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  • Urban Panopticism and Heterotopic Space in Kafka’s Der Process and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
  • Raj Shah (bio)

Lamenting the “the doors, the locks, the bolts, the chains, the massy and grated windows” of his urban confinement, the eponymous narrator of William Godwin’s 1794 novel Caleb Williams concludes, “This is society.”1 While the visibility of these bolts and chains may have decreased, they still very much characterized the European novelistic metropolis over a century later. In Kafka’s Der Proceß (The Trial, 1925) and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the disciplinary mechanisms of their dystopian visions transform their fictional cities into microcosms of what Michel Foucault calls “l’archipel carcéral” (the carceral archipelago).2

This essay examines the effects of the penitential existence of Josef K. and Winston Smith, the respective protagonists of these two novels, on their mental and corporeal functioning, and explores the ways in which they negotiate spaces of difference in the city. It argues that the denizens of these novels’ metropolises are inmates, body and soul, to regimes whose agendas are to construct them as conforming subjects in both senses of the term. Firstly, they are subjects insofar as they still possess a degree of autonomous agency. Despite K.’s arrest, for example, he is “in [seiner] gewöhnlichen Lebensweise nicht gehindert” (not impeded from going about [his] ordinary way of life).3 Secondly, and more pertinently, they are subjects inasmuch as they are agents of their own subjection to the norms of their respective societies. Given the resonance of these issues of discipline and incarceration with the theories of Foucault, it seems apposite to draw primarily on two Foucauldian spatial articulations of power and resistance in order to analyze the relationship in these texts between the city and its subjects—namely, panopticism and the heterotopia.

The provenance of panopticism, which is discussed in the first part of this essay, is the Panopticon popularized by the eighteenth-century Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham.4 An institutional prison-house whose inmates may be observed without knowing when or whether they [End Page 701] are under inspection, the Panopticon was considered by Foucault to be “le diagramme d’un mécanisme de pouvoir ramené à sa forme idéale” (the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form).5 In his Surveiller et punir (Discipline and Punish, 1975), Foucault neologizes panopticism to describe a form of power relying not on overt repression, but rather upon the continuous surveillance of a population and the consequent strict regulation of the body. The latter part of this essay investigates heterotopias. In a lecture entitled “Des espaces autres” (“Of Other Spaces,” 1967),6 Foucault appropriates this medical term to describe heterogeneous spaces of alterity that operate in nonhegemonic conditions. As “contreemplacements” (counteremplacements) possessing “la curieuse propriété d’être en rapport avec tous les autres emplacements, mais sur un mode tel qu’ils suspendent, neutralisent ou inversent l’ensemble des rapports qui se trouvent, par eux, désignés” (the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspend, neutralize, or invert the set of relations designated),7 heterotopias dismantle the conventional order of space and function as ambiguous loci of possibility, situated between the limits of one episteme and the beginnings of another. Both of these spatial concepts serve to shape and regulate the conduct of the protagonists of the novels in question. Panopticism induces a paranoiac feeling of conscious and permanent visibility in the subjects, inaugurating their internalization of the subjugating gaze. This instigates an automatic, quasi-instinctive regime of self-discipline that visibly manifests itself in bodily behavior. Located at the interstices of the metropolis, heterotopias are frequently (but not always) characterized in these novels as countersites of resistance that challenge the orthodox ideology, affording the protagonists glimpses of an alternative existence. This said, however, this essay contests the all-too-common misinterpretation exemplified in the following definition of heterotopias:

Within the context of dystopian literature, heterotopias represent a kind of a haven for the protagonists, and are very often to be found in their memories, in their dreams, or in places which...


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