The Panopticon and Jeremy Bentham

posted Dec 5, 2010, 8:17 AM by Professor Katz   [ updated Dec 9, 2012, 1:46 AM ]
The Panopticon is a design for a prison thought up in 1785 by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the great English philosopher. The idea was that each prisoner would be unable to tell if he was being watched and therefore his good behaviour could be compelled with a minimum of staff: one person...or even none.  Michel Foucault saw this plan as a model for modern society itself as everyone becomes his own overseer:


Jeremy Bentham had a lot of ideas, some of them really bad.  One idea was to have himself stuffed and placed in the front hall of University College (University of London), which he had helped to found.  He is still there today, dressed in his original clothes.  Unfortunately, his head was badly done, so it had to be replaced with a wax one, and the real head was placed by his feet.  Inevitably, students would break into the box and steal the head, so finally it had to be hidden away.  If you are in London visiting the British Museum, it's about a ten minute walk north on Gower Street to University College.  His little box is usually open.  At one time he used to be wheeled out to College meetings, where he would be listed in the protocol as 'present but not voting'.

His head is pretty gross.  If you want to see it click here: Jeremy_Bentham.jpg or benthamo.jpg.  Don't blame me if you get nightmares....