Resurveying Eden

Panoptica in Imperfect Worlds

How to Cite

Harley, A. (2005). Resurveying Eden: Panoptica in Imperfect Worlds. M/C Journal, 8(4).
Vol. 8 No. 4 (2005): 'scan'
Published 2005-08-01

The Garden of Eden is the original surveillance state. God creates the heavens and the earth, turns on the lights, inspects everything that he has made and, behold, finds it very good. But then the creation attempts to acquire the surveillant properties of the creator. In Genesis 3, a serpent explains to Eve the virtues of forbidden fruit: “Ye shall not die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3: 4–5). Adam’s and Eve’s eyes are certainly opened (sufficiently so to necessitate figleaves), but in the next verse, God’s superior surveillance system has found them out. The power relationship Genesis illustrates has prompted many – the Romantics in their seditious appropriations of Paradise Lost, for instance – to question whether Eden is all that “good” after all. Why was God so concerned for Eve and Adam not to see? For that matter, why was he not there to intercept the serpent, but so promptly on the scene of humanity’s crime? Various answers (that God planned the Fall because it would enable him to demonstrate supreme love through Jesus, that Eve and Adam were wilfully wrong to grasp for equality with the Creator of the Universe, that God could not intervene in the temptation because it would compromise humanity’s free will) do not alter the flaw in God’s perfect garden state.

Consciousness of this imperfection surfaces repeatedly in Western utopian narratives. The very existence of such narratives points to a humanist distrust in God as social engineer; the fact that these secular Edens are themselves often flawed suggests both a parody of the original Eden and an admission that humans are not up to the task of social engineering either. Thomas More’s Utopia and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – one the ostensible depiction of a new Eden, the other an outright dystopic inferno – address the association of Eden (or the Creator) with surveillance, and so undermine the ideality of the prelapsarian Garden. The archetypal power relationship, that of All-Seeing Creator with always-seen creation, is reconfigured sans God: in Utopia, with society itself performing the work of a transcendent surveillance system; in Blade Runner, with the multi-planetary Tyrell corporation doing so. In both cases, the Omnisurveillant is stripped of the mitigating quality of being God, and so exposed as oppressive, unjust, an affront to the idea of perfection.

Like Eden, the eponymous island of Thomas More’s Utopia is a surveillance state. Glass, we read, “is there much used” (More 55). Surveillance is decentralised and patriarchal: wives are expected to confess to their husbands, children to their mothers (More 65). Each year, every thirty families select a “syphogrant”, whose “chief and almost … only office … is to see and take heed that no man sit idle, but that every one apply his own craft with earnest diligence” (More 57). In the mess halls, “The Syphogrant and his wife sit in the midst of the high table … because from thence all the whole company is in their sight” (More 66). Elders are ranged amongst the young men so that “the sage gravity and reverence of the elders should keep the youngsters from wanton licence of words and behaviour. Forasmuch as nothing can be so secretly spoken or done at the table, but either they that sit on the one side or on the other must needs perceive it” (More 66). Not only are the Utopians subject to social surveillance, but also to a conviction of its inescapability. Believing that the dead move among them, the Utopians feel that they are being watched (even when they are not) and thus regulate their own behaviour.

In his preface to The Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham extols the virtues of his surveillance machine: “Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated instruction diffused – public burthens lightened – Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in Architecture!” (Bentham 29). As Foucault points out in “Panopticism”, the Panopticon works so well because the prisoner can never know when she or he is being watched, and this uncertainty compels the prisoner into constant discipline. Atheist Bentham had created a transcendent surveillance system that would replace God in (he trusted) an increasingly secular society. Bentham’s catalogue of the Panopticon’s benefits is something of a Utopian manifesto in its own right, and his utilitarianism, based on the “greatest-happiness principle”, was prepared to embrace the surveillance system so long as that system maximised overall happiness.

Perhaps Thomas More was a proto-utilitarian, prepared to take up the repressive aspects of panopticism in exchange for moral reform, health preservation, the invigoration of industry and the lightening of public burdens. On the other hand, Utopia is widely read as a deliberately ironic representation of the ideal state. Stephen Greenblatt has pointed out that More “remained ambivalent about many of his most intensely felt perceptions” in Utopia, and he offers the text’s various ironising elements (such as the name of More’s fictitious interlocutor, Hythlodaeus, “well learned in nonsense”) as evidence (Greenblatt 54). Even the text’s title undermines its Edenic vision: as Louis Marin argues, “Utopia” could derive equally from Greek ou-topos, no-place, or eu-topos, good-place (Marin 85). More’s ambivalence about Utopia – to the extent of attributing his account of No-place to a character called Nonsense – suggests his impatience with his own flawed social vision.

While Utopia is ambivalent in its depiction of the perfect state, more recent utopian narratives – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931), for instance, or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – are unequivocally ironic about the subordination of the individual to the perfect state. The Bible’s account of human society begins with Eden and ends with Apocalypse, in which divine surveillance reaches its inevitable conclusion in divine judgement. The utopian genre has undergone a very similar trajectory, beginning with what seem to be sincere attempts to sketch the perfect state, briefly flourishing as Europeans became first aware of Cytherean islands in the South Pacific, and, more recently, representing outright apocalypse (as in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale [1986] and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner [1992]), or at least responding pessimistically to human attempts at social engineering.

Blade Runner’s dystopic inversion of biblical creation illustrates an enduring distrust in both human and divine attempts to establish Eden. The year is 2019 (only one year off 2020, perfect vision); the place is Los Angeles, the City of Angels. Corporate biomechanic Eldon Tyrell manufactures a race of robots, “replicants”, who are physically indistinguishable from humans, capable of developing emotional responses, but burdened with a four-year self-destruct mechanism. When the replicants rebel, their leader, Roy Batty, demands of Tyrell, “I want more life, Father”. Tyrell is not only “Father”, but “the god of biomechanics”; and Batty is simultaneously a reworking of Adam (the disaffected creation), Lucifer (the rebel angel) and Christ (as shown in the accompanying iconography of crucifixion and doves). The Bible’s leading actors are all present, but the City of Angels, 2019, is unmistakeably not Eden. It is a polluted, dank, flame-spewing dragon of a city, more Inferno than human habitation. The film’s oppressive film noir atmosphere relays the nausea induced by the Tyrell Corporation’s surveillance system. The Voight-Kamff test – a means of assessing emotional response (and thus determining whether an individual is human or replicant) by scanning the pupils – is a surveillance mechanism so intrusive it measures not only behaviour, but feelings. The optical imagery throughout the film reinforces the idea of permanent visibility. The result is a claustrophobic paranoia.

Blade Runner is unambiguous in its pessimism about human attempts to regulate society (attempts which it shows to be reliant on surveillance, slavery and swift punishment). It seems unlikely that the God of Genesis is specifically targeted by this film’s parody of the Creator-creation power relationship – its critiques of capitalism and environmental mismanagement are much more overt – but by configuring its dramatis personae in biblical roles, Blade Runner demonstrates that the paradigm for omnisurveillant creators comes from the Bible. In turn, by placing Los Angeles, 2019, at such a distant aesthetic remove from Eden, the film portrays the omnisurveillant creator unrelieved by natural beauty. Foucault’s formulation of panopticism, that power is seeing without being seen, that being seen without seeing is disempowerment, informs all three texts – Genesis, Utopia and Blade Runner. What differentiates them, determines how perfect each text would have its world believed to be, is the extent to which its authors approve this power relationship.

Author Biography

Alexis Harley