Monday, February 18, 2008

Panopticon From the Air

Since reading Discipline and Punish in grad school, I've been fascinated by Michel Foucault's articulation of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, the humanitarian penitentiary designed as an "all-seeing place." To Foucault, the panopticon illustrated an essential manifestation of modern power: coercion without violence. While medieval forms of discipline relied on spectacle, illustrated by public (and often bloody) executions, modern discipline relies on bureaucracy. The body is transformed into an object of perpetual gaze, endlessly scrutinized and categorized.

In the panopticon, the body is individuated in a cell located on the outer edge of a circular prison that allows light to stream in from the outside. A single guard located in a center tower need only view the prisoners' forms, all equally subject to his gaze, to maintain order. Because each prisoner is locked in a single cell, none can plot collective resistance. And because the guard may employ blinds in his tower office, no prisoner knows for sure whether he is being watched. Each must presume at every moment that he is under constant surveillance.

It's a strange object of study, I know. Still, you can imagine my delight when I found a Google Sightseeing page dedicated to panopticons throughout the world. These eerie structures, arranged for the perpetuation of self-discipline, remind me that control is not yet free of physicality.

See for yourself: Panopticon Prisons.

See also a previous post on Google's contribution to our Surveillance Society.

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