“Secrecy or Silence with Her Finger on Her Mouth”

Jeremy Bentham’s Other Model of Visibility and Power

Originally published in Political Theory

To challenge the Foucauldian legacy of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison, scholars often highlight Bentham’s later writings on the democratic power of public opinion. In doing so, they reaffirm Bentham’s reputation as an unreserved proponent of transparency. To recover the limits of Bentham’s embrace of publicity, I examine the model of visibility exemplified by his designs for the Sotimion, a residence for unmarried, pregnant women. The Sotimion draws our attention to Bentham’s appreciation for concealment as a method of preventing individual and social harms caused by publicity and his criticisms of ascetic sexual norms. By being able to see visitors without being seen by them, the residents of the Sotimion would have avoided social censure while continuing to meet with friends, family, and even lovers. The Sotimion designs eschewed the panoptic principle, the use of asymmetric surveillance to reform moral behavior, and offered what I call the “soteric principle,” the use of asymmetric surveillance to protect the observer from punishment. By comparing the Sotimion to the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes and Bentham’s discussions of panoptic institutions for women, I examine the Sotimion’s distinctiveness while acknowledging its normalizing effects for residents from lower socioeconomic classes. Just as the panopticon captured Bentham’s commitment to publicity, applying the soteric model to Bentham’s theory of public opinion highlights his commitment to secrecy for protecting critics of government abuses from retribution.

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