Prisons of the Cruel Inner God: Neo-Panopticism in Contemporary Western Culture

Emily Taber,Western Washington University

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Abstract The application of Jeremy Bentham’s (1785) panoptic concept has changed significantly with the popularization of observational technology and dataveillance. Where Bentham’s model focused on the material, the Digital Age has created new structures of power in contemporary culture, altered how observers and observed interact, and influenced both contemporary cultures of observation and the broader social structure. I analyze what has caused these transitions and traced them to five areas of social and technological change, examining how cultural values have transformed and may continue transforming into the Twenty-first Century.

Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.
– Walker Evans, Walker Evans At Work (1984)

“We have become a nation of Peeping Toms.”
– Thelma Ritter, Rear Window (1954)

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison has been the long-standing subject of surveillance criticism since its creation in the late 1780s. The prison itself is sketched as a circular cellblock with a hollow courtyard in the center. From there, an obelisk stands in the center. It is something modern readers might associate with the Eye of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The panopticon’s prisoners are all under the constant view of this guard tower, but they can’t survey the guards in turn. Further, the guard tower is impossible to see into. As a result, the inmates can’t tell if they are ever truly being watched. Theoretically, they will become self-policing individuals fearful of punishment from their invisible observers. Here, Bentham grew worried: how to show the prisoners that they are being watched, even when no one is in the tower?