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  • “A row of screaming Russian dolls”:Escaping the Panopticon in David Mitchell’s number9dream
  • Rose Harris-Birtill (bio)

In 1786, Jeremy Bentham began a series of letters detailing a controversial prison structure. Printed in 1791, the preface opened with a hefty promise: “Morals reformed - health preserved - industry invigorated - instruction diffused - public burthens lightened […] all by a simple idea in Architecture!” (31). Bentham’s ‘simple idea’ was the panopticon, a new architectural concept and principles aimed at reforming an outdated prison system. In his design, prisoners were separately housed in transparent cells around the outer ring of a circular prison, built around a central inspection tower. Allowing a perfect view of all inmates at all times, blinds at the windows of the tower made it impossible for prisoners to see when they were being watched. Run by a single inspector, it harnessed a powerful method of psychological control. Bentham’s letters emphasise “the most important point” of its design: inmates “should always feel themselves as if under inspection,” fostering constantly compliant behavior (43).

Bentham’s model penitentiary was never built. Yet its principles of surveillance, mental control and societal self-regulation continue to resurface as contemporary criticism explores their wider implications. In Discipline and Punish (1975), Michel Foucault’s reading of Bentham’s legacy moves the critical focus from the prison’s architecture to a more widespread theory of panopticism, investigating a leaking of these principles into everyday life as a sinister and dehumanised method of control. Leading on from Bentham’s later plans for other panoptic structures – in mental institutions, hospitals, and even schools – Foucault uses the term panopticism to warn of its “generalizable model of functioning,” arguing “the Panopticon presents a cruel, ingenious cage” whose surveillance-based discipline and control “spread throughout the whole social body” (205-209).

In bringing Bentham’s principles out of the prison and into contemporary social structures, Foucault’s reading of the panopticon’s darker consequences has had such far-reaching impact – in literature, comics, computer games and even Doctor Who1 – that social historians are now at pains to defend Bentham’s original panopticon. In “Deconstructing Panopticism into the Plural Panopticons” (2012), Anne Brunon-Ernst emphasizes the liberal, utilitarian aims of Bentham’s project, arguing for [End Page 55] the use of the term “panoptic paradigm” to discuss its legacies beyond Foucault’s panopticism (38). Brunon-Ernst also usefully emphasizes that the panopticon is in fact plural, with “at least four different versions of Bentham’s surveillance machine” developed during his lifetime, of which his prison panopticon was merely the first (40). From the plurality of Bentham’s vision, to the terms used to trace its legacy, to its absorption in popular culture, the panopticon has been replicated as fully as Agent Smith in The Matrix. From a single eighteenth-century prison design, the panopticon has gone viral.

This viral panoptic paradigm becomes an insidious presence in David Mitchell’s 2001 novel, number9dream, as multiple overlapping panopticons are created and internalized by its protagonist Eiji. In its multiplicity, the panopticon displays an inherent tendency towards replication, becoming greater and more complex with each iteration; its virality in Western cultures builds on the religious model of the Judeo-Christian God, an omniscient and omnipotent presence by which we are constantly being monitored, and as such, should monitor ourselves, both externally and internally. This essay discusses the external and self-created panopticons that contain Eiji in number9dream, exploring how aspects of the panoptic paradigms imagined by Bentham and Foucault surface and replicate as part of a larger panoptic virility within the novel. Eiji’s obsession with his paternal origins is finally exposed as another panoptic model constructed around a powerful controlling center, with Eiji’s final rejection of his quest to find his father as one of his textual acts of resistance that provide a form of escape from the viral panoptic structures that surround him.

The panoptic paradigm in number9dream

number9dream opens with a triple-tiered panopticon, establishing a preoccupation with power, imprisonment and escape that resurfaces throughout the text. This coming-of-age novel sees its nineteen-year-old narrator, Eiji, on a quest to discover his father’s identity and make a...


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