Michael Amey

With this post I’m commencing a three part discussion of 1984.  This first post will briefly introduce you to George Orwell and to 1984, and will focus on the role of history in creating the present.  The concepts of epistemology, ideology and “Truth” will play a critical role in this first discussion.  The next post will focus on isolation, collectivism and surveillance.  The final post on 1984 will ask us to examine the role of sexuality as an instrument of power and control.

The Man Who Knew Big Brother

OrwellEric Blair, better known to most of us as George Orwell, wrote books and essays, many of which were social and political commentaries.  His two best known books, 1984 and Animal Farm, exemplify these social and political themes.

Orwell’s prescient depiction of totalitarianism in 1984 arose out of the historical conditions surrounding his life, as well as from his own store of personal experiences and ideas.  Orwell emphasized the value of understanding this background in his essay, “Why I Write” by noting:

“I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.”

Orwell was unquestionably shaped by the age in which he lived.  His earliest inspiration for the totalitarian regime represented by Big Brother may well have come as a consequence of serving with the Imperial Police Force in Burma and India.  As a member of the privileged English race, he witnessed first-hand the inhumanity of an oppressive regime and the injustice inherent in imperialism; themes which he touched upon in his novel, Burmese Days and in his essay, “A Hanging”.  His experiences working to expand and maintain imperialism, combined with the rise of totalitarianism in both Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, provided him with a pessimistic view of authority.  He explained in “Why I Write” that,

First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc.

The real transformative moment, however, came for him, when, in 1936, he went to Spain to fight in the civil war against fascism.  That period in his life was the catalyst for his writing:

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.  (“Why I Write”)


Indeed, in reflecting on his motives for writing in general, Orwell produced two that are specifically relevant to the shape of 1984:

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.  (“Why I Write)

1984 is very clearly a text created with a political purpose.  Throughout the novel, the protagonist, Winston Smith, is keenly aware of the political nature of all acts, including, as I will discuss in the last post, the sexual act.  In this post, however, I will focus more on the combination of the historical impulse, the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity” and the relationship of this impulse to politics.   

In describing the writing process, Orwell explains that,

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.  (“Why I Write”)

In the case of 1984, the source of injustice that inspired Orwell was Stalin’s repressive Communist regime.  His critique of Stalinism was essential for two reasons.   First, while awareness of Stalin’s ruthless acts was infiltrating Western consciousness, many leftist intellectuals still either sympathized with or supported Stalinism.  As a leftist intellectual, Orwell saw the importance of separating the foundations of socialist idealism from the excesses of Stalinism. Secondly, in 1948, as Orwell was composing 1984, there was no reason to believe that the Soviet Union would lose the Cold War, or, for that matter, that the war would remain cold.  Orwell’s novel helped explain in this uncertain time why it was important that Stalinism not succeed.  1984 remains, however, a valuable book because while it is rooted in the rise of 20th century totalitarianism, it provides a critique of power that is not limited to one historical point in time.


The Benefactor and Big Brother

As you read 1984, you may have started noticing similarities to We.  Orwell had read We and acknowledged his indebtedness to Zamyatin’s novel.  The following similarities are particularly worth noting:

  • At the beginning of 1984, Winston starts keeping a journal.  In We, D-503 keeps a journal.
  • Oceania, the nation in which Winston lives, is policed by the “Thought Police”.  In The One State, the police force are called the Guardians.  Both groups operate through surveillance and by gathering information from “concerned” citizens.
  • Oceania is governed by Big Brother, while The One State is governed by the Benefactor.  Both leaders are probably fictitious constructs meant to maintain the power structures of each society.  For a similar example, watch the role of Father in the movie Equilibrium.
  • The states in both novels carefully regulate and monitor sexual activity.  In 1984 citizens have to apply to a committee for permission to get married.  Sex is discouraged by the “Junior Anti-Sex League”.  The purpose of this control, in part, was “to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which [the Party] might not be able to control” (65).  In We, marriage has been outlawed for similar reasons, and the frequency of sexual activity is “scientifically determined”.
  • Both Winston and D-503 begin to actively resist their respective regimes in part because of the elicit affairs they have.
  • In 1984, the proles are predominantly excluded from the working of the Party.  In We, the Mephi, or those outside the Green Wall are excluded from The One State.
  • In 1984, Winston develops a deadly relationship with a government agent, O’Brien.  In We, D-503 develops a relationship with the Guardian, S.
  • In both states, control is extended to everyday activities.  Winston, for example, if forced, along with everyone else, to do calisthenics, while the number of time that D-503 chews his food is prescribed.
  • In 1984, Winston finds a place where he and Julia can meet in the Prole section of town.  This house, with its old furnishings, is like a museum of the past.  Similarly, D-503 meets with I-330 at the “Old House”, a museum from a previous time.
  • In We, D-503 comments on the absurdity of the human head and how it conceals ideas.  Likewise, Winston notes that “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull” (26).
  • Winston and D-503 are both eventually broken by the state and come to “love” their oppressors.

There are undoubted more similarities than these.  Feel free to post them as you find them!


