Fantasy and the Panopticon
Two unrelated clusters of thoughts came together in my mind as I prepared a chocolate cake. One cluster originated in two journalists who recently – and unrelated to each other – asked me why people read fantasy. The other came from the amount of blogging I’ve done over the past month (not this blog, as you can see, but a travel blog for my family and friends at home), my Facebook denial, and the BBC radio series The Digital Human.
Although I have heard numerous ideas about why people (or children or young adults) enjoy fantasy, most if not all have been more or less unfounded guesses. Some of them are probably right, but they are still guesses (only lucky). Occasionally they have been generalised from personal experience, sometimes extrapolated from a few informants. I have found very little in terms of research, however. No interviews, no sureys, no reader-respons studies. (That in itself is interesting, but a different topic.)
What, if anything, has this to do with online presences? Well, it struck me that one fairly popular guess about why we read fantasy has to do with escape. Tolkien suggested that it was a noble escape (of the prisoner) rather than the flight of the deserter. I agree with those people who feels that perhaps the prisoner should stay put but that deserters may be on to a good thing, but I see JRRT’s point. Since escapism is a dirty word, others, including myself, have tried to phrase it more nicely, as vacation or thought experiment, or described it (again along Tolkien’s lines) as some kind of literary belief.
If it is an escape, what is it that fantasy allows us to escape from? What is so stifling and oppressive about reality that we feel that fantasy provides a much-needed way out? The moral greyness of the actual world has been proposed, its clutter and complications, its sense that the tiny individual cannot affect the world. I offer a new reason: the panopticon.
The original panopticon was proposed by Jeremy Bentham as a prison model. Basically, the idea was that each prison cell could be supervised at all time. The prisoner did not know exactly when (if at all) he was under supervision, however, and would thus adopt a self-regulation behaviour. The principle on a social level was presented most famously in Orwell’s 1984. And we’re living it. Of our own free will. We’re status-updating, tweeting, blogging, mailing, and social networking our lives into a cloud where all information about us is accessible. We upload photos of our friends and tag them (not to mention face-recognition software). We’re offering personal data and usage patterns in exchange for ”free” online services. And we feel we have to do it.
This social panopticon goes way beyond anything I’ve seen in any fantasy novel, even in the more opressive ones, such as Miéville’s New Crobuzon novels or Lynch’s Camorr. Sure, often the society is pseudo-medieval, so a totalitarian security service may be a bit too much to expect. But so many fantasy texts offer the equivalent of Galadriel’s Mirror and Palantiri – crystal balls, magic mirrors, and scrying devices galore – that the technical (well, magical) possibility is there. The interest, however, seems not to be.
The fantasy world, whether based on our own or completely imaginary, appears to offer a refuge from the all-seeing eye. Spying, for there is a great deal of that, is a personal service provided by the enemy, not a social obligation carried out by ones friends. Fantasy heroes are spied because someone rather dislikes them; in the crazy world of fantasy, spying is a bad thing, to be avoided if possible. It certainly is not a social obligation.
For someone who is growing up with a mobile phone all but surgically attached to their body and constantly reachable online, maybe that is the escape desired from fantasy? Or is the attraction actually a titillation of horror and disgust at a life lived so anonymously, where lives can be lived without leaving a digital trail other than the results of one’s actions? Again, I’m guessing, and I’d be happy to hear from anyone who knows better than me.