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That’s Entertainment: The Observation Principle from Bentham to Foucault

© 2010 Charlie Canning, University of Adelaide.

When George Orwell published his dystopian novel 1984 in 1949, many believed that the totalitarian state that Orwell described couldn’t possibly come into existence by the year 1984. Others thought that it was already manifesting itself on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Since 1949, we have gone well beyond the nightmare world of Orwell’s 1984. In Orwell’s day (and in the projected time of the narrative), the power to crush an individual was in the hands of the state and Winston Smith clearly knew where the blows were coming from. Now any loose confederation of individuals within a community (be it school, town, city, or global village) can completely destroy a person’s life.

The chief way that the state exercises power in Orwell’s 1984 is through surveillance. In Orwell’s futuristic world, the surveillance work is done by camera, much the same as it is today. But the underlying principle of observation as a form of power is much older than closed-circuit TV.

In this paper I begin with Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and the observation principle as a method of control. I then discuss Foucault’s development of the observation principle as applied to modern life. Finally, I take up ways in which observation is now diffused throughout society as a means of both control and entertainment.

The leper colony and the plague

While Jeremy Bentham was the first to articulate the observation principle as a disciplinary mode of power, the critic Michel Foucault sees its beginnings in the way that the plague was handled during the Middle Ages. Before the plague, the idea was to exclude sick people from the village, town, or city; hence the leper colony. The political equivalent was exile. People kept at a distance, it was thought, would not be able to infect the larger community with their illnesses or their ideas.

During the Middle Ages, communities began isolating and observing sick people within their own houses. This was done for two reasons. The first was the magnitude of the plagues. Too many people were affected by the various contagions and there was no practical way to remove the sick from the community. The other reason was that unlike leprosy – which was considered a lifelong condition – people recovered from the plague. Society began isolating the sick within the community and observing them to contain the spread of the disease. Those who recovered were allowed to rejoin the community – to leave their houses - once it was clear to the observers that they no longer carried the plague.

According to Foucault in Discipline & Punish, this is the starting point for both the hospital and the modern prison. In a hospital, sick people are brought together under one roof to isolate them from the larger community. They are observed and ministered to until they are well again. Once they have recovered from their illnesses, they are allowed to rejoin society.

The modern prison began to function in a similar way after the Reformation. During the Middle Ages, incarceration usually meant putting someone in a dungeon and “throwing away the key.” A prison term was punishment. Rehabilitation hardly entered into it. Besides, most prisoners were not expected to live long enough to be rehabilitated.

With the Reformation came the idea that those who committed crimes were sick people who needed to be rehabilitated or reformed. While those in hospitals were physically sick, those in prisons were mentally or spiritually sick. Given the right treatment, they too could be nursed back to health.

The Panopticon

Enter Bentham. In a series of letters written in 1787 and published four years later as the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham introduced the “central-inspection principle” in the form of a design for a multi-story circular building with an observation deck in the middle and cells radiating from the center like the spokes of a wheel. According to Bentham, the best way to bring about good health, reform, education, and productivity was to keep patients, prisoners, students, and workers under continuous observation. Medical conditions worsened, criminals plotted, students dawdled, and workers wasted valuable time whenever nurse, warden, teacher, or boss was away. The Panopticon was the answer and it would serve equally well for “Penitentiary-Houses, Prisons, Poor-Houses, Lazarettos, Houses Of Industry, Manufactories, Hospitals, Work-Houses, Mad-Houses, And Schools” (Panopticon title page) because the underlying principle was the same: Observation and fear of detection ensures compliance.

Architecture and geometry functioning as technology

As Foucault would later note, the Panopticon was architecture and geometry functioning as technology: “Because, without any physical instrument other than architecture and geometry, it acts directly on individuals; it gives ‘power of mind over mind’.” (206) According to Bentham, this power was situated “… in the centrality of the inspector’s situation, combined with the well-known and most effectual contrivances for seeing without being seen.” (44)

Even if no one was watching the prisoners, patients, schoolboys and workers at a particular moment, the subjects should be meant to feel that they were being watched at all times: “… the persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so …. (44)

In order to create the effect of round-the-clock surveillance, the chief inspector and his family were to live in an apartment located just off of the main observation gallery. This would increase the number of eyes on the people being monitored as well as lengthen the period that they were being observed. It would no longer be a case of being under the watchful eye of authority only during working hours. With the Panopticon, there was the potential to watch someone 24/7 two hundred years before this expression had even entered the lexicon.

