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Bentham and Foucault's Panopticon

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Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher and social theorist in the mid-1700s, invented a social control mechanism that would become a comprehensive symbol for modern authority and discipline in the western world: a prison system called the Panopticon.

The basic principle for the design, which Bentham first completed in 1785, was to monitor the maximum number of prisoners with the fewest possible guards and other security costs. The layout (which is depicted below) consists of a central tower for the guards, surrounded by a ring-shaped building of prison cells.

The building with the prisoners is only one cell thick, and every cell has one open side facing the central tower. This open side has bars over it, but is otherwise entirely exposed to the tower. The guards can thus see the entirety of any cell at any time, and the prisoners are always vulnerable and visible. Conversly, the tower is far enough from the cells and has sufficiently small windows that the prisoners cannot see the guards inside of it.

The sociological effect is that the prisoners are aware of the presence of authority at all times, even though they never know exactly when they are being observed. The authority changes from being a limited physical entity to being an internalized omniscience- the prisoners discipline themselves simply because someone might be watching, eliminating the need for more physical power to accomplish the same task. Just a few guards are able to maintain a very large number of prisoners this way. Arguably, there wouldn’t even need to be any guards in the tower at all.

In 1813, parliament granted Bentham 23,000 pounds to build the first ever panopticon prison. This panopticon in New Dehli was completed in 1817 and is still functioning as a prison to this day.

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Michel Foucault, a French intellectual and critic, expanded the idea of the panopticon into a symbol of social control that extends into everyday life for all citizens, not just those in the prison system. He argues that social citizens always internalize authority, which is one source of power for prevailing norms and institutions. A driver, for example, might stop at a red light even when there are no other cars or police present. Even though there are not necessarily any repercussions, the police are an internalized authority- people tend to obey laws because those rules become self-imposed.

This is a profound and complicated idea, namely because the process entails a high degree of social intuition; the subject must be able to situate him or her self amidst a network of collective expectations. The crucial point is that the subject’s specific role within the network is incorporated as a part of the body and mind, which then manifests as self-discipline.

In the course of my project, I will argue that the mirror enables people to very realistically project their body images into a visible and objective space. This results in more comprehensive control over body images, and this control results in self-discipline according to a number of body norms and myths. People use the mirror to help affect their bodies in relation to the social definitions of beauty, hygiene, productivity, diet/consumption, disgust- and inevitably situate their bodies within a multitude of different identities that interact with these constructions.

A mirror is a powerful tool that socialized people use to monitor their bodies in relation to a network of body images and signs (citizens are to the social network as prisoners are to the panopticon). Rather than a legal law like stopping at red lights, the rules implicated in self-monitoring with mirrors involve social etiquette and aesthetic norms.

This project is divided into two main sections. The first section will explore the history of mirror production, and its implications for self-monitoring in the context of a social-psychological framework. The second part is dedicated to several specific forms of social rhetoric that inform our body images and they ways that we construct them.

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Bentham and Foucault’s Panopticon. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/bentham-and-foucaults-panopticon/
“Bentham and Foucault’s Panopticon.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/bentham-and-foucaults-panopticon/
Bentham and Foucault’s Panopticon. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/bentham-and-foucaults-panopticon/> [Accessed 3 Feb. 2023].
Bentham and Foucault’s Panopticon [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2023 Feb 3]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/bentham-and-foucaults-panopticon/
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