Panopticon Essay

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The Panopticon, designed by the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, in 1791, is a prison in which an observer positioned in a center tower has the ability to see into all of the cells across from the tower in an annular building. Backlighting allows the observer to see into the cells and observe the occupants. Since those inside the cells are unable to see into the center tower (its windows are covered), the prisoners can never tell if (and when) they are being observed.

Under the constant threat of being watched, the cell occupant begins to internalize this gaze and, in turn, begins to self-police and supervise his/her thoughts, behaviors, and actions whether or not anyone is actually watching. In this way, power is not imposed upon the corporeal body directly, such as through the use of torture, but rather, through an array of design and lighting features and through the distribution of bodies in cells.

The Panopticon, typically portrayed as a prison to control prisoners, was designed to serve as a modern solution to social problems. It could function as an asylum to control illness, a workhouse to control workers or even to control a school full of children. Through mechanisms of control, surveillance and self-discipline, the Panopticon became a way to deploy state power through various institutions. By turning the watcher’s gaze inward, self-policing made the role of the state as a disciplinary body less visible since people were doing the work themselves.

The Panopticon was never actually built. However, it serves as a metaphor for surveillance society since the disciplinary techniques envisioned for the Panopticon inevitably spread throughout the social body. Thus, the Panopticon is more than a building spec; the Panopticon inspires mechanisms of control such as surveillance and self-policing, and in this way, helps us to think about how individuals constitute themselves as subjects in a disciplinary society.


  1. Bentham, J. (1995)  The Panopticon  Writings, ed. M. BoZovic. Verso, London.
  2. Foucault, M. (1995) [1978] Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan. Vintage Books, New York.

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