The observers would not be limited to the inspector and his family, however. Other people would be allowed into the observation gallery besides those who lived and worked there. This gallery, and others like it, would be used as the pulpit for a chapel. Church services would be conducted from the deck of the gallery. At other times, the galleries would be open to the public. Not only would the public be able to add their presence to the panoptic affect on those below. Their unannounced visits would have a like affect on the inspectors themselves by imposing “a system of gratuitous inspection, capable of itself of awing the keeper into good conduct, even if he were not paid for it: and the opposite impulses of hope and fear would thus contribute to ensure perfection to the management, and keep the conduct of the manager wound up to the highest pitch of duty.” (79)

Entertainment for the whole family

Aside from “gratuitous inspection”, there was the entertainment value to be considered. The principal inspector and his family would be able to look into windows rather than look out of them: “It will supply in their instance the place of that great and constant fund of entertainment to the sedentary and vacant in towns – the looking out of the window. The scene, though a confined, would be a very various, and therefore, perhaps, not altogether an unamusing one.” (45)

Those of the public who wanted to make a day of it could be exhorted to visit the Panopticon: “Fill it [the observation deck / pulpit during church services] with company, if company can be induced to come. Why not, as well as to the Asylum, the Magdalen, and the Lock Hospital, in London? The scene would be more picturesque; the occasion not less interesting and affecting.” (78)

As Paul Strathern has noted, Bentham was not alone in classifying this type of observation as a form of entertainment: “Visiting asylums to view the incarcerated and whipped inmates in their cowed or raving degradation became a popular entertainment. No fewer than 96,000 people each year would visit the Bethlehem Hospital for the insane in London. (The corruption of this name gave us the word bedlam…).” (15)

Observation principle as developed by Foucault

In 1975, Michel Foucault published Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la prison [Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison] three years after visiting the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York in the United States. Curiously enough, Britain was not the best place to see Bentham’s prison designs in brick and mortar. This is because in Britain at least, Bentham had lost the debate that New South Wales had won.

For Australians, this part of the story may be well known. At the end of the eighteenth century, England’s prisons and poor houses were overflowing. Why not ship some of the convicts to the Colony of New South Wales? It would relieve the overcrowding and help to populate a distant colony at the same time.

Instead of the house arrest of the plague, portions of New South Wales were to serve as a kind of leper colony for criminals. But that was only part of the idea. Many proponents of the plan thought that all the convicts needed was a second chance – a fresh opportunity to make a life for themselves in a new land.

Bentham, of course, had been against the idea of a far-off penal colony from the beginning. In an 1802 letter to Lord Pelham entitled “Panopticon versus New South Wales: Or, The Panopticon Penitentiary System, And The Penal Colonization System, Compared”, Bentham enumerated his reasons for preferring the Panopticon system to the New South Wales plan. Chief of these was that the all-important principle of observation was lacking from the penal colonization plan. How could you bring about true reformation without keeping an eye on someone? How could you possibly watch people who were going to be allowed to run around New South Wales?

Bentham lost the argument and Britain did not build any Panopticons. The plan to build a Panopticon in Ireland also failed. But America did build some Panopticon-inspired buildings including the Stateville Prison near Joliet, Illinois.

