Life Under the Bell Jar: Surveillance and the New World Order in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” II

From a distance we are instruments
Marching in a common band
Playing songs of home, playing songs of peace
They’re the songs of every man
God is watching us, God is watching us
God is watching us from a distance

– “From a Distance” as sung by Bette Midler

Welcome to my third post on dystopian literature.  In this post, we’re going to begin by examining the religious imagery in We.  A casual reader of Zamyatin’s We, might at first conclude that religious imagery and religious themes play a limited and insignificant role in the novel.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Indeed, while Zamyatin’s novel is set in a secular, post-revolutionary, rationalist society, much like the one envisioned by Soviet communists, religion remains a significant, apparently indestructible frame of reference for D-503 and the other citizens of the One State.  The survival of religious imagery in a state officially dedicated to reason and the elimination of the imagination is surprising, and can perhaps only be explained by either assuming that humans are endowed with an inherent sense of religious awe (the religion gene, if you will) or that the One State fosters a secular form of religion because faith in the state is necessary to the continuation of the state.

A Historical Case for the Existence of Secular Religions

We need to ask, is a secular religion even feasible?  While the term secular religion seems, at first glance, an oxymoron, further consideration of the history of communism as it was practiced in the Soviet Union suggests that there are a number of shared features between communism and traditional Christianity.  While Christians seek salvation from sin, Communists seek salvation from class warfare and social injustice.  Both Christians and Communists believe that history will eventually end.  Christians envision this end to history occurring when Christ comes to reclaim the earth and establish his kingdom.  Communists, following the writings of Marx, argue that after an intense class struggle, a new classless society will be formed.  Because class conflict, which Marxists consider the engine of history, will have stopped, history will also cease.  Christian and Communist leaders alike have frequently made the case that sacrifices and suffering now are necessary to the attainment of either the Kingdom of Heaven or the workers’ paradise.  Christians often speak of the unity of Christians, and Christian leaders frequently exhort their followers to act like brothers in Christ.  Communists believe in the unity of the workers, and of course, Karl Marx famously ended his Communist Manifesto with the phrase “Workers of the world unite”.  Just as some Christians venerate saints and decorate their homes with icons and statures, so, too, Soviet Communists venerated Lenin and Stalin and decorated their own homes with the pictures and statues of revolutionary heroes.  Pilgrims from both faiths frequently make visits to the tombs of their fallen leaders.  Both Christians and Communists have texts that they refer to for guidance and which they believe provides insight into future events:  the Bible for Christians and Das Kapital for Communists.  Communism, of course, is not the only secular movement to adapt and assimilate religious imagery.  Nazism, with its pomp and circumstance also contained major religious motifs.   For an example of this religious imagery in action, examine the picture of Hitler to the left.

Hitler as MessiahIn particular, note the “heavenly light” surrounding Hitler and the bird, possibly a dove or eagle, above him.  The bird is a common motif in Christian artwork, where it symbolizes the descent of the Holy Spirit.

Lest you should think that I only see how religious iconography is co-opted by anti-religious states to foster a secular state religion, let me share some personal examples of how religious imagery is used for better or worse to develop our American identity.

A couple of years ago I told my then Spanish flat-mate about “The Pledge of Allegiance”.  His eyes grew large as I described children in schools across America, hands on their hearts, facing the flag each morning, chanting in unison.  When I finished, he said, “So it’s like you have an entire army of small children.”  I explained to him that the function of “The Pledge of Allegiance” was not to turn little children into a miniature militia or “uber patriots”.  My response rings hollow even now.  What precisely did we mean when we said:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag

Of the United States of America

And to the Republic, for which it stands,

One nation, under God,

With liberty and justice for all.

Amen?

