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[text] Jeremy Bentham

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Posted: 19.10.2001; 17:34:55
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»Of the Power of the Gaze« [1]

by Katrin Kaschadt

»A way of obtaining power, power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.« [2] These words introduced the first of the letters published in 1787 in which Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the British legal philosopher and leading theoretician of utilitarianism, [3] presented his most ambitious project to the public: the idea for a completely new sort of prison, which he appropriately named Panopticon and Inspection House. [4] Although Bentham was to work on this project for almost two decades, and although the government was at first seriously interested, it was never realized. Nonetheless, probably no other idea has ever caused more theoretical debate or had more influence on the architectural realization of the »power of the gaze«.

While visiting his younger brother, Samuel, in Russia, Jeremy saw his proto-panoptical plan for a circular factory that Samuel was to build for Prince Potemkin in Kitchev, Belorussia. The prince's unskilled serfs were to become accustomed to regular work and division of labor according to the European model. This process was to be monitored from a central position. Fascinated by his brother's idea, Jeremy Bentham published a series of 'open' letters in rapid succession the very same year [Letters, 1787 [5]], in which he gave a detailed account of his thoughts for a new architectural model. His aim was to find people to finance the project. In the following years these early plans underwent many variationsin the form of numerous drafts [Postscript to the Panopticon, 1791[6]]. From the very beginning of the public debate, Jeremy Bentham's model, which was at first conceived as ideal for all sorts of institutions where the control of a large number of people or animals was an important priority, served as the model for a new style of prison architecture. [7]

Bentham designed a cylindrical building of four to six stories consisting of a large number of single cells. The cells were arranged circularly or polygonally around a central watchtower with galleries and viewing box. The tower served as the architectural and administrative center, from which the guards could see into every cell without being seen by the prisoners. This was made possible by a clever and extremely practical lighting arrangement. Windows in the sides of the outer cylinder kept the prisoners always in the light, while the guards remained hidden in the dark center.

In the Postscript to the Panopticon, published in 1791, Bentham perfected and differentiated this basic structure through various sketches. He presented a far more refined system whose culmination was the absolute surveillance both of the inmates and their guards by a single, superior authority.

The first plans for a central living area were now replaced by the director's office. This made the tower purely a place for carrying out surveillance. The newly introduced top lighting of this area, together with the continuous side windows in the outer cylinder, already present in the first plan, improved the illumination of each individual cell. Numerous connecting corridors and galleries between the central section and the outer ring of cells, hidden openings, pipes for bugging purposes, and a clever system of partitions and curtains made it possible for the guards to watch every room without being seen themselves. Both prisoners and guards were then under the control of the highest authority in the building, the director, who was the only one not under surveillance.

The basic principle of the panopticon, the »power of the gaze«, is reflected in its name [Greek: all-seeing]. Through purely architectural means, Bentham made it possible for one single authority to carry out absolute surveillance of all activities, and allowed for the establishment of a system of rational order and efficiency. The architectural arrangement and its name evoke the thought of an »all-powerful«, »God-like« institution which, according to Bentham's ideas, was to be constructed in an urban context as a »pantheon of punishment«. [8]

With the Panopticon, the aspect of »being imprisoned« - formerly a step on the path to ever-more brutal corporal punishment and public execution - becomes a central issue. This is an expression of the reform of the penal and legal system that had begun at the end of the 17th century as part of the Enlightenment and with the gradual emancipation of the bourgeoisie from the Ancien Régime. Across Europe, reformers like Beccaria, Montesquieu and Eden spoke out against the arbitrariness of the courts and for more humane forms of punishment. The observation was made that corporal punishment holds the danger of latent habituation.

The preventative effectiveness of punishment had to be brought about in a different manner. People were convinced that the power of human reason could solve every problem and believed in the perfectibility of the individual and thus also in the possibility of the ideal human being and human community. Criminal behaviour was seen as the physical expression of a sick mind resulting from social circumstances. [9] Punishment was therefore no longer to be directed at the body but at the soul.

