Panopticism and Loss of Individuality in the Novel 1984 and movie Equilibrium

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Through the readings of Michel Foucault’s Discipline And Punish, we discover that there are many new strategies that leaders began employing which allowed for more psychological control over the public. Some of these new themes can be observed in various films and texts such as Minority Report, Equilibrium, and 1984. Within these works, we see how Panopticism is used to make citizens obey the law to a higher degree than what we would consider the norm of today. Panopticism, when heavily employed and paired with dystopian policies, can be the main catalyst for a massive loss of individuality throughout a society. Michel Foucault goes into a deep analysis of what he begins to describe as Panopticism. He starts off by introducing the Panopticon, a type of prison or quarantine building created by Jeremy Bentham. It is a large circular building with cells or rooms aligning the inside, with the “open” doors facing toward the center. In the middle of the circle is a tower where, depending on its use, a guard, teacher, or supervisor would be positioned to watch the people in the cells. Since the person watching over the cells is in the center, he or she is able to look into any cell at any given moment. In addition to this, the tower reflects a bright light into each cell to provide complete sight into it and also blinds the inmate, student, or worker from observing if they are being watched at any given time (Foucault 200-201). It is a structure that is unique to common jails and large-scale prisons but it serves its purpose in arguably the most efficient way since it needs relatively fewer guards to watch over a large number of inmates.

Although this is a piece of architectural work, Foucault sees it as a physical metaphor for societal control. The key idea of the Panopticon is to make the inmates unsure whether or not they are currently being observed by their supervisors due to the light coming from the tower. When this happens, the inmates must assume at all times they are being watched or they can risk being caught for breaking the rules. Since everyone assumes this, they choose to stop breaking the rules or break them less. In his article on Foucault, Mathiesen states that Panopticism “controls or disciplines our behavior” (Mathiesen 229). As a result, there is less of a need for physical observers to be in the tower. In essence, the Panopticon does much of the work for the guards and is considered highly efficient. Looking at this from a societal standpoint, a government can easily implement many of these qualities into daily life. Instead of using a prison, a government could install surveillance everywhere in a town and let it be publicly known that they have done so. This would instill the same fear into the citizens of the town as it would for the inmates. The townspeople would have to assume at all times they are being observed and therefore they would need to act accordingly.

These ideas have been used throughout modern times, but not necessarily to the extremes like we see in the film, Minority Report. In this film, there is no physical Panopticon, however, there is the use of surveillance through special people, the precogs, who are able to anticipate and “view” future murders in the Washington D. C. Area. Initially, police were easily able to catch people as they were in the planning stages of an attempt at murder. Eventually, such murders practically ceased to exist as word spread that the police would observe those that were planning to commit a murder. People knew they weren’t always being watched but knew that if they decided to kill, they would be seen. This clearly resulted in nearly perfect cooperation from the public to no longer try to kill. Of course, there are always attempted murders that are decided upon irrationally in the heat of the moment, but I am sure that even the number of murders in that category had decreased as well too. This is a perfect example of Panopticism within the film.

Another film example of Panopticism being used is acted out in Equilibrium. The citizens of this film have to take a drug, Prozium II, multiple times a day or they would be violating the law. As we see throughout the film, there are a few that decide against taking the drugs and most end up getting caught by the police or fellow citizens. In this world, the citizens that take the drug act as their own surveillance network that is ready to turn anyone into the police once they witness any wrongdoing. On top of this, cameras can also be seen throughout a few of the buildings. All of these factors contribute to the public being less willing to disobey the law and not take the Prozium. Although, compared to Minority Report, there are more people that break the law in this case. This can be attributed to a lack of security within the land of Libria such as within peoples homes and in certain other areas. The precogs in Minority Report were able to see nearly everything they needed to which made them nearly perfect surveillance tools.

In the book, 1984, we see more examples of Foucault’s Panopticism deeply rooted within the literature. The text shows us what it is like to live in a society where there is surveillance equipment everywhere, including the bathrooms. Throughout the entire land of Oceana, there are “telescreens” that watch the citizens like a typical security camera. In this land, the people are forbidden from having basic things like a diary or feeling love. Although many of them desire these things, most of them do not try to follow their feelings due to their fear of being caught. Just like the Panopticon, the people must assume at all times they are being watched so they can avoid getting caught doing anything illegal. This simply dissuades most people from going against the wishes of Big Brother. Through the representations of Panopticism by 1984 and Equilibrium, we see that there are losses of individuality throughout the masses in both texts. When we look at Libria, we know that everyone is forced to take emotion inhibitors to eradicate both negative and positive feelings. However, the leader of the society, Father, also explains to the citizens through his daily announcements that he desires everyone to succumb to conformity. He also implements laws that bar anyone from having items like books or art which will trigger feelings. We see dramatic representations of this conformity throughout many scenes with John Preston.

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For example, the people of Libria end up wearing the same clothes, walking in the same fashion and even have their desks at work identical with item placement. John, after beginning to feel, is shocked by everything he sees and is extremely uncomfortable with it. In 1984, the main character, Winston, is able to feel but is prohibited from expressing any sort of individuality. He is among a country of oppressed citizens who are subjugated to constant propaganda and surveillance. We notice that people aren’t allowed to have basic things like diaries to keep personal thoughts in. When Winston starts using one, he knows he only has a matter of time before he is found out. Other people are also said to wear the same clothes and eat the same food each day. Winston eventually begins a romantic encounter with a woman which is strictly forbidden by Big Brother, the leader of Oceania. Like John, Winston is very upset with the party ruling Oceania because of all of these rules and what it has done to people’s individuality.

