The Ubiquitous Effect of Television and Dominant Surveillance in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

Abdol Hossein Joodaki
Lorestan University, Khorramabad, Iran

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


This paper is an attempt to analyze Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451(1953) under the light of Jean Baudrillard’s notions of the media and the influences it can have on our daily lives, and under the light of Michel Foucault concept of sousveillance/ surveillance. Bradbury’s work portrays a representative sample of a culture where different fields including books, education, and history fall under the influence of the media. Guy Montag, the protagonist, initially participates in burning books as a fireman, and as the novel progresses he understands that he has so far been wrong in thinking that books can and do inculcate false notions into individuals, and begins to be skeptical of the manner in which people have been indoctrinated by television to believe that possessing books of any kind could be detrimental and hence should be gotten rid of. The existence of sousveillance/surveillance too, engenders an atmosphere of anxiety, trepidation and apprehension for subversive forces and therefore precluding any disturbance on the part of them.

Keywords: Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, television, sousveillance, surveillance, Baudrillard, Foucault

 There is nothing more mysterious than a TV set left on in an empty room. It is even stranger than a man talking to himself or a woman standing dreaming at her stove. It is as if another planet is communicating with you. (Baudrillard, America)


“Baudrillard writes,” says Hegarty (2004), “and sometimes the world catches up” (p. 1). He is not only one of the prominent writers on postmodernism, but “somehow seems to embody postmodernism itself” (Lane, 2000, p. 1). What distinguishes Baudrillard from such theorists as Foucault, Lyotard, and Derrida, according to Hegarty (2004), is “the style of his writing.” Compared to the above-mentioned figures, Baudrillard “except in his early writings, is the most intransigent of the lot, the one always beyond the pale, as nothing is to be accepted, no critique or method recommended, no academic convention followed” (p. 1). Acknowledged as one of the foremost intellectual figures, Baudrillard’s theories are of paramount importance in the postmodern age. He is the one who has attracted much critical attention over the past few years. His theories are rather difficult to deal with. This can be thought of as their strength; his work became “theoretical objects” rather than being “pieces for someone else’s puzzle” (Hegarty, 2004, p. 2). He is “the most notorious and immoderate of the thinkers associated with postmodernism” (Payneh, et al, 2010, p. 57). His most widely read books include: Simulacra and Simulation (1995), and In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (1978). The latter book is, according to Clarke, “an extended meditation on the last chapter of Consumer Society.” The book is best known for its “three hypotheses concerning the relationship between the social and what Baudrillard calls the masses.” The first hypothesis claims that “the social has basically never existed.” The second is that “the social has really existed; it exists even more and more.” The third one is that the “social has well and truly existed, but does not exist anymore” (qtd. in Clarke, 2009, p. 72). Then the world “was bombarded by Baudrillardian phrases such as simulation, simulacra, the hyperreal and the impossibility of meaning” (Lane, 2000, p. 20). The publication of Baudrillard’s first book, The System of Objects (1968) was coincident with popular uprisings in France in which he argues that objects have been turned into commodities, no longer possessing their inherent value they once had. In the Consumer Society: Myth and Structures (1970), he expresses a contrary view from that of Marx, his focus is on consumerism, believing that the main drive in a capitalist society is not production, but consumption.

Baudrillard’s Perspective on the Media

The media plays a cardinal role in today’s world. Information transmitted through the media, Baudrillard (1995) contends, “devours its content. It devours communication and the social” (p. 55). The rationale behind this claim is that:

Rather than creating communication, it exhausts itself in the act of staging communication. Rather than producing meaning, it exhausts itself in the staging of meaning. A gigantic process of simulation that is familiar…behind this exacerbated mise-en-scene of communication, the mass media, and [the] pressure of information pursues an irresistible destruction of the social. (pp. 98-100)

According to Baudrillard (1995), the sort of data coming from the media dissolves both meaning and the social in a vague way relating not to the ‘surplus of innovation’ but rather to ‘total entropy’, and only the media is capable of making an event whether ‘conformist or ‘subversive (p. 56). The media, he argues, produces not ‘socialization’ rather it implodes “the social in the masses. And this is only the macroscopic extension of the implosion of meaning at the microscopic level of the sign” (p. 56). The inexorable messages and signs conveyed via the media, more often than not, refer to no particular reality. They refer to themselves in a seemingly circular process. The medium is itself the message signifying:

not only the “end of the message, but also the end of the medium. There are indeed no more media in the literal sense of the word-that is, of a mediating power between one reality and another, between one state of the real and another. Neither in content, nor in form. And this is what implosion means. (p. 57)

Information does not create communication, says he, but rather it is dissolved during the process of being conveyed, leading to a process of simulation. As a consequence of the unstoppable flow of data coming from the media, the differentiation between objects and their representation has become blurred, leading to the mingling of reality and simulation of reality. Finally, Baudrillard concludes, regarding meaning destroyed as a result of the circularity of data transmitted through the media, that:

The fact of this implosion of contents, of the absorption of meaning, of the evanescence of the medium itself, of the reabsorption of every dialectic of communication in a total circularity of the model, of the implosion of the social in the masses, may seem catastrophic and desperate.(p. 57)

It is an axiomatic fact that the media, particularly over the past few years, has been a formidable power in shaping people’s conducts and viewpoints, being highly successful in engendering effect in instilling sometimes fallacious notions into individuals who are not cognizant of the pernicious influence they might have on them. Baudrillard attempts to make people aware of these effects most of which are detrimental and, indeed, difficult to fathom.