Bentham's concepts were the first to give this requirement a logical, architectural form: a comprehensive surveillance through »the gaze« took the place of any physical punishment. Every relationship between the prisoners and the guards was restricted to the visual. The cells were to have running water and toilets, the rooms to be heated using »thermo-ventilation« and provided with fresh air, and Bentham even conceived of a mechanical method of distributing food. Bentham soon changed the concept of single cells, as laid out in the first plan, to that of having cells for three to four prisoners - certainly one of the most important innovations in his project. He realized that, in contrast to the solitary confinement practiced until then, which was considered essential for the safety of the prisoners, group confinement would create social relationships and bonds as well as social control, all of which would have a positive effect on the education of the prisoner. This was a first, and highly modern, step towards the reintegration of a delinquent, one that was to be discussed again in the 20th century. Solitary confinement became used only for severe penal measures. [10] The prison became a civic penitentiary, a disciplinary institution that was to lead the sick mind back to the proper path and prevent further misdemeanours.

There is no doubt that the economic context of early industrialization in England made itself felt here; a penal practice like this spares the workers. At the same time, the concept of prison as a disciplinary instution is also effected by new sociological approaches, such as experimental psychology and Rousseau's educational theories, whose pedagogic methods were meant to remove every possibility of the »pupil's« stumbling in advance, thereby transforming him/her into a »free« and »natural« human being. [11]

Bentham took this concept for the basis of his idea. People who constantly think they are being watched - because they know they are under surveillance but cannot control exactly when they are really being observed - would have to lose the possibility, and finally the desire, of doing wrong. Under the watchful gaze, criminals would gradually mend their ways and, supported by the admonition of the »invisible« supervisor, internalize the feeling of being observed, finally leaving the Panopticon as a »civilized« person. Such a structure, by virtue of its being based on the control of many people by a few, holds the possibility and danger of abuse and can thus turn Bentham's positive intentions into something negative. These issues formed part of the reception of his project from the beginning.

In the architectural genealogy of Bentham's Panopticon, there are various precedents based on a circular ground plan with some sort of observational purpose – for example, with a central viewing position. For instance, theaters are arranged in this way, and Bentham explicitly stressed their influence as an important component in his panopticon. Other types of buildings designed for aviaries or zoos and employing Baroque, absolutist structures also anticipate this design. [12]

The small number of early reformatories and the prisons that had developed since the mid-16th century, particularly in Europe's capitals, were among the immediate predecessors of Bentham's institution. [13]. These were not first and foremost penal institutions or detention centers, as is commonly thought even today, but rather charitable institutions run by the municipality or principality, and their operation depended on the sort of work there was to be done. The prison as we know it today, which used repression and production as methods of punishment, did not come into being until the late-17th century. The method of employing work as a means of punishing misdemeanours can be traced back as far as mythical Tartaros, where Sisyphus or the Danaides are punished through their futile activities. The Christian concept of Hell and Purgatory also includes the image of a huge factory of torment, the »infernal smithy«, as does Dante's Inferno, in which the sinners are punished according to a well-organized system. [14]

Bentham's plans for the formal and technical realization of the building correspond to the modernity of the approach to punishment and the disciplinary methods. Certain »antique« elements of the supposedly earliest sketch from the plans published in 1791, such as those found in the entrance, reveal classicistic traits. However, the strict, unornamented forms show the influence of what is called »Revolution architecture«, whose radically modern-looking stereometric simplicity had spread from France since the mid-1780s through designs by Ledoux and Boullé. In fact, it was not Bentham but the architect Willey Reveley who carried out Bentham's ideas and is reponsible for the appearance of these pictures.

Three drafts of illustrations supposedly created later in the 1791 series show considerably more sweeping changes to the project. The building is clearly larger and more differentiated in the way it is divided throughout the interior. It also makes copious use of the most modern materials: iron and glass, materials that weren't to be employed on a large scale in architecture until the 19th century. The entire inner structure is designed to be of iron, a material that is not only fireproof but also lighter, more flexible, and cheaper than stone. [15] It had been used for the first time only twelve years before, for building a bridge. [16] The large glass surfaces that were to fill this metal cage anticipate Paxton's Crystal Palace of 1851.