What Foucault discovered while writing Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison was that Bentham needn’t have worried. By the late twentieth century, Bentham’s architectural design for “an inspection house” had become a model of relationship between people in society: “The Panopticon … must be understood as a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men. No doubt Bentham presents it as a particular institution, closed in upon itself … But the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form ….” (205)

Observation now diffused throughout society

According to Foucault, observation as a means of control had become diffused throughout society. It was no longer the sole purview of the state: “One also sees the spread of disciplinary procedures, not in the form of enclosed institutions, but as centres of observation disseminated throughout society.” (“Panopticism” 212)

In Orwell’s1984, the state disseminated information, ran the telescreens and supervised the intelligence gathering work of the Thought Police. These days, the state has plenty of help: “The seeing machine was once a sort of dark room into which individuals spied; it has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole.” (“Panopticism” 207)

Closed-Circuit TV

One way that observation is diffused throughout society is in the use of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. CCTV cameras can now be found in most public places throughout the developed world including the University of Adelaide. In the interest of security, any institution, business or property owner can install cameras in and around the perimeter of their establishments. This is being done we are told, in the interest of safety. Security cameras have a deterrent effect on crime. In the event of criminal wrongdoing, footage from security cameras can be used in a court of law.

Data collection

In addition to what Foucault termed “hierarchical surveillance,” there was “continuous registration, perpetual assessment and classification” or what we would characterize as data collection. (220) Institutions need to know certain information to deliver goods and services and to collect payment. Businesses what to know what you are buying so that they can sell you more of it. If you have two children, you may need life insurance. If you make a certain amount of money, you might be in the market for a leather briefcase.

Some of this data collection may appear harmless enough and it probably is. But when this type of information is cross-listed with other sources of information it can become a database for registering what Foucault notes are forms of behaviour, attitudes, possibilities, suspicions – a permanent account of individuals’ behaviour.” (“Panopticism” 214)

Delivery of new technologies for observation and control

Both Orwell and Foucault predicted that the technologies of the future would increase the panoptic effect on individuals. In the nightmare world of 1984, “technological progress only happens when its products can in some way be used for the diminution of human liberty. In all the useful arts the world is either standing still or going backwards.” (Orwell 198) Television was one example: “With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end.” (Orwell 211)

Curiously enough, Foucault died in 1984. Since that time, another “ensemble of minute technical inventions” has arrived to “increase the useful size of the multiplicities” of power. (“Panopticism” 220) In 2010, we have technology that Orwell and Foucault could only have had nightmares about. Anyone with the latest computer can “receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument.” Search engines like Google and Yahoo collect an enormous amount of data on individual behavior that can be cross-listed in endless ways. GPS and SIM card technology can pinpoint a person’s whereabouts any day of the week. Google Street View has got the house and the neighborhood covered. Most cellular phones come with a camera function. Many have video and Internet capability. Anyone with the latest generation cellular phone can become an instant photojournalist, a paparazzi, or one of Orwell’s amateur spies.

Observation as entertainment today

Thus far, I have presented some ways in which the observation principle as defined by Bentham, fictionalized by Orwell, and developed by Foucault is functioning in modern society. Now I would like to suggest that the panoptic effect is being delivered as entertainment and that this is by far the most disturbing trend.

Suffering as mass entertainment is nothing new. The most well known example in antiquity is the coliseums of Rome. Large numbers of people enjoyed the spectacle of throwing people to the lions. Things were not much better during the Elizabethan Age when the “sport” of bear-baiting was widespread. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as mentioned earlier, visiting insane asylums was a popular recreation. Public hangings were not outlawed in the U.K. until 1868. Although illegal, lynchings were common quasi-public events in many parts of the United States well into the 20th century.

In Orwell’s 1984, it was the state that packaged and marketed suffering as entertainment: “April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him. first you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea around him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water. audience shouting with laughter when he sank.” (8)

The main difference today is not that people enjoy watching suffering – we’ve always enjoyed that - but that so many of us are becoming the unwitting purveyors of it. We’re on the air and we’re broadcasting suffering and ridicule.

Cell phone cameras and amateur video

In 2010, anyone with the latest cellular phone can overtly or surreptitiously capture images of people in what they regard as entertaining or compromising (the two are fast becoming synonymous) situations. In a matter of seconds, images can be posted on websites and platforms such as YouTube that will enable millions of people to see what they have seen and hear what they have heard in the way that they have framed it. What happened or was said before or after they got the shot is immaterial. Seldom is there any background or context. There’s no footage of the dogs harassing the bear. The dogs are off camera. The important shot is the one of the bear lunging forward gnashing it’s teeth or falling to the ground. That’s the shot that we want to see on television and that’s the shot that we want to see on the Internet. Go and get it – stage it, if you have to – but get it.

