Michael D. Amey
Welcome to my second post on Orwell’s 1984. In this post I’m going to focus on isolation, collectivism and surveillance. These themes are essential aspects of a number of dystopian novels and movies, and are present in We, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Matrix, Feed and Jennifer Government, to name a few examples.
“Every Breathe You Take, Every Move You Make, Every Bond You Break, Every Step You Take, I’ll Be Watching You”
(Lyrics from “Every Breathe You Take” by the Police)
Michel Foucault, the philosopher who provided us with the concept of the Panopticon, would have reveled in the abundant irony of a rock band called the Police singing the lyrics of “Every Breathe You Take”. The song, apparently intended as a romantic gesture, chronicles the jealous, obsessive voyeurism of a jilted lover. In a particularly revealing moment, the speaker in the song laments, “Oh, can’t you see, you belong to me”.
Implicit in the lyrics of this song is the relationship between an individual who is watched and the institution or individual doing the watching. The ownership that the lovelorn singer claims is based on his ability to spy on the object of his love constantly, even as she does mundane things like breathe and walk. This, in itself, however, is not enough to ensure his claim on her. For him to own her, she must be aware of his vigilant gaze: “oh, can’t you see, you belong to me”. In other words, she must see him seeing her for the power of the gaze to be operative. A similar approach to this use of the gaze as means of control and ownership is suggested in the lyrics of the traditional Christmas song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. The addressee, in this case a child, not a woman, is told:
He sees you when you’re sleeping.
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!
Surely, if a child ever believed these lyrics, then he would assume that Santa had ownership over him in as much that nothing the child did would ever escape the gaze of Santa and all behavior could be subjected to rewards and punishments by Santa. He would regulate his behavior to suit what he imagined Santa desired, and thus would, ironically NOT “be good for goodness sake”. As with “Every Breathe You Take”, surveillance in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” depends for its success on the fact that the child is aware that he is being watched. If the child is unaware of Santa’s all pervasive gaze and ability to dole out rewards and punishments, then Santa’s power ceases to function.
George Orwell’s Oceania functions on a similar premise. Party members are subjected to constant visual and auditory scrutiny via telescreens, listening devices and the spying eyes of neighbors, friends and family. Significantly, these instruments of scrutiny do not function independently of each other; rather, they are merely hundreds of eyes and ears working for the face of the Party, Big Brother.
For the most part, there is nothing covert in this surveillance. Just as the lyrics from “Every Breathe You Take” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” would suggest, surveillance, by itself, is not enough. Instead, the citizens are kept constantly aware of the fact that they’re being watched. They are informed by posters that “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU”. The “YOU” at the end of the sentence is imperative, because the citizen is left with no doubt that he or she has been personally sought out as the object of attention. Furthermore, the fact that each citizen is being constantly inspected is driven home by the ubiquity of the image of Big Brother. Orwell illustrates this by describing Winston looking at a coin:
He took a twenty-five-cent piece out of his pocket. There, too, in tiny clear lettering, the same slogans were inscribed, and on the other face of the coin the head of Big Brother. 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 pack—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. (27)
These images serve as a constant reminder of the fact that every aspect of life is under continuous scrutiny.
In discussions that I have led with students in classes on the wide sweeping surveillance powers granted the United States government by the Patriot Act, most students have seemed unconcerned by this potential invasion of privacy. They remind me that if I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing to be afraid of. Presumably it is only terrorists and evil-doers who need worry that the NSA might be eavesdropping. Perhaps my students are right. It is worth noting, though, that in Oceania, the citizens also, technically, have nothing to fear from the watchful eyes of Big Brother. After all, Orwell, in discussing Winston’s use of a journal, notes that “This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws) ….” (6). In theory, then, it is impossible for Winston to break the law. Nevertheless, he is concerned because if he were “detected it was reasonably certain that [his use of the journal] would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labor camp” (6).
Implicitly then, the abolition of the laws (in itself a paradoxical exercise of law) does not guarantee greater freedom for the citizens or the absence of crime and criminals. Indeed, as Orwell makes clear when he describes show trials in Oceania, the absence of laws does not even prevent the exercise of a corrupt legal system. Consequently, instead of reassuring the citizens that no crime can be committed because there are no laws to break, this “lawless” society creates the potential for anything and everything to be considered a crime. The crime, however, which is fundamental to all crimes is thoughtcrime (19). Some of you will remember from my earlier posts about We that in the One State freedom is believed to be root cause of all crime. Orwell takes Zamyatin’s logic one step further by realizing that crime occurs because people think. Machines are incapable of committing crimes specifically because they cannot think. By contrast, all humans are, by the very fact that they are incapable of maintaining complete control of their thoughts, thoughtcriminals. This unfortunate flaw in human nature is revealed to Winston by the usually loyal Parsons. He explains to Winston (for the benefit of the unseen watchers) that thoughtcrime is
insidious. It can get a hold of you without your even knowing it. Do you know how it got hold of me? In my sleep! Yes, that’s a fact. There I was, working away, trying to do my bit—never knew I had any bad stuff in my mind at all. And then I started talking in my sleep. Do you know what they heard me saying? […] ’Down with Big Brother!’ Yes, I said that! Said it over and over again, it seems. (233)
The fact that Parsons, a man who diligently “tries to do his bit” is capable of thoughtcrime indicates that no one is innocent.
