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The Observation Principle from Bentham to Foucault
Copyright 2010 by Charlie Canning
Cover photo: “Chapel, Model Prison at Port Arthur” © 2012 Charlie Canning. All rights reserved.
In a series of letters written in 1787 and published four years later as the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham introduced the “central-inspection principle” in the form of a design for a multi-story circular building with an observation deck in the middle and cells radiating from the center like the spokes of a wheel. According to Bentham, the best way to bring about good health, reform, education, and productivity was to keep patients, prisoners, students, and workers under continuous observation. Medical conditions worsened, criminals plotted, students dawdled, and workers wasted valuable time whenever nurse, warden, teacher, or boss was away. The Panopticon was the answer and it would serve equally well for “Penitentiary-Houses, Prisons, Poor-Houses, Lazarettos, Houses Of Industry, Manufactories, Hospitals, Work-Houses, Mad-Houses, And Schools” (Panopticon title page) because the underlying principle was the same: Observation and fear of detection ensures compliance.
The leper colony and the plague
While Jeremy Bentham was the first to articulate the observation principle as a disciplinary mode of power, the critic Michel Foucault sees its beginnings in the way that the plague was handled during the Middle Ages. Before the plague, the idea was to exclude sick people from the village, town, or city; hence the leper colony. The political equivalent was exile. People kept at a distance, it was thought, would not be able to infect the larger community with their illnesses or their ideas.
During the Middle Ages, communities began isolating and observing sick people within their own houses. This was done for two reasons. The first was the magnitude of the plagues. Too many people were affected by the various contagions and there was no practical way to remove the sick from the community. The other reason was that unlike leprosy – which was considered a lifelong condition – people recovered from the plague. Society began isolating the sick within the community and observing them to contain the spread of the disease. Those who recovered were allowed to rejoin the community – to leave their houses - once it was clear to the observers that they no longer carried the plague.
According to Foucault in Discipline & Punish, this is the starting point for both the hospital and the modern prison. In a hospital, sick people are brought together under one roof to isolate them from the larger community. They are observed and ministered to until they are well again. Once they have recovered from their illnesses, they are allowed to rejoin society.
The modern prison began to function in a similar way after the Reformation. During the Middle Ages, incarceration usually meant putting someone in a dungeon and “throwing away the key.” A prison term was punishment. Rehabilitation hardly entered into it. Besides, most prisoners were not expected to live long enough to be rehabilitated. With the Reformation came the idea that those who committed crimes were sick people who needed to be rehabilitated or reformed. While those in hospitals were physically sick, those in prisons were mentally or spiritually sick. Given the right treatment, they too could be nursed back to health.
Architecture and geometry functioning as technology
As Foucault would later note, the Panopticon was architecture and geometry functioning as technology: “Because, without any physical instrument other than architecture and geometry, it acts directly on individuals; it gives ‘power of mind over mind’.” (206) According to Bentham, this power was situated “… in the centrality of the inspector’s situation, combined with the well-known and most effectual contrivances for seeing without being seen.” (44)
Even if no one was watching the prisoners, patients, schoolboys and workers at a particular moment, the subjects should be meant to feel that they were being watched at all times: “… the persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so ….” (44)
In order to create the effect of round-the-clock surveillance, the chief inspector and his family were to live in an apartment located just off of the main observation gallery. This would increase the number of eyes on the people being monitored as well as lengthen the period that they were being observed. It would no longer be a case of being under the watchful eye of authority only during working hours. With the Panopticon, there was the potential to watch someone 24/7 two hundred years before this expression had even entered the lexicon.
The observers would not be limited to the inspector and his family, however. Other people would be allowed into the observation gallery besides those who lived and worked there. This gallery, and others like it, would be used as the pulpit for a chapel. Church services would be conducted from the deck of the gallery. At other times, the galleries would be open to the public. Not only would the public be able to add their presence to the panoptic affect on those below. Their unannounced visits would have a like affect on the inspectors themselves by imposing “a system of gratuitous inspection, capable of itself of awing the keeper into good conduct, even if he were not paid for it: and the opposite impulses of hope and fear would thus contribute to ensure perfection to the management, and keep the conduct of the manager wound up to the highest pitch of duty.” (79)
Entertainment for the whole family
Aside from “gratuitous inspection”, there was the entertainment value to be considered. The principal inspector and his family would be able to look into windows rather than look out of them: “It will supply in their instance the place of that great and constant fund of entertainment to the sedentary and vacant in towns – the looking out of the window. The scene, though a confined, would be a very various, and therefore, perhaps, not altogether an unamusing one.” (45)
Those of the public who wanted to make a day of it could be exhorted to visit the Panopticon: “Fill it [the observation deck / pulpit during church services] with company, if company can be induced to come. Why not, as well as to the Asylum, the Magdalen, and the Lock Hospital, in London? The scene would be more picturesque; the occasion not less interesting and affecting.” (78)
As Paul Strathern has noted, Bentham was not alone in classifying this type of observation as a form of entertainment: “Visiting asylums to view the incarcerated and whipped inmates in their cowed or raving degradation became a popular entertainment. No fewer than 96,000 people each year would visit the Bethlehem Hospital for the insane in London. (The corruption of this name gave us the word bedlam….).” (15)
Observation principle as developed by Foucault
In 1975, Michel Foucault published Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la prison [Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison] three years after visiting the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York in the United States. Curiously enough, Britain was not the best place to see Bentham’s prison designs in brick and mortar. This is because in Britain at least, Bentham had lost the debate that New South Wales had won.
For Australians, this part of the story may be well known. At the end of the eighteenth century, England’s prisons and poor houses were overflowing. Why not ship some of the convicts to the Colony of New South Wales? It would relieve the overcrowding and help to populate a distant colony at the same time.
Instead of the house arrest of the plague, portions of New South Wales were to serve as a kind of leper colony for criminals. But that was only part of the idea. Many propone
Bentham, of course, had been against the idea of a far-off penal colony from the beginning. In an 1802 letter to Lord Pelham entitled “Panopticon versus New South Wales: Or, The Panopticon Penitentiary System, And The Penal Colonization System, Compared”, Bentham enumerated his reasons for preferring the Panopticon system to the New South Wales plan. Chief of these was that the all-important principle of observation was lacking from the penal colonization plan. How could you bring about true reformation without keeping an eye on someone? How could you possibly watch people who were going to be allowed to run around New South Wales?
Bentham lost the argument and Britain did not build any Panopticons. The plan to build a Panopticon in Ireland also failed. But America did build some Panopticon-inspired buildings including the Stateville Prison near Joliet, Illinois.
What Foucault discovered while writing Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison was that Bentham needn’t have worried. By the late twentieth century, Bentham’s architectural design for
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