… to control the mind

November 14, 2011

DSC_7374.jpgI never liked Utilitarian Philosophy although I can see its popular appeal, it has an element of mathematical calculation to it that seems the antithesis of virtue and allows the too easy justification of inhumanity under the guise of doing good. It many ways it seems to me a way of avoiding the consequences of moral decisions and has an inadequate understanding of social obligation and guilt among other things. Bernard Williams in a wonderfully concise work Morality provides a pretty effective and very readable demolition of the ideas.

Bentham described the philosophy as the greatest happiness principle, which is to be achieved by whatever means necessary (my emphasis). Given that under this philosophy you can only judge an action by its consequences it seems fair to apply that principle to the various projects that Bentham initiated or inspired. I say this as I spend yesterday afternoon revisiting Port Arthur with the special intent of spending more time in the Prison in part inspired by Bentham’s notion of the panopticon, although it is in reality a Separate System not a true panopticon.

DSC_7406.jpg DSC_7371.jpgThe basic idea that was emerging at the time of Bentham was to move from physical punishment to mental control. Bentham himself talks about a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example. In the case of Port Arthur the block is designed with a central observation point and radiating corridors (the panopticon). Each prisoner has a cell which is cleaned daily and by the standards of the time has plenty of room. As can be seen from the picture to the left the bed rolls up during the day using the straps (which were the instrument of at least one reported suicide by the way).

The scary stuff starts with the hood hanging on the wall. IN this prison there was no sound, guards wore muffled shoes and no one spoke. There were exercise yards that could be used for an hour each day but to get there the Prisoner would put on the hood and would be guided by ropes without any human contact into a solitary exercise yard. The only time there was any contact was in the Chapel on a Sunday. Again ropes would guide hooded prisoners into solitary stalls (see opening picture) which allowed them sight of the Chaplain but not of fellow prisoners.

A lot of people went mad, some committed suicide. The really scary thing is that was all about doing good, it was seen as prison reform. To my mind it represents the tyranny of the enlightened that so characterises that period of philosophy and social thinking. Contrast it with the picture to the right which shows the approach and view of the camp commandant’s headquarters.

The panopticon is all about those in power observing the powerless without the subjects of the observation being aware. As Foucault and others saw the model as one of a disciplinary society seeking to normalize behaviour. In the modern world the panopticon is all round us in CCTV cameras, Google using software to determine what we see on a search and countless other examples. We live in the world where the observer is unobserved, and there seems little inhibition to that process. The excuse (and in some ways the legitimate reason) is the threat to society. I do not belong to those who wold abandon all surveillance. I do not object to being observed, but I would like to know by who. I strongly object to the limitation on what I see, going under the guise of customisation as the nature of that control is invisible.

Overall I am really scared by the way in which concepts of control have not changed over the years in terms of their philosophy, only their implementation. If you ever go to Australia, visit Tasmania, follow the convict trail, visit Port Arthur and reflect. It is not just an historical monument is a warning for today.

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