In the novel 1984, the English novelist George Orwell describes a dystopian world so disciplined that all vestiges of humanity and individuality are systematically subsumed under the control of the totalitarian state. As O’Brien, a prominent member of the powerful Inner Party, warns his prisoner Winston in the midst of an interrogation, the state shall “squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves. Everything will be dead inside you” (Orwell 269). All forms of individuality and independence are denounced by the state as “Thoughtcrimes” (Orwell 21) that are punishable by death, for “Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think” (Orwell 56). This realization is articulated by Winston’s friend, Syme, who is involved in the invention and production of Newspeak, the official state language that is constructed to make all “heretical thoughts … literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words” (Orwell 312).
Against this backdrop of oppression, Winston, a low-ranking civil servant, is determined to remain human by engaging in significantly sexual acts of resistance with his girlfriend Julia, who, by her own account, has a substantial history of engagement in such sexual behavior in order to corrupt Party officials. However, as “no one who has once gone astray is ever spared” (Orwell 268), Winston and Julia’s romantic affair proves to be fatally short-lived as they are soon discovered by the Thought Police, who conceivably “watched everybody all the time” (Orwell 5) with intrusive surveillance equipment “delicate enough to pick [even the beating of a heart] up” (Orwell 82). As Winston is expected to demonstrate “complete obedience to the will of the State” (Orwell 214) and is thus required to adhere to the standard code of conduct prescribed by the Party, he can only hide “a heretical mind beneath an appearance of conformity” (Orwell 293) by constantly self-monitoring his behavior and ensuring that he is “do[ing] what everyone else was doing” (Orwell 19).
However, Winston’s individuality is soon destroyed by normalization, for in the underground prison ironically named The Ministry of Love, Winston and Julia are eventually tortured into betraying their love for each other and are dehumanized into “want[ing] [the worst thing in the world] to happen to the other person” (Orwell 305) they love. After being both physically and mentally broken up, Winston finally undergoes “a perfect conversion” (Orwell 271) and becomes “a textbook case” (Orwell 271) for eventually, he unquestioningly “accepted everything” (Orwell 290) the Party enforced—even to the extent of acknowledging and believing as illogical a statement as “TWO AND TWO MAKE FIVE” (Orwell 290).
Indeed, a state of constant surveillance that judges if the citizens are abiding by the “normal” code of conduct prescribed by the Party can be seen to be in full operation in Winston’s world. Given that Winston is eventually normalized by the totalitarian regime despite his various sexuality-based resistance attempts with Julia, what does 1984 suggest about normalization? In this essay, I shall argue that there exists an interesting tension concerning what the novel seems to say about normalization and resistance to it. On the one hand, it suggests that resistance against normalization is futile because Winston is ultimately normalized by the system. However, on the other hand, it suggests that if there is a possibility of resistance, it will lie in sexuality and the body.
Firstly, in order to understand how citizens in 1984 are kept under a state of constant inspection, let us consider what the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham has to offer about surveillance principles. In his Letters, Bentham proposes the Panopticon as a model designed to ensure that “a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection” (Bentham 40) by perpetually immersing them in a field of total visibility. The efficacy of inspection is assured by the unique architectural design of the Panopticon. As the windowless central inspection tower continually conceals the inspectors, the inmates will presume that they are being constantly observed—for not only do they see “reason to believe as much” (Bentham 40), but also are “not able to satisfy [themselves] to the contrary” (Bentham 40). Thus, the Panopticon is an effective mechanism of disciplinary power that will command the full compliance of the inspected inmates over time.
As I suggested earlier, this state of Panoptic surveillance can be seen to be in operation in Winston’s world. With the invention of the telescreen, an instrument of inspection that “received and transmitted simultaneously” (Orwell 4) in Winston’s flat, every gesture of Winston can be carefully “scrutinized” (Orwell 5) for abnormalities and every thought he articulated conscientiously “overheard” (Orwell 5). Since “there was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment”(Orwell 4), Winston consequently presumes the possibility of being observed all the time and thus fears “let[ting] [his] thoughts wander when [he was] in any public space or within range of a telescreen” (Orwell 65). This is because “to wear an improper expression on your face” (Orwell 65) is a criminalized act of “facecrime” (Orwell 65), which is an offence made punishable by death. Thus, in order to avoid eliciting the unwanted attention of the authorities, Winston makes deliberate attempts to “set his features into the expression of quiet optimism” (Orwell 6) when facing the telescreen as it is “advisable to [always] wear” (Orwell 6) such facial countenances. Hence, Winston’s paranoid manifestation of self-surveillance implies that there exists a certain prescribed code of norms that each individual in this closely monitored society must adhere strictly to, on pain of punishment.