History and the Present

A critical component of the Party’s power structure is its ability to control the present by continually changing the past.  Significantly, the present has no enduring quality.  As we move through time, each second of now slips into the past.  The Party’s control of the past extends, as Winston explains, to the immediate past:  “Do you realize that the past, starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished? …  History has stopped.  Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right” (155).  It is unsurprising then that Julia, Winston’s young lover, cannot remember the fact that a mere four years ago Oceania was at war with Eastasia instead of Eurasia (154).  She, as a product of the Party, has been taught to forget the past and to engage in the “doublethink” that allows for two contradictory facts to both be true.

Furthermore, unlike the unreformed Winston, Julia sees no reason to worry about the fact that she can’t remember the past.  Her concerns are located in the present and in her immediate personal interests:  “she only questioned the teachings of the Party when they in some way touched upon her own life.  Often she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her” (153).

Given that her memory does not extend past four years, we have to even question how extensively she rebels against the teachings of the Party that touch upon her own life.  After all, imagining that she was forcibly separated from Winston, four years later, would she remember that she had ever been with him?   Early in her relationship she tells Winston that she has had sex “[hundreds] of times—well, scores of times, anyway” (125).  Is her uncertainty about her sexual activities a consequence of the numerous times she has had sex, her desire to impress Winston with her rebellious behavior, or, possibly, her actual inability to remember her own past?  Significantly, Orwell tells us nothing tangible about Julia’s past.  We are left to imagine the nature of her sexual relationships.  Were they all acts of rebellion?  Has she known other men like Winston?  It would seem that Winston might want to know the answer to this last question if only to locate other potential subversives, but he does not probe her vague statement of promiscuity.

As for Julia’s disregard for the past, this disregard is the logical consequence of the Party’s control.  In Oceania, “the past not only changed, but changed continuously” (79).  Any attempt to follow the oscillating changes of the past would lead to insanity.  As Winston comes to realize,

In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it.  They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening.  By lack of understanding they remained sane.  (156)

Winston is, of course, partially wrong in suggesting that the Party has instituted an endless present.  The present, even more than the past, is unstable and open to reconstruction because it continually slides into the past.  Indeed, past, present and future are, from one perspective, concurrent events.  From this perspective, the Party Slogan, “Who controls the past controls the future:  who controls the present controls the past” (35), is absolutely correct.  Orwell provides the basic outline by which this control is exercised:  “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth” (75).  This control of time, through the efficient erasure of past thoughts and the forgetting of that erasure, guarantees a form of control over not merely time but all reality, or as the Party calls it “Reality Control”.  The paradox of reality control is explained, in part, by Winston’s realization:  “If both the past and the external world exist only in the Mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?” (80).

The possibility that the external world merely exists in the mind is one that cannot be completely ignored.  The philosopher Descartes realized that he could not trust any of his senses to correctly inform him about the external world.  Think of it this way—we usually take for granted that the things we see and feel are “real”.  Descartes, however, knew that he saw things in dreams, but he was sure that either the reality in what he called dreams or in what he waking must be false.  In his opinion, both the dream world and the waking world couldn’t mutually be real.  He also recognized that the use of drugs, say opium, could also change an individual’s perception of reality.  Simply put we receive conflicting messages from our senses.  Even when we are awake and not “hallucinating” our senses trick us into seeing things like mirages.  The problem was that while each of these states of reality appeared to be mutually exclusive, for a person undergoing a dream or a hallucination, the perceived reality seems as real or more real than what we typically consider reality.  Descartes also thought that it was possible that mathematics and logic, things which apparently don’t rely on senses but on reason, were tricks.  We assume, like Winston, that 2 + 2 = 4.  By contrast, Descartes points out that “We may think that mathematics is self-regulating and testable, but there might just be an invisible demon who continuously hypnotizes us into thinking that our mathematics is correct” (Robinson & Garratt, 46).  What this means is that essentially all of what we accept as “Truth” and “reality” is vulnerable and open to debate and negotiation.

There is a difference, of course, between Descartes’ dilemma and Orwell’s description of reality in 1984.  The primary difference is that where Descartes suspects his senses and believes that they could be inaccurate (they could also be, of course, entirely accurate), Winston knows for a certainty that the reality he lives in is a construct.  Descartes speculates that an “invisible demon” could be toying with his perceptions of logic and mathematics.  Winston, by contrast, knows that the Party is deliberately manipulating his logic.  He is aware that:

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.  It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later:  the logic of their position demanded it.  Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.  The heresy of heresies was common sense. (80)

The suggestion that a control of the past also dictates a control of reality seems at first glance nonsensical.  How can the past control what we take to be real?  The only way to understand this is by returning to what we learned about Marxism in our last lecture.  Marx, as you will recall stated in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.”  As I noted, Marx was arguing was that our society, including how our society produces and uses things, determines to a large extent how we view the world.  If our society could be restructured without our awareness of it, and then that restructuring erased from our minds, what we would “see” in the world, would differ radically from what we now see.

