Tuesday, April 20, 2010
The Farenheit 451 Addendum
I've been skimming some old notes on Foucault, after finishing reading Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and it occurred to me that in my previous post I failed to touch on power/knowledge in Foucault's theories. Obviously, when applied to an educational (or rehabilitative) institution, the observers of the panopticon acquire control over the establishment of norms, knowledge, and the very definition of truth. Although thus far the panopticon has been discussed on this blog as a simple punitive and observational tool, it is critical to remember the important social role this level of control and observation can have when writ large on an entire society. The panopticon allows for a very strict control of academic discourse, controlling people through what they know, and ultimately controlling not necessarily which knowledge is dispersed, but certainly how it is understood and valued.
This last point, that the power over the use of cultural/academic knowledge grants significant power to the "observer" seems to me particularly relevant to Fahrenheit 451. By manipulating the social value of literature vs. "the relatives" and other frivolous entertainments, the governing body in Fahrenheit ensures a docile, biddable populace. The majority in Fahrenheit have deliberately been taught to devalue knowledge and to actively avoid critical thought. As Beatty explains it "if you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Or better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war," fill the people's head with meaningless trivia "then they’ll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving" (61). By emphasizing trivialities over deeper knowledge, the government, and the educational institutions, of this future distract and pacify the populace, effectively handicapping civilian "thought" by removing the knowledge power base.
Another interesting evidence of a panoptic education system at work in Fahrenheit 451 is Beatty's speech on the equalizing goal of the system. "We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against" (58). This speech is an expression of Beatty's, and his society's, "understandable and rightful dread of being inferior" (59). This kind of equalization is the bread and butter of a panoptic educational system, standardizing and equalizing academic achievement, in this case catering to the lowest common denominator. All are observed to the point of paranoid obedience, and the common man's knowledge power base is deflated.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine, 1991. Print.