2008-09 Gathering of Voices

Why is Big Brother Watching and What the Hell Does He Want:
The Place For Dystopian Novels in Our Society

Sarah Rice-McDaniel

"Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain”(Orwell 220). This is the world that Winston experienced in George Orwell’s 1984, a world of surveillance, fear, control, and loss of freedoms. In this world there was little hope. Is our society like this? There seems to be no concrete answer to that question but there are elements of dystopian society all around us, from ATM cameras to banned book lists. The question then to be asked, is why the fixation on dystopian elements in our artistic outlets? What do we gain from it? There is a long history of these artistic outlets from George Orwell’s 1984 to novels like Lois Lowry's The Giver. With as far reaching as dystopian elements are in our well-known novels there must be a reason? First, before questions about the role of the novels themselves are asked, definitions will need be clarified.

A dystopia is essentially a utopia gone horribly wrong. A utopia is basically a perfectly harmonious society. Another definition is that “a dystopian society is one in which the conditions of life are miserable, characterized by human misery, poverty, oppression, violence, disease, and/or pollution”(Dystopia1). Specifically, there is also, surveillance, control and loss of freedoms as well as the component that in dystopias, there is also commonly a character who we can identify with that is being watched, chased down, persecuted, demoralized, and sometimes killed or made docile through drugs or surgery. So we have a society that is controlling and chasing down progressively/different minded people.

Utopian elements dove tail wonderfully with the ideas that Michele Foucault brings up in his essay Panopticism. In Foucault's essay he posits that Jeremy Bentham’s Plan of the Panopticon is a pragmatic model of discipline. The Panoptic model can be best explained with the idea of a building. The building would be circular with individual cells and in the center would be the tower. The tower could see into each cell but in the cells the prisoners could not see into the tower. The building individualizes the person, makes ultimate isolation. The person in the cell can always been seen and heard but can never see or hear the person observing them. The panoptic machine when running correctly should be self sustaining, simply because if the prisoners always believe they are being watched they will not see any opportunity to step outside of the machine. People police themselves in order to avoid the real police, knowing they could be surveilled at any time. It is the power of fear and the idea of ever watching eyes that lead to a efficient model of discipline. In our lives the panoptic model is not confined to a building but is applicable to our society as a whole.

All three of our original elements are present in both Panopticism and Dystopian theory, those being surveillance, control and loss of freedoms. The goal of both is power. Whoever is in the tower of the panopticon, whoever is “Big Brother” is trying to carefully keep control of his/her power. These elements previously stated are also present in our daily lives in one way or another. As previously mentioned we have things like ATM cameras, banned books, GPS devices, phone tapping, the list could go on. Control and loss of freedoms are dependent on perceptions but even in the most conservative estimates we can see them somewhere in our lives, whether necessary or not. The feeling of being controlled also comes when we realize we have been trained as a society to perform in certain ways. We just know we are expected to go to school for at least twelve years in training to go to work for the rest of our lives. Through societal pressures we can feel sameness pushing in on us forcing us to conform to a general idea of everything from ideologies to moral ideals. All of these things tend to lead to frustration among people who become aware of it, and the more people dwell upon it, the more frustrating it can become. But art has often been seen as an outlet for people. So how do we as a people release some of our tensions over these fears. One way is through the writing and reading of dystopian novels.

One of the most famous dystopian novels is 1984, it is the ultimate dystopian society. It coined the phrase “Big Brother is Watching”! In George Orwell’s 1984, a totalitarian government rules over the make believe territory Oceania which encompasses London. Winston, the protagonist of the story, is working within the system but begins to feel unrest and seeks to join the rebellion. He eventually is tricked by a double agent, captured, and tortured. The story is filled with surveillance. We get a sense of the desolate world ruled by invisible and often random surveillance of individuals, much like in "Panopticism." As the narrator writes, “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 everyone all the time”(6). This shows us that even at the beginning of the novel the reader is introduced to a sense of chocking restriction. There are even more examples of control of the people through the invented language of the novel. Doublespeak is the use of language to misrepresent and twist a message. One instance of this in the novel is when Winton sees the governments slogan on a sign. It reads, “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” (7). These examples are of course extreme, but often it is not so hard to link them to our current lives, keeping in mind the past examples used.

Another dystopian novel The Giver by Lois Lowry is a children’s book filled with similar themes found in 1984. The main character Jonas seems to live in a utopia, no pain, nobody out of place. One example of the sameness is that nobody calls out unique differences in others, Jonas talks about how his sister Lilly was teasing him for having an unusual color of eyes, “No one mentioned such things; it was not a rule, but was considered rude to call attention to things that were unsettling or different about individuals. Lilly, he decided would have to learn that soon, or she would be called in for chastisement because of her behavior” (20) Sameness is not only the normal behavior; abnormal is embarrassing. An ultimate form of control is to take unique traits away or make them abnormal. But as the novel goes on and Jonas is chosen for the job of holding all of the past memories being hidden from the community, he learns what has been withheld in the name of Utopia. Color, music, joy, and pain are all withheld in order to achieve sameness. This leads Jonas to leave the community for a better life. This is where the book is revealed to be a dystopia. If it was a utopia there would be little reason to leave.

