“Make a Hard Push for It”: The Benthams, Foucault, and the Panopticons’ Roots in the Paris École Militaire[Record]

  • Haroldo A. Guízar
“I was a military hero for a night—patrolling the streets under arms.” Thus wrote Jeremy Bentham to his brother Samuel in the aftermath of the Gordon Riots, describing his stint as a gentleman volunteer in the improvised corps formed by the lawyers of the Inns of Court. Samuel Romilly was another of Bentham’s fellow volunteers who “was up a whole night under arms, and stood as sentinel for several hours” at the Inns’ gates during the riots. The Morning Chronicle praised the “laudable spirit” with which the embodied lawyers took up arms and “kept watch within the walls of their respective societies”; however, when some lawyers-in-arms attempted to confront rioters near Temple an “officer shut the gate on them, explaining that ‘I do not choose to allow my soldiers to be shot.’” From Bentham’s account, it would nonetheless seem that some barristers did manage to emerge from the confines of their walls to assist in the peacekeeping of the City’s devastated streets in the riots’ aftermath, even if William Pitt lamented that “our military ardour has been thrown away.” Within a decade, Bentham took the opportunity to don “the mantle of a military strategist” by designing a fortified perimeter for the panopticon intended to prevent a repeat of the storming of Newgate prison by the Gordon Riot mobs. Later, “in moments of fantasy … Bentham himself harboured military ambitions,” fancying himself the head of a corps “raised from amongst the Panopticon inmates, and … taking charge of their drill and training.” Such reveries, which might otherwise be ascribed to his well-known eccentricity, perhaps take another light in view of his actual embodiment, however brief, as a ‘citizen soldier’ in an antecedent to the military body later dubbed the ‘Devil’s Own’ by George III. The panopticon scheme itself can be interpreted as partially owing its conception and form to several military models, one such lineage being the various Renaissance ideal cities either imagined or constructed as circular walled strongholds, such as Filarete’s Sforzinda or Palmanova in the Veneto. This article intends to examine a more immediate military model for the panopticon: the Paris École militaire. As such, it aims to provide an overview of the school’s role as a precedent to the various forms different panopticons took, a role which though occasionally noted has never been analysed. The École militaire was a school founded in 1751 to educate the children of provincial nobles for a career in arms, counting Napoleon Bonaparte as its most famous alumnus. It ought to be borne in mind that in the eighteenth century, the École militaire was located in open countryside and was not considered part of Paris proper. Like the basilica of “Saint-Jean-de-Latran, à Rome, il ne manque pour paraître ce qu’elle est, que de se trouver au milieu de la ville,” a development that only came about with the urbanization of the plain of Grenelle on which it stood in the second half of the nineteenth century. Stylistically, it is considered the chef d’oeuvre of its principal architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel and the exemplar par excellence of the neo-classical Louis XV style, although it now stands in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, which rises opposite it on the Champ de Mars; this field was originally created by the school for the students’ military drill and manoeuvres. Before continuing to the main body of the article, a short outline of its overall structure is given here. The influence of the École militaire on the panopticon was originally mentioned by Jeremy Bentham and subsequently repeated by Michel Foucault. The ...

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