The Panopticon of Delights

Image: Bukhari Hussin


Jeremy Bentham's ideal prison triumphed, because the inmates are not there against their will, but out of desire, pleasure, enjoyment and passion.

In 1785, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham invented what he thought was the ideal prison. Inside it, hundreds or thousands of incarcerated people would fit, and all would be watched 24 hours a day, in every slight movement they made. At the other end, that of the vigilant jailers, a minimum number of employees would do the job. It would be an efficient and low-cost house of detention, envisioned the originator of the utilitarian ethic.

To make his project work, the thinker came up with an architectural solution. His idea was quite simple, almost obvious. In the center of a large circular courtyard would be the watchtower, implacably opaque, impenetrable. Some crevices, strategically designed, would allow the guard accommodated inside to be able to see all the things around him – hence the name of the thing: “panopticon”. From the outside, however, no one would be able to see any part of this guard's body, or know where he directed his eyes.

At the edges of the vast grounds, around its perfectly circular perimeter, Jeremy Bentham envisioned the construction of the cells, which would extend like a ring around the great pizza-shaped courtyard, a safe distance from the central tower. The walls of the cells facing the inner area – and the tower – would be transparent, so that the guard in charge of monitoring the behavior of the prison population could follow, whenever he wanted, the most ordinary scenes inside each of the rooms.

As for the prisoners, they wouldn't be able to see anything, never, not even for a moment. They were not allowed to see a single square inch of the inside of the jailers' hideout. In their transparent cubicles, the captives would know that they were being watched at all times, even when the hidden jailer, in his opaque shelter, was not concerned with observing them. By not seeing who saw them, they would be obedient.

Deep down, more than a building, the panopticon was born as a system to discipline, guide and channel the gaze. It inspired penitentiary buildings in France, Portugal and some other countries.

Much later, the invention of video cameras made the English philosopher's architectural apparatus unnecessary. Society has entered a phase in which electronic devices have deepened total snooping, inside and outside prisons. In the 20th century, the French philosopher Michel Foucault returned to the topic of the panopticon to denounce relentless surveillance. More recently, Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff began to talk about “surveillance capitalism”, whose preferred tools are platforms and social networks. Shoshana Zuboff has a point in what she says. Michel Foucault also had. He still has.

If you want to visualize the current state of our – so-called – civilization, think of a large digital panopticon. To get a more accurate idea of ​​who we are, consider that, in today's panopticon, everyone has fun. The inhabitants of the cells now live in a restless frenzy, they do everything to attract, seduce and retain the attention of the poor little guard – which we can call an algorithm, without fear of making a mistake. This one, the algorithm, remains reclusive in its bunker of power and inhumanity. Everything else is visible, accessible and enjoyable, minus him, minus the algorithm.

In the digital panopticon, unlike what Jeremy Bentham planned, we can see what goes on in the privacy of the other rooms. The surveillance system discovered that the see-and-be-seen promiscuity excites and addicts inmates, intoxicated by the passive sport of looking and being looked at.

In the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the look “inhabits” and “animates” the object, that is, it lends a “soul” to what is seen. In the end, we are little more than that: beings who look and are looked at in the spectacle of the world. Each citizen is simultaneously the voyeurand the exhibitionist of the digital system. Each man, each woman, each child, each living being tightens, with the overwhelming force of the gaze, the indestructible bonds of the great prison.

In the end, everything flows into the most open explicitness, into boundless ostentation. The obscene takes center stage, that is, what should be out of the picture occupies the center of lost, decentered, hallucinated attention. Cooking becomes a separate show, the kitchen goes into the main room. The spiritual trance – the same one that would have been inaccessible to language, which would be impossible to translate into images or words – is converted into gestural allegories and facial contortions that take up the entire screen, in Close unscrupulous. On the face of it, pornography seems like innocent childishness. Everything has become more pornographic than pornography.

Yes, Jeremy Bentham's ideal prison has triumphed, that's because the inmates are not there against their will, but out of desire, pleasure, enjoyment and passion. Humanity has found unparalleled delights in its fallen hedonism of watching and being watched while not seeing what matters most.

* Eugene Bucci He is a professor at the School of Communications and Arts at USP. Author, among other books, of The superindustry of the imaginary (authentic).

Originally published in the newspaper The State of S. Paul.

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