The »power of the gaze« institutionalized in the Panopticon points to a theme that played a significant role in the changing society of the 18th century. Technical and scientific discoveries and developments such as the steamship, express mail, hot-air balloons, the telescope and the microscope changed habitual visual experiences and broadened horizons in a figurative sense as well. The first official flight of a hot-air balloon in 1783 - on the eve of the French Revolution - was seen as a »symbol promising certainty on the horizon of the emerging middle class. [17] The artistic reaction was the »invention« of the Panorama by the Englishman Robert Barker in 1787 - a picture in a round room that simulates the view across a landscape, for example. Interestingly, the Panopticon and the Panorama, whose names are related [all-seeing], not only came onto the scene at the same time [1787], but the rooms constructed for each of them and their purpose of gaining visual control over the surroundings - nature in one case, the people under surveillance in the other – also resemble one another. But while the gaze is taught in the case of the Panorama, in the Panopticon it is used to teach.

The buildings decisively influenced by Bentham's plans include all sorts of public buildings, such as schools, reformatories and prisons. Among those are Robert Adamson's Edinburgh Bridgewelly [1794], the Female Prison at Lancaster Castle [1821], some of the smaller Irish country gaols, and a few department prisons in France [ca. 1840 and 1870]. The Pauper Lunatic Asylum near York, built by Watson & Pritchett, was an early attempt to apply the panoptic concept to lunatic asylums as well. The designs of the English National Penitentiary in Millbank, built by William Williams [1812] and the model prison in Prisonville [1838-40] show variations to Bentham's model. The Arnhem Koepel Gefängnis, built according to the panoptic principle in 1897, embodies this principle in its purest form: a single, all-seeing »eye« in the middle of those under surveillance. Examples from the 20th century include The Dutch Prison in Breda [1902]; Statesville Prison in Joliet, USA [1926-35] and the penal colony on the island Pinos near Cuba [1932].

The aim of the panoptic principle is effective production - of goods in a factory, health in a hospital, or converted, improved people in a prison. Just 100 years later, Bentham's mechanistic ideal of the pure power of one centralized authority watching over surrounding subjects had become intolerable. In 1975, the French philosopher and theoretician Michel Foucault again made the Panopticon the subject of contemporary discussion. In his work Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, [18] he presented Bentham's concept as an important turning point in the history of human awareness, as Bentham had legitimized and institutionalized the spread of power and control through surveillance. According to Foucault, the Industrial Revolution was accompanied by the emergence of a new method used to administrate social groups. The masses of individuals freeing themselves from the old power and economic systems had to be controlled using new methods. Taking the model of Bentham's Panopticon as an example, Foucault made it clear that the human subject became an object of surveillance, under institutional control and scientific behavioral research. Establishing quantative and qualitative behavioral norms was a particularly deciding fact for the creation of these new methods of disciplining the subject. [19] According to Foucault, society is »[...] a society of surveillance«, [20] which locks people into the mechanism of the panoptic machine that they themselves keep going. Since then, the space of the panopticon has become a synonym for the arsenal of surveillance practices that determine our lives and in which people's unawareness is used or abused. This aspect is virulent in the contemporary surveillance of the public and private sphere.

