The Central Image in ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’

The Telescreen and Bentham

So many accounts of Nineteen Eighty Four miss much of what is distinctive about it; namely that is not just in the abstract about ‘government control’, but is a very particular satire on British Stalinism during the 1940’s, which yet draws one of its central motifs (the telescreen) not from the USSR but from the bourgeois writer Bentham, via Dostoyevsky via Zamyatin. The motivation of the rulers in that world is actually the self-conscious joy in the exercise of power, which merely uses the State as the best instrument for this. Further, in that book, the inhabitants of it are not known by numbers (I originally wrote this as a response to a blog-post on why it is thought dehumanising for persons to be identified by numbers).

A number is actually more unique (well, you know what I mean) than a name in natural language. But it is precisely because it is so unique that it is so dehumanising. Because if you strip away all the attributes which render an individual what they are (family, race, culture, history, gender) then you are left with an atom which is identical to all other atoms. (see Bradley, Ethical Studies). In other words you are left with a unit of abstract, general social labour. You are left with a pair of hands – remember it was the 19th industrialists who referred to their workers as ‘hands’.

To refer to persons as numbers is actually the logic of capital. By a curious and ironic inversion this has come to be ascribed to the communist project.

The connection between Dostoyevsky and Orwell is that Bentham conceived a prison called a ‘panopticon’ in which all the inmates where always visible by the administration. His utilitarianism was one of the targets in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from an Underground Man, which mocked the notion of resolving arguments by ‘logarithms’. Dostoyevsky satirised the, as he saw it, fetish of mathematical reasoning by the figure of ‘the crystal palace of reason’ (approx. quote), which was also a clear allusion to the Great Exhibition of 1851.

This image of D’s was picked up in Zamyatin’s We of the early 1920s, features a dystopia whose inhabitants live in transparent buildings. This work was acknowledged by Orwell as a major influence on Nineteen Eighty Four. The target of We is standardly taken to be the Bolshevik despotism, the oddity is that its central motif is actually derived from one of the philosophers of capitalism.


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