The Panopticon Writings: democratic surveillance

Jeremy Bentham’s Inspection House plan, later known as the Panopticon Inspection House, and ultimately merely as the Panopticon was primed, through its meticulous planning and relegation to the imaginary, to transform into metaphor. In our evermore connected and documented way of life, it has only grown in both power and popularity in the imaginations of those who worry about surveillance. But that metaphor is a boogeyman, a monster under the bed, because it fails to preserve a few crucial elements of Bentham’s original vision. Those omitted details are the one’s which transform the Inspection House from a regime of surveillance into a radical democratization of power through visibility.
Bentham’s Inspection House operates on the premise that visibility constitutes a form of coersive power. He envisions a re/formative setting where, through the expectation of constant surveillance, those placed under inspection (be they prisoners or school children) modify their behavior to align with societal norms. Simultaneously, he envisioned a system whereby the jailer would be rendered as visible to society as those in the cells of the Inspection House are to him. He presents two forms of visibility in his letters to which the manager of the Panopticon would be subject; one direct, and the other indirect.

The first – the direct – form of visibility emerges through what one might imagine as “drop-in” visits. However, rather than limiting them to some form of official inspection, he presents a radical vision of openness regarding public buildings. He declares that the doors of the Inspection House should be open

“as […] the doors of all public establishments ought to be, […] to the body of the curious at large – the great open committee of the tribunal of the world.” 1

Here he is imagining a world where anyone can satisfy their curiosity about the treatment of the prisoners by visiting the prison, with no need for any reason, justification, or permission other than that curiosity. The scope of the statement is telling, because its implications extend beyond Bentham’s imagined establishment to the operation of all public institutions. While he acknowledges that the doors of public institutions are rarely found as inviting as he describes, he makes his implicit criticism explicit. He continues:

And who ever objects to such publicity, where it is practicable, but those whose motives for objection afford the strongest reasons for it? 2

Declaring that those in public office who wish to avoid visibility have something to hide is a bold declaration of a well-known truth.

Bentham’s second – indirect – form of visibility is through documentation. He states that the person contracted to operate the Inspection House, in return for all profit to be gained through its operation, should maintain and publish a full account of the prison’s operation.

I will then require him to disclose, and even to print and publish his accounts – the whole process and detail of his management – the whole history of the prison. 3

This publication is also to be available to all who desire to read it. This indirect form of visibility adds to the pressure for conformity to standards. Bentham also sees a productive outcome to this record keeping, for those unmoved by the moral argument. If full and complete records are kept, even a failed Inspection House becomes an opportunity for knowledge

From the information thus got from him, I derive this advantage. In the case of his ill success, I see the causes of it, and not only I, but every body else that pleases, may see the cause of it… 4

This, he explains, means that future ventures on the Inspection House model will have the chance to see and avoid the failures which beset their predecessors.

He makes two further demands on the warden which would be revolutionary in any prison system. The first is the existence of a ledger which documents all instances of punishment – not unreasonable, and a rule broadly applied. What is more telling is his vision for its usage.

A correction-book might be kept, in which every instance of chastisement, with the cause for which it was administered upon record: any the slightest act of punishment not entered to be considered as a lawless injury. 5

In the contemporary moment, when we are embroiled in a national debate regarding the use of force by law enforcement officers and other members of the security apparatus, the classification of violence on incarcerated and condemned bodies by agents of the state as illegal violence because of its indefinable or absent justification is truly radical.

His other requirement is a punitive measure to ensure the well-being of the prisoners. He says,

I would make him pay so much for ever one that died, without troubling myself whether any care of his could have kept the man alive. 6

He acknowledges that some of that cost would be covered in the original contract between the state and the private contractor running the prison. Nevertheless, this kind of broadly applied punitive measure is one which demands careful consideration. It declares, without exception, that all lives are valuable, and underwrites that assertion with a monetary value. Perhaps a distasteful premise, but one which might have enough sway to produce real change in the treatment of persons deemed inconsequential or less valuable in some social environments or interactions with the state.

At this juncture I invite you to imagine a prison whose doors are open, that “the great open committee of the tribunal of the world” may evaluate the treatment of its prisoners. One whose books and ledgers, the histories of an institution, are available to that same “body of the curious at large.” This is a vision where the state security apparatus watches its citizens, but where they watch back. In a world that recognizes the coersive power of visibility, looking upwards, demanding and seeking visibility of our public institutions is a radical democratic act. One which Jeremy Bentham was always pointing out to us.


  1. Bentham, J. The Panopticon Writings. Verso: London. 1995. p. 47-8. Letter IX 
  2. p. 48 
  3. p. 52. Letter IX 
  4. p. 53 
  5. p. 64. Letter XII 
  6. ibid

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