And, of course, such restructuring of society actually do occur.  Michel Foucault notes, for example, that prior to the 19th century, the word and the concept “homosexual” did not exist.  Of course there were men who had sex with men and women who had sex with women prior to the 19th century, but these individuals were not seen as belonging to a different category than any other individual.  Their sexual practices did not define their identities.  Because the concept of homosexual didn’t exist, it follows that the concept of the heterosexual also did not exist prior to the 19th century.  In our own society, however, we have these terms and we tend to define people by these terms.  Not only do we define our contemporaries by their sexual preferences, we assign those labels posthumously to individuals of the past.  Thus, a favorite pastime of some supporters of homosexuality has been to identify and “out” famous people, like Leonardo da Vinci, as homosexuals.  The problem with this approach to history is that it takes our world view and applies it indiscriminately to people who did not possess our mental framework.

As a final note, I want to return us again to the idea of “Truth” being vulnerable.  Most of us probably assume that reality and the “Truth” are fixed entities—that reality is what is real and that the “Truth” is what is true.  While it is possible that these exist, as Descartes makes clear, being certain about these forms of knowledge is impossible.  Added to that, our favourite philosopher, Michel Foucault, points out that reality and “Truth” will always be highly contested areas because of the fact that they serve to create power.  He goes on to state:

There is a battle ‘for truth’, or at least ‘around truth’—it being understood once again that by truth I do not mean ‘the ensemble of truths which are to be discovered and accepted’, but rather ‘the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true’, it being understood also that it’s not a matter of a battle ‘on behalf’ of the truth, but of a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political roles it plays. (132)

Winston is a phenomenal character precisely because he is aware of this battle.  Arguably, this makes him a far greater risk to the Party than Julia or, for that matter, most anyone else referenced in the novel.

Works Cited

Orwell, George.  1981.  1984: A Novel.

Orwell, George.  “Why I Write.”     Accessed 28 June 2017.

Foucault, Michel.  1980.  Power/Knowledge:  Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977.  ed. Colin Gordon, trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshal, John Mepham and Kate Soper.  New York:  Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Robinson, Dave and Chris Garratt.  1999.  Introducing Descartes.  Cambridge:  Icon Books










Workers in a Brave New World:  Building Utopia/Dystopia on Slave Labor

Michael D. Amey

Welcome back to our posts on dystopian narratives.  In this post, I’m going to begin by examining the teachings of Karl Marx and Friederich Engels as expressed in The Communist Manifesto.  Once I have provided a basic overview of some of his theories, I will examine Fritz Lang’s extremely influential movie, Metropolis, paying close attention to how Marxist theory informs this film.

The Communist Manifesto:  A Defunct Ideology?

Marx and EngelsThe fall of Communism in Europe during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, indicated to many people, particularly in the United States and Europe, that Marxism was an inherently flawed system that could not be practically applied.  The history of Soviet oppression and domination, a history which prompted President Reagan to label the Soviet Union the Evil Empire, suggested that Marxist utopianism not only did not work, it shouldn’t even be attempted.   Certainly, nothing about the Soviet Union and its Eastern-block allies suggested that the classless, stateless utopian society envisioned by Marx and Engels had been achieved.


While Marxism was never successfully implemented, Marx’s and Engels’ insights into the structuring of society, the creation of identity, and the forces that drive history are particularly useful for anyone studying the concepts of utopia and dystopia.  Indeed, both Engels and Marx clearly understood that their ideas were related to utopian projects, but they rejected utopianism as unscientific.  In fact, as you will notice when you read The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels were careful to distinguish communism from other “impractical” utopian projects.  Several decades after publishing The Communist Manifesto, Engels developed his criticism of the utopian planners in his study, The Development of Socialism from Utopia to Science.    His argument, which was levied primarily against the French utopian socialists mentioned in The Communist Manifesto, was that their utopias were unscientific, while Marxism was based on science (Booker 1994, 33).  Marxism, according to Engels and Marx, was the product of the scientific study of history.  Through this careful, scientific study of the trajectory of history, they believed that they could predict both future social developments, and, in a sense, the end of history.  What follows is a brief description of key Marxist concepts, which will help you understand Marxist criticism, The Communist Manifesto and Fritz Lang’s movie, Metropolis.

Based on what I’ve just said, it should be evident that Marxism is heavily indebted to the study of history.  The Marxist approach to historical study is frequently termed historical materialism.  The concept underlying historical materialism is suggested by Marx’s statement in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness”.  What Marx was arguing was that our society, including how our society produces and uses things, determines to a large extent how we view the world.

An Example of Consciousness Shaped by Society:  What Would You See?



Consider for a moment, which of these two images you would be least surprised to encounter on a walk in the woods.  Sighting either of them would certainly constitute a departure from ordinary life.  Most Americans, however, would discount the fairy as an imaginary creature.  Indeed, fairy tales refer specifically to stories that are clearly untrue.  By contrast, some Americans would be predisposed to accept the existence of an extra-terrestrial.  In the Middle Ages, however, people would have accepted the possibility of the fairy, but would not have been able to even conceive of the idea of the extra-terrestrial.  It’s worth noting that conceptually, fairies and extra-terrestrials are very similar.  Both “species” are alleged to have extraordinary powers and both “species” reportedly kidnap humans.  What differentiates these two “species” are the social assumptions underlying them.  Fairies are “supernatural” beings.  Extra-terrestrials, by contrast, are “scientific” beings, who supposedly travel through space in UFOs.  A medieval citizen would be unable to conceptualize an alien because his or her social framework would have lacked any reference to space age technology.  By contrast, modern Americans frequently, albeit not always, discount the supernatural.  Science and technology pervade our world, and as a consequence we look for scientific and technological explanations for the phenomenon we encounter.  As Marx says, our social existence determines our consciousness.

