Jeremy Bentham's blueprint for a Panopticon
When Jacob Appelbaum, core member of the Tor project for internet anonymity, delivered his keynote speech at the Linux.conf.au 2012 conference last Friday, he began with an allusion to the panopticon, a nightmarish "house of correction" that permitted 360-degree surveillance by a single guard, as theorized by English jurist, philosopher and legal reformer, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Such "inspective force", in the phrase Bentham coined, was hitherto inconceivable.
Surveillance, as William Bogard points out, might be a fantasy of power, but such fantasies resonate in very real ways, including general harrassment, attempts to interfere with freedom of movement (border detention, no-fly lists), and of course incarceration itself. Appelbaum – also known as ioerror, after the computer "device error" message – went on to talk in his keynote about total surveillance in the modern age. Today's technology now allows states to record not only individual phone calls, but the totality of all their citizens' telephone converstions (for more detail, see vidcasts of lectures presented at the 28th Chaos Computer Club "Behind Enemy Lines" congress held in Berlin in 2011; Appelbaum's and Dingledine's own lecture here). Communications captured in this way are archived for sifting through later, as required by circumstances (which, like definitions of crimes, can change dynamically). Such technologies chillingly update Bentham's idea, and extend the scope of Romantic-period interception agencies, such as Napoleon's letter-opening Cabinet noir, whose officers would melt the wax on letters, read, reseal and resend, and its British equivalent in the arrangement between the Secretary of State and the Post Office. Our mobile phones ("tracking devices that can make calls"; Appelbaum) and networked computers become the "iron grating, so light so not to screen any part of the Cell from the Inspector's view" that afforded the panopticon's single guard a prospect of any incarcerated subject's affairs (Panopticon; Or, The Inspection House, p. 6).
Bentham's work on the panopticon was published in 1791, at the beginning of a radical decade that saw scores of political reformers, poets, orators and printers rail against what they perceived as gross abuses of power perpetrated by the age's undisputed superpower, England – then gearing up for war with post-revolutionary France – on its own citizens. Such figures included philologist John Horne Tooke, Thomas Hardy, founder of the London Corresponding Society, and poet and political lecturer, John Thelwall. Subjected to state persecution for their views, all three men stood trial for high treason in 1794. Their orating skills and irreverent wit stood them in good stead: conducting their own defence, they ran rings around the prosecution. All three were acquitted, escaping the government's attempt to have them publicly hanged, drawn and quartered.
Until the late-1970s, the scholarly tradition often presented literary Romanticism as predominently an aesthetic movement that was, by and large, uninterested in the period's turbulent politics. To be sure, Wordsworth visited France in 1792, the year before the outbreak of war with England, and while there witnessed the beginnings of The Terror (in later life, he claimed to have been present at the execution of Jean-Antoine Gorsas). However, Wordsworth was routinely discussed as a transcendental poet of nature, whose early political interests were subsumed as he matured in descriptive portraits of Lake District scenes. In short, his political charge was lost in contemplation of daffodils. Modern Romantic Studies, however, tends to be more sensitively attuned to the continued radical force of Wordsworth's work and thought – whether in the philologically inflected Prefatory essays to his pioneering volume Lyrical Ballads, the poems themselves, or through his personal friendships with unapologetic radicals like Thelwall. It is worth remembering that in 1797, Wordsworth and Coleridge, then living in Nether Stowey, Somerset, near the Quantock Hills, where they composed much of Lyrical Ballads, were themselves placed under surveillance for suspected French sympathies. In July of that year, the Home Office's top field agent, James Walsh, was sent to spy on the pair. Coleridge lampoons the episode in his Biographia Literaria (1817), laughing at how an overheard conversation about the German philosopher Spinoza was misprisioned into a report back to Whitehall on a dangerous character called "Spy Nozy". For all Coleridge's japing, there was a serious (potentially deadly serious) side to the surveillance, since the two poets' known association with Thelwall made them potentially marked men. The inevitable tension led to a cooling of the friendship, and Thelwall, feeling cut adrift, went into exile in Wales; he rented a farmhouse in a village called Llyswen, not far from where I grew up.
Surveillance and persecution of Romantic poets didn't stop with Wordsworth and Coleridge. John Keats was harrassed by establishment literary critics in the severest terms imaginable, along with his political and poetical mentor, Leigh Hunt, editor of radical journal The Examiner. Both men were caricatured as jumped-up members of the preposterous "Cockney School of Poetry", ridiculed on class grounds, dismissed in terms of their supposed indifferent education (neither wrote good Latin or Greek), and were subjected to sexual slurs and other ad hominem attacks, including racial abuse in the case of Hunt, who could trace his heritage to the Caribbean. In 1813, Hunt was found guilty of political libel on the Prince Regent. In print, adapting language routinely deployed against himself, Hunt characterized the Regent as "a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who had just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country, or the respect of posterity!" He was fined £500 – a sum aimed at bankrupting The Examiner – and imprisoned for two years in Horsemonger Lane Gaol. Even in prison, Hunt found ways to subvert the system, paying to have a chaise longue and pianoforte brought into his cell, papering the walls with bower scenes and painting the ceiling blue. Guests including Byron regularly pitched up for lock-in soirées, to be released the next morning by paid-off turnkeys. (For details of the renegade Hunt's colourful incarceration, see Greg Kucich's excellent article "The Wit in the Dungeon".)
If the Romantics were suspicious of the State, of its capacity to treat human beings as what Schelling called a "mechanical system of gears", we owe key components of our modern judicial system, welfare state as well as various powerful social philosophies to them. But the period's unease with the issue of monitoring its citizens – people act differently, speak to each other differently, if they know they're being overheard – also throws light on circumstances that may, on first glance, seem uniquely contemporary. It is possible to draw a continuous line between Romantic-era surveillance – between the Cabinet noir, the offices of the Secretarys of State, Bentham's idea of the panopticon – and the cultural fashioning and socialization into surveillance culture that continues today within individual institutions, nation states and globally. Leigh Hunt, always gleefully insolent towards Power, would, if writing today – I have no doubt – be tweeting, blogging and attending hacker congresses. He would be concerned, profoundly concerned, about panoptic data surveillance.