The Tower and the Eyes

The door to a cell at the Provost. I have cropped out the rather charming pot plants.

The door to a cell at the Provost. I have cropped out the rather charming pot plants.

The wind howls. A cell doors stands open, but the light inside is not on. It is dark.

I sip my lemonade and shiver.

Provost. One of the most popular student hangouts in Grahamstown. Renowned for espressos, amazing chocolate chip cookies and friendly staff. My friend also says they make excellent tramezzinis, but I have yet to try those.

Once upon a time, this place was a prison.

Originally built in 1838, the striking building served predominantly as a military prison – to house deserting or thieving soldiers. Consisting of eight cells and the characteristic tower, the Provost is an example of a Panopticon. The word is derived from Greek, with pan meaning ‘all’ and opticon denoting ‘seeing’. It also echoes Panoptes, a mythological giant with a hundred eyes who served as a watchman of the Greek Gods.



Panopticons work on an interesting principal. The cells are arranged in such a way that they are all visible from the tower, which is generally located centrally. Okay so far?

Now, here is the interesting part. The inmates know they are visible. But they cannot tell when someone is actually in the tower. So they must assume that they are being watched. All. The. Time. Because even if no one is there, they know that someone could be.

The simplicity of the system is ingenious and it works. Under surveillance, society behaves and conforms. Jeremy Benthan, the inventor of the Panopticon, described it as a “new mode of obtaining power over the mind”.

Cell-eye view.

Cell-eye view.

It makes me uncomfortable.

Rhodes is a small university. There is a widely held conception that it is impossible to have secrets here because everyone knows you. Walking back from the Rat at 4am? Trust your classmates will know the colour of the vomit on your dress. Cheating on your significant other? Expect a breakup. Decided that you might be interested in exploring alternate sexualities? “Did you see him holding Mark’s hand? I knew it all along.”

It is therefore in your interests to conform to societally ordained normalcy. Panoptes is watching.

And in many cases, this is probably a good thing. It prevents people from being complete assholes. But do I want to constantly regulate my behaviour for an audience I can’t see?

Maybe we should stop caring about the people who might be (but probably aren’t) watching and start living our lives on personal terms. People have the potential to be anyone and do anything, but are restricted by pack mentality. We adore boxes. We scrutinize, analyze and exorcise the nonconformists because we think it will keep us safe.

Safe from what?

Our boxes are not comfortable. Our boxes are suffocating. Our boxes are arbitrary. Why should someone have to wear clothes, or love girls or eat with a knife and fork? Or smile? Or dance in certain ways? Why should we limit ourselves?

Live like no one is watching. Most of the time, they aren’t.

Let’s bring this tower crashing down.

(Only, please don’t go vandalize Provost now. I want to try that tramezzini.)


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