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


Panopticism:  Big Brother is Watching


Unfortunately the desperate fear and awareness that each has of inevitable capture is realized when they least expect it and when they have let down their guard.  Ineluctably the agent of their capture is a well-concealed telescreen.  Winston and Julia are just beginning to relax in a place they believe is a safe haven for their amorous escapades, the top floor of Mr. Charrington’s antique shop, located in a somewhat seedy area inhabited chiefly by Proles, the working classes, considered subhuman by the Party bosses and therefore less subject to surveillance and intense scrutiny.  After making love and then napping on their big double bed, the two lovers, each in turn, intone their frequent lament of anticipated doom—“’We are the dead.’”  Suddenly a third voice, emanating from an invisible telescreen behind a picture on the wall, blurts out, as if in mockery, “’You are the dead’”; (p. 147) and their brief happiness is punctuated by the loud, violent entrance of the Thought Police.  Winston’s last memory of Julia in Mr. Charrington’s place is of her being punched in the solar plexus hard enough to deprive her temporarily of breath.  It will be a long time before he sees her again.


Among modern commentators on surveillance, few have been as influential as cultural and intellectual historian Michel Foucault.  In one of his most significant works, Discipline and Punish:  The Birth of the Prison (first published 1975 in French, translated into English from the French by Alan Sheridan in 1977), he devoted a sizable amount of space to the topic of surveillance.  In the section entitled “Panopticism” he rescues from oblivion a little-known work by Jeremy Bentham, eighteenth-century English Philosopher, called The Panopticon (1791).  Though Orwell is not specifically mentioned in Foucault’s essay, there are some useful general resemblances between the principles of panopticism and those that prevail in 1984.


Originally intended as a suggestion for reforming the prison system, Bentham’s work describes a central tower in which a supervisor or supervisors can look out over a series of prisoners’ cells in a round building.  Given the structure of this edifice and the “effect of backlighting,” the supervisors can watch the prisoners appearing as “captive shadows” in their cells, like “so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible” (“Panopticism,” p. 200).  For Foucault surveillance “reverses the principle of the dungeon” (one of the most popular forms of punishment among early European monarchs); of the dungeon’s “three functions—to enclose, to deprive of light, and to hide—it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two” (p.200). 


In Bentham’s conception no communication was possible among prisoners:  “side walls prevent” each prisoner “from coming into contact with his companions” (p. 200).  And since panopticism would soon be implemented in other eighteenth-century public institutions—insane asylums, workhouses, boarding-schools, hospitals—it was assumed that the panoptic structure could prevent various kinds of mischief, as well as dangerous or even criminal activity, by keeping people apart:  for example, madmen attacking one another, workers shirking their duties, schoolboys copying their assignments from one another or chattering unnecessarily, contagious patients infecting one another—or prisoners plotting escape (pp. 200-201).


In 1984 as we have seen, no one gets very far away from the instruments of surveillance, but it is not just the telescreens that shine the light on people.  Spying and betrayal are widespread.  In an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and self-preservation created by government policies, citizens of Oceania don’t know whom to trust.  Winston at first suspects that Julia is stalking him and may be a member of the Thought Police; instead, she turns out to be someone wanting to have an affair with him.  His colleague Syme, an intellectual who eventually disappears, is superpatriotic, and in Winston’s judgment would report him to the Thought Police if he knew of Winston’s hatred of the government.


Along these same lines, Mr. Charrington, a pleasant old man, proprietor of the shop where Winston and Julia find a temporary haven, turns out to be a major official in the Thought Police, and, in actuality, only half the age he appears to be.  And O’Brien, whom Winston believes to be a fellow conspirator, turns out to be his chief inquisitor and tormentor in prison.  But perhaps the worst kind of betrayal is by a family member, as in the case of Winston’s neighbor, the hysterical patriot Parsons, whose young daughter, ironically, hears him talking against Big Brother in his sleep and betrays him to the authorities. 


In such an atmosphere it is no wonder that people stay away from one another whenever they can; metaphorically they construct their own “side walls,” the equivalent of the literal ones described by Bentham to keep prisoners apart.  But keeping people isolated is also advantageous for the authorities, since it cuts down on the possibilities for conspiracy.


This notion of other human beings as part of a system of surveillance played a major role (if not a dominant role) in earlier societies in which sophisticated technology was limited if not non-existent; but as technology and more effective lighting of dark or shadowy public places became more complex and more frequent, they were added to the human element, eventually assuming a primary role, with human reports, observations, and ultimately betrayals playing a secondary, but not insignificant, part.


That is unquestionably the case in Orwell’s 1984 and, as Foucault asserts, during the French Revolution, when the “fear of darkened spaces” led semi-paranoid Revolutionary leaders to “break up the patches of darkness that blocked the light, eliminate the shadowy areas of society, demolish the unlit chambers” that served as breeding grounds for “monarchical caprice, religious superstitions, [and] tyrannical and priestly plots” (“The Eye of Power,” p. 153).  But in addition to opening up darkened spaces, leaders of the French Revolution attempted to forestall wrongdoing “by immersing people in a field of total visibility where the opinion of observation and discourse of others would restrain them from harmful acts” (“The Eye of Power,” p. 153).



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Paul D. Green

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