Locked In: Foucault and The Giver

By Chelsea Elmore

Despite one’s social aptitude, every person needs time alone to process and think in a separate space away from people. Privacy of one’s own thoughts and actions is beneficial to humanity. Jeremy Bentham came to this exact conclusion when he began designing his panoptic prison in the 19th century. He decided that the ultimate prison would abolish this privacy and strip inmates of all private affairs. Bentham’s panoptic prison design was made to shine a spotlight on the prisoners at all times, giving the impression of continuous surveillance and high security. The panoptic prison, or panopticon, was laid out in a circular fashion. The cells surrounded a large guard tower in the center of the sphere. The lighting and windows of this tower made it impossible to detect the number of guards, if any, that were stationed within. The prisoners lived in constant fear and surveillance. They lived in cells with clear doors and constant bright lights in order to make observation easier for the prison guards (Foucault, “‘Panopticism’ from Discipline…” 6-7). This intense observation and culture of fear and paranoia caught the attention of philosopher Michel Foucault.

Foucault was fascinated with Bentham’s design and “took Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as an emblem of the disciplinary strategies of the Enlightenment period” (Brunon-Ernst 76). He saw the physical structure of the Panopticon and was able to make a connection between that and the current society he lived in. He observed an imbalance of power and came to terms with the concept of a Power Carceral structure. The major focus of his studies was discipline within a society, surveillance and its avails, and the punishment enforced to keep people in line (Felluga, “Modules on Foucault…”). Foucault developed a detailed study of the Panopticon and found new ways to relate it to this carceral society. He delved into the discipline that the prison enacted upon its inmates and the discipline that certain societies force upon their members. He looked at the surveillance that surrounded the prisoners at all times and correlated it to the constant surveillance people undergo from their leaders or government powers above. He studied the punishments inflicted or not inflicted upon the convicts within the Panopticon and decided that the same kind of punishment was often used in the real world. Foucault’s interpretation of the Panoptic prison can be applied to a novel written eighteen years later: The Giver by Lois Lowry. The environment in this novel exemplifies the exact discipline, the exact surveillance and avails, and the exact punishment and resistance that Foucault so rigorously put together to form his Power Carceral Theory.

Discipline is a strong concept when studying Foucault’s interpretation of Bentham’s prison design (Felluga, “Modules on Foucault…”). Foucault believed that discipline was necessary in any carceral society in order to increase the number of docile bodies and decrease the number of powerful leaders (Foucault, “‘Panopticism’ from Discipline…” 8). He addresses two major types of discipline: internal and external. Many societies focus largely on the internal edu- cation of the individual. If carceral participants can change the way a member thinks, they can change the society as a whole. However, some other methods of discipline must be practiced as well. External discipline is another way to control the society in their outer, physical lives. Both internal and external disciplines strive for the same goal of creating a society of brainwashed and suppressed bodies. Foucault even contends, “Discipline is about the power to control people and surroundings to reach the desired outcome […] with the desire to create obedient, self-controlling, docile and beneficial subjects” (Virtanen 22). Although Foucault mostly developed the idea of discipline, he did get his only metaphoric inspiration from Bentham’s simple prison design.

The design for Bentham’s panoptic prison was meant to create disciplined and compliant inmates, just as Foucault observed Western societies’ proclivity to create disciplined and submissive members. The internal discipline of the prisoners was only a result of the strong external discipline first enforced. Externally, the prisoners were under high surveillance (Foucault, The Foucault Reader 218). They never knew when they were being watched from the center watchtower. This restrictive environment, plus the ever-present spotlights on the cells created an environment of paranoia. The surveillance eventually caused the prisoner’s behavior to change. They began to act “as if they were being watched, regardless of whether they actually [were]” (Sweeny 296). This proved that although the surveil- lance was not permanent, its effects were (Foucault, “‘Panopticism’ from Discipline…” 10). The inmates began to behave differently as a result of their external circumstances; this eventually turned into a new internal mindset. This combination of external circumstances and internal mindsets is exemplified in The Giver’s society.

