Being there without being there

April 18, 2012


For the last reading, I discussed the importance of the interactions between human bodies and how the city’s shape could influence them. Bentham’s panopticon is working in the opposite way: the architecture replaces the human’s presence. “Because, without any physical instrument other than architecture and geometry, it acts directly on individuals; it gives power of mind over mind.” (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p.206)

The panopticon is first designed to be a prison. The cells are build around a tower in such a way that every cell is visible from this control tower. This visibility is reinforced by the use of backlight effect in the cells which have window on their two sides. The tower is designed to stop the light, so that you cannot see if someone is inside or not. “The power should be visible and unverifiable” (idem, p.201) therefore it can be run by anybody or even nobody. The importance in this discipline machinery is not the presence of guards or high thick walls but the expression of an omniscient, unverifiable power. “Hence the major effect of the panopticon: to induce a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” (idem, p.201)

Coming back to the religious institutions, we could compare the panopticon to the power of the Church. If the panopticon is a way to discipline the subjects, the church was certainly playing this role before: “Religious groups and charity had long played this role of disciplining the population” (idem, p.212). The invisible presence of a god is in a way comparable to the aim of the machinery used later in Bentham’s prison. Maybe the architecture of the building can also in a way try to transmit to the worshippers a feeling of being observed, the presence of an undetermined strength above them. Outside, the tower of the church could be interpreted as a way to expresses the power of the institution over the village.While the greatness of the inside (so disconnected from the rest of the every day life) was connected probably to something stronger than human an intense feeling of greatness. The high and deep ceiling was a link between the ground and the sky.

In the contemporary society the video surveillance could be the reinterpretation of the panopticon system. The only presence of the machine has a dissuasive effect. The idea to have fake video cameras is the same as not having anyone in the tower. The question of adding video surveillance in the city’s streets is now maybe trying to respond a lack of discipline, or security that is no more provided by architecture (architecture and geometry as said Foucault).


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