CCTV surveillance cameras as entertainment

According to one security guard interviewed for Rubert Sheldrake’s The Sense of Being Stared At, there’s a humorous element to viewing footage from CCTV cameras: “’… some people know they’re being watched, mostly crooks. They look at the camera. They get fidgety; they walk back and forth. They try to get out of the eye of the camera. They look up. It’s kind of comical sometimes.’” (144)

Other than signage that alerts the public that they are surveillance cameras in the area, they are no assurances given that the footage taken by CCTV cameras will not be utilized for other than security purposes. In other words, anyone behind the monitor of a CCTV camera can review a person’s actions for what they consider to be anomalous behavior. If they regard it as funny, they can laugh at it with their co-workers and – if the security is porous enough – their family and friends. If they wish to risk breaking the law, they can even put the footage on YouTube.

In Orwell’s 1984, it was the anomaly that drew attention: “A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself – anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face … was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime it was called.” (64) Now we have Facebook.

Social networking sites such as Facebook

As with some routine data collection and CCTV camera surveillance, much of the information available on social networking sites may seem harmless enough. Often times, it is just a question of exhibiting bad taste. Still, there is a tendency on these sites to focus on the weird, the strange, and the outlandish.

For some reason, the world wants to see you with your finger up your nose. It’s funny to see someone with their finger up their nose. Unfortunately, they also want to see Olympians doing bongs, politicians doing cocaine with or without prostitutes, anyone with anyone not their husband or wife. It’s entertaining to witness the humiliation and degradation of someone else, especially if they’re someone of stature.

In the days of the asylum galleries, nobody was “tagged.” Whatever people saw when they visited Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane, they could talk about, but that was all. The image usually died before the subject did because a person sleeping quietly in a corner is not nearly as entertaining as watching someone throw their own excrement against a wall.

Today, the image never dies. You can comment on it, print it, save it, send it to a friend. It makes no difference if it’s fair. Fairness doesn’t enter into it. What matters is whether it’s funny or not. Does it show fear or confusion or uncertainty or weakness? Is it strange? Can it be used to degrade or humiliate someone? Thumbs up or thumbs down? Cast your vote.

Ridicule as power and control

To laugh at someone, to mock or ridicule a person is an exercise in power and control. To avoid being ridiculed further, the person will attempt to modify his behavior, hence the control. But this goes beyond control. The “minute technical inventions” that Foucault wrote about are now diffused throughout society as entertainment. We no longer have to go to the coliseum or the village green to see the show. Suffering as entertainment is playing on our computers, even our telephones.

We have gone well beyond being the passive consumers of suffering as entertainment and we no longer have Orwell’s Big Brother or even Hollywood to blame. Many of us are producing this “entertainment” ourselves. We are using it to hurt other people. The rest of us are standing by watching while this is being done.

In communities from a coffee shop in Melbourne to schools in New South Wales, Chicago, and Japan – observation as entertainment has been used to control and completely destroy people’s lives – even to the point of driving some of them to commit suicide. In most of the cases, there was no criminality involved because what happened was entertainment – not murder, manslaughter or assault. Entertainment. People were having fun. Nobody meant to hurt anyone. Everybody knows that “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” What they don’t know is that a text message, a blog, or a YouTube clip kills whether you’re the Minister of Finance in Japan or a high school student in Hadley, Massachusetts.


Bentham may have conceived the Panopticon as a “dream building.” For Orwell, the panopticon was the telescreen and with it, “private life came to an end.” (211) Foucault correctly saw it as a mechanism of power that had become diffused throughout society, “a machinery that is both immense and minute, which supports, reinforces, multiplies the asymmetry of power and undermines the limits that are traced around the law.” (“Panopticism” 223)

Now we carry pieces of this incredibly powerful machine that was once a building around with us in our knapsacks and bags. In five minutes’ time, we can assemble the pieces and go on air to show the rest of the world what we have seen or heard. But like a kid who has just been given a new magnifying glass for Christmas, all we want to do with it is to burn the wings off flies.

Works Cited

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