The focus on internal mindsets can be linked to the education of The Giver’s societal members as they become complacent bodies of the community. The members live in an odd world where the government controls everything including their speech, their sexual cravings, their career choice, their free time, and their deaths. And yet, nothing appears to be amiss in the community. The characters see nothing wrong with their lives because they have become accustomed to that world and have been trained to see it as normal. They do not realize that they are missing out on a life of freedom—one in which they can live and act as they please. When the protagonist, Jonas, begins receiving memories, he realizes all that he had been missing: “He found that he was often angry, now: irrationally angry at his group mates, that they were satisfied with their lives which had none of the vibrance his own was taking on” (Lowry 99). The sharp contrast between Jonas and the community only further reveals the imperfection of the utopian world in which he lived. And yet, these imperfections seem to be evident only to Jonas. The other societal members not only neglect to question their lifestyles, but also come to embrace it. Jonas complains about this very idea, and his mentor, the Giver, tells him: “They don’t want change. Life here is so orderly, so predictable—so painless” (Lowry 103). The community’s behavior comes naturally over time. They only see the good, and they ignore the bad. Strict enforcement becomes less of a necessity because the people start to work with their rules and restrictions rather than against them. People are trained to be obedient in The Giver’s society through a process of internal discipline; all the while, external discipline chips at the outer shell of their humanity.

The community in The Giver undergoes a severe amount of external discipline implemented by their governmental system. The members are pushed towards this idea of “sameness.” This is representative in the absence of natural land formations, varying weather patterns, color, sexual desires or emotions, freedom of language, and freedom of choice. By removing such things from the community, the leaders—more specificaly known as Elders—promote equality. No one appears to be different from anyone else. The Giver even says: “‘Our people made the choice, the choice to go to Sameness […] We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with differences […] We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others’” (Lowry 95). Much is sacrificed for sameness. Natural order and indigenousness was given up in order to achieve artificial happiness and equality. The Elders remove land formations such as hills and mountains. The fluctuations of weather patterns and colors are eliminated. Everyday, the sun shines like always, and the world is simply black and white. The community did not experience snow, rain, or wind or storms. Physically, the control seems fairly restrictive, but mentally, the control is much tighter. People cannot speak freely—they are trained at a young age to speak in specific terms and types of language to increase efficiency (Virtanen 65). There are no books or pens to read or express free thought. Even emotions and sexual desires are stripped away from the community by way of daily allocation of medical supplements. It is considered a rite of passage to take these pills; however, they are only successful at removing what makes them human–their emotions. This extreme type of external discipline has a strong effect on the behavior of the community. Combined with the internal discipline, the people living in this world have truly lost their sense of free will. Besides their training to behave internally, they are urged to do so in every external aspect of their lives as well. It is amazing that Jonas had the strength to fight against this current of conformity. Not only does the government propel this idea of docile bodies forward, but it also enforces it in the form or surveillance and information control.

Bentham’s Panopticon was well known for its high surveil- lance and use of data collection; its main effect was to “induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault, “‘Panopticism’ from Discipline…” 6). Bentham accomplished this goal through the use of camera security, the center watchtower, and the bright lights that shone over the clear doors of the cells. The prison was made to make the inmates feel seen. This intense scrutiny was used to watch and observe the convicts relentlessly. There was no escape from the all-seeing “eye” of the center tower and the hidden cameras around every corner. This high security ensured that the prisoners were always being watched, their actions being seen and their behaviors being observed. However, surveillance within the prison was not enough: “The prison […] is also the place of observation of punished individuals. This takes two forms. One form is surveillance, of course, but also is knowledge of each inmate, of his behavior, his deeper states of mind, his gradual improvement” (Foucault, The Foucault Reader 216). Outside of surveillance, the panoptic design also sought to obtain as much information about each prisoner as possible. The information gathered by the surveillance was used in labeling the convicts and furthering their treatments. This data, along with in-depth background information, was posted on a card outside each prisoner’s cell door. By using intense surveillance and information collection, the leaders of the prison accumulated great power over their inmates (Foucault, The Foucault Reader 218). This type of data gave them the upper hand in the prison society. Foucault latched onto this Power Carceral idea implemented by the prison. In the same way, the leaders of Foucault’s observed society were constantly gathering information through intense surveillance in order to obtain more power within the community.