[Translated from German by Timothy Jones]

1 Stephan Oettermann, Das Panorama: die Geschichte eines Massenmediums, Syndikat, Frankfurt am Main 1980, p. 33. ^

2 Jeremy Bentham, Panopticon Letters, 1787, unpublished manuscript, University College London Library. Quoted in Robin Evans: »Bentham's Panopticon. An Incident in the Social History of Architecture«, in: Architectural Association Quarterly, 3, no.2, Oxford/New York, April-July 1971, p. 22. ^

3 The philosophical doctrine of utilitarianism equates usefulness and morality; usefulness is the principle guiding any activity. The main proponents in England were Jeremy Bentham and J. St. Mills. Cf. http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project or http://www.utilitarism.com/bentham.htm. ^

4 Cf. Stephan Oettermann, Das Panorama: die Geschichte eines Massenmediums, Syndikat, Frankfurt am Main 1980, p. 34. ^

5 Jeremy Bentham, Panopticon. Letters, 1787, unpublished manuscript, University College London Library. ^

6 Jeremy Bentham, Panopticon Postscript, 1791, in John Bowring (ed.), The Works of Jeremy Bentham, 11 volumes, Edinburgh 1838-43. Jeremy Bentham originally intended this plan to be his entry in a competition, run by the St. James Chronicle, for a new prison to be built in Middlesex. Cf. Simon Werret Potemkin and the panopticon: Samuel Bentham and the Architecture of Absolutism in Eighteenth Century Russia, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University, Free School Lane, Cambridge 1998, in http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project/journal/nlwerret.htm, pp.1. It was finally decided to locate the proposed building in the center of London where today the Tate Gallery of British Art [Tate Britan] stands. ^

7 Jeremy Bentham intended his plan not only for a prison, but also for schools, hospitals, military hospitals, poorhouses, institutions for the mentally ill, orphanages, kindergardens, institutions for blind and dear people, homes for "fallen” girls, factories, and even huge chicken farms. ^

8 Cf. Andreas Bienert, Gefängnis als Bedeutungsträger. Ikonologische Studie zur Geschichte der Strafarchitektur, Europäische Hochschulschriften, Series XXXVII, Architektur, vol. 20, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 1996, p. 169. ^

9 Cf. Jeremy Bentham, The Rationale of Punishment, London 1830, Book V, Ch. 2, p. 365. Quoted in Robin Evans: »Bentham’s Panopticon. An Incident in the Social History of Architecture«, in: Architectural Association Quarterly, 3, no.2, April-July, Oxford/New York 1971, p. 25. ^

10 Cf. Janet Semple, Bentham’s Prison. A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1993, pp. 130/131. ^

11 Cf. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emil or Education. Cf. René Scherer, Das dressierte Kind. Sexualität und Erziehung. Über die Einführung der Unschuld, Berlin 1975, pp. 21-23. ^

12 Robin Evans: »Bentham’s Panopticon. An Incident in the Social History of Architecture«, in: Architectural Association Quarterly, 3, no.2, April-July, Oxford/New York 1971, p. 31. ^

13 The following designs or building are mentioned as models for Bentham's construction: the reformatory of Pope Clement XI [1707]; the Maison de Force [1772-73] in Ghent; the County Prison in Chester, built by Thomas Harrison ins 1787, which has an almost identical plan; three prisons by William Blackburn in Liverpool [1779], Ipswich [1786] and Northleach, Gloucestershire [1785]; design for a hospital [1786] by B. Poyet, et al. ^

14 Cf. Andreas Bienert, Gefängnis als Bedeutungsträger. Ikonologische Studie zur Geschichte der Strafarchitektur, Europäische Hochschulschriften, Series XXXVII, Architektur, vol. 20, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 1996, p. 125. ^

15 The columns are multifunctional; they serve not only as smoke outlet, but also as an invisible rainwater gutter. Cf. Robin Evans, op.cit., p. 33. ^

16 London, Tower Bridge, by J. Wolfe-Bary and Horace Jones (1779). ^

17 Cf. Stephan Oettermann, Das Panorama: die Geschichte eines Massenmediums, Syndikat, Frankfurt am Main 1980, p. 13. ^

18 Cf. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. Original edition: Surveiller et punir. La naissance de la prison, Edition Gallimard, Paris 1975. ^

19 Jonathan Crary, Techniken des Betrachters. Sehen und Moderne im 19. Jahrhundert, Verlag der Kunst, Dresden/ Basel 1996, pp. 26-29. ^

20 Michel Foucault, op.cit. ^

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