1. An Inspector’s Paradise


The perversion of solidarity in Revolutionary France, more so its violence, frightened the European bourgeoisie. The German philosopher Hegel called it ‘the Great Shock’, embodying the essence of Enlightenment, however reducing the freedom of sensual certainty and observation to an all-pervasive surveillance.


In an unpublished manuscript, written in 1803, frightened Hegel asked how the social riffraff of atomized individuals could be kept from becoming a dangerous mob, as had happened in France. Too threatening a question to handle, he left it unanswered. Decades later, his political philosophy offered the abstract solution of a constitutional order, representing economic groups by way of corporate organizations. [4]


Because living in then backward Germany, Hegel might be accused of both alarmism and optimism. His contemporary, the Englishman Bentham, also panicked. At first he still saw the Revolution as a democratic experiment, soon enough however its Terror made him recoil. Now in his writings the vagrant masses at home and the convicts in the Australian colony became a ‘pack of promiscuous beasts.’


Bentham’s Inspection Principle was his answer to the Great Shock. It was more practical and more complex than Hegel’s ‘legal’ solution, because not only did his plan react to the French upheaval, it also answered the acute social problems in his own industrializing England. Interesting to note is that this urge to control the mob cut right through the left/right spectrum of political opinion. Institutionalised crowd control – even utopians like Fourier and Owen opted for Bentham’s Inspection Principle to regulate revolutionary communities of their own design.


The difference between the principles of the French Revolution and Bentham’s beliefs lay in the latter’s abhorrence of the abuse of state power. According to Utilitarianism, the state must only support a petit guerre to prevent the evils of drunkenness, violence and indolence. Good, that is disciplined education would make of most people decent and virtuous citizens. Thus, not all of society would need to be kept under police and state surveillance, as had happened in France.


Bentham’s proposals, however, meant that inside factories, hospitals and schools a gentle, though complete surveillance could be organized in order to transform the irregular ‘mass’ or ‘mob’, Hegel’s ‘rabble’, into an ‘ordered multitude’. Only those who remained mischievous should be set apart in prisons or colonies.


Rousseau exposed his soul voluntarily. By contrast, the Revolution forced such visibility on the masses in a repressive manner. Bentham, then, was eager to find a non-violent, truly ‘British’ solution that would prevent mischief before it could even happen.


Although the Inspection Principle was originally invented for productive manufacturing, Bentham’s brother ran a factory, the actual research began with prison architecture, only later to be developed into designs for schools, poorhouses and the like. Though he disagreed with French practice, he accepted its starting point. His dream went even further:


“It were to be wished that every man’s name were written upon his forehead as well as engraved upon his door. It were to be wished that no such thing as secrecy existed – that every man’s house were made of glass… Civil liberties are maintained not in holes and corners, but in the face of day; not by men whose shame it is, but whose glory it is to be known.” [5]


As this is not the case, Bentham believed that constant and thorough inspection would permit effective, non-violent deterrence. His special notion of transparency he called the Panopticon Principle, to describe a space or condition in which every occurrence is permanently visible. Already in 1780 Bentham had claimed more generally that the possibility of a man’s mischief being detected provides an important motive for his good behaviour. Under the impact of both the French Revolution and England’s social panic, in 1791 he now gave that principle a practical form.


Surveillance would be perfect, if only all people were in a condition where they could be observed every instant of the day. As this seemed practically and more especially: economically impossible. The next best thing was to make sure that each inmate of an institution would believe himself to be constantly observed, while at the same time these inmates under surveillance would not be able to check whether they were controlled in fact. The inspector, then, would only have apparent omnipresence. Seeing without being seen! [6]


Bentham’s architectural prison design was a stroke of genius. A look at the plan, the elevation of which might contain eight floors, demonstrates the brilliance of his insight.




Bentham’s Panopticon Prison, elevation


The building is circular, with the inspector at the centre and the prisoners in the periphery. The plan is arranged in such a fashion that the inspector has a clear view into each cell, in which either the light of day or from lamps inside during the night shines on all prisoners in their cells.