Although we see a major case of Panopticism in Minority Report, there is not much of a loss of individuality throughout the society. The precogs are used to prevent murders, and since the vast majority of people don’t plan on murdering others, they aren’t affected much by this change. This is a great example of how a society with nearly perfect surveillance can remain relatively normal. Although we do see other technology, like the spider robots, to track people down, they aren’t used in oppressive ways. The gear used by the police are simply used to find criminals, even though they may be more invasive of privacy than we are used to in modern times. This is partially why we don’t see drastic changes in human behavior throughout the movie. Based on Minority Report and its differences between 1984 and Equilibrium, we see that Panopticism alone won’t cause a major loss of individuality. In the previous analyses of the three texts, it can be stated that they all have a state of almost total surveillance but only the two latter texts actually exhibit a loss of individualism and a rise of conformity.

This proves to us that there are many other factors that must pair with this kind of surveillance in order to bring out these effects. In 1984, many new rules and mandates are given out to the people which include outlawing individual thoughts and objects that allow for such thinking. Big Brother also makes his citizens talk in limited kinds of languages in order to suppress thoughts of rebellion. It is also publicly known that if anyone is found to be violating the rules of the society, they could be physically tortured and brainwashed before returning back to society. Having this threat paired with total surveillance using the telescreens and thought police, the people begin exhibiting signs of conformity. Since everyone knows they are being watched, they realize they can’t risk doing anything outside of the rules or they will meet a terrible fate. Therefore, nearly total cooperation falls over the people in this book.

In Equilibrium, the people of Libria also follow a similar path as those of Oceania. The people are mandated to follow rules of strict conformity and aren’t allowed to obtain items that represent art or could possibly generate feelings. In order to make a person psychologically willing to partake in a society like this, there are factors in play like the Prozium II which naturally would make a person docile and not care about individuality. To get the Librians to take the drug in the first place, Father decides to make it punishable by death to refuse it. Like Oceana, the majority of people decide that it isn’t possible to evade the wishes of their leader since there is a large surveillance network and the threat of death. Looking back on Minority Report, we see that there are no oppressive motives throughout the use of their surveillance. There are no laws far off from what is used in the modern day and this is why Panopticism doesn’t really affect the individuality of people. There are no forced behaviors such as being forbidden from thinking individual thoughts or negative ones against the government like we see in 1984. There is also no drug requirement like we see in Equilibrium. This simply leads us to believe that implementing laws based on oppression and fear are the best tools to utilize the power of the Panopticon to create a docile group of people.

Panopticism is the catalyst for loss of individuality because it enables a government to take full control over its people with minimal effort and simple laws. According to Larry Catá Backer’s article on global Panopticism, “In some important respects, law is a function of surveillance, that is, the focus of law is on the organization of surveillance, and its application” which means the law goes hand in hand with surveillance (118). Although the examples of these texts show governments that outright ban individuality, there could also be such a loss through other indirect ways. In Minority Report, this surveillance by the precogs only really covers murder. This only affects a small part of the population which, for good reason, we shouldn’t care if they feel oppressed. However, if this was somehow expanded to preventing things such as riots stemming from civil protests, other issues may arise. Although the intentions on the side of the precrime police would be to protect other citizens and property, it would inherently be too far and have effects beyond preventing a riot. Citizens, knowing they are being watched, would hesitate before supporting a civil cause. They would have a fear that their peaceful protests may lead towards riots and therefore they would be punished. This could suggest that such a person would decide to stay out of the civil debate altogether which would constitute a loss of individuality. Of course, this is mostly theoretical, but this framework could be applied to several other cases.

In today’s society and in the United States, we have seen examples of secret government surveillance of its citizens as well. The topic is trivial, but upon examination, we can observe that it is indeed a push toward Panopticism. According to Jeffrey L. Vagle, the September 11th terror attacks “increased the frequency of suspicionless searches by law enforcement, including contexts such as searches at entrances to subways, on ferries, near political conventions, near sports arenas, at protest rallies, and around water reservoirs” (127). He also describes how the NSA has been misusing its power to hold the digital conversations between United States citizens in its databases (Vagle 103-105). The evidence of the ramifications this had on United States citizens is much less than what we observe in the texts presented in this paper. The main reason for this isn’t the fact that there is or isn’t good enough surveillance, but rather there aren’t dystopian laws set in place in our society. It is always possible that people would lose some individuality if they know they are being observed at all moments of the day without any sort of privacy.

However, under our current laws and trends of today, this almost certainly wouldn’t happen nearly to the degree of Equilibrium or 1984. The main issue with this idea of blinding and overbearing surveillance is that it is so powerful it can be used to push forward any agenda of the government in charge. We see this depicted many times in 1984 and Equilibrium. These two ruling parties ask for their citizens to give up their entire lives and identities for causes that don’t seem to be worth the asking price. If a modern day government asked its people to give up all items of art and live without emotion, there would be anything but full cooperation that we see in these texts. However, under total surveillance and threat of prison, torture, or death, we would see most people begin to comply. Panopticism is the key to unlocking a brutally cooperative society. Without it, an oppressive government wouldn’t properly be able to carry out its desires to have a society with less resistance toward its cause.

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