Foucauldian Surveillance/ Sousveillance

“One way to challenge and problematize both surveillance and acquiescence to it is to resituate these technologies of control on individuals, offering panoptic technologies to help them observe those in authority. We call this inverse panopticon “sousveillance” from the French words for “sous” (below) and “veiller” to watch” (Mann, Nolan and Wellman 332). “Sousveillance is a form of “reflectionism,” a term invented by Mann (1998) for a philosophy and procedures of using technology to mirror and confront bureaucratic organizations” (333). By enabling the surveillee to surveil the surveiller, reflectionism transforms the surveillance techniques into sousveillance and increases the equality between the watcher and the person being watched. Sousveillance disrupts the power relationship of surveillance.

Wearable computing devices afford possibilities for people to watch the watcher. Because of the mobility of the modern individual, individuals take their own sousveillance with them by mobile phones, wearable computers, laptop computers and personal digital assistants. Sousveillance in opposition to modern technologies of surveillance seeks various techniques of self-empowerment, liberation and obedience to authorative watchers. “Universal surveillance/sousveillance may, in the end, only serve the ends of the existing dominant power structure of monitoring and ubiquitous data collection” (347). Universal sur/sousveillance may support the power structures by fostering broad accessibility.

Bradbury is drawn to science fiction and he is able to build on his ability to influence culture and to express his political ideology. In Fahrenheit 451 he creates a dark, futuristic world that does not want a well-educated, well-informed population, capable of critical thinking. According to the system, a good citizen is one who does not dare to form his own opinions. Complacent citizens willingly serve the system by letting the authorities make all the decisions for them. The system suffers from mass conformity and homogenization. Books are outlawed and the mindless society immerses itself in different kinds of distraction such as television, seashell radio, loud music, addiction, medication and fast automobiles as ways to being happy and to escaping from responsibilities and realities of life. Machines and the mass media are used as powerful tools for social control and eliminating differences and originalities.

An effective way of taking people of a given community under control is surveillance by which authorities manage to impose strictures upon their subjects and to pre-empt possible disturbances. With the advent of new technology, formerly used strategies were supplanted by new ones so that the way surveillance is carried out becomes less noticeable and tangible. Surveillance “would make it possible to prevent crimes” which are deviations from the norms, “or if committed, to arrest their authors”; therefore in the absence of surveillance we would face an increase in the rate of crimes, deviations from the norms and transgressions of the rules (Foucault, 1977, p. 96). “Power is now exercised in non-traditional locations like data ware houses, soft-ware, airline and phone companies” (Ball, et al, 2012, p. 38). Amazing information about people without restriction across geographical borders illustrates the emergence of virtual or simulation of physical reality-a hyperreality. “In all these developments, simulation provided tools for overcoming limits of control embedded in panoptic model, limits tied to its form of enclosure and its conception of truth and reality” (Ball, et al, 2012, p. 34).

The main target of Foucauldian surveillance has always been the body where surveillance is directed to. In the age of information technology, however, data are obtained from body rule over material body. Digitization processes in fact augmented the number of ways in which body can be observed, analyzed, categorized, and ultimately, managed. Moreover, “computer-power enhances the visibility of those whose details circulate within and between databases on a scale unimaginable to those whose gaze relies merely on window-light, blinds and uninterrupted vision” (Lyon, 2003, p. 92). “Although surveillance rests on individuals,” says Foucault (1977), its functioning is that of a network of relations from top to bottom, but also to a certain extant from bottom to top” (p. 176). It means that the observers are observed, too. The surveillance is not always hierarchical so that the elements of the higher ranks observe the behavior of the elements of the lower ranks and vice versa. Sometimes it is horizontal so that an element observes the behavior of another element of the same rank. It is the art of seeing without being seen which the major characteristic of Bentham’s Panopticon is. The lack of comprehensive and constant surveillance in any disciplinary institute leads to failure in imposing power upon the inmates, because “all power would be exercised solely through exact observation; each gaze would form a part of the overall functioning of power” (Foucault, 1977, p. 171).

The surveillance system obtains personal and group data in order to classify people and populations according to varying criteria, to determine who should be targeted for special treatment, suspicion, eligibility, inclusion, access, and so on” (Lyon, 2003, p. 20). This mode of contemporary surveillance eliminates individuality and uniqueness. Surveillance categorizes, sorts, influences and manages population and leads to social discrimination, differentiation and division.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury’s depicts a dystopian community in which burning books are done by firemen and where written word is proscribed. Set in a near future, the book also accentuates the role the media in general, and television in particular.

Television, in the above-mentioned book, affects reading books. It has been highly effective in putting books to the back of minds. Individuals no longer feel disposed to read books. The sort of information they need are provided via television, in a way which is faster and can gain access to things more easily compared to books. This is patently obvious in the conversation between Mildred (Montag’s wife), and Mildred in which she believes people need not read books: “why should I read? What for? (p. 55), or as it is asserted by Beatty (Montag’s boss)…Full Text PDF

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