The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

The Panoptic Coffeehouse and the Rise of Academic Disciplines

watch tower made out of paper

The late eighteenth-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham devised the architectural embodiment of ultimate surveillance: the Panopticon. An ideal institutional building as well as a system of control, French philosopher and historian, Michel Foucault, describes the structure in a famous essay

[A]t the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open into the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into two cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other.

With an unseen and, by nature of this invisibility, always potentially present supervisor placed in the central tower and a prisoner locked in each cell, the Panopticon becomes a theatrical space; the cages serve as small theatres “in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible.” Critical discussions of the Panopticon often focus on the panoptic prison—designed by Bentham to be lighter than the  “heaviness of the old ‘houses of security,’ with their fortress-like architecture.” Foucault, however, uses it as a metaphor for modern systems of power and discipline.

As Brian Cowan explains throughout The Social Life of Coffee, the unfettered meeting of minds in early eighteenth-century coffeehouses–which attracted the likes of John Locke, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift–was viewed as a great threat to sovereignty. Coffeehouses were centers for interdisciplinary discussions and political debates; news was both created and circulated in and through coffeehouses. With the monarchy once again in its infancy–having just been restored with the return of King Charles II from continental Europe in 1660–such unsupervised and undisciplined conversations frightened Charles II and the managers of his regime. He thus became the first monarch–followed by James II and William and Mary–to enact several royal proclamations in an attempt to eradicate coffeehouse culture.

By the time of Queen Anne’s reign (1702-1714), after such decrees proved time and again to be unsuccessful in prohibiting the coalition and interdisciplinary debate of the local wits, the monarch decided to take a new approach to the suppression of coffeehouses in the kingdom: commissioning spies and bribing coffeehouse owners to report any libelous conversations between patrons. This shift from outright prohibition in late seventeenth-century England to subtle surveillance at the beginning of the eighteenth century is a shift from traditional models of discipline to Panopticism. As touched on above, the prominence of political debates in coffeehouses was largely a consequence of local wits conversing across disciplines–that is, politicians talking to philosophers (who could help them morally, ethically, or rationally justify certain actions) who spoke with writers (who could help them eloquently articulate such actions). Panopticism and disciplinary divides therefore arise as a response to the threat that the interdisciplinary discourse of the coffeehouse poses to the established system of monarchical power.

Foucault contrasts panopticism with the traditional model of discipline used in England’s response to The Great Plague of 1665/1666. Employing the meticulous governmental records from the time, Foucault describes the state’s response to the plague as a top-down disciplinary structure in which the head of state (or the monarch) retains the most power, followed by his intendants and syndics (responsible for surveillance), then the upper-class or men of rank, and, lastly, the lower-class responsible for carrying and disposing of the dead. 

Although the “plague-town” and panoptic model of discipline can be intertwined, Foucault argues that panopticism has a uniquely incorporeal essence. That is, while the “plague-town” model is more closely tied to the individual body (the monarch can only discipline those who fall directly under their jurisdiction), the panoptic model has a much greater disciplinary reach. To Foucault, panoptic discipline, when successfully incorporated into a society, becomes nearly invisible. 

For Bentham, the originator of the metaphor, the major effect of the Panopticon prison is that the inmates will always feel as if they are being watched. Whether a guard is or is not present in the central tower is of little importance to Bentham–in fact, in a perfect panoptic prison, a guard would never actually be present, just always potentially present.  Thus, the tower comes to represent the constant threat of being observed.

While the “plague-town” model was a successful form of discipline in England until the end of the seventeenth century, the unstable position of the monarchy following the restoration of King Charles II weakened the effectiveness of this top-down approach. With British citizens already wary about too much monarchical intervention, Queen Anne opting to introduce panoptic models of surveillance into coffeehouses to subtly coerce her subjects quickly and quietly was very effective. This shift from direct discipline to panoptic surveillance–and thus from overt to covert discipline–in Britain was responsible for the creation of what Foucault calls the eighteenth-century “disciplinary society.” 