Indeed, in the “Panopticism” chapter of his book Discipline and Punish, the French philosopher Michel Foucault posits the idea of normalization, which is a concept of power that “compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, [and] excludes” (Foucault 183) individuals based on an established norm that marks one’s “membership of a homogenous social body” (Foucault 184). This, together with Bentham’s concept of Panoptic surveillance, creates a “normalizing gaze” that qualifies and judges whether prisoners are emulating the “normal” behavior envisioned by the inspectors. In the case of 1984, this “normalizing gaze” ceaselessly functions everywhere, from Winston’s office in the day to his own room at night. In sheer frustration, Winston observes that there is “Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you” (Orwell 29) and becomes aware that there is no escape from this penetrating normalization that forces him to realize that “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull” (Orwell 29)—a bleak statement which thus emphasizes Winston’s extreme isolation in being a silent rebel of the Party. Indeed, Winston even examines himself as “a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear” (Orwell 30), thus showing that his existence is as insubstantial as the immateriality of an apparition, and his presence as abnormal as the sudden appearance of one. Therefore, Winston’s solitude is a consequence of normalization, a “project of exclusion” (Foucault 199) which Foucault frowns upon.
The dominating influence of this normalizing gaze is evident in how every aspect of Winston’s life is so rigidly regimented and regulated by the State, which expects every Party member to function in full regularity at any given moment. As Winston realizes that “In principle a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed” (Orwell 85), for every citizen is expected to participate regularly in civic duties at the Community Centre, it could thus be seen that every behavior can be routinely tracked by the Thought Police and thus unrelentingly disciplined along the demarcation of state lines. Indeed, everyone must “take part in some kind of communal recreation” (Orwell 85) after work in order to be judged normal. As Winston perceives that “to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude was always slightly dangerous” (Orwell 85) and that there was even a derogatory label of “ownlife” (Orwell 85) assigned to such suspicious activities, it is thus evident that Winston’s subsequent decision to uncharacteristically “miss an evening at the Community Centre” (Orwell 85) after work in order to walk alone in the “vague, brown-coloured slums” (Orwell 85) of the proletariats is not considered regular by the Party, as conveyed by the use of the word “dangerous” (Orwell 85). This is because Winston is pursing “ownlife” (Orwell 85), for although he is aware that it is “unwise to be seen in such places” (Orwell 86), Winston still chooses “On impulse” (Orwell 85) to randomly “lose himself among unknown streets” (Orwell 85), a conspicuous act very much frowned upon by the Party patrols. Therefore, the normalizing gaze warns Winston that he runs the risk of being excluded from a “homogenous social body” (Foucault 184) if he persists in being antisocial and irregular. Thus, Winston’s inner reflections affirm the existence of a normalizing gaze that normalizes people with “ownlife” (Orwell 85) and qualifies “individualism and eccentricity” (Orwell 85) as most harmful dispositions.
Insidiously, the patrol of the normalizing gaze encompasses not only one’s physical movements and verbal articulations, but also extends to the intangible realm of thoughts. This is evident in how Winston knew that “whether he wrote DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER, or whether he refrained from writing it, made no difference” (Orwell 21). This is because treason, be it in the form of physical resistance or contemplations of rebellion, would still be detected by the Thought Police, which exercises power over the minds of all citizens. Indeed, the inspection of the Thought Police bears a certain resemblance to the operation of the Panopticon, which is lauded by Bentham as being able to “obtain power of mind over mind” (Bentham 39) to an immense degree. A consequence of this normalization of body and soul would thus be the creation of “a nation of fanatics…in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts…all with the same face” (Orwell 77), as society is gradually dehumanized over time when the Thought Police enforces such a stultifying sense of conformity—a conformity so oppressively de-individualizing that Winston felt that everybody he knew “was not a real human being but some kind of dummy” (Orwell 57) seemingly deprived of the power to express themselves distinctively. Their speech became “a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck” (Orwell 57). This overt reference to a “duck” (Orwell 57) signifies the inhuman unnaturalness of normalization, for autonomous human beings are not only physically incarcerated in a “sealed world” (Orwell 204) like caged animals for purposes of training and discipline, but also, being robbed of an identity, gradually reduced to mere duck-like mouthpieces with “stupid, vulgar, empty mind[s]” (Orwell 69) filled only with Party slogans.
Might it then be possible to resist such normalizing practices of the state in 1984? Although the novel seems to suggest that all resistance will be futile, since Winston is eventually normalized by the Party and even relinquishes his “freedom to say that two plus two make four” (Orwell 84), I argue that if there is a possibility of resistance, it will lie in sexuality and the body.
