Bentham's Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary

Bentham's Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary

Bentham's Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary

Bentham's Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary

Synopsis

At the end of the eighteenth century, Jeremy Bentham devised a scheme for a prison that he called the panopticon. For twenty years he tried to build it; in the end he failed, but the story of his attempt offers fascinating insights into both Bentham's complex character and the ideas of the period. Basing her analysis on hitherto unexamined manuscripts, Janet Semple chronicles Bentham's dealings with the politicians as he tried to put his plan into practice. She assesses the panopticon in the context of penal philosophy and eighteenth-century punishment and discusses it as an instrument of the modern technology of subjection as revealed and analyzed by Foucault.

Excerpt

Bentham's panopticon penitentiary is a project full of contradiction and ambiguity; a prison that is at the centre of philosophical disquisition, managed by a gaoler who has been depicted both as a ruthless capitalist entrepreneur and as a personification of the utilitarian state. It is an individualist enterprise that seems to presage totalitarianism. Scholars have accorded it little interest or respect, yet for twenty years it obsessed the superlative mind of one of our greatest philosophers; it was a tragedy in the life of a man who seemed to his friends happy and successful. Despite its intrinsic fascination there has been no study, adequate or inadequate, of the panopticon prison. This book will deal with the panopticon as an event in penal and political history. Drawing on hitherto unexplored manuscripts it tells the story of Bentham's prolonged negotiations with government and investigates the reasons why the prison was never built. Bentham emerges as a personality very different from the reclusive philosopher of popular mythology. Until the age of 64, he was ambitious to become an administrator and to put his own ideas of penal policy and office management into practice himself. He wanted to apply his 'genius for legislation' to the day to day running of institutions and to play a major role in penal reform not as a philosopher but as a practitioner. The theoretical speculations that now seem his unique contribution to the history of his country were, during many years of his life, a secondary consideration.

In recent years Jeremy Bentham has become a subject of increasing scholarly scrutiny and a focus of controversy. New interpretations of his philosophy and new facets of his personality are emerging. It is imperative that the panopticon prison that occupied so crucial a place in his life and thought should be adequately explored. Much interest has been focused on Bentham's extension of his idea to include provision for the poor in the pauper panopticons. Yet the prison has primacy, in both the time and the importance it assumed in Bentham's life. His . . .

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