The Giver exemplifies Michel Foucault’s information society in the way Elders acquire power and the way it is administered over the community as a whole. The board of Jonas’ community holds considerable power in decision-making, creation and enforcement of law. This power appears natural to the reader, but its method of maintenance is unethical. The board acquires their power through intense surveillance of the community. The main tool is the use of loudspeakers; “The speakers constantly gather information on the members while bombarding them with rules, reminders and acts of supervision” (Virtanen 33). These devices are located everywhere within the community borders to ensure that their messages are heard and their subjects are seen. They record every conversation, every mistake and every action one partakes in. With the help of cameras and sound technology, these loudspeakers are able to gather intel on every member of society. Not only do they see the physical behaviors of each individual, but also see the inner dreams, hopes, and fears of the individuals as well. This occurs through the morning dream telling sessions and the nightly discussions of feelings: “The ritual functions [were] a way to collect information on the inhabitants, on their deepest thoughts and dreams” (Virtanen 34). At first glance, these events seem like a healthy way to vent and resolve issues. However, most members forget that there is a continuously recording loudspeaker in their home. In this manner, the board retrieves information pertain- ing the members’ physical actions, but their inner motivations as well. This type of data ultimately helps them practice their control over the community through tasks such as assigning jobs, enforcing productivity, preserving spatial distribution, and other life directing practices.

The power acquired through persistent surveillance is practiced in subtle ways. The end goal is simple—to control the populace in all aspects of life. The Elders of the community not only assign career jobs to children at age twelve, but they decide who dies, where one lives, how large one’s family may be, the way one speaks, and the activities one may participate in during spare time. Foucault categorized this type of control into three areas: spatial distribution, efficiency, and specialized training (Latham 136-138). Spatial distribution deals with the idea that people are separated by their function or life stage. Functionally, the “adults have specific jobs that they fulfill, such as Nurturer, birthmother, and speaker” (Virtanen 22-23). Each person in the community has a purpose. This delegation helps the authority keep track of the members without getting too personal. Everyone has a specific place they should be in at certain times; the community is organized in this way. Spatial distribution in accordance to stage of life is enforced. Infants stay in the Nurturing Center during their first year of life, and then join a family unit. The next few phases in their lives will include a detailed childhood, a small adolescent period, an adult life, and a short span as an Elder. The community strictly runs this way in order to maintain control and productivity. It allows the Elders to keep track of the members’ progress, interests, and locations at all times in their lives.

By monitoring every activity and life stage of each person, the board can determine the most productive way children should spend their time. They have a strict policy of efficiency in the community. Time and activity are measured in their contribution to the society as a whole. If something is not helpful in moving towards efficiency, then it is not necessary. Although the young children are allowed to start working community service hours, these hours are categorized and recorded. Even this moderate sense of freedom is constrictive at its core. The children do not really get to pick how they spend their free time. The Elders demand a sense of control of their members, even in “recreational time.” A select few options to choose from are deemed all beneficial to the community, of course. By limiting their choices, the Elders are able to access the whereabouts of all their up and com- ing members. They can calculate the productivity of that member by their choice of community service outreaches. Everyone is trained to “be able to effectively contribute to the common good” (Virtanen 25). According to the Elders, any activity not benefiting the society as a whole is not allowed. If people begin to act freely, the system has a problem. Through surveillance, however, the authorities can avoid this hindrance. They can closely observe and maintain everyone’s strictly regulated lifestyles.

This regulation spills over into jobs and career choices as well. Children are assigned a career at age twelve. The board monitors their entire childhood in order to pick a personalized path for adulthood. In the year before his big career reveal, Jonas noticed this, “he had been aware of the increasing level of observation. In school, at recreation time, and during volunteer hours, he had noticed the Elders watching him and the other elevens” (Lowry 15). The surveillance in the community does not go unnoticed, even by the less observant children. However, the people put up with such surveillance because they believe it is for the greater good. It is, in fact, for the greater good, but not of the individual. The Elders are only thinking of their power and ways to sustain it. They assign specialized jobs at such a young age to keep the society running smoothly. This specialized training is not for the good of the individuals, but for the good of the community: “the individuals are systematically trained through tasks of increasing complexity to prepare them to be a functioning part of society” (Virtanen 25). The Elders simply want to keep the society in a functioning state. They do not care about the people that keep it functioning. Foucault addresses this exact concept of specialized training and the lack of individual importance in his Panoptic society in the same way that Lois Lowry addresses it in her novel, The Giver. People are trained for one specific goal and have no other skills outside of that area.

At first glance, one might say that a career-trained individual would be valuable to keep a society working smoothly; however, that is not the case. Foucault emphasizes the idea that each person, “no matter what the position, can easily be replaced” (Virtanen 23). No one is actually special in this society—people are simply numbers in a crowd. Faces become statistics instead of unique stories. This lack of empathy towards human diversity is seen in The Giver when a family unit loses a child named Caleb. The community mourns for a year, and then attempts to forget his existence. They even give Caleb’s family unit a new child and assign it the same name. They act as if the one boy could just be replaced with the new child—the new Caleb. This attitude of indispensability, although wrong, is commonly seen throughout Jonas’ community. As one can imagine, the Panoptic prison was run in a similar fashion. With so many faces in the crowd, the individualistic qualities for each prisoner were lost. There was a bleak sense of hopelessness and an impending punishment ahead.