The prisoners, by contrast, cannot see into the inspector’s Lodge, because its interior is kept dark while the guards are screened off by blinds from the prisoner’s view. Thus, the prisoners can never be certain whether they are actually observed ór not. [7]


Even if not even one guard is present in the Lodge, the inmate would still be uncertain as to whether he is being watched or not. This diabolical contraption transformed each prisoner into an overseer of himself. Because he might be observed some of the time, he must behave as if he is observed all of the time.


The management itself would also be transparent. The jailers were kept to a fair treatment of the inmates, because the public – considered ‘the great open committee of the tribunal of the world’ – would have access to the central lodge. Bentham called also the building itself ‘transparent’, as everywhere uninterrupted light takes the place of all darkness. [8]


Thus, the behaviour of each inmate is rendered completely visible, however only his behaviour, since the Panopticon does not pry into the ‘secret recesses of the heart’, confining its attention to overt acts. That secret realm would remain under God’s supervision. [9]


Inspection was operating at the microcosmic level of the prison cell as well. Two prisoners in the same cell would be one another’s mutual inspector, each of them afraid to be made accountable for the other man’s mischief. This mutual inspection, however, was open and did not involve common informers like in France, who by contrast and by definition always keep themselves in the dark.


Bentham’s voyeuristic obsession with such mutual reformation may be gathered from a little drawing he included in a letter to his brother-entrepreneur Samuel, in which he used mirrors to observe others around a corner. He did not just loathe Rousseau’s notion of ‘popular will’, but also the Frenchman’s tendency to solitude – that leaves man far too much room for uncontrolled passions.


This stress on the overt act is in accord with Bentham’s distrust of purely religious means of persuasion. His trust in the effect of the architectural organization of material space also contrasts with the belief of Pugin and Ruskin in the wholesome effect of mere architectural symbolism. His prisons won’t get architectural prizes… Bentham disbelieved in symbols, counting instead on the drilled repetition of good acts as impelled by surveillance. These, rather than religious persuasion, would kill a man’s propensity for abnormal behaviour.


Subsequently the Panopticon plan was applied to factories, schools and hospitals. For Bentham all unenlightened people, yielding to the seduction of the passing moment, stand in need of close, civil inspection. No one was to be completely trusted…


Finally, the use of light is essential to the Panopticon building. Bentham abhorred darkness, it equals evil. Prior to his prison reform, the general solution for a penitential structure was the dark dungeon in which inmates were plagued with the terror of the exclusion of daylight. Bentham, to the contrary, was proud that he incorporated light as a key element into his design. Staircases were constructed from iron bars, ‘so that one part may intercept as little light from another as possible.’ [10] His structure was almost as a pervious to light as it was to view.







4 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807), (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1964), chapter VI, a, ii/b, iii. Idem, Philosophy of Right (1821), (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1952), section 302 and the footnotes to section 244, 290, 302, 260. On Hegel’s unfinished manuscript, Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), p.79.


5 Jeremy Bentham, Deontology Vol. I (London: Ed. Longman, 1834), p.100; Bentham, ‘Manuscripts’ in Douglas G. Long, Bentham on Liberty (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), p.199. See for an extensive analysis of Bentham’s Utilitarisniam: R. Sierksma, Toezicht en Taak, PhD Leyden University 1991.


6 Jeremy Bentham, Panopticon (Dublin/London: reprinted by T. Payne, 1791), p.3, pp. 23f, p. 28; Bentham Postscripts I and II (Dublin/London: reprinted by T. Payne, 1791), pp. 97-98.


7 Bentham, Panopticon, letter II, pp. 5-12.


8 Jeremy Bentham, A View of the Hard-Labour Bill (1778), (London: Ed. Longman, 1834), p.10; Bentham, The Panopticon versus New South Wales (1778), (London: Ed. Longman, 1834), p. 177, p.185. On darkness being equal to ‘caprice and senseless sound’, Bentham, Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), (New York: Hafner Press, 1948), p. 2.


9 Bentham, Panopticon, p.137.


10 Bentham, Postscript I, p.86, p.94.


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s