Closing the Circle and Imprisoning the World: Reading Dave Eggers’ The Circle Through a Foucaultian Lens
In Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle, the idea of closing or completing the Circle is at once ambiguous and looming; it is never quite made clear what this completion entails but at the same time it is certain that it is approaching. As the characters submit to ever-more transparent modes of living and the most secret practises of the world become more and more exposed, it seems that the circle’s closing represents the all knowing of all parts of the world to all people – the access of everyone to everything. This at first is genuinely perceived as a positive thing; children will be safe from predators, people can monitor their neighbourhoods for strangers, and all the knowledge of what is out there will captured and put on display for the millions. The world will know all, and all of the world will be known. However utopian this idea may at first appear, however, the closing of the circle is something far more nefarious, and, I would argue, actually represents the completion of the ultimate panoptic prison. Michel Foucault, in his work Discipline and Punish, speaks of the “completion of the carceral system” in terms that are eerily similar to the closing of Eggers’ circle (Foucault 1490). The idea of completing the circle in Eggers’ work is therefore a mirror of the ideal carceral system outlined by Foucault; the circle will be complete when the entire world has been turned into a new Mettray.
Foucault asks near the beginning of his piece, “Why Mettray?” Why indeed Mettray, and why Mettray in connection with Dave Eggers’ The Circle? Foucault answers this question himself: “Because it is the disciplinary form at its most extreme, the model in which are concentrated all the coercive technologies of behaviour” (1490). He goes on to outline these technologies, these techniques for punishment and the creation of docile bodies, beginning with the social structure present in Mettray, which is described as follows:
In [Mettray] were to be found ‘cloister, prison, school, regiment’. The small, highly hierarchized groups, into which the inmates were divided, followed simultaneously five models: that of the family… that of the army… that of the workshop… [and] lastly, the judicial model… The superimposition of different models makes it possible to indicate, in its specific features, the function of ‘training’. The chiefs and their deputies at Mettray had to be not exactly judges, or teachers, or foremen, or non-commissioned officers, or ‘parents’, but something of all these things in a quite specific mode of intervention. They were in a sense technicians of behaviour: engineers of conduct, orthopaedists of individuality. Their task was to produce bodies both docile and capable…
In this structural analysis of Mettray there are echoes of the structure at the Circle, the sprawling company for which Eggers’ novel is named. The Circle is, much like Mettray, a “highly hierarchized” institution. The initial relationship the protagonist Mae has with Jared is a good example of this. Jared is her supervisor in her new position at the Circle, and occupies many of the roles outlined by Foucault above. He begins as a teacher figure, helping Mae get settled and helping with her training. He is also, however, an ever-watchful eye, a constant monitor and judge of progress, constantly aware of and trying to improve Mae’s customer experience scores. Even when her score is at an impressive 96, he is constantly pinging her with electronic messages, “Let’s see if we can get that up to 97 soon” (Eggers 53).
Much of life at the Circle follows this pattern – the hungry eye in the form of a teacher or supervisor is ever-present, striving for higher levels of achievement and increased docility from the “Circlers” as employees at the company are called. One of the ways this docility, this obedience to the company, is enforced at the Circle is through what I call participation coercion – the manic need the circlers have to include everyone in, and participate in, every social function on the Circle campus. An episode early on in the novel between Mae and one of her supervisors, Dan, illustrates this coercion when he says:
I asked you [Mae] to come in just to, well, to square away with your social behaviour here… you know this isn’t what you might call a clock-in, clock-out type of company… we missed you at the Old West party last Thursday night, which was a pretty crucial team-building event… you missed at least two newbie events, and at the circus, it looked like you couldn’t wait to leave… And those things would be understandable if your participation rank wasn’t so low.
The Circle is not just a company where one works, and in this passage it is clear that not being present enough, not participating enough, is an unacceptable way to navigate one’s role there. Dan, like many other Circlers, is keenly aware of how Mae has been spending her time, and how little she has participated in the company’s extra-curricular events. It is expected that one fully commit to and participate in the Circle way of life, to immerse oneself in the connective tissue of the campus. This echoes yet another description of Mettray, as Foucault tells us that
monitors and foremen had to live in close proximity to the inmates; their clothes were ‘almost as humble’ as those of the inmates themselves; they practically never left their side, observing day and night; they constituted among them a network of permanent observation.
This phrase, the “network of permanent observation”, perfectly captures the essence of the Circle experience. Both the highest and the lowest members of the Circle hierarchy are expected to thrive side by side on campus, often even going so far as to sleep there. There are dormitories at the Circle expressly for this purpose, and the Circlers become more and more entangled in the participation coercion of the culture there.
It is now quite obvious what similarities the Circle shares with Mettray, and focus should now shift to the idea of closing or completing the circle and what that means in regards to Foucault’s description of the panoptic prison. One of the first, most detailed descriptions we have about closing the circle comes from one of the three wise men, the highest ranking leaders in the company, Eamon Bailey. In a conversation with Mae, he tells her to
[l]ook at [the Circle’s] logo… See how that ‘c’ in the middle is open? For years it’s bothered me, and it’s become symbolic of what’s left to do here, which is to close it… A circle is the strongest shape in the universe. Nothing can beat it, nothing can improve upon it, nothing can be more perfect. So any information that eludes us, anything that is not accessible, prevents us from being perfect.
