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Rhetorics of Surveillance

from Bentham to Big Brother

In 1785, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham

(1748-1832), founder of the doctrine of Utilitarianism, began working on a plan for a model prison called the panopticon. The signature feature of this design was that every one of the individual jail cells could be seen from a central observation tower which, however, remained visually inscrutable to the prisoners. Since they could thus never know for sure whether they were being watched, but had to assume that they were, the fact of actual observation was replaced by the possibility of being watched. As a rationalist, Bentham assumed that this would lead the delinquents to refrain from misbehaving, since in order to avoid punishment, they would effectively internalize the disciplinary gaze. Indeed, Bentham considered the panoptic arrangement, whereby power operates by means of the spatial design itself, as a real contribution to the education of man, in the spirit of the Enlightenment.

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