A little light, pre-Christmas entertainment today. The Panopticon was a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century. The concept is simple – a watchman can observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.
The design consists of a circular structure with an “inspection house” at its centre, from which the managers or staff of the institution are able to watch the inmates, who are stationed around the perimeter. Bentham conceived the basic plan as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, daycares, and asylums, but he devoted most of his efforts to developing a design for a Panopticon prison and it is his prison which is most widely understood by the term.
Bentham himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind.” Quite so. Why is this particularly significant?
I read today of a baleful, Orwellian descendant of Bentham’s devilish architecture in the form of a new and jolly Christmas tradition, the Elf on the Shelf. Some American parents, some time after Thanksgiving, introduce this impish little creature, which can be perched, hung, or otherwise displayed somewhere in the house. Parents then blithely propagate the Santa Claus myth to their children who are solemnly told that should they misbehave the Elf is watching and he is empowered to inform Santa Claus of any poor behaviour by travelling back to the North Pole overnight. He then reappears elsewhere in the house the following morning. Should Mummy or Daddy have been bingeing on Southern Comfort after the little ones are abed, and inadvertently fail to move the creature to some new vantage point, the game is up and all is lost unless parents compound the felony by spinning further untruths like ‘he has special places that he likes’ or ‘he must be real; he has his own Facebook page’. Various pointless and Draconian rules can be introduced, especially for parents with Fascist inclinations, such as the child is allowed to talk to the Elf but must not touch it. These rules do not, of course, apply to grown-ups. Some children seem to become unreasonably attached to the little fellow – after all, Winston Smith loved Big Brother, ultimately, but I do question the wisdom of befriending the weaselly little snitch. If he were mine, I’d put him in the blender.
Some are regretting playing host to a diminutive spy. One mother rewrote the Serenity Prayer so that the last line gave her ‘the strength no to throw the Elf on the fire and watch him burn, like Joan of Arc’. Another mother told her children that the Elf had perished, like Scott, in a snowstorm.
At least he’s a low-maintenance guest and even drunk old Uncle George can’t get away with blaming the Elf for finishing the last of the malt whisky.