As aforementioned, it is never explicitly clear what “closing the circle” actually means, however it seems to point toward the increased transparency and public display of life throughout the world. No longer are the Circle’s ideals restricted to the Circlers, but rather are starting to radiate out into the rest of human civilization. For example, it is Bailey who here is introducing this idea of closing the Circle, and it was also Bailey who is pushing for the development of cameras that live-stream every moment of every piece of the world.
Cameras showing everyone the minute details of every possible place and landscape are only the innocent beginnings of this tumble into panoptic madness. One of the most unnerving trends that picks up speed toward the end of the novel is the act of “going transparent”, that is, permanently wearing a camera around your neck and live-streaming your every move for the world to see. The first people to engage in this behaviour are politicians wishing to prove their honesty, their moral integrity. Disturbingly, politicians and other prominent members of the public who refuse to go transparent are always immediately accused of heinous crimes, their most private information dug up and leaked to the public. This is the more dangerous form of participation coercion that occurs in the novel; those who do not conform to, are not made docile by, the Circle’s standards of participation in the system are labelled deviants and are publically destroyed. Perhaps even more disturbing is that no one is really bothered by this phenomenon, which highlights one of Foucault’s theories that says that “perhaps the most important effect of the carceral system and of its extension well beyond legal imprisonment is that it succeeds in making the power to punish natural and legitimate” (Foucault 1497). In this new all-knowing society, everyone can judge and anyone can punish.
Eventually Mae goes fully transparent, but only after her own frightening encounter with the ever-watching, creeping system the Circle has begun to create in the outside world. When she borrows a kayak after hours from a club to which she belongs, she is almost immediately caught by police and accused of stealing after being captured on some of the Circle’s own cameras. This is a tipping point in the novel, one that sends Mae spiralling towards full-blown docility in the face of the Circle’s sprawling panopticon. She becomes the poster child for the necessity of cameras everywhere and anywhere, something she describes as “an awakening” (Eggers 296). In a publicized interview with Bailey, when asked “Do you behave better or worse when being watched?” Mae, without hesitation, answers “Better. Without a doubt” (298). It is then that Mae decides to go fully transparent, and then that the idea of completing the circle comes into full force. Soon enough,
there were signs that hinted at imminent Completion. The messages were cryptic, meant to pique curiosity and discussion. What would Completion mean? Staffers were asked to contemplate this, submit answers, and write on the idea boards. Everyone on Earth has a Circle account! one popular message said… No data, human or numerical or emotional or historical, is ever lost again… The most popular was The Circle helps me find myself.
So many of these developments had been long in the planning stages at the Circle, but the timing had never been quite so right, and the momentum was too strong to be resisted. Now, with 90 percent of Washington transparent, and the remaining 10 percent wilting under the suspicion of their colleagues and constituents, the question beat down on them like an angry sun: What are you hiding?
Completion appears to be the full submission to the panoptic vision the Circle has created for the world, and is approached by many with open arms. This makes the lives of those who do not conform all the more difficult as they experience the imprisoning effects of the system with a much more poignant clarity. A perfect example of this if Mercer, Mae’s ex-boyfriend, who, in an attempt to escape the many eyes of the world, disappears into the forest and eventually commits suicide when the cameras (led by Mae) track him down.
One of the most important voices against the Circle’s completion is Kalden, or rather, Ty, the founder of the Circle and one of the three wise men. He is also one of the only people who recognizes what the Circle is becoming – the new Mettray, a prison for the entire planet. He tries to warn Mae of what closing the circle could mean for the world, telling her that “most of what’s happening must stop… The Circle is almost complete and… that this will be bad for you, for me, for humanity” (323). When she rebuffs his attempts at a warning he comes back even more anxiously, painting the completion of the circle as the completion of the ultimate panoptic prison:
This idea of Completion, it’s far beyond what I [Ty] had in mind when I started all this, and it’s far beyond what’s right. It has to be brought back into some kind of balance. Completion is the end. We’re closing the circle around everyone – a totalitarian nightmare… That’s where the Circle closes. Everyone will be tracked, cradle to grave, with no possibility of escape.
This lack of choice, this inescapability, is exactly what Foucault speaks of. Even those who do not adhere to the Circle’s ideals, the deviants, have no true escape from the system, as
the carceral network does not cast the unassimilable into a confused hell; there is no outside… In this panoptic society of which incarceration is the omnipresent armature, the delinquent is not outside the law; he is, from the very outset, in the law, at the very heart of the law, or at least in the midst of those mechanisms that transfer the individual imperceptibly from discipline to the law, from deviation to offence… The lyricism of marginality may find inspiration in the image of the ‘outlaw’, the great social nomad, who prowls on the confines of a docile, frightened order. But it is not on the fringes of society that and through successive exiles that criminality is born, but by means of ever more closely placed insertions, under ever more insistent surveillance, by an accumulation of disciplinary coercion.
Michel Foucault’s work in Discipline and Punish is the perfect interpretive lens through which Dave Eggers’ The Circle, particularly the mysterious “closing” of the circle. Right from the beginning Foucault’s Mettray and Eggers’ Circle share commonalities, however those shared lines are made disturbing by just how close the Circle’s completion comes to fulfilling the panoptic prison Foucault outlines. The social orders, coercion, and need for surveillance tie these two works inextricably together, and help demonstrate how completing the Circle is really imprisoning the entire world.