Foucault ends his essay by identifying the three underlying processes in eighteenth-century Europe which led to the generation of this “disciplinary society,” the first two of which are particularly relevant. The first of these processes is the “functional inversion of the disciplines” (210). Disciplines were initially introduced to neutralize threats, order previously disordered populations, and save influential members of society from the hassle of needing to meet to discuss punishments for misconduct. This intended function is similar to the intended aim of the countless royal proclamations introduced to suppress coffeehouse culture. These decrees were unsuccessful, I argue, as they came clearly and directly from the monarch at a time when monarchical power was in question. When spies entered the sacred (and previously safe) space of the coffeehouse, however, local wits and political radicals alike were constantly aware that anyone, at any time, could be watching and listening. This panoptic tactic proved much more successful in eradicating interdisciplinary and political debates in coffeehouses due to the Queen’s distance from such surveillance. 

While the original purpose of disciplines was thus negative–meant to prevent people from behaving badly rather than encourage people to behave well–in the eighteenth century, the aim of disciplines shifted; the new aim being to increase the potential utility of individuals. This now two-fold association of discipline with both taming dangerous people and creating “useful individuals” (211) required an increase in the number of disciplinary institutions that could only be achieved–while also avoiding making citizens aware of new limitations to their freedoms–through the nearly invisible quality of panoptic discipline. 

The second process is the “swarming of disciplinary mechanisms.” As the volume of disciplinary establishments increased, their mechanisms became de-centralized and de-institutionalized. It was at this time that disciplinary procedures began to arise throughout society. Examining regulations from charity associations in Paris parishes, Foucault notes that one of the central roles of religious groups was to spy on the population to ensure that the kingdom was maintained. This is much like when Queen Anne realized that coffeehouses could not be suppressed by decree, and thus hired spies and bribed coffeehouse owners to relate any revolutionary discourse. In spaces where the “plague-town” of discipline cannot be enforced, such as religious groups in France or coffeehouses in Britain, therefore, panoptic surveillance is needed to take subtle charge of discipline.

This monarchical fear of and desire to shut down the interdisciplinary discourse of the British coffeehouse leads us to an interesting conclusion about the rise of disciplines in the Academy. Only introduced into universities around the middle of the nineteenth century, academic disciplines were not delineated simply for purposes of intellectual specialization, but, more subtly, as a response to the threat that interdisciplinarity posed to existing power structures. In Britain, disciplines benefitted the royal family specifically as they allowed them to organize, and thus to better control, their population: to order the disordered and, more importantly, to aid in surveillance by grouping people in accordance with their common interests and sets of knowledge. 

Separating astronomers from poets, philosophers from politicians, and scientists from historians meant that new knowledge or breakthroughs in any of these fields could be disseminated to the public in a manner dictated by the government. Rather than poets writing about the natural world and universe from knowledge acquired through conversations with astronomers and scientists over cups of coffee, they were now, in the absence of coffeehouses, often left to wait for these academics to first publicize their findings. This new barrier to knowledge led many wits who would have previously crossed disciplinary lines to, for lack of a better phrase, stay in their lane. Poets were now sticking to writing poetry about things they knew or were taught in their respective discipline, rather than things that they might have learned in the more casual, discipline-free environment of the coffeehouse. The monarch, therefore, no longer needed to worry that an influential poet like John Milton would, after looking through the telescope of Galileo Galilei, write of the new (and, at the time, highly contested) Copernican system in his widely-read (and non-government-sanctioned) epic, Paradise Lost (1667). The introduction of disciplines into the Academy thus ultimately made knowledge much simpler to monitor, regulate, and discipline. 

This specialization of knowledge ensures ignorance in other fields of study and is thus a modern example of the panoptic disciplinary structures which gained traction in the eighteenth century—one which has spread, subtly and carefully, to every academic institution around the globe.

Taylor Rousselle is a Ph.D. student studying 16th & 17th-century European literature at McGill University.

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