The Panopticon is a type of prison building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in 1785. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the incarcerated being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the “sentiment of an invisible omniscience.”[1]

Bentham himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”[2]

In a novel I finished last night (The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks) the author, E. Lockhart, uses Michel Foucualt’s “idea of the panopticon as a metaphor for Western society and its emphasis on normalization and observation”. She explains it well in the book, but I’m going to have a crack at it here — after all, you’ve only fully grasped a concept when you’re able to teach it.

Panoptical behavior is the awareness of the written and unwritten rules of our culture/peers, and following those rules even if no one is watching. For example, it isn’t wrong to pick your nose, but you most likely wouldn’t do it in front of your friends. If you’re panoptical, you wouldn’t pick your nose even when you’re by yourself because you wouldn’t in front of your friends. There’s this part of you that feels like they’re watching you, that they could appear at any moment and squeal “Eww, gross!”.

This concept vastly intrigues me. I see it everywhere. I can see some of it in myself. It makes me wonder…what is my motivation for the things I do? Is it always because I know it’s what God wants, and I love Him? Or is it because I want to preserve my reputation?

Just something to think about…