What exactly is entailed by this oath of “allegiance”?  In other words, what are we agreeing to?  More specifically, what are we promising about our attitudes and our behavior  in relationship to the flag and the nation?  Does such an oath bind us to support every war that our country engages in, even if we question the morality of that war?  What about that “one nation, under God” bit?  How can we be sure that our nation is under God?  Does this statement presume that we and our nation are more important to God than other people and other nations?  If so, why us instead of them?  Does our assertion that we belong to one nation mean that we’re going to all give up our differences, and act as one?  Are atheists, who don’t believe in God, part of this one nation?  Is an oath identifying a God they don’t believe in any way binding for atheists?  It has to be noted here that the phrase “one nation, under God” was added during the Cold War specifically to differentiate “God-fearing” Americans from the “ungodly” Communists.  What are we to make of the final ringing “With liberty and justice for all”?  Are we to assume that that “One nation, under God”, actually does provide “liberty and justice for all”?  It seems hardly likely in a nation where more black men are in prison than at college, and where competent women still hold substantially fewer powerful positions in society, and are paid less than their male counterparts.  What limits our ideal goal of liberty and justice for all?  Should we take an oath swearing to support a nation that is supposed to provide “liberty and justice for all”, but will never be able to achieve that Utopian ideal?  But of course, the Oath of Allegiance is not meant to be analyzed, any more that the unanimous elections held in the One State are meant to be analyzed.  Both are symbolic gestures that speak to our (unanalyzed) position as members of the community.  Both gestures indicate that the state is dependent upon, and yet more important than the individual.

An earlier memory from my childhood comes to mind.  My father, brother and I are in our car traveling across the US, listening to a Christian song.  The song begins by telling of a statue in New York harbor that represents freedom to the world.  The singer’s voice swells to proclaim, “I’m so proud to be called an American.  To be named with the brave and the free….”  The theme changes slightly.  There is a cross on a hill called Calvary.  The singer is proud to be known as a Christian, to be named with the redeemed.  What could be better, I ask you, than this fortunate combination of church and state?  Who could not be proud of being both an American and a Christian?  I was fifteen at the time and was uncritical of this particular equation of being Christian and American.

My identification with Christianity may have even been stronger than my identification with my nation, though they were so closely intertwined that it is difficult to separate them.  I remember quite clearly as a child singing and marching to a song that went:

I’m too young to

march in the infantry

ride in the cavalry

Shoot the artillery

I’m too young to

Fly over the enemy,

But I’m in the Lord’s army.

Yes, Sir!…

This song presents faith, one could argue, both in terms of a modern military and in terms of an unquestioning patriotism.  Similarly, this combination of faith, militarism and patriotism is evident in an email I received on the eve of the war with Iraq:

Subject: PRAY BEFORE IT STARTS A torch has been lit today to be passed along to your e-mail friends…asking them to pass it along….and along….and along. We can do something about the threat of war; both in Iraq and with terrorists. In the Old Testament, God’s armies were always led by the priests. When the waters parted in the Jordan, it was the priests’ feet which first hit the turbulent river. In the New Testament, Christians are also referred to as priests…all Christians. We must, therefore, go in first. As the possibility of war approaches with Hussein and Iraq, we are asking the priests to step in first…..ahead of our military. Let us be setting up camp for our soldiers’ entrance into the conflict. How? By prayer. Let us be sending in “prayer missiles,” “cruise and scud prayers” to target enemy plans. “Patriot prayers” to shoot down incoming threats. We should be praying for two things: (1) that the enemy leaders become confused, disoriented, and distrustful of each other; that their entire system of attack fall apart, and (2) that in God’s wildest ways, these enemies would become aware of His deep love for them and the war Jesus has already fought for them, personally, on the cross. God had Gideon reduce his army from 32,000 to 300 men. He then equipped them with nothing but trumpets, pitchers, and torches. What an odd combination to fight off well-armed soldiers. When Gideon gave the command, the Bible says the enemy fled crying and turned on each other…all because God messed with enemy plans. Prayers were started for this about a month ago. On CNN last weekend a report came out that although Hussein has nothing to lose, his generals do. Is confusion beginning to develop? Please pray for God to set the stage for defeat of all those who intend to do harm. When our men and women of uniform arrive on the scene, may they be surprised at how God had camp set up before they ever got there. Would you please do two things? (1) pray, and (2) pass this along to those you know will pray. May we build an e-mail army of over a million in force…beginning with you.

