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New Left Review 3, May-June 2000

Louis XIV’s passion for dancing, and its metamorphoses, at the beginnings of a society of the spectacle. Peter Wollen looks at the birth of ballet as a projection of state power, and the bonding of elites that court entertainment bequeathed to modern democracies.



In the course of his celebrated discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, Michel Foucault wondered whether Bentham had got the idea for his perfect prison from Le Vau’s octagonal design for Louis XIV’s menagerie at Versailles: ‘At the centre was an octagonal pavilion which, on the first floor, consisted of only a single room, the king’s salon; on every side large windows looked out onto seven cages (the eighth was reserved for the entrance), containing different species of animals. By Bentham’s time, this menagerie had disappeared. But one finds in the programme of the Panopticon a similar concern with individuating observation, with characterization and classification, with the analytic arrangement of space. The Panopticon is a royal menagerie; the animal is replaced by man, individual distribution by specific grouping and the king by the machinery of a furtive power.’ [1] Michel Foucault, Discipline And Punish, New York 1979. Like the Panopticon, Louis’s menagerie was a kind of observatory in which, from a single central point of view, a series of specimens, both confined and illuminated, could be examined and controlled. Observation was indeed for Louis a form of mastery. As Colbert noted at the opening of a new Observatory in 1671: ‘Triumphal Arch for the conquests of the Earth. Observatory for the heavens.’ [2] Cited from Charles Perrault’s Mémoires in Peter Burke, The Fabrication of Louis XIV, Newhaven 1992.

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Peter Wollen, ‘Government by Appearances’, NLR 3: £3

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