help offset the costs of production.


Wiki: Panopticon [link]

Jeremy Benthem, Panopticon [link] 1791

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish [link] 1975

Tony Bennett, The Exhibitionary Complex [link] 1988

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [link] 1975 (characters: Nurse Ratchet, Randle Murphy, Chief Bromden)
Ken Kesey, author (novel)[link]1962
Nicolas Cage, Con Air [link] 1997
Gaurdians of the Galaxy [link] 2014 (I cut the reference to this, but the movie features a Panopticon prison)

julian schnabel
Schnabel may be the model for the Big Lebowski

Art references:
Robert Rauschenberg boxes [link]
Felix Gonzalez Torres [link]
Bruce Nauman [link]
Marcel Duchamp [link]
Julian Schnabel (1:17 youtube) [link]

Hans Christian Andersen, The Emperor’s New Clothes [link]

Mitch Hedberg: credit for ‘one really f***ing complicated payment’ [link]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *