Police State Rising:  The Function of Surveillance in Orwell’s 1984


Another major characteristic of panopticism is its one-sidedness—i.e, it is not reciprocal. As Foucault explains, “Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable.  Visible:  the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon.  Unverifiable:  the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so”—i.e., that it is always a possibility (“Panopticism,” p. 201). More simply, in the prison cells, “one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen” (“Panopticism,” p. 202).


Psychologically this lack of reciprocal visibility is one of the most significant features of panopticism, for the person being observed, not knowing when he is being watched, alters his behavior to meet the expectations of the person or persons who might be gazing at him:  “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; ... he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection [emphasis mine] (“Panopticism,” p. 202-203).


The interiorizing of the power relationship created by an uncommonly effective system of surveillance is exemplified by Winston Smith in 1984.  One of the first details Winston shares about the telescreens is that “there was...no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.” Consequently, out of self-preservation, “you had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized” (p.4).


Not surprisingly, Winston later discovers that the book ascribed to Goldstein but actually co-authored by O’Brien and others generalizes about the ubiquity and inescapability of surveillance:  “A Party member lives from birth to death under the eye of the Thought Police.  Even when he is alone he can never be sure that he is alone.  Wherever he may be, asleep or awake, working or resting, in his bath or in bed, he can be inspected without warning and without knowing that he is being inspected” (p.140).  Not merely words but even gestures could arouse suspicion:  “a nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself—anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide” (p. 43).  And an “improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was a punishable offense.  There was even a word for it ...: facecrime, it was called” (p.43).


Given the total form of surveillance, with the victim not knowing the exact moment when it was being practiced, each citizen/Party member must avoid even the appearance of guilt or wrongdoing. Citizens in Oceania learn from early childhood to practice “crimestop: the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought” (p.141).  Crimestop is equivalent to “protective stupidity.”  But even that is not enough:  what is required is unthinking “orthodoxy,” which “demands a control over one’s own mental processes as complete as that of a contortionist over his body” (p. 141).  Hence Winston and Julia acquire from constant practice the ability to conceal all emotion, for “a Party member is expected to have no private emotions” (p.141).


Yet the Inner Party, with shrewd psychological insight that recognizes the human need to express dissatisfaction and discontent, provides an outlet for that need with the compulsory Two Minutes Hate in the workplace.  On a huge telescreen in a public place the face of Goldstein, Chief Enemy of the State and chief scapegoat, appears, “delivering his usual venomous attack upon the doctrines of the Party, ...abusing Big Brother,” and, with wonderful irony, demanding freedom of all kinds: “of speech,” “of the press,” “of assembly,” “of thought” (p. 10).  The response of the crowd to these subversive pronouncements and demands is to shout and scream loud enough to drown him out, to jump up and down, and even to throw things at the screen.  At the end of two minutes the “Hate” is over, the hostility dissipated.



The Technology of Subjection:  Bentham, Foucault and 1984


Though Jeremy Bentham, the author of The Panopticon, recognized his system as a “‘great and new instrument of government’” (“Panopticism,” p. 206), he believed that the panoptic mechanism would be subject to constant public inspection and therefore not liable to the abuses of tyranny; instead, as a utilitarian philosopher, he emphasized its positive social benefits:  “to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality” (“Panopticism,” pp. 207-208).


Foucault, who has done more than almost any other historian or theorist to raise awareness of surveillance as a modern, very viable form of power, does not have the same unqualified optimism.  The panoptic scheme, he remarks, “makes it possible to perfect the exercise of power ...“ by reducing “the number of those who exercise it, while increasing the number of those on whom it is exercised” (“Panopticism,” p. 206).  The discipline imposed is a “non-reversible subordination of one group of people by another” (“Panopticism,” pp.222-223). Panopticism is also, he warns, a “laboratory of power” that can be used “to carry out experiments, to alter behaviour, to train or correct individuals” (“Panopticism,” p. 204).  Panopticism is, in short, part of a “subtle, calculated technology of subjection” (“Panopticism,” pp. 220-221).


But Foucault recognizes that, for all its usefulness, surveillance must work in tandem with other, often more conventional, forms of power.  He points out, for example, that in the eighteenth century the police became ever more important in exerting state power; and in imposing the “mechanics of discipline,” they added surveillance—“a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception:  thousands of eyes posted everywhere”—to older and less subtle modes of power (“Panopticism,” pp. 214-215).



Previous                                        Next

Back to Archive

Paul D. Green

Image © Peter Groesbeck



© 2005 - 2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5