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Kuttner, Henry and C. L. Moore [as by Lewis Padgett] – “Private Eye” (1949)

07/10/2012

In the closing years of the eighteenth century, Jeremy Bentham developed the idea of the panopticon, a circular building (most often conceived as a prison) wherein watchers located in a tower at the center could easily monitor prisoners located along the outer rim. This would not only minimize the number of guards required, but would prevent the prisoners from knowing when exactly they were being scrutinized – inducing them to monitor their own behavior. A century and a half later, Michel Foucault relied on this idea to describe most hierarchical structures of modern society as panopticons that induce self-monitoring behavior in their subjects.

Some time before Foucault, though, Kuttner and Moore wrote this story about a societal panopticon – although without ever using the term or even indicating that they were familiar with Bentham. In “Private Eye,” a device has been invented which allows “forensic sociologists” to look anywhere up to 50 years in the past, leaving the mind the only place of privacy. We follow the misadventures of Clay, who, after losing his fiancé to another man, sets out to commit a murder without falling prey to said sociologists (this following some logical gymnastics to establish the fact that only premeditated murder is now punishable by the law). What follows is a slow accounting of the setup of the crime, which culminates with Clay tricking Vanderman into attacking him so he could murder him in self-defense. The ex-fiance promptly throws herself at Clay again, laughing off his insistence that he orchestrated the whole thing. Clay, deciding for once to be defiant and “bold” instead of sneaky and devious, kills her without any precautions.

Some interesting stuff here about the changes wrought on society by this sort of externalized conscience, but… it’s about a guy killing his ex-fiance and her new husband.

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