In light of these examples, it is possible to argue that religious imagery plays an important part in shoring up every social structure, even those (perhaps especially those) which claim to be secular.

Perhaps the function of religion in the One State is to establish faith in the absolute truth of the governing ideology.  The success of this imagery is evidenced by D-503’s refusal to question the ideology of the One State.  Even when he admits his own rather innocent crimes, he does so without any hint that the One State might be to blame.  Instead, when he envisions the possibility that O-90 might betray him, he decides that,

In my last moment I shall piously and gratefully kiss the punishing hand of the Benefactor.  Suffering punishment is my right in relation to the One State, and I will not yield this right.  We, the numbers of our State, should not, must not give up this right—the only, and therefore the most precious, right that we possess. (Zamyatin 1972, 114-115).

This right—which D-503 a little further recognizes does not exist, numbers can have no rights—is premised on the proposition that the One State is always right and the offending number always wrong.  The religious nature of the punishment is made clear earlier, when D-503, watching an execution notes:

According to the descriptions that have come down to us, something similar was experienced by the ancients during their “religious services”.  But they worshiped their own irrational, unknown God; we serve our rational and precisely know one.  Their God gave them nothing except eternal tormenting searching; their God had not been able to think of anything more sensible than offering himself as sacrifice for some incomprehensible reason.  We, on the other hand, offer a sacrifice to our God, the One State—a calm, reasoned, sensible sacrifice.  Yes, this was our solemn liturgy to the One State, a remembrance of the awesome time of trial, of the Two Hundred Years’ War, a grandiose celebration of the victory of all over one, of the sum over the individual.  (Zamyatin 1972, 45-46).

The function of these public executions is not merely to intimidate citizens; the executions also serve to bind the individual citizens into a community.  The citizens become accomplices to the State terror, and naturally they must justify their actions and inactions by agreeing to the fiction that the State is always right.

On another level, a state religion / ideology is an extremely powerful tool for defining “Truth”.  As the philosopher Michel Foucault has noted,

Truth is a thing of this world:  it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.  And it induces regular effects of power.  Each society has its régime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth:  that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish between true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.  (1980b, 131)

In the One State, these highly publicized state religious performances are among the mechanisms used to distinguish between true and false statements, ideas and practices.

Along with using religious imagery as an instrument of control in his fictitious society, Zamyatin also seems to be using the novel as a religious allegory.  D-503—enclosed in the safety of the Green Wall, watched over by the Guardians, whom he compares to archangels, obedient to the Table of Hours, watched and judged by the Benefactor—is a type of Adam.  Like Adam, D-503 is seduced by a woman, I-330, who introduces him both to illicit sexual activity and to critical thought.  The destruction of the Green Wall invites comparison to Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden.  Even the name of the rebels, the Mephi, is a reference to Mephistopheles, a demon who offers knowledge and power to the legendary Dr. Faust. What Zamyatin is providing then is a parable of the fall of man.  Unlike the author of the Genesis account, however, Zamyatin’s sympathies lie with the rebels.  For him, God / the Benefactor, is a tyrant who deprives people of their freedom and individuality.  So important is this idea of freedom that Zamyatin has I-330 explain that revolutions against authority must be infinite (1972, 174-177).  In other word, each time a revolution has succeeded and established itself as an omniscient authority, the citizens must once again revolt.  This call to constant revolution on the part of Zamyatin is echoed in his essays.  Indeed, in his essay “Tomorrow”, he notes,

“The world is kept alive only by heretics: the heretic Christ, the heretic Copernicus, the heretic Tolstoy. Our symbol of faith is heresy…”.  We is Zamyatin’s contribution to this “heresy”.

