Fight the panopticon!

This will be another off the dome one (I’ve got 5 essays to write in the month, eep, so not much time for too much else, got to make sure I keep on top of Arrow, Supernatural, Outlander and all that, so sacrifices must be made; sorry, blog). This time I will be discussing all I remember about the concept of the panopticon. Now, I believe that the actual theory of a panopticon prison was developed in the 18th Century by social theorist Jeremy Bentham, I am familiar with it however, through Postmodern theory. My personal history with Postmodernism has been a classic Ron and Hermione romance: initially, I HATED IT, it’s useless, there are too many Postmodernists, and I am scared of spiders (yes, I identify as Hermione in this situation). As the years have passed though, it has slowly seeped into my thick skull – perhaps it was the freeing realisation that Postmodernism may not actually mean anything, the amount of books I’ve read arguing what is and isn’t “Postmodern”, blimey – now I find myself more and more fascinated by it and we both having grown closer to each other in school years, surviving the Battle of Hogwarts, we can suitably see our children lovingly off on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters: Enjoy your time at Hogwarts, it’s where I fell in love with your father! Perfect ending.

I digress. The idea behind the panopticon is that it was a model for a prison. Think of it as a big circular building without a centre – a doughnut really. The prison cells line the curved inside walls and in the centre of the doughnut-complex is a guard tower. The key is that all the prisoner’s cells are positioned so that the prisoners cannot see the guards in the guard tower, nor can they see the other prisoners in their cells, so essentially you never know when or if you are being watched. This is the crux of the whole idea, that if prisoners do not know if they are being watched, have no choice but to assume they are and act accordingly. It is all a form of behavioural control.

Learning about this many years ago, I asked in a class: okay, but what’s the point, how is this useful? To which my tutor explained the whole model prison behind it again. Thanks! Helpful! Having spent many years now digesting this idea, it suddenly hit me: it is a metaphor! (Ohhhh, I see now). Where it comes into relevance today, and in Postmodernism, is about the current surveillance society we live; surveillance cameras are everywhere, shops, streets, trains, trams, we are living in the panopticon right now. Thinking back to a beginning scene of George Orwell’s 1984, that for some reason has always stuck with me, in all the houses there are these television screens that act as propaganda and population surveillance, and the protagonist has to assume he is always being watched (admittedly I have never finished 1984, my secret shame! Animal Farm is slick, though).

I will now bestow upon you the fatal flaw of the whole panopticon thing in the form of a story. When I was still working in…sigh…retail, I excelled so much in the inner-suburb store where I normally worked that when the manager who ran the one-person–operated store in the city went on leave, I was sent to hold down the fort for a couple of months. It was horrible, a tiny store, no one to talk to and you nothing to really do even when there were customers there, so despite our store motto “if you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean”, I could find little incentive to actually work. Unfortunately the business owners were crazy paranoid so they had security cameras pointing every which way and knowing that, on the other side, these cameras fed right onto a screen at the head office, I was trapped in a panopticon. I can remember actually having the thought ‘I’m in a panopticon’ and when this struck me I decided: I can’t let this stand, I can’t let “The Man” beat me. Therefore, I reasoned that by the same token when without knowing you are being watched you can only assume you are, I figured that you can just as easily assume you are not. And I did. I just went on the internet for weeks! Was it fair then that in my last shift at that store, where I had done the store owners a huge favour by manning it alone, I get a call from head office saying don’t be on the computer all day and do some work? Maybe, maybe. But no, we can’t let the panopticon win!

Now my friends, go forth and retake our public space by doing something minorly inappropriate in front of a security camera!

Especially if it involves bludging off work!


A badly done lecture on the panopticon many years ago in a Postmodernism class, and then many years of rumination on the matter.

Also – just quietly – in the above picture the two middle fingers are supposed to be making a rude sign. I believe this comes across, however I also believe that the best jokes are those that need to be explained. Haha, we laugh!


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