Marx and Engels understood that our modern consciousness is, in fact, shaped both by capitalist production and consumption.  On a very basic level, our existence as producers / consumers impacts how we see the world.  For example, few of us think twice about “marketing ideas” or “marketing people”.  Clearly, an individual who markets himself is one who successfully presents himself as a product for consumption.  This image is only possible in a society where producing, marketing and selling things is the primary means of making a living.  Likewise, the concept that we can “market” an idea indicates our belief that ideas are produced just like material objects.  Indeed, our intellectual property laws stem from the fact that we see both tangible and intangible things as objects that can be possessed and traded.  Even our concept of wage labor suggests that time is a commodity that can be sold and consumed.  Thus a lawyer will tell her client that she is on the clock, indicating that the client will be billed for the use of that time.

Along with arguing that consciousness is shaped by society, Marx and Engels believed that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (The Communist Manifesto).  History, according to their theory moved forward through class struggles.  Each step led inevitably to the next step.  The final step would be when the proletariats (workers) violently overthrew the bourgeoisie (capitalists) and established a dictatorship of the workers.  With property centralized in the hands of society and used for the benefit of all, social class would eventually fade away.  From that point on, of course, class struggles would end, and history, as envisioned by Marx and Engels, would cease to exist.  It is worth noting that in many texts describing utopian societies, the success of those societies depends on the elimination of private property and class.  In these narratives, the accumulation of private property is seen as the primary cause of social injustice, warfare and unhealthy competition.  The eventual disappearance of social injustice, warfare and unhealthy competition allows society to become static and unchanging.

By contrast, dystopian narratives frequently borrow from Marx and highlight the social disruption caused by class conflict.  In 1984, George Orwell specifically identifies the proletarians as subversive (and strangely free) members of society.  More traditionally, in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis warfare between the workers (hands) and the capitalists (minds) is only barely prevented by Freder, the mediator (heart).  This conclusion is foretold in The mediator Metropolisthe opening Epigram, which states “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart”.  Marx and Engels, of course, would have dismissed the proposal that there could be a mediator between the head and hands as preposterous.  Undoubtedly, they would call in to question Freder’s motives and would argue that Freder’s actions, far from radically transforming society, simply ensures that the status quo is maintained.  Their criticism would most likely mimic their criticism of bourgeoisie sympathizers in The Communist Manifesto:

A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.

To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organizers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind. This form of socialism has, moreover, been worked out into complete systems.  …

They desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat. The bourgeoisie naturally conceives the world in which it is supreme to be the best; and bourgeois socialism develops this comfortable conception into various more or less complete systems. In requiring the proletariat to carry out such a system, and thereby to march straightaway into the social New Jerusalem, it but requires in reality that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of existing society, but should cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie.

The criticism that Marx and Engels offer here certainly illuminates some of the problems with Metropolis.  While Freder is able to negotiate a reconciliation between the chief-foreman of the Heart Machine, Grot, and his father, Joh Fredersen, there is nothing in the movie that suggests that the reconciliation will substantially change the roles of either the workers or the capitalists.  Indeed, one can suppose that having done his bit, Freder will retreat to the Eternal Gardens to live out his days with Marie.  Beyond the symbolic Metropolis clock 1gesture Freder makes earlier in the movie by working one shift for Worker 11811, there is no evidence suggesting that he is either willing to give up his luxuries or that he is willing to actually work.

Marx and Engels would have also undoubtedly dismissed the conditionality of Freder’s horrified question to his father, “What if one day those in the depths rise against you?”  For them, it was not a matter of “if” but “when”.  They saw the eventual revolution as a historical inevitability.  Although they saw this revolution as the unavoidable consequence of capitalist society, Marx and Engels did not see individuals as acting in predetermined ways.  They believed in a the possibility of action as is evidenced by Marx’s assertion, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” (Theses on Feuerbach).  Thus, while conflict between the proletariats and bourgeoisie was inevitable, and eventual victory preordained, the role of individuals in that struggle depended on the exercise of freewill.

Although Marx and Engels would have dismissed the general narrative of Metropolis, they would have valued some of the symbolism of the film.  For example, Marx predicted that workers would become alienated.  By this, he meant that through paid labor, workers would gradually lose control over their own lives.  Their time, and thus their lives, would belong to their employers.  The emphasis on the control of time is highlighted throughout the movie, first by opening shots of two clocks, and later by Freder’s operation of a machine that looks like a clock-face.  Indeed, as Freder strugglesMetroplis clock 2 to control the machine, a face of clock is superimposed over the face of the machine.  Significantly, it is never clear what that machine, or any of the other machines, produces beyond the labor of those who run the machines.

