panopticon

If it’s hard to understand the present, the past is almost impossible.

Take Jeremy Bentham, for instance. Jeremy Bentham was an eighteenth century philosopher and social reformer. He was famous for practising ‘utilitarianism’, based on the principle that it’s the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong. Which sounds okay – until you read about one of his public works, something so nightmarish George Orwell would’ve been proud.

He designed a prison called The Panopticon – an architectural principle he wanted to roll-out into hospitals, schools and other public institutions. The Panopticon was a hexagonal building with a central observation tower and cells radiating out like the petals of a monstrous concrete and iron flower. The idea was that the guards in the tower would be able to keep an eye on the prisoners the whole time. The prisoners wouldn’t know when the guards were looking at them, so they’d be encouraged to toe the line. It was an early experiment in Big Brother culture, the state as an all-seeing, ever-present eye. Maximum compliance, minimum effort.

A prison like this was built on the mudflats at Milbank, London in 1816, a pestilential spot that almost guaranteed the majority of the prisoners would never live long enough to be transported. Added to the fact that anyone who entered the prison quickly became lost in the labyrinthine corridors, and that by some acoustic quirk the prisoners could pretty much whisper and be heard right the way round the block, it meant that the experiment failed and the prison was closed just seventy years later.

I’ve come to visit a patient in a new-build Jeremy Bentham would’ve appreciated. The only difference between Calypso Court and The Panopticon is that on the ground floor here, instead of infirmaries, laundries and mortuaries, there are shops selling candles, bikes and remaindered clothing; instead of bars on the windows there are blinds; and instead of an observation tower in the centre there’s a fountain and public seating, where a bored looking guy flicks crumbs from his baguette to a squabble of pigeons.

Not a great place to live for a paranoid schizophrenic.

Paul is dressed entirely in black, like one of those puppeteers who want to merge into the background so you only focus on the puppet. Paul is in his forties, a reserved, watchful man who stands behind the door when he invites me in. He’s lived here a while but it looks like he just moved in, things in bags and boxes, things drying over chairs.
‘Sorry about the mess’ he says, moving a stack of letters, then putting a magazine over them as a disguise.
‘That’s okay,’ I tell him. ‘I’m sorry to interrupt and I promise I won’t keep you long. It’s just the doctor wanted us to pop by for a couple of days to see how the medication change is going.’
He shrugs.
‘It’s going fine,’ he says.
He picks a grape from a bunch in a plastic tray and nibbles at it whilst I set my things out.
‘Fruit!’ I say. ‘That’s a healthy snack!’
He stops nibbling and frowns.
‘I should eat more fruit,’ I say. ‘It’s so tempting to eat crap all day.’
He finishes the grape then wipes his hands dry on the back pockets of his jeans.
‘Where do you want me?’ he says.

* * *

When I leave, the guy and the pigeons are gone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s