As I indicated earlier, part of the power of the surveillance in Oceania is linked to the fact that it is, for all intents and purposes, incessant. In the first few pages Orwell informs us that:
The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, could be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any moment. How often, or on what system, the Though 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 in 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. (3)
Of course, what Orwell describes matches the operation of Foucault’s Panopticon where surveillance is “visible and unverifiable”. The broader consequence of this unverifiable but visible surveillance is that,
he who is subject 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 principle of his own subjection. (Foucault 203)
In other words, “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” (3).
The guilt that rests on all citizens, even those, like Parsons, who truly strive to remain innocent, has its impact on ever aspect of how they lead their lives. Early on, Orwell describes Winston moments before he takes the risky decision to write in his journal: “He had set his features into the expression of quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear when facing the telescreen” (5). The point that this description makes is that citizens like Winston “wear” expressions instead of having them. This learned expression is a disguise meant to conceal the “illegal” activity going on in the mind of the citizen. This expression is, in particular, a means of keeping the one last possession available to the citizens of Oceania: “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull” (27). Of course, the Party has taken steps to penetrate this last place of concealment. Those watching are trained to spot any gesture or expression that might be indicative of thoughtcrime. Thus, on a deeper level than Winston realizes, “in moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy but always against one’s own body” (102-103). The body becomes the traitor of the mind.
The unblinking gaze of Big Brother also has an impact on the larger community. This gaze creates conformity among members, as illustrated by the group activities and even by the enforced exercises. In spite of the fact that these group activities are compulsory—though this is never explicitly stated—the activities also become genuine. Orwell explains that the “horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary” (14). What this suggests, is that a process is in place of control that is initially coercive, but then becomes less coercive as the individual enacts the role assigned to him or her. Thus, while Winston may initially be acting because he is aware of the judgmental gaze of others and Big Brother, he eventually ceases to act and embodies, instead, the desired behavior. His conformity is tied to the well documented concept of mob mentality, an unthinking mentality that the Party fosters through emotional events like Hate Week and Two Minutes Hate.
The importance of collectivism to the functioning of Oceania is further illustrated by the fact that:
In principle a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed. It was assumed that when he was not working, eating, or sleeping he would be taking part in some kind of communal recreations; to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity. (82)
It is worth noting that the expectation of constant communal activities in Oceania bears a striking resemblance to how cults operate. Time alone allows people to form independent opinions that are more than mere reactions to the emotions and opinions of other people. Such independent opinions are dangerous to the cohesion of most groups.
Ironically, for all of the communal activities that citizens of Oceania participate in, each of them remains separated from each other, from citizens of the past and from citizens in the future. Parsons, for example, has a wife and children, but this does not mean that he has a family. After all, it is his own daughter who turns him in for saying, “Down with Big Brother” in his sleep. (We should pause here to consider one of the dilemmas that faces Parson…. Because he was asleep, he doesn’t know what he was saying or if he was even saying anything at all. His daughter may have made up the whole story and reported him for the excitement of the experience and the approval she would receive from her peers. At the same time, he can’t doubt her claim because to doubt her claim would be illustrate his own disloyalty to Big Brother. As Parson tells Winston, “You don’t think the Party would arrest an innocent man, do you?” (233).
The fact that families do not function according to traditional expectations is further highlighted by Winston’s reflections on his family life:
Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there were still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of family stood by one another without needing to know the reason. (30)
Indeed, this failure of the family is represented by one of Winston’s colleagues:
He knew that in the cubicle next to him the little woman with sandy hair toiled day in, day out, simply at tracking down and deleting from the press the names of people who had been vaporized and were therefore never considered to have existed. There was a certain fitness in this, since her own husband had been vaporized a couple of years ago. (42)
Replacing the traditional family structure is the relationship of the individual to the state. For this reason, the Party wisely personifies itself as, appropriately enough, Big Brother. Of course, although Big Brother is a term derived from a familial relationship, Big Brother is not a family member. No one has a relationship with Big Brother, even though Winston believes, on the final page that Big Brother loves him and he loves Big Brother.
Winston’s reflections on tragedy highlight the fact that it is not merely the institution of the family that has broken down. Love and friendship have also ceased to be meaningful. The “friends” Winston has are clearly not friends; they barely deserve the term acquaintances. Even his relationship with Julia, which is the most intimate relationship he has, is not one that ends his isolation. While Julia cares for him, she does not understand him or share his desire to rebel for the sake of greater freedom. The ultimate tragedy for these two characters is in the fact that having promised not to betray each other, they are unable to avoid the betrayal that their change in feelings for each other entails.
Lastly, we must note the irony involved in Winston’s greeting in his journal:
To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone—to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone:
From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink—greetings! (28)
Winston, of course, cannot address the past both because the past is the past and because, in Oceania, the past doesn’t exist. Furthermore, he can’t hope to address the future because the future will either be controlled by the Party, in which case Winston —as part of the undesired past—will be obliterated from history, or the future will be so different from Winston’s present that nobody will understand what he is describing. Thus, he is cut off from both the past and the future and exists only in the terrible present.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin Books, 1991