As Blu Tirohl contends in her article “An examination of sexuality as a weapon of revolt in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four,” every “sexual act signifies a weakening of the Party” (Tirohl 55), for it “demonstrates urges which are, temporarily, outside its [the Party’s] control” (Tirohl 55). Indeed, Winston describes sex as “the animal instinct” (Orwell 132) that “would tear the Party to pieces” (Orwell 132), and recognizes the political significance of Julia’s sexuality. As he identifies that “the sex impulse was dangerous to the Party” (Orwell 140), Winston understands that his love affair with Julia is “a political act” (Orwell 133) and “their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory” (Orwell 133), as these sexual acts are violations that reveal an individuality and emotional intimacy that the Party seeks to eliminate. Indeed, Julia, who “had her first love-affair when she was sixteen” (Orwell 137), demonstrates a rampant sexuality that undermines the Party doctrine of “complete celibacy for both sexes” (Orwell 69), as she admits that she “adore[s]” (Orwell 132) having sex with Party members “scores of times” (Orwell 131) and is therefore “corrupt to the bones” (Orwell 132). According to Tirohl, Julia’s love of sexual intercourse is significant, for Julia’s “genuine power lies in her ‘deviant’ behavior: sexuality directed for her own pleasure and not towards the Party” (Tirohl 57)—a transgression which the Party cannot tolerate.
Consequently, the Party seeks to destroy the dangers of such uncontrolled sexual urges by undertaking the drastic measure of “abolish[ing] the orgasm” (Orwell 280) in an effort to ensure that “The sex instinct will be eradicated” (Orwell 280) in all citizens. Moreover, the Party attempts to “rub into every Party member from childhood onwards” (Orwell 69) that sexual intercourse should be “looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation” (Orwell 69) that must be endured as a formal “duty to the Party” (Orwell 70). The word “operation” (Orwell 69) suggests that sex should be regarded as a clinical act robbed of all intimacy and pleasure, and thus associated with “positive dread”(Orwell 70) and discomfort—like any medical procedure. Therefore, when the act of procreation yields no joy, there will consequently “be no loyalty” (Orwell 280) between a married man and his wife, “except loyalty towards the Party” (Orwell 280) and its doctrine.
However, such “sexual puritanism of the Party” (Orwell 75) is only “imposed upon” (Orwell 75) Party members, and not the proles, who are regarded by the Party as “natural inferiors” (Orwell 74)—for “like animals” (Orwell 74), they are left to “work and breed” (Orwell 74) amongst themselves with minimal interference from the civil police. Moreover, the proles are even encouraged to indulge in their sexual urges, as evidenced from the fact that the Party has dedicated “Pornosec” (Orwell 137), a place which “turned out cheap pornography for distribution among the proles” (Orwell 137), to the sexual gratification of “proletarian youths” (Orwell 137). Indeed, the proles are constantly associated with unbridled sexuality in the novel, as evidenced by how Winston describes a prole woman hanging up the washing in the overtly corporeal terms of “powerful mare-like buttocks” (Orwell 228), “thick arms” (Orwell 228) and “rasping red skin” (Orwell 228). He even admires her “solid, contourless body” (Orwell 228) that is “blown up to monstrous dimensions by childbearing” (Orwell 228) as “beautiful” (Orwell 228), for Winston realizes that the prole’s “fertile belly” (Orwell 228) is symbolic of an enduring sexual “vitality” (Orwell 229) that humanizes her and prevents her from “becom[ing] hardened inside” (Orwell 172). Indeed, Winston attributes political power to the proles, for he realizes that they “had stayed human” (Orwell 172) and are “governed by private loyalties” (Orwell 172) to one another—a loyalty that the Party “did not share and could not kill” (Orwell 229).
In conclusion, although there exists a tension between the futility of resisting normalization and sexuality as a means of resistance, this tension is in my view resolved. I perceive that 1984 takes a particular stand, which is that “If there is hope … it lies in the proles” (Orwell 72), for the proles, with their abundant sexuality, contain in their teeming fertility the “power that would one day overturn the world” (Orwell 229) and restore society to a state of “sanity” (Orwell 229). I believe that the sexuality of the proles cannot be completely eroded, and it is only inevitable that when “their awakening …come[s]” (Orwell 229), their “strength would change into consciousness” (Orwell 229) and they shall resist the normalization of the Party with the sheer force of the “primitive emotions” (Orwell 172) of love, lust and loyalty that they have kept alive for each other.
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