Marx explains the alienation that private property causes thus, “Presupposing private property, my work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.”  The end result of such alienation is the dehumanizing of the worker.  In Metropolis, we are first introduced to the workers during a shift change.  The workers leaving the shift move at Machines metropolishalf the speed of the “fresh” workers entering the shift.  All of the workers move in lock step, suggesting that they are, in fact, automatons.  The scientist Rotwang’s decision to make a machine in to a human is merely the reverse of the process symbolized by the marching workers.

Rotwang is not merely the creator of the Machine-Man.   With his mechanical hand, he represents the hybrid of human and machine.  Rotwang justifies Rotwang Marie Metropolisthis loss of his hand noting, “Isn’t it worth the loss of a hand to have created the man of the future, the Machine-Man?”  Rotwang status as a Machine-Man that he dreams of creating  is further suggested by his plans to create a mechanical version of his lover.

The dehumanization of the workers is metaphorically extended in the scene where the M Machine is transformed into Moloch.  Just before that point, the workers appear to be no more than mere extensions of the machine.  It is unclear, in fact, whether they are operating the machine, or the machine is operating Machine god metropolisthem.  While the movie highlights the degradation of the workers in the depths, it would be wrong to assume that they are the only workers alienated from their labor.  Pay particular attention to the scene in Joh Fredersen’s office.  There, Josephat and the other clerks responsible for overseeing the operations of the city can be seen sweating over numbers.  Like the machines which are never shown to actually produce anything, the numbers also seem to be disconnected from any clear productive use, beyond simply producing labor.  Still, whatever the machines and numbers represent, they clearly have economic value, for the film tells us, “Fathers for whom every revolution of a machine wheel meant gold had created for their sons the miracle of the Eternal Gardens”.

The mechanization of people, as described above, would, according to Marx and Engels, be accompanied by a process whereby humans would increasingly be seen as commodities for consumption.  The workers in Metropolis, of course, exemplify an apparently endlessly renewable resource.  As soon as the first group of workers have died on the M Machine, a new cohort of workers arrives to replace them.  While this consumption of humans is most blatant in depictions of the workers, it also occurs in the lives of others.  The women in the Eternal Gardens are clearly meant to be “consumed” by Freder.  In the scene before Freder enters the garden, one of the young women exhibits her body for the approval of the master of ceremonies.  There is no question in her mind about her function in the Eternal Gardens.  Significantly, just as Marx and Engels fail to adequately address the question of liberation for women, so too, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis makes no commentary on the lives of these young women who appear, like exotic birds, to be trapped in a gilded cage.

Metropolis Marie dancingThe idea of the consumption of the female body extends to the erotic dance of the Marie robot.  Her dance illustrates the mechanization of the sex industry.  Just as the Marie robot is not a real woman, and has no emotional connection to the men for whom she performs, so too, in the modern porn industry, porn stars remain “fictional constructs” who fulfill male fantasies.  I hasten to note here that the women who play the porn stars are real, but that the personae that they take on are artificial.  Men, of course, are generally not interested in the women behind the porn personae, any more than the men in Metropolis are interested in the robot beneath the veneer of the exotic dancer.

Lang’s presentation of the Marie robot has to be given particular credit for foreshadowing some of the criticism of modern feminists.  In particular, the scene in which dozens of eyes are superimposed over the dancing robot foreshadows feminist theorist Laura Mulvey’s concept of scopophilia  (the pleasure one derives from watching another individual as a sexual object).  Scopophilia strips the subject—usually a woman—of her autonomy and of her voice, and transforms her from an active subject to a passive object—a commodity for the enjoyment of the male viewers.  As Laura Mulvey explains in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.  The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly” (1989, 19).  In Metropolis, the male gaze projects its fantasy on to a robot, who is transformed, according to Mulvey, into the “silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning” (1989, 15).  Of course, we must keep in mind that the role assigned to the Marie robot is in no way different from the roles assigned to the living women in the Eternal Gardens.  They are all commodities who have been assigned a visual value by the male gaze.  Their transformation into commodities for male consumption will be re-echoed in other texts we will be examining, including The Stepford Wives and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Other things you should pay attention to in Metropolis are the religious themes (i.e. names like Marie, references to the tower of Babel and Revelation, and the presentation of the Marie robot as the rebirth of Venus, goddess of sexuality.)Venus rising from the sea


Works Cited

Mulvey, Laura.  1989.  “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”  In Visual and Other Pleasures.  London:  Macmillan Press, pp. 14-26.





Using Evidence in Academic Writing

One of the most essential skills an academic writer must possess is the ability to use material from primary and secondary sources.  This skill is so central to academic writing that students in my classes cannot earn anything higher than a D for research or analysis essays that do not appropriately quote from other sources.  Because I am upfront about this expectation two things happen without fail every semester – students ask me how many quotations they need to supply and students go forth and randomly select passages to quote with little or no thought about why they chose those passages, how they will graft those passages into their own writing, or what those passages are supposed to contribute to their essays.  This post is an attempt to address some of those issues.  Specifically, I will be discussing how to select material and how to incorporate that material into your own writing.  The question of how to find and evaluate material for use in an essay will be reserved for a later post.


