In the late 18th century, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed an unprecedented yet forceful prison system, a Panopticon, to automatize the enforcement of power and to regulate the inmates from body to soul, thus reducing the cost and enhance the efficiency in running the system.
The disciplinary mechanism of this architectural figure can be applied in many institutions. No matter whether it is a madman, a patient, a prisoner, a worker, or a school child, the crowd’s collective power is collapsed under the structure of Bentham’s Panopticon as each individual is securely locked in a cell, separated from other inmates. The permanent visibility of inmates’ actions to the supervisors assures the implementation of orders. Due to the building’s circular structure, the inmates, located at the periphery ring, can easily spot the existence the central tower in the middle, yet they cannot know whether they are being watched at any time because the windows of the central observation tower are equipped with venetian blinds (Foucault, 201). The visibility of a clear authority and the unverifiable existence of the supervisors incessantly escalate the inmates’ fear towards potential punishments.
What is more threatening than being totally seen without ever seeing? What if Big Brother in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a fictional character but a living leader? Or maybe, his doppelgänger has already taken control of our lives, but we are just blindfolded with obliviousness. Which underlying statement is more scary to think about?
This summer, I attended the International Affairs & Security (IAS) program at Yale Young Global Scholar (YYGS), a summer camp that brought me to consider global affairs and political ideologies through a comprehensive perspective. Among the nine different seminars I participated, one explored the fundamental components of Marxism, and the other analyzed the theories of panopticism, a social theory proposed by French philosopher Michel Foucault and based on Bentham’s Panopticon. Interesting enough, both seminars serve to perfect cornerstones for my English Independent Project this semester, the study on literature under Communism.
In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault envisaged the forms of executing power, from ancient history to modern days, are disposed around the individuals whose behaviors defy the norms. A variety of disciplinary mechanisms will be played to either alter their mindsets or stigmatize their identities. After reading this book, I was reminded of the brainwash and brutality in 1950s-60s’ Eastern Europe and China. Does a community need surveillance in order to be well functioned? Why did Communist Parties decide to apply these strict rules? Is the theory of communism fundamentally not practical? Or did people interpret it differently?
Besides these questions, what I really want to investigate is the struggle of common people living under Communism. Born and raised in a Communist-led country, China, I have heard both praises and criticism towards the party. As I celebrate the progressive economic development of my country over the past few decades, I mourn over the hardship that my grandparents’ endured in the wake of Cultural Revolution. In my neighborhood, there was a lunatic who lost his sanity after being punished as a “revisionist”. When I first read Yu Hua’s novel To Live in middle school, the tremendous amount of pain and suffering after the Revolution startled me. I sometimes can’t decide whether the government’s authoritarianism is detrimental or benevolent.
With an impetus to learn more about the history of my country and suffering of others, I started my English Independent Project, to study literature under the Communist Era, to seek the true stories. Just as some might argue that the system of panopticon is advantageous due to its thorough organization of our community, I understand that people might have different viewpoints towards Communism. Therefore, I will be careful with my wording while speaking from my perspective, not to generalize certain behaviors or to make broad assumptions. I sincerely hope that my project can let the public to be more aware of the people’s tortures and their “choiceless” choices, rather than the atrocity of the regime.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London, Allen Lane, 1977.