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Foucauldian Orwell

Another week, another expository essay! Orwell is becoming draining, regardless of how much of a bottomless pool the subject is proving to be… hopefully our prompt next week dwells less on him. (I checked, it still dwells)

I’ve actually written this paper twice now. This is the draft which most closely resembles what will be submitted for my class tomorrow. I’ll also post my older one on here, which I feel now is radically different than this one.

It’s not difficult to imagine that Michel Foucault read George Orwell. A worldly traveler, Foucault must have certainly been aware of his later work – Amélie Audiberti translated Orwell’s last book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, into French in 1950, while Foucault was still in school at the l’École normale supérieure. A dystopian view of society and control gone awry, it appealed to many of Foucault’s later interests – the nature of societies and the effect of discourse and power. Orwell and Foucault agree on many of the issues involved, but only because they have converged. I will argue that Foucault is more interested in how power shapes discourse while Orwell in how discourse shapes power.

Foucault offers conjectures about power in The History of Sexuality. He summarizes the process of power as developing a system used to operate on the interactions of a person-to-person (or person-to-self) level, arising from said interactions. In the “terminal forms” of power, these systems are codified, or exercised as a social norm (92-3, Sexuality). This process is maintained every moment for Foucault, as its participants ratify the larger systems effecting them by silent or explicit consent.

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four reflects this, with his envisioning of a police state in which the most powerful disciplining and monitoring occur through the individual. The concepts of “doublethink” and the goals of Newspeak speak towards this, as groups in the society seek out ways to further confine themselves, through restrictions on language and logical thought. Self-monitoring has become the social norm of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Oceania, to the point where a central power mechanic is almost unnecessary – a good Party member needs disciplining, no guidance, and no conscious thought: they are Ingsoc.

Where Foucault and Orwell differ is not in their views on the maintenance of society. Rather, it is with the conception of new systems that they seem to disagree most. Orwell conceives of a “top-down” structure, with insidious conspiracies shaping systems: ““Sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship” (135, Nineteen). Here, rather than observing the phenomenon of the sexual privation-hysteria relationship produce “war fever and leader worship”, Orwell looks at it as a problem requiring construction; designers are necessary for this relation to become a terminal form of power. This is in direct contrast with Foucault’s analysis of power development.

Power isn’t conceived of, it’s enacted. Orwell is placing emphasis on the discursive elements of formulations of power, whereas Foucault finds nothing in the domain of discourse that isn’t immanently within spheres of power (98, Sexuality). Power becomes not a process to be rationalized and discussed, because it is in constant transition, ratification, and development. While this is seen in the later stages that we witness of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s society, it is not there with its conception and onset.

Orwell himself provides a bleak example of the supposed inescapability of power, when he discusses the nature of revolution. He characterizes industrial society as split into a High, Middle, and Low, in which the Middle will inevitably rise up to replace the High by manipulation of the Low (207, Nineteen). In this sort of action, there is no actual change: There is still a High, Middle and Low. The power structure hasn’t changed, and, resultantly, the discourse cannot either. Orwell’s book is colored with the “horrors of capitalism”, as much as our own is marked by warnings of the “horrors of socialism”. The actors have merely changed roles, Foucault might say.

But maybe Orwell’s faith in deliberated action isn’t absurd. Even without a conspiracy to form a nation-state, there can still be the deliberate act to take it apart. In an early point of Nineteen Eighty-Four, we find Winston dreaming of a woman, who tears off her clothing. “He barely looked at it. What overwhelmed him in that instant was admiration for the gesture with which she had thrown her clothes aside. With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture” (32, Nineteen). Perhaps the flick of a wrist can start a revolution, or a face can launch a thousand ships. Power cannot progress past what it cannot affect, and perhaps the experience of art lies there.


Filed under: Books, Evergreen, , ,

One Response

  1. Mom says:

    I agree, the older draft is quite a bit different – nice development to get to this one, much more cohesive & readable. And while “1984” is an interesting novel, it would get old after 3-4 weeks of dwelling on it.

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