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Panopticon: "Bentham's Most Infamous Idea"



(p. C6) Perhaps the most fascinating chapter of the book, highlighting Mr. Crawford's ability to mix philosophy and reporting, is the one about the panopticon. The idea of an annular building with a central observation tower was conceived by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). The utilitarian is known most superficially by students of and visitors to University College, London, as the eccentric who willed that, after his death, his body be preserved seated on a chair in a glass case.

Mr. Crawford fleshes out the story, noting that, in fact, the smartly dressed Bentham figure that sits inside a glass display case today is actually a skeleton of the man, his head a wax replica of the real one that did not survive the preservation process. When I was a regular at University College one summer, I was told that the cabinet holding the "Auto-Icon" (Bentham's term) was rolled over to the lecture hall on occasion, something that I don't recall witnessing.

The author's real purpose in discussing Bentham's most infamous idea is to describe the utopian--or dystopian, depending upon one's point of view--concept. In one embodiment, it took the form of a rimless wagon wheel, in which someone situated at the hub could oversee activities in all directions, making the layout ideal for insuring that workers in a factory did not take more breaks than allowed, inmates did not misbehave in a prison or students did not cheat on an exam.

Bentham's insight was that the mere fact that those being observed knew that they were being watched would cause them to alter their behavior for the better. Could Bentham have imagined that his idea would form the foundation of our surveillance society? Looking at our culture today--with its CCTV, smartphones and so on--to some it surely seems that we live in a permanent panopticon. "All this," Mr. Crawford writes, "from a 'simple idea in architecture.' "



For the full review, see:

HENRY PETROSKI. "What Goes Up." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., MARCH 11, 2017): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 10, 2017, and has the title "The Lives and Deaths of History's Greatest Buildings.")


The book under review, is:

Crawford, James. Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History's Greatest Buildings. New York: Picador, 2017.






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