The Panopticon: Life through Omniscience


Artwork: Brit Jackson

Artwork: Brit Jackson

The ‘all-seeing’ Panopticon was a prison design proposed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century, and was based on the idea of incessant surveillance.

The Panopticon was configured in such a way that the jailbirds couldn’t see the watchmen no matter how strenuously they gawked and searched for a sign of guarded life. As such, the prisoners were left clueless when it came to whether or not they were under surveillance and soon they became mangled with mental uncertainty and paranoia.

The goal here was the “automatic functioning of power”- Bentham envisaged inmates so distraught with ambiguity that they unknowingly succumbed to the unwritten laws of conformity and behavioural control. Since the inmates constantly felt like they were being watched my an omniscient being, there wasn’t really much need to put actual surveillance into use- even in its discontinuation, the subliminal vagueness of onlookers sustained the power balance independent of any actual power being exercised. 

In a way, I think this resembles the inner workings of modern day society, or more specifically, our punitive society’s pervasive tendency to monitor and normalize. The Panopticon is a perfect metaphor for the pecking order of influence and power beyond and above which strives to control those below with a certain subliminal fascism that most aren’t apt to pick up on.

The fundamental theme of supremacy as noticeable but unverifiable, entrapping but without use of chains, threats or foretold punishment is active in most hierarchical institutions- like schools, offices, factories, hospitals and even intimate relationships, as well as prisons. 

Think about it: have you ever been alone in your room and done something super gross or embarrassing and all of a sudden been struck by the thought that somehow that hot guy/girl you’ve been dating saw you and now thinks you’re horribly distasteful? Or when you were at primary school, and you wanted nothing more than to climb that playfully large tree right by the fence line, but you never did just in case a teacher saw you and gave you a detention?

You know that hot person can’t actually see you. You’re alone in your room with your curtains closed and one of those weird snake thingies pressed against the crevice beneath your door. And what are the odds of a teacher catching you anyway? The oval is empty, school finished three hours ago and every teacher aside from the library lady is at home with a glass of red in their hand, trying to regain their sanity. Yet here is this underwhelming sense that someone, somehow, will know you’ve done something you shouldn’t have. There lies the theory of Panopticism. 

So next time you pick your nose, go to the toilet without washing your hands or walk on a lawn marked ‘Keep off the grass!’, just remember, the panoptic-eyes are in your mind. You’re conspicuous. No one is noticing. Except that hottie I mentioned who now thinks you’re a total nimrod, and the police officer standing on the pathway armed with handcuffs, and an orange jumpsuit with your name on it.