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panopticon This term was first used by Jeremy Bentham in 1791 to describe his idea of an ‘inspection house’ to be used for surveillance purposes in public institutions such as prisons, asylums, and workhouses. The panopticon was a circular construction of open single ‘cells’, built around a central inspection tower, by means of which both the inspector and the inmate were under constant surveillance. Michel Foucault discussed the idea at length in Discipline and Punish (1975) and describes the panopticon as an apparatus of power by virtue of the field of visibility it creates. Because it made inmates always conscious of being visible, he argued, an automatic functioning of power was ensured. As a consequence of constant surveillance, individuals became ensnared in an impersonal power relation which both disindividualized the power relationship itself, and individualized those subjected to it. Foucault saw this as an essential development in, and metaphor for, the increasing surveillance, hierarchy, discipline, and classifications of modern society, by means of which individuals became ever more regulated and controlled by impersonal institutions. The idea of the panopticon as discussed by Foucault has also been important and influential in recent theories of the gaze.

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Panopticon the name given by Jeremy Bentham in 1790 to his proposal for an institutional building, especially a prison, of circular shape with the area occupied by the inmates disposed round and fully open to view from a central vantage point. A scheme for a penitentiary on these lines was accepted by Parliament in 1794, and a site at Millbank, London, was chosen, but, in the event, the new penitentiary (which opened in 1816) was not built to Bentham's plan. Among later prisons constructed on the panopticon principle, the Stateville Penitentiary at Joliet, Illinois, is still in use.

The word comes from Greek pan ‘all’ + optikon, neuter of optikos ‘optic’, and is recorded from the mid 18th century as a word for a kind of telescope.

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panopticon Bentham's name for a circular prison in which warders could at all times observe their prisoners XVIII; show-room XIX. f. Gr. PAN- + optikón, n. of optikós OPTIC.

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1. Building, especially a gaol, planned on the radiating principle, with wings branching from a central control-point, invented by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832).

2. Exhibition-room or show-room for novelties, etc.