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Schematic diagram of a panopticon as proposed in Jeremy Bentham's 1787 publication)



From Ancient Greek πᾶν (pân, all) + ὀπτικός (optikós, visible). Coined by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1787.



panopticon (plural panopticons or panoptica)

  1. A type of prison where all the cells are visible from the center, particularly if it is not possible for those in a cell to know if they are being watched.
    • 1787 Jeremy Bentham: Panopticon: or, the inspection-house.
      Panopticon: or, the inspection-house. Containing the idea of a new principle of construction applicable to any sort of establishment, in which Persons of any Description are to be kept under inspection. And in particular to: penitentiary-houses, poor-houses, prisons, manufactories, houses of industry, mad-houses, work-houses, hospitals, and schools. . .
      Now as to safe custody. Upon the Panopticon plan at least, absolute solitude is equally unnecessary to this purpose. Towards effecting an escape, what can two or three do more than one, confined as they are by iron grates while they are within the prison, and by walls when they are without? and in either case, never out of the eye of an inspector, who is armed and out of reach of attack, and within reach of whatever assistance he can desire? . . .
      I look upon escape out of a Panopticon, I have said so over and over, as an event morally impossible. But suppose it otherwise — how great the additional security which an expedient thus simple would afford!
    • 2022, Liam McIlvanney, The Heretic, page 274:
      He was alive to every creak and dunt, the thinness of the walls, as if the tenement block was a kind of aural panopticon that funnelled every sound to the other residents, let everyone eavesdrop on their business.
  2. (figurative, by extension) A place in which people are subject to constant surveillance at totalitarian command.
    • 2013, Maryland v. King (U.S. Supreme Court No. 12–207), Justice Scalia dissenting:
      Perhaps the construction of such a genetic panopticon is wise. But I doubt that the proud men who wrote the charter of our liberties would have been so eager to open their mouths for royal inspection.
    • 2000, Crain Soudien, Carol Corneilse, “South African Higher Education in Transition: Global Discourses and National Priorities”, in Nelly P. Stromquist, Karen Monkman, editors, Globalization and Education: Integration and Contestation across Cultures, Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, →ISBN, part 3 (National Case Studies of Globalization Impacts), page 310:
      The point is that while new terms of engagement (new regimens of power are installed to oversee the process of programization or new panoptica are devised) are being established, existing and/or new social projects continue to operate within the social space framed by the dominant discourse, which not only delays the progress of the intervention, but unsettles it.
    • 2005, Geoffrey C. Bowker, “The Mnemonic Deep: The Importance of an Unruly Past”, in Memory Practices in the Sciences (Inside Technology), Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, →ISBN, page 196:
      All this sounds like an unholy mess if one wants to produce a consistent, long-term database of biodiversity relevant information the world over. At the very least, it suggests that global panoptica are not the way to go in biodiversity data!
    • 2020, Huub Dijstelbloem, Annalisa Pelizza, “The state is the secret: for a relational approach to the study of border and mobility control in Europe”, in Marieke de Goede, Esmé Bosma, Polly Pallister-Wilkins, editors, Secrecy and Methods in Security Research: A Guide to Qualitative Fieldwork, Abingdon, Oxon, New York, N.Y.: Routledge, →DOI, →ISBN, part 1 (Secrecy complexities), section I (Secrecy, silence and obfuscation):
      Panoptica are “all-seeing” systems such as penitentiary houses. They were famously theorized by Foucault as architectures of control, exemplary for forms of surveillance that discipline people and create particular kinds of subjects.
  3. A room for the exhibition of novelties.