Under Scrutiny

While a great deal more could be said about the religious ideas and images that pervade We, it is important to move on to a related, but separate, topic:  surveillance.  Bette Midler, in the lyrics that I used to introduce this post, suggests that “God is watching us”.  The idea that we are being watched (and judged) is one that for many of us dates to our earliest years.  To ensure our good behavior, parents and teachers have told us that they’re keeping an eye on us. To lend greater permanence to the power of the parental gaze, we are told that we had better be good because Santa Claus is coming to town and he knows if we’ve been good or bad.  Perhaps we’ve been told that God is watching us.  As we grew older and started to go shopping, we became aware, via signs in stores stating “CCTV in use”, that we were potentially being watched and recorded.  Stoplights have been fixed with cameras to capture our images if we run a light.  The internet tracks our movements and records our emails.  Stores track sales so that they can make suggestions for future purchases.  The government, through the Patriot Act, has the legal right to examine our library records and see what we’ve been reading.  Telephone companies recently were involved in helping the government eavesdrop on conversations in America.  All of this points to the fact that we live in a surveillance society where privacy has been abolished.

Long before the technology for this intensive surveillance existed, authors like Yevgeny Zamyatin and George Orwell has already envisioned surveillance societies and made dire predictions about the consequences of surveillance to individual liberty.  The concepts they introduced via fiction were also introduced in philosopher Michel Foucault’s analysis of panopticism.  The term, panopticism, is derived from the Panopticon.   As I noted in one of the readings for this week, the Panopticon was a multi-purpose building-plan designed to assist in the regulation of prisoners, factory workers, students or any part of the population that needed to be controlled.  This proposed structure consisted of a surveillance tower surrounded by a circular outer building.  The circular outer building would be divided into cells.  There was to be no means of communication between individual cells.  Each cell would have a window both on the wall facing away from the surveillance tower, to let in light, and on the wall facing the surveillance tower, so that the authorities could view the activities of the inmates at any time.  Just as importantly, the surveillance tower was designed so that the inmates could always see the tower, but could never see inside the tower, and thus could never know when they were being watched.  In theory, because the inmates would never know when they were being observed, they would constantly regulate their own behavior.  Thus, the Panopticon induces “in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault 1991, 201)  Foucault goes on to Blueprint for Panopticonexplain that ultimately,

“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principal of his own subjection” (1991, 202-203).

As a consequence,

“There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints.  Just a gaze.  An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorising to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself” (Foucault 1980a, 155).

 

To a certain extent, the One State is merely the Panopticon extended to every aspect of society.  As D-503 explains, “we live behind our transparent walls that seem woven of gleaming air-we are always visible, always washed in light.  We have nothing to conceal from one another.  Besides, this makes much easier the difficult and noble task of the Guardians” (Zamyatin 1972, 18-19).  The transparency of the structures in the One State permit citizens to perpetually spy upon and be spied on by their fellow citizens.  As Foucault predicted, the consequence of this is that there is very little learn from spying.  Each individual regulates him or herself.

There is, however, a flaw to this program of surveillance.  As D-503 comes to realize, while the homes of the citizens are completely transparent, the citizens themselves are not.  It is in the minds of these citizens that conceal the true threat to the state.

Panopticon prison
A Modern Panopticon Prison

Works Cited:

Foucault, Michel. 1991. Discipline and Punish:  The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan.  London:  Penguin Books.

Foucault, Michel.  1980a.  Power/Knowledge:  Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977.  ed. Colin Gordon, trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshal, John Mepham and Kate Soper.  New York:  Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Author: mdamey

I am an English professor with expertise in medieval and modern retellings of the stories of King Arthur. I've taught high school and university courses over a a range of topics including Utopian and Dystopian fiction, Harry Potter, Science Fiction and Fantasy literature.

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