George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Bentham and Big Brother: The Power of Supervision in 1984

November 28, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Bentham and Big Brother: The Power of Supervision in 1984

In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michele Foucault uses a prison as model of a complete and austere institution that models the rest of society.  Foucault describes how discipline was used in early political systems to “link[ed] the absolute power of the monarch to the lowest levels of power disseminated in society…it filled in the gaps, linked them together, guaranteed with its armed force an interstitial discipline and a meta-discipline…[through which] the sovereign accustoms the people to order and obedience (Foucault 215). Foucault’s understanding of discipline led him to believe that discipline created individuals by encouraging norms so that those who did not fit in could be distinguished through examinations.  Furthermore, Foucault stated that discipline was used to create individuals in time and space, but that it served to keep everyone at the same pace, even within their individual confines.

Furthermore, Foucault claims that discipline “may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a ‘physics’ or an ‘anatomy’ of power, a technology. And it may be taken over either by ‘specialized’ institutions… or by institutions that use it as an essential instrument for a particular end (schools, hospitals), or by pre-existing authorities that find in it a means of reinforcing or reorganizing their internal mechanisms of power”(Foucault 215). Thus the party utilized discipline to maintain power of its members by controlling every detail of their lives: from what time they woke up, to the contents of meals, to the thoughts they could express, to the marriage partners they were assigned.

The Party, under the figure head of Big Brother, is able to exert discipline through a relatively easy method: surveillance.  This discipline links each Party member (not including the Proles) under the power of surveillance that maintained control of solitary individuals who formed a collective, yet isolated group. “In appearance, the disciplines constitute nothing more than an infra-law. They seem to extend the general forms defined by law to the infitesimal level of individual lives; or they appear as methods of training that enable individuals to become integrated into these general demands”(222).

The method of control used by the party parallels Foucault’s description of the power of surveillance as a type of discipline. In particular, the use of surveillance in 1984 finds resonance with Foucault’s discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s Panoptican in which the power of an authority’s “gaze” exerts discipline. The power of the structure rests in the architectural design that allows those in power to observe others without them knowing if they are being watched.  Because of the perpetual prospect that someone could be watching, Foucault saw the panopticon as the ultimate device of discipline through surveillance. Bentham reported said that the Panopticon presented “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind”(Bentham). Bentham’s Panopticon is a circular structure with a tower in the center.  Around the outer edge of the structure are individual cells with windows along the back wall to let light in so that an overseer in the tower can see all of the cell’s occupants.

Foucault describes the effect of the Panopticon to “induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power”(201).  The panopticon lauded by Foucault was designed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century as a structure that allowed a few number of guards to control a large number of occupants.  When applied to prisons the architecture of the Panopticon allowed guards to maintain surveillance over all prisoners. The structure exerts discipline because inmates are constantly under the gaze of a guard, or at least they should assume that they could be watched at any time. 

As stated, the similarities between Foucault’s description of the prison system as a model of society and Orwell’s imagined society in 1984:

Panopticon is perfect use of power because do not need additional discipline- surveillance exerts control because people limit themselves:

Foucault: “the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it” (Foucault201)

1984: examples of people limiting themselves because not sure who is watching, listening, etc

Even from the coin the eyes pursued you. On coins, on stamps, on the covers of books, on banners, on posters, and on the wrapping of a cigarette packet- everywhere. Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed- no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull”(Orwell 27)

The system is effective because the power is known to exist, but can’t be sure if they’re watching:

Foucault:“ the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. ”

1984: Winston comments to himself, “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug into your wire whenever they wanted to. 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”(Orwell 3).

Use of punishment as a spectacle:

Foucault: “Not only must people know, they must see with their own eyes. Because they must be made to be afraid, but also because they must be the witnesses, the guarantors, of the punishment , and because they must to a certain extent take part in it”(Foucault 58)

1984: Some Eurasian prisoners, guilty of war crimes, were to be hanged in the Park that evening, Winston remembered. This happened about once a month, and was a popular spectacle. Children always clamored to be taken to see it”(Orwell 23).

Dissidents created by the very system that punishes them:

Foucault: “The carceral system does not cast the un-assimilable into a confused hell; there is no outside… In this panoptic society of which incarceration is the omnipresent armature, the delinquent is not outside the law; he is, from the very outset, in the law, at the very heart of the law, or at least in the very mechanisms that transfer the individual imperceptibly from discipline to the law, from deviation to offence. Although it is true that prison punishes delinquency, delinquency is for the most part produced in and by incarceration (Foucault 301)

“The Prison cannot fail to produce delinquents… The prison also produces delinquents by imposing violent constraints on its inmates; it is supposed to apply the law, and to teach respect for it; but all its functioning operates in the form of an abuse of power(Foucault 266)

1984: O’Brien tells Winston, “No one who has once gone astray is ever spared. And even if we chose to let you live out the natural term of your life, still you would never escape from us. What happens to you here is forever. Understand that in advance. We shall crush you down to the point from which there is no coming back. Things will happen to you from which you could not recover, if you lived a thousand years”(Orwell 256).

 Works Cited

Bentham, Jeremy. Panopticon (Preface). In Miran Bozovic (ed.), The Panopticon Writings, London: Verso, 1995, 29-95.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans, Alan Sheridan. New York, NY, Vintage Books, 1979.

Orwell, George. 1984. New York, NY: Signet Classics, 1949.

Categories: Power

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