The opening voice-over of the television show, Law & Order, with its division between “the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders” provides a valuable analogy for the task of an academic writer.  As writers, we embody that duality.  Before we write we investigate our topic to see if there is anything to be said.  Sometimes we find that there is nothing to our “case” and we close it and move on to another “case”, or we find that there may be something to our “case” but we lack sufficient evidence to move the “case” forward.  Other times, though, we find the raw evidence we are looking for, and then we transition into the second role of prosecuting our “case” by writing an argument-driven essay.  These two roles, investigatory and prosecutorial, are equally important and intertwined in most academic writing.

When writing on a topic in the humanities, the evidence that academic writers pursue is the words and ideas of other people.  Just as the evidence collected for a crime can be divided into different categories (material evidence, witness testimony, expert testimony, etcetera), so, too, can the evidence for an essay be divided into different categories.  The most useful way of identifying these categories is to label them as primary and secondary sources.

Primary sources include the items being studied, or items somehow connected to the item being studied.  For example, if I were writing an essay on Raphael’s painting, The School of Athens, the painting itself would be a primary source, but so, too, would any drawings that Raphael made as studies in preparation for painting The School of Athens.  Furthermore, any letters or journal entries that Raphael or his contemporaries wrote about the painting would also be considered primary sources.  Similarly, if I were writing an essay on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice I would consider the novel a primary source, but I would also consider any letters written by Austen to her sister, Cassandra, about the novel to also be primary sources.

Secondary sources, for the purpose of this post, are defined as texts (this may include written, televised or cinematic texts) that provide a scholarly discussion of primary sources.  For example, if I were writing an essay on J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in addition to reading Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and Tolkien’s letters, all of which would be primary sources, I would also want to read Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth, which is a scholarly examination of Lord of the Rings, and I would want to look through any relevant essays in the academic journal, Tolkien Studies:  An Annual Scholarly Review.

Primary sources, I should note, are vastly more important than secondary sources.  If we return to our court case analogy, we can consider primary sources to be the testimony of the individuals directly involved in the case, while the secondary sources can be considered expert testimony.  It is possible to write an essay relying solely on primary sources.  Indeed, in my literature courses I require student NOT to use secondary sources when writing their literary analysis essays because I want them to learn how to analyze literature without depending on the opinions of scholars (or, as is more frequently the case, the opinions of the creators of SparkNotes).

So, let me return to an earlier observation.  Frequently students ask how many quotations they need to have in their essays.  I think this mindset that there is a fixed number of quotations that I am looking for probably comes as a consequence of students growing accustomed to formulaic writing instruction and rubrics.  If quotations are evidence, though, then there can be no set number of quotations required.  A student asking me how much he or she needs to quote is like an attorney asking a judge how much evidence he or she needs to present.  The answer is the same in both instances – however much you need to prove your case.

I also mentioned that students frequently go looking for quotations to “satisfy” my requirement.  My concern, of course, is not that students have quotations, but rather that they select meaningful quotations and use them in a manner that progresses their arguments.  We’ll talk more about how to select valuable quotations momentarily, but for the moment I want to emphasize the notion of context and the chain of custodyCriminal investigators look for evidence that has not been tampered with or removed from the scene of the crime.  The reason for this is simple – if the evidence has not been disturbed, then its location provides a context for what happened that the investigators bloody knifecan interpret.  After all, an investigator will reach very different conclusions if he finds a bloody knife next to some uncooked steak in the kitchen instead of a bloody knife next to a body in the bedroom!  Similarly, good academic writers look for evidence in the primary sources they are investigating.

Frequently I have students who, having decided, for example, to write an essay on Pride and Prejudice, go to where they then look up things written or said by Jane Austen.  The typical reason for this sloppy approach to find quotations is because the student in question hasn’t read, or marked, his or her copy of Pride and Prejudice. Several problems, though, attend this approach to finding evidence.  First, the student does not have the quotation in its original context, and thus is unable to understand its relationship to the text as a whole.  Secondly, the chain of custody has been broken.  In a criminal investigation the chain of custody refers to the apparatus by which investigators log and track evidence to make sure that it is not lost or contaminated. Students who rely on AZquotes or other quotation sites have broken the chain of custody.  If they do not check the quotation in the original text, they have no way of knowing if the quotation has been altered or even exists.  I have, on occasion, gone online and found quotations attributed to one source that actually belongs to another source, or that has simply been invented by somebody online.  I also frequently find online quotations that have errors in them.  The only way to ensure that you have a chain of custody for your evidence is by going to the original document, recording it yourself, carefully, double checking that you accurately recorded it, and inserting it, properly cited into your own writing.     