Books reflect society. They hold our ideas, fears, and voices. So what does that mean for the dystopian? The major role of dystopian novel seems to be to allow us to have an awareness of fears. To see what societies can live up to if not governed by an aware populous. In many of the novels including 1984 there is a lower class or a controlled class. In the case of 1984 the lower class is named the “Proles” (Orwell 71). They are uneducated and living in poverty. There is a similar situation in The Giver where rather than poverty there is lack of choice or control. All the children are carefully controlled and jobs are chosen for them. These instances can teach of lessons and inform us of things to be mindful of. When we have an uneducated largely poor populous it can be harder to fight the powers controlling the society. In part of Foucault’s essay "Panopticism," there is an example that might help explain why we should be wary of the powers that be trying to expand our lower class. He explains that the point is to, “Treat ‘leapers’ as ‘plague victims,’ project the subtle segmentations of discipline onto the confused space of internment...to individualize the excluded” (212). The point of the control, of the segmentation and distinction, is to hold power through discipline. There is also the example with lack of choice for the children in The Giver for their future job, all of it is chosen for them. When choices are taken away from us we lose our power. They want us docile and unaware. A backlash of us thinking about these complicated problems presented in dystopian novels is paranoia. People reading science fiction and dystopian novels can begin to become frustrated and paranoid believing they are stuck in a dystopian society. But that essentially brings the problem full circle. If we allow ourselves to become obsessed and paranoid then we are as paralyzed as someone who doesn’t know about the problem at all. If we cannot move and be free within the system no matter the reason we are not solving anything. So, then, what next?

There are ways to combat the panoptic models and dystopian elements we can see in our lives. We can look at the work of french philosopher Michel de Certeau. Certeau was a philosopher who thought and wrote on social and cultural studies and was well known for his novel The Practice of Everyday Life. The Practice of Everyday Life was an answer to the idea that we are stuck in the power machine (call it panopticism/dystopias), but while it acknowledges those forces, Certeau proclaims that we are not without options. He goes on to talk about “strategies and tactics.” Tactics are ways we can create space for ourselves within the power structure of our society. Strategies are what the powers in charge use to keep the society in order. Strategies like surveillance, loss of freedoms, and control. The metaphor Certeau uses to explain this idea is a city block with a square grassy knoll and a path going around the square. The powers used ‘strategy’ to show us where to walk by putting in the path, but a ‘tactic’ to carve out our own niche would be to walk across the grass. One of the points taken from his piece is that while we might feel isolated and controlled by the structure of the city (a metaphor for the powers in control), we can find our own space through ‘tactics’. Certeau gives one example of carving out our own space by continuing the metaphor of the city walker, “And while, on the one hand, he makes only a few possibilities set out by the established order effective (he goes only here- not there), on the other hand, he increases the number of possibilities (e.g by making up shortcut or detours) and the number of interdictions (e.g by avoiding routes regarded as licit or obligatory)” (Certeau 107). This opens up completely new possibilities into the problem of the panoptic/dystopian elements in our society.

What now? We fight? Not physically of course, but mentally. That is all we can do in the end. We are not in a full blown dystopian society but we are in a society filled with panoptic rule. How do we know we are not in a full blown dystopian society? You are reading this paper, and the author of this paper was blessed with the ability to read the novels being presented. That is how we know (or hope we know) that we are not completely ruled. We do, however, have controls all around us. We have gps tracking, controlling laws, paths which to walk on, paths which we must NOT walk on. But we also have tactics. We can walk off the path. We will always be in the machine, in the system. Every society is a system. There is of course no research to be present here that can prove the validity of the claim that we will win anything, the point is not to win. The point is that we are aware and through awareness we can possibly find some semblance of peace and percieved freedom. The point is to not end up like poor Winston, to not live in his universe where the powers can say,

“There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no employment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always--do not forget this, Winston--always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler” (Orwell 220).

There is an end to this quote but before that is presented there is one last point to flush out. The other option. That other option rather than trying to take the advice of Certeau would be to simply ignore the existence of the validity of these elements. To simply argue that no dystopian/panoptic elements are present. And if this can be argued then the next question would be are the authors of the dystopian novels crazy, or visionaries? The path of this paper is that these authors were visionaries and there is no sane reason to ignore the power elements in our lives. We must live with them. To go then back to our first question, “why the fixation on dystopian elements in our artistic outlets? What do we gain from it?” The answer might be that without these works of art the level of awareness might not be there. Without the words of Orwell, Lowry, and countless others we would have one less reason to lean about and employ ‘tactics’, one less reason to walk across the lawn of the park, one less reason to be aware of the powers and make sure they are in check. The final reason for cherishing and reading the aforementioned novels is that without using the freedoms to read, write, and think, we might lose them. We should use what we have, lest we lose it. To end this thought somewhere, this quote from 1984 should help explain and compound the urgency to walk our own path. “Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--for ever”(220).

We must not allow the boot of power to stomp on our faces, hearts, and minds. And if there is no way to stop it, we must at least not lay down and allow it to happen without squirming out of the way, we must become a moving target, when we are not moving (or feeling, or thinking), we have lost.

Works Cited

De Certeau, Michel. "The Practice of Everyday Life". Literary Theory: An Anthology . Oxford: Blackwell Publishing , 2004.

"Dystopia." Wikipedia. 2008. 10 Dec 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dystopia>.

Foucault, Michele. "Panopticism." Ways of Reading: An Anthology For Writers. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008. 209-236.

Orwell, George. 1984. 14th. New York: The American Library, Inc.

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf, 1993.

Ward, Graham. The Certeau Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000.

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