Just like most prisons, punishment was a tool used in the Panopticon. However, this punishment was less about cruel and violent behavior, and more about specific rehabilitation and redirection. The Panopticon was mostly used to reform prisoners, not to punish them. Foucault theorized about this discipline of punishment in his studies. He sought to prove its existence in a real society; he looked for examples of punishment in reality as was portrayed in the Panopticon. Foucault believed that punishment was a key concept in any carceral society, but, in his mind, was often overlooked because of its ever present and subtle existence (Felluga, “Module on Foucault…”). This type of punishment was behind closed doors. It was not a public affair, nor was it a clearly understood one. This exact kind of punishment is displayed in Lois Lowry’s The Giver when the concept of release is discussed.

Release to Elsewhere is meant for everyone in the novel. It happens when someone breaks a law, reaches an old age, or when a new child fails to meet the health standards of the community. If any random member were to answer the question of what release truly is, they would probably guess that it meant someone was sent to a different community, or kicked out of their own. The truth of the matter is that release is simply a euphemism for lethal injection (Latham 138). The people that are released are not released into a different environment but are physically murdered. The people in the community have no idea what is actually happening and do not desire to find out. They are content in believing that a release as punishment is representative of “a final decision, a terrible punishment, an overwhelming state of failure” (Latham 134). However, the release of the elderly and the infants would be considered a “time of celebration” (Lowry 7). And yet, no one truly understands the weight of the matter. They have no reason to question the motives of the Elders, so they do not. All the while, they are being killed when they get too old or when they break too many rules. The people living in that community have a limited number of second chances before they are punished: “In this kind of community, punishment is seen as inevitable, even if it is often invisible” (Latham 141). Despite their not knowing, the community members know that they all would be released one day. It is inescapable. Their complacent lives and impending release correlate directly to Foucault’s Panopticon interpretation. He believed that the people faced an inescapable rehabilitation or form of punishment, just like the community members in the novel.

Lois Lowry does not let her narrative end on such a bleak note. There is hope and resistance in Jonas. He is special—different than the other community members. Through his career assignment, his eyes are opened to the real world he has been blinded to by the Elders of the community. Once Jonas has the freedom to experience color, music, sexual stirrings, memories, sunshine, and snow, he begins to see his life and his community in a much different light, “[h]e comes to embrace the idea of choice and then chafes at the notion of an assigned role” (Latham 145). Jonas, unlike the Giver of memories, cannot go on living his restrictive, submissive life. His resistance to the system is what calls the most attention to they system. Only through Jonas’ enlightenment does the reader see the faults in that panoptic-like society. The reader learns about the panoptic society as Jonas learns the cracks in the community.

The widely totalitarian civilization found in The Giver is a contemporary representation of Foucault’s view of the Panopticon. The society within the novel falls in line with Foucault on several of his main theories. There is strong relation between Foucault’s ideas of discipline (internal and external), Bentham’s prison design, and The Giver’s society. The people within the novel are trained under the same style of discipline in which Michel Foucault imagined after hearing about the Panoptic prison. Also, the novel clearly correlates with his views of an information society. Both within the prison and within the book, strong evidence supports the intense surveillance and the control that is acquired through that action. Foucault also does some study on the ever-present punishment or rehabilitation within the prison design. Yet again, this same quality is clearly exemplified in the novel by the “releases” of society. The only difference between the novel and Foucault’s theory actually propels this panoptic comparison further. At first glance, one might say that Jonas’ resistance in the nov- el conflicts with the philosophy of Foucault; however, Lowry only uses this resistance to make the Foucauldian society stand out even more. By having the protagonist live under the restrictive power of a carceral society, the readers are able to obtain a stronger understanding of the incredible surveillance and power structures that inhibit freedom and choice. It would at first seem contradictory to have the protagonist at odds with the utopian society; however, Jonas’ resistance is what opens the eyes of the readers to the truth. Through him, readers are able identify the panoptic design and corruption within The Giver. If Foucault were to write a dystopian novel that simply personified his theory in all aspects of discipline, surveillance, data collection and punishment, he would have written something like The Giver.

Works Cited
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