The Puritan Panopticon

14493361I’ve been reading Albion’s Seed, recommended to me by Paul Singer, and recently found on a bookshelf here in Port Townsend.  The Puritan history is horrifying.

Every sunday Massachusetts Puritans sat in unheated meeting houses for 4-6 hours listening to lectures delivered by ministers in flowing black robes and small black scull caps.  Besides the all-seeing eye of God painted on the pulpit, no adornment or decoration was in the room.  Sitting below the eye and watching the crowd were the town’s elders, seeking out those who would not “STAND STILL and consider the wonderous word of God” (120) with perfect posture on unbacked benches.


Worship was just a microcosm of a larger system of social control designed to instill fear, uncertainty, doubt, and obedience upon those living within it.  The eye on the pulpit was a symbol of this recursive system of control whereby elders (whose age suggested they may be the Elect) enforced conformity upon the young.  In this way the system fed back upon itself, correcting against novelty, which was a criminal charge (56).   Imagine being 40 and unable to own property, living and working under the arbitrary law of your surviving parent.   Power and age were one and the same, ensuring that control was held by 60-year products of the system.

It seems that the only within this Puritan Panopticon could the Five Points of New England Calvinism (to paraphrase) survive: the natural condition of humanity is total depravity, salvation is beyond mortal striving, grace is predestined only for a few, most mortals are condemned to eternal damnation, and no earthly effort can save them (112).   17th century Puritans lived for death, and beyond for eternal suffering.  Life itself was just an immense tragedy where even submission offered little hope.

Now that a Participatory Panopticon is growing around us, we might do well to study another culture of constant interpersonal surveillance.  The Puritans achieved it through small, closely built towns and an ethic of nosiness.  We’re bringing it back with cell phone cameras and social networking, but both were distributed systems.  The Puritans were obsessive documentarians and diarists- if you’re interested in the future, 17th century Massachusetts might be one place to look.