The Illusion of Freedom

JUN 4 | 7 PM

Nathan Gorelick, Assistant Professor, Department of English Literature, UVU

When we think about George Orwell’s 1984, we think of Big Brother—Big Brother is always watching, after all. We forget the most truly disturbing element of the book, which is the way it actually ends: Winston decides that he loves the Party, and becomes convinced that in bowing to the authority of the party, he becomes free.

1984 is a prime literary example of where Foucault’s philosophy of panopticism comes in. For Foucault, this normalized surveillance—this  “eye of power”—can’t be verified. Rather, it must be invisible, which is the only way to induce individuals to behave as though they are being watched, whether they actually are or not. The essence of the Panopticon, then, doesn’t lie in the of surveillance cameras, but rather, in how these technologies condition us to police ourselves.

GorelickSquareThe question, then, is how exactly we got to this state of normalized self-policing. To Nathan Gorelick, Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Literature at Utah Valley University, we can find some answers in Enlightenment-era literature. During his talk at UMOCA as part of the Who Will Guard the Guardians?  series presented in conjunction with the exhibition Panopticon, Gorelick will discuss the illusion of freedom and the invention of the psychological police state.

In his lecture, Gorelick will explain that despite the fact that modern society may have liberated itself from the despotism of the monarch or the excesses of the inquisition and all sorts of other forms of domination, we are far from free.

“The freedom that is supposed to result from transformations in intellectual life and political institutions—the transformations we see in 18th centuries—is an illusion, quite clearly defined as the freedom to obey,” says Gorelick. “I want to show how Enlightenment art—especially literature—established the mechanisms of social control and obedience that sustained this illusion of freedom.”

One text that Gorelick will focus on will be Daniel Defoe’s famous tale of Robinson Crusoe. Like 1984, however, we think of Robinson Crusoe as an epic chronicling of survivorship and adventure, eclipsing the central message of the literature. That is, the story is about one man trapped on a desert island who realizes that if he will ever be happy and free from the misery of his condition, he must bend his will to the will of God and learn to police his own behaviors.


“I want to emphasize that panopticism is not primarily about government surveillance, but rather about the way in which surveillance has become social norm,” says Gorelick. “When I talk about the psychological police state, I mean the internalization of the expectation to behave, which is far more profound than anything that the government could hope to enforce.”

That idea of policing ourselves is particularly salient when we look at various forms of resistance to the Panopticon in the 21st century, particularly regarding contemporary issues of police brutality and the civil rights movement taking place in cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, and New York.

“One interesting and disturbing phenomena of these recent instances of police brutality is that every time an act of brutality is recorded by a citizen, that citizen is arrested,” says Gorelick. “It’s a literal representation of the fact that the ‘eye of power’ has to move in one direction and can never be turned back against power in order to see if it’s working.”

In these protests—and throughout history—we’re witnessing acts of civil disobedience, which refuse the Enlightenment ideology that freedom means the freedom to obey. “The 18th century invented this notion of bad conscience—that we’re always already guilty and that we should therefore always be punishing ourselves—not for our disobedience, but for our desire to disobey,” says Gorelick.

 “We police each other, we police ourselves, and the law is not inscribed in some government document but on the level of our very identities—what we think about who we are.”

Nathan Gorelick’s talk, “The Illusion of Freedom: Literature and the Invention of the Psychological Police State” will take place on June 4th at 7 PM at UMOCA. Admission is a suggested $5 donation. For more information about the “Who Will Guard the Guardians?” series, visit