Stories from Summer Vacation: Bentham in a Box, by Randy Lewis

Today, Dr. Randy Lewis tells us about chilling with philosopher Jeremy Bentham during a research trip to London:

Photo by Randy Lewis

Photo by Randy Lewis

One of my happy tasks this summer was not just exploring the splendors of the British Library, but also visiting the collections at nearby University College London. For anyone writing a book about surveillance, UCL is a special place because it is home to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Scholars can consult a vast trove of papers and books related to the myriad projects and interests of this early 19th century reformer, best known for his controversial plans for English penitentiaries. Eager to create a more humane alternative to the shackling of convicts in pre-Dickensian hellholes, Bentham tried to imagine a scheme in which mental constraints would replace physical ones. By locating a nearly invisible warden at the center of a specially designed circular prison, Bentham proposed “a new mode of obtaining power, power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” Because prisoners would never know when they were being watched in this so-called Panopticon, they would have to assume that they were under constant surveillance and act accordingly. Although the design was not widely implemented in English penitentiaries, the concept of the Panopticon has become fundamental to surveillance studies in the age of all-seeing drones, online dataveillance, and the sort of Orwellian NSA activities to which Edward Snowden has alerted the world.

As delighted as I was to ruminate over Bentham’s correspondence and personal book collection, I was even more charmed to meet the man in the flesh, sagging though it was. It’s not every day that you have a chance to meet a 250-year-old philosopher, but you can always find Mr. Bentham sitting quietly in a public hallway at UCL. In an act of considerable irony, the architect of the Panopticon is now on permanent display in a sturdy wooden box. Fresh-faced students pore over their exam notes at nearby tables, seemingly oblivious to the ghoulish sight in their midst: a well-fed utilitarian, almost two centuries dead, stuffed like a hunter’s trophy and mounted in a box. Philosophical taxidermy may sound off-putting to some, but it is exactly what Bentham sought in his afterlife. The master of omnivalence wanted to keep gazing at the world he loved, keeping a waxwork eye on the subtle passage of time at a university he helped to found. Perhaps his only gripe is that he can’t get out to see more than the contents of a dark academic hallway. Would he enjoy boating on the Thames or a touring the countryside in the back of a pickup? I’d like to think so. Unfortunately for the ever-curious philosopher, his wooden crate is not just stationary (no wheels or hovercraft skirts are evident) but also subject to banker’s hours. Each night at 5:00 pm, he is sealed up unceremoniously in his windowless box like Senor Wences’s puppet on the old Ed Sullivan show.

Notwithstanding the eccentric fate of his corpse, the intellectual seriousness of Bentham’s life and work continues to reward those who approach his oeuvre with an open mind. He is not the heartless stooge of the Enlightenment that some have suggested—even if he is indeed headless. After many years on display, Bentham’s head could no longer survive the inadequacies of 19th century taxidermy. Allegedly, its decomposition was accelerated when UCL students used it as a soccer ball on a campus lawn. The university denies the charge, but does concede that Bentham’s head has been replaced with a suitable replica whose expression is charming to behold. Bentham looks quite pleased with himself nowadays—and why not? He is one of the few 250-year-old men to remain above ground in suit and hat, smiling at students who continue to debate his ideas. Despite his unorthodox afterlife and somewhat distorted intellectual reputation, Bentham still has something to teach us—or so I’m arguing in the pages I’m now writing. As is the case for most books about surveillance, Bentham is lurking somewhere at the core of my project, exerting a subtle influence over all that he surveils from his invisible perch. Indeed, for someone writing about security, discipline, and the psychology of surveillance, Bentham is always the ghost in the machine, the uninvited presence that haunts every page of prose. It may seem spooky to have a spectral companion spying on one’s scholarship, but the master of the Panopticon wouldn’t have it any other way.

One comment on “Stories from Summer Vacation: Bentham in a Box, by Randy Lewis

  1. Nick Booth says:

    Glad you enjoyed your visit Randy. I had never considered the irony of the Panopticom designer being watched by staff and students for the rest of time.

    You might be interested in the news that Bentham recently attended a Council meeting at UCL, to mark the current Provosts retirement. There’s some more info here –
    http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2013/07/12/bentham-present-but-not-voting/.

    Nick (JB’s Curator)

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