Tag Archives: Keeping ourselves in line

Anarchy, The Dispossessed, and Bentham’s Panopticon

I enjoy reading science fiction, especially by more recent writers, who have gotten over entrenched misogyny (why is it that Arthur C. Clarke, so visionary in so much else, insists on referring to women as ‘girls’, and they only appear as secretaries?).

The best science fiction makes us understand ourselves, and what our own world could be like. The sci-fi writer I like most of all is Ursula Le Guin, and of her novels, The Dispossessed is my favourite. It is a very powerful, and meditative book. I recommend it, especially if you haven’t read any of Le Guin’s other books.

The story is a fascinating account of an anarchic society. By ‘anarchic’, Le Guin means a society with no centralised control, and no overt form of government. To be sure, the society has co-ordinating mechanisms, but that’s it. This is anarchism as a political theory, not the folk account of anarchism being the province of Molotov-cocktail throwing, violent, destructive thugs.

Even in this anarchic society, people conform. Work assignments are controlled by PDC. People submit their work requirements and their skills and preferences to PDC, and PDC sends back a posting. In theory, postings can be refused, but in practice, no one ever does.

… we’re ashamed to say we have refused a posting. [The] social conscience completely dominates the individual conscience, instead of striking a balance with it. We don’t co-operate – we obey. We fear being outcast, being called lazy, dysfunctional, egoizing. We fear our neighbour’s opinion more than we respect our own freedom of choice. … We force a man outside the sphere of approval, and then condemn him for it. We’ve made laws, laws of conventional behaviour, built walls all around ourselves, and we can’t see them, because they’re part of our thinking.

This is the most overt political statement in the book. For the most part, the interplay of character and action is the centre of the book. Le Guin very rarely breaks into this didactic mode, and even then, the ideas are consistent with plot and character.

The man who voices these ideas, Shevek, the hero of the novel, is a physicist, and a free thinker. Eventually he dares to think the unthinkable, and leaves his planet, to visit the mother planet that his anarchic society came from. This simple act shakes his supposedly free thinking society to its foundations.

I have been intrigued for a long time by this thought that we constrain ourselves by our own social mores. Depending on the group of people we are in, we buy into certain modes of behaviour, certain ways of expressing ourselves, and we dismiss anyone who doesn’t conform. In doing so, we regulate ourselves, and restrict our own freedom to think.

Michel Foucault saw this, in a brilliant analysis of Bentham’s Panopticon.

Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), the father of utilitarianism, was deeply interested in penal reform, and to this end, he designed the panopticon. The panopticon was a circular prison, with cells in the outside wall, all facing inward. In the middle of all the cells was a tower, in which the guards sat. The guards, sitting in their tower, could see into all the cells. The cells were back lit, so that the prisoners could be seen, but they themselves could not tell whether or not the guards were looking at them. So fearful always of being seen, by the all-seeing warder in the middle, the prisoners would regulate their own behaviour, and thus control would be maintained.

Michel Foucault analysed the effect of the panopticon.

They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualised and constantly visible. The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognise immediately. In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions – to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide – it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor captures better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap.

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan, 1975

Fascinating, and prescient, given the proliferation of video surveillance, real time security cameras, and tracking of website visits – we know where you have been!

But I find it even more interesting to think about the extent to which we put ourselves into cells in the panopticon, and like the people in Le Guin’s anarchic society, regulate our own behaviour so that we will fit in with the people around us.

I suspect that anarchy of the kind expressed in throwing petrol bombs is rather easy. It’s a straight forward revolt against authority. But how much harder might it be to think against the masses, to go your own way, and to really, seriously, challenge those in power, in whichever community you might belong to.

And here’s the real kicker – the reward for having read this far.

Jeremy Bentham did not design the panopticon himself, as a penal institution. He ‘borrowed’ the idea from his brother, Samuel.

A few months ago, I read what may be the definitive biography of Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s magnificent first minister (Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin, Simon Sebag Montefiore, 2000). I was intrigued to find that Jeremy Bentham had visited Russia, and that Samuel Bentham had been a key assistant to Potemkin. Samuel was responsible for supervising a heterogenous workforce of Russians, Jews, and Geordies. His solution to supervising this rabble was “a factory constructed so that the manager could see all his workers from one central observation point.” This was the origin of the panopticon.

Having a good day at work, gentle reader? Can your manager see what you are doing? Will your colleagues think you are shirking? Do you think you should get back to work now?