The concepts of panopticon and panoptic gaze can be traced to the 1791 publication of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon; or, The Inspection House (Bentham 1962, p. 37). Although he presented it primarily as a prison design, Bentham (1748-1832) believed the panoptic principle was “applicable to any sort of establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection,” including prisons, workhouses, manufactories, hospitals, and schools (vol. 4, p. 37). Bentham asserted that “gradual adoption and diversified application” of this “simple idea in architecture” would have far-reaching benefits: “morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burdens lightened …” (vol. 4, p. 66).
The ideal panopticon consists of an observation tower within a large circular courtyard ringed by a cellblock several stories high but only one room deep. Each cell should be occupied by only one surveillant who is subject to constant observation from the tower; yet, the design of the panopticon simultaneously prevents communication between inmates. Ideally, the central tower is screened, so the inmates never know who (if anyone) is in the observatory at any particular time.
According to Michel Foucault’s analysis of panopticism in Discipline and Punish (1979), this design has a number of effects. Because the observer is screened from the gaze of the inmates, the see/being-seen dyad is dissociated, inducing “in the inmates a state of consciousness and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (p. 201). Furthermore, the exercise of power is dispersed, depersonalized, and internalized by the inmates. Who, if anyone, actually occupies the tower is irrelevant to the functioning of the mechanism, so long as the inmates (or patients, students, workers, shoppers) behave as if they were under constant surveillance. “[In short], the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers” (p. 201). Although the panopticon in its pure and literal form was relatively rare, it was—and remains—an extremely pervasive “political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use” (p. 205).
Investigators in disparate social science fields have noted the importance of panoptic surveillance in both historic and contemporary contexts. For example, Thomas Jefferson was quite familiar with Bentham’s work and utilized panoptic principles in the design of Monticello, his hilltop estate. He subsequently drew on French examples of panoptic institutions in his plan (never implemented) for a prison to be constructed in Richmond, Virginia (Epperson 2000; Upton 1990). Similarly, James Delle (1998) has analyzed the importance of the panoptic gaze in the spatial disciplining of enslaved plantation workers in Jamaica, and Mark Leone (1995) has discerned panoptic principles in city plans and public architecture in Annapolis and Baltimore, Maryland. According to urban geographer Edward Soja, “every city is to some degree a panopticon, a collection of surveillant nodes designed to impose and maintain a particular model of conduct and disciplined adherence on its inhabitants” (1996, p. 235). In contemporary Los Angeles the panoptic gaze is manifested architecturally in disciplinary institutions such as the Metropolitan Detention Center and electronically in closed-circuit surveillance cameras (Davis 1992; Soja 1996).
SEE ALSO Foucault, Michel
Bentham, Jeremy. 1962. Panopticon; Or, The Inspection House. In The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Published Under the Supervision of His Executor, John Bowring, ed. J. Bowring. New York: Russell and Baker. Original edition, 1838–1842.
Delle, James A. 1998. An Archaeology of Social Space: Analyzing Coffee Plantations in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. New York: Plenum.
Epperson, Terrence W. 2000. Panoptic Plantations: The Garden Sights of Thomas Jefferson and George Mason. In Lines That Divide: Historical Archaeologies of Race, Class, and Gender, eds. James A. Delle, Stephen A. Mrozowski, and Robert Paynter. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.
Leone, Mark P. 1995. A Historical Archaeology of Capitalism. American Anthropologist 97 (2): 251–268.
Soja, Edward W. 1996. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Upton, Dell. 1990. Imagining the Early Virginia Landscape. In Earth Patterns: Essays in Landscape Archaeology, eds. William M. Kelso and Rachel Most. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
Terrence W. Epperson