FBI vs. Orwell vs. Foucault

This image attracted a lot of attention around the web today:

The text on the left is from a story in the Washington Post which discusses the FBI’s ability to exploit laptop cameras without enabling the indicator light.  The text on the right is from Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four discussing the dystopian state’s capability to view any given citizen unknowingly through their telescreen. (The comparison was tweeted out by @tinyrevolution.)

To which we can add:

Foucault DP

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, page 201.

This was originally published (in French) in 1975, well after Orwell’s book. So Orwell was first with the idea? Not so fast! Foucault is discussing the ideas of the social reformer Jeremy Bentham, who proposed the idea of the “panopticon” (all-seeing) in the late 18th century. According to one history, there are at least 300 prisons worldwide built on panoptic principles. You can see a classic illustration here.

So did Orwell know of Bentham? I presume so. Orwell was an educated and well-read man, but I’ll leave it to Orwell scholars to verify this. Update. Stuart Elden notes that prior to Foucault’s recovery of Bentham’s text it was only available in English in a late 18th century edition. If so, this makes it less likely Orwell knew of Bentham.

Update II. Here’s the Google Ngram trace of the word “panopticon” used in books. As you can see, its usage really took after 1984 (the date, not the book). You can also see very nicely an earlier spike in the late 1830s and early 1840s. (I would guess around the building of prisons on panoptic lines, such as the Eastern State Penitentiary, opened in 1829 and mentioned by Foucault in D&P.)


4 responses to “FBI vs. Orwell vs. Foucault

  1. Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    An intriguing question of whether Orwell read Bentham. I don’t know, but it’s worth considering that Bentham’s work on the Panopticon was not especially well known – I think I’m correct in saying that until the Verso edition of 1995, the previous English edition was from the late 18th century. Foucault did a lot to recover interest in the texts, and was involved in the French edition of the writings in the mid 1970s. So it’s possible, even if Orwell knew Bentham, he did not know of this text.

  2. Karl Polanyi knew Bentham, and used the panopticon as an example in his critique of the liberal creed in his 1944 book The Great Transformation. Foucault was heavily influenced by Polanyi, particularly in his critiques of Bentham and Marx, and as a leftist, Eric Blair likely knew him as well.

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