Personal Panopticon


panopticon picture


I have learnt from my armchair – without movement,

Without incident, without dissent

That I am my own keeper. From my tower

I see each cell of mine, each prisoner,

Incidental life in confinement perfectly.

I am warden and inmate, keeper and kept.

And the design of my panopticon delights me.

Utility in watchfulness, ease in thought,

From the tower of my mind I see all parts:

All mine. I can observe at any time

Each of my personalities, from their own cells,

Surround-sound. Though I hardly think to move,

I am sat with a glass of wine, the hour is mine,

And the mind controls itself as an institution.

I am the tower, and I am the gaol.

Watcher and watched, state and statuette.

A coliseum, rows and rows of this:

The multi-faceted, mirrored inner eye

Of a spider, seeing its many reflections

From each scintilla, from the centre of a web

In which to trap its many many selves.

As tower and wall, convict and edifice

I inhabit and am my own panopticon.



I recently read about Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon: a prison designed such that, from a central tower, the warden can oversee all inmates almost simultaneously. Even if he can only see one side in turn, the notion that he may be watching at any time causes a sort of Hawthorn Effect. All prisoners could be seen at any time, and so all must assume this to be the case. The institution, in theory, succeeds. It’s Orwellian, in a sort of pre-Orwell way. A utilitarian ideal in architecture. 

I thought of how my own mind, at times of quiet isolation and considered reflection, is drawn to the various parts of itself. I become conscious of how I hear sounds, recall memories, form words and identify patterns. Each part of my mind, and my soul, can be seen from my central position. Not dissimilar to the “ghost in the machine,” the “I” in cogito ergo sum. It’s a strangely calming yet unnerving position to find oneself in. And then, rather unsettling though it was, the comparison to the Panopticon emerged. 


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