So, having gone over the importance of quoting and some of the things to keep in mind as you are looking for evidence, I want to turn now to the six rules I give my students to help them select and use quotations:

Rule 1:  Only use quotations that are clearly relevant to the case you are building (i.e. they support your ideas, add to your ideas, or disagree with your ideas, and you want to respond to the argument they present).   Keep in mind that one of the smartest moves you can make is identifying and responding to information that seems to undercut your argument.  If your readers are familiar with the text you are analyzing, they may very well be familiar with any contradictory evidence, in which case ignoring any attempt to ignore that evidence will just make you look like a careless investigator.

While you do need to address any evidence that undermines your argument, you don’t necessarily need to use all of the evidence that supports your argument.  If you have two or three strong quotations that illustrate your point, then you don’t need to include the less useful quotations.  Being selective in what you use is important because typically you are going to have limited space in which to make your argument.  In a five page essay you will not be able to meaningfully discuss, for example, every reference to commerce and property in The Merchant of Venice, particularly if you intend for your essay to be more than just a patchwork of quotations.  Bear in mind, that while I do not tell students how many quotations to use in their writing, it is possible to have too many quotations.  The majority of the writing in your essay needs to be yours.  To return to our court case analogy, if you are an attorney you don’t want to muddy the minds of the jurors, or test the patience of the judge by presenting an endless supply of evidence that is not clearly integral to the case you’re building.

Rule 2:  Always embed quotations into your own writing.  Use your own words to provide, where possible, the source of the quotation, and to provide a context for the quotation.  Your own words should also indicate the quotation’s relationship to your own argument.  Let’s imagine that I’m writing an essay on the importance of social class in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I want to use evidence of that fact from this passage:

Elizabeth listened in silence, but was not convinced; their behaviour at the assembly had not been calculated to please in general; and with more quickness of observation and less pliancy of temper than her sister, and with a judgment too unassailed by any attention to herself, she was very little disposed to approve them. They were in fact very fine ladies; not deficient in good humour when they were pleased, nor in the power of being agreeable where they chose it; but proud and conceited. They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank; and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade. 

Mr. Bingley inherited property to the amount of nearly an hundred thousand pounds from his father, who had intended to purchase an estate, but did not live to do it.—Mr. Bingley intended it likewise, and sometimes made choice of his county; but as he was now provided with a good house and the liberty of a manor, it was doubtful to many of those who best knew the easiness of his temper, whether he might not spend the remainder of his days at Netherfield, and leave the next generation to purchase.

His sisters were very anxious for his having an estate of his own; but though he was now established only as a tenant, Miss Bingley was by no means unwilling to preside at his table, nor was Mrs. Hurst, who had married a man of more fashion than fortune, less disposed to consider his house as her home when it suited her. Mr. Bingley had not been of age two years, when he was tempted by an accidental recommendation to look at Netherfield House. He did look at it and into it for half an hour, was pleased with the situation and the principal rooms, satisfied with what the owner said in its praise, and took it immediately.

Obviously I’m not going to quote all three of these paragraphs in my essay.  Instead I want to focus on how Bingley’s sisters appear, at least on a subconscious level, to be anxious about losing the social status that their family has only recently acquired.  I might write this:

All of the characters in Pride and Prejudice are anxious about maintaining their social standing.  For Bingley’s sisters, the precarious nature of their family’s fortune is illustrated by the manner in which they repress their awareness that, “their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade” (Austen 12). 

Here I have taken control of the passage that I’m quoting by embedding it in my own words.  If I embed every quotation in my own writing, then it follows that a free standing quotation will never appear at the beginning of a paragraph.

Let’s return to our analogy.  In a trial it is never sufficient for the lawyer to simply plop a piece of evidence in front of a jury and say, “Here is a piece of evidence.”  Instead the lawyer needs to establish where the evidence came from and its relevance to the case, like this:  “If it please the court, we are going to introduce into evidence bullet fragments that were found embedded in Mr. Smith’s skull, and we are going to demonstrate that those fragments came from Mr. Johnson’s revolver.”  You need to do the same thing when you are introducing a piece of evidence to your reader.

Rule 3:  Always follow a quotation with relevant analysis of your own.  Following up on our example above, a good lawyer always interprets the evidence for the jury.  A prosecutor might say, having introduced bullet fragments and the testimony of a ballistics expert into evidence, “Our ballistics expert has conclusively shown that the fragments found at the crime came from Mr. Johnson’s revolver, and we know that Mr. Johnson had spoken of getting revenge on Mr. Smith, and that he was seen leaving Mr. Smith’s neighborhood fifteen minutes after Mr. Smith died.  There can be no doubt that Mr. Johnson planned to murder Mr. Smith and carried out the attack that ended Mr. Smith’s life.”

Likewise, you need to provide an interpretation of whatever evidence you introduce to the reader.  Here’s an example of this might be done using what I’ve already written about from Pride and Prejudice.

All of the characters in Pride and Prejudice are anxious about maintaining their social standing.  For Bingley’s sisters, the precarious nature of their family’s fortune is illustrated by the manner in which they repress their awareness that, “their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade” (Austen 12).  Their resentment of the Bennet family appears to stem, at least partially, from the unacknowledged fact that the Bennet family and the Bingley family are alike in that the wealth of each family can be traced to roots in the less respectable world of commerce and business.  One method for ensuring the respectability of one’s family in Regency England is by separating one’s family from commerce through the acquisition of a familial estate, which is why the Bingley sisters are “very anxious for [their brother] having an estate of his own” (12).  The apparently rising status of the Bingley family stands in sharp contrast to the declining status of the Bennet family; the Bingleys speak of procuring a familial estate while the Bennets worry about the impending loss of their estate to Mr. Collins.

In this rather poorly written example I have introduced evidence from the novel in my own words, and I have followed that evidence with my interpretation.

Rule 4:  Always cite each quotation in text.  Citations must follow the format established by the MLA.  In other words, you should include the last name of the author, or, if that is not available, a shortened version of the title of the piece as well as the page number.  Punctuation always follows the citation.  For example:  “North Korea poses no great threat” (Johnson 12).  When you are using a quotation from a source that appears in somebody else’s writing, indicate both sources like this:

According to President Harken, “Negotiations with North Korea are valuable” (qtd. in Johnson 14).

In the example above we know that (the fictional) President Harken is the speaker, but that the quotation itself can be found in the (fictional) source written by Johnson.

It is important for writers to cite sources for the same reason that it is important for criminal investigators to meticulously capture the location of each piece of evidence that they have found – in both instances subsequent investigators may want to go back and look at the original material.

Rule 5:  Modify the quotations you are using so that they fit seamlessly into your own writing.  The most important thing to keep in mind when modifying a quotation is to NOT modify the quotation so much that the original meaning of the passage is distorted or lost.    When you are changing a quotation by inserting words or by leaving out words, indicate the changes you have made by ellipses (three dots) or by square brackets [like these].  The ellipses indicate that something has been cut from the original passage.  Ellipses do not need to be used at the beginning or end of a quotation, even when the quotation begins mid sentence or ends mid sentence.  The square brackets indicate that you have inserted something or changed something in the original to help clarify the meaning of the statement or to merge the statement into your own writing.  For example:

Readers who imagine that Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is primarily a love story have overlooked the fact that the important ingredient in Austen’s ironic “universal truth” is not single men, but rather single men who happen to be “in possession of a fortune” (1).  Mrs. Bennet, who embraces Austen’s “universal truth”, clearly values wealth and social status over other concerns.  Consequently, when Mrs. Bennet learns that Elizabeth is to marry Darcy, a man for whom Mrs. Bennet had expressed a particularly loathing, she seamlessly transitions to enthusiastic support for the nuptials:

Good gracious! Lord bless me! only think! dear me! Mr. Darcy! […] Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! […] I am so pleased—so happy. Such a charming man!—so handsome! so tall!—Oh, my dear Lizzy! pray apologise for my having disliked him so much before. I hope he will overlook it. Dear, dear Lizzy. A house in town! Every thing that is charming! […] Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! (331-332)

The fact that it is Darcy’s wealth, and not any newly discovered liking for Darcy himself that sways Mrs. Bennet is evident in how Mrs. Bennet takes account of the newly obtained wealth first – “What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages” – and the attributes of her future son-in-law second – “Such a charming man!—so handsome! so tall!” (331-332).  So central is wealth to Mrs. Bennet’s conception of a successful marriage that after the most superficial enumeration of Darcy’s qualities Mrs. Bennet returns to raptures over Darcy’s fortune.  Mrs. Bennet could care less that Darcy is “charming… handsome… [and] tall” as long as he can provide a “house in town” and “[t]en thousand a year” (332).

So, now that you’ve waded through everything I just wrote, note that I used the ellipses to mark sections where I had removed content from the material being quoted.  In this case I used square brackets around my ellipses to highlight the fact that the ellipses were not part of the original pass.  I also used square brackets to indicate that I had introduced a word into a quotation and that I had changed a letter from upper-case to lower-case.

Rule 6:  Normally you should use short quotations surrounded by your own analysis.  Occasionally, however, you may need to quote longer passages of text in which case you may need to use block formatting. Quotations longer than four lines must be block formatted.  Block formatting is set off from the rest of the text by indenting it one inch from the left margin.  It does not have quotation marks, unless there is a quotation within the quotation, and the citation is placed outside of the punctuation.  The block formatted quote must be double spaced.  Here is an example:

In The Sword in the Stone, T. H. White provides an amusing, but accurate, description of combat in the Late Middle Ages:

To be able to picture the terrible battle which now took place, there is one thing which ought to be known.  A knight in his full armour of those days, or at any rate during the heaviest days of armour, was generally carrying as much or more than his own weight in metal.  […] This meant that his horse had to be a slow and enormous weight-carrier, like the farm horse of today and that his movements were so hampered by his burden of iron and padding that they were toned down into slow motion, as in the cinema.  (65-66)

This image of knights charging in slow motion makes the serious battle being described sound ridiculous and thus illustrates T. H. White’s own belief that all warfare is foolish.

Here ends the instruction on how to introduce evidence into your own writing.  This is by no means a comprehensive explanation of how to handle quotations, but it does cover the basics.  For more information I would recommend visiting Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.

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