Living in Omelas: Thoughts on the Separation of Immigrant Families

In an earlier post I described how Ursula K. Le Guin confronts her readers with a moral dilemma:  is it justifiable for a society to benefit from the suffering of a single “innocent”?

Le Guin prefaces her story by quoting from William James’s “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”:

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far‑off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?

Although Le Guin does not tell us how we should respond to her nameless, faceless child locked in a basement, the inclusion of this passage signals to the reader the response we should feel – it would be a “hideous” thing to enjoy “the happiness so offered” at the expense of “a certain lost soul”.

I have taught this story numerous times, and have tried to make my students understand that Le Guin is not telling some abstract parable.  As Le Guin writes, this is “[the] dilemma of the American conscience”.  I tell my students that we live in a nation that has embraced the premise that in order for there to be winners, there must be losers.  In my early years teaching “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” I would remind my students that some opponents of same sex marriage argued that legalizing same sex marriages would be the end of straight marriages.    In essence, straight people like me were being told that for our families to be valid, the families of gays and lesbians had to be invalid.  In subsequent classes we undertook the task of putting a name and a face to Le Guin’s child.  The child stood for the LGBTQ community, for people of color, for immigrants, for workers in sweat-shops in far-flung countries making our Nikes, our iPhones, our clothes.

I don’t know to what extent this experiment in making Omelas “ours” and claiming the child has impacted those students.  I like to think they left my class with the other passage that Le Guin quoted from William James running through their minds:

All higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary. They present themselves far less in the guise of effects of past experience than in that of probable causes of future experience, factors to which the environment and the lessons it has so far taught us must learn to bend.

Most of my students, I’m sure, walked away from the story without it changing them.  They still couldn’t see the child.

But here’s the thing, in the past few months the child in the basement has become real, over and over again.  The children of immigrants are torn from their parents and locked away.  The official justification for this is that their parents have committed “the crime” of coming to the United States without documentation, and, as “criminals” they do not have a right to be with their children.

The cruel injustice of this policy cannot be overstated.  The “crime” these parents familiescommitted was that of wanting a better life for themselves and their children.  The impulse that drove these families across the hostile desert was the same impulse that led my forbearers to set sail across the stormy Atlantic in a small ship called the Mayflower. Who among us, faced with the reality that the lives of our family were endangered living in the country of our birth, would not make the same choice as these families?

As for the punishment – while the parents suffer in ways I cannot imagine, the harm done to the children must be even more immense.  We have known for some time that removing children from their biologic parents has deep and enduring consequences.  The trauma we inflict on these children will plant seeds of despair, resentment, anxiety, and fear, and we, as a nation, will reap the harvest we have sown.

At the end of my last post, I wrote:

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” ends by presenting the reader with the two options apparently available to the people of Omelas: either stay in Omelas and accept the suffering of the child as the price of happiness, or leave Omelas and venture out into the great unknown.  But here’s the thing – Le Guin has invited us to be co-creators with her.  We don’t need to settle for the dichotomy she provides.  We can make other choices.  In our Omelases we can break into the basement and free the child.  We can say that no society that trades the well-being of an innocent soul for its prosperity and happiness deserves to be prosperous and happy.  We can end “the Festival of Summer.”  And what will we replace it with?  How will we rebuild Omelas?  In any way we want.  Perhaps the Festival of Summer will become the Festival of the Children in which everyone celebrates that suffering is an unavoidable human experience, but that we share the burden of suffering and make choices so that a fragile happiness can be shared by all.

We cannot walk away; we cannot abandon our country to the forces of fear and intolerance. But we also cannot simply accept this crime against humanity.  We must fight for those families as if they were ours.  As William James tells us, “All higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary.”  The time has come for us to be idealistic and revolutionary.

Le Guin closes her preface by focusing on what William James is saying, “Ideals as ‘the probable causes of future Experience’—that is a subtle and an exhilarating remark!”  Indeed.

For more on what you can do, click here.

 

 

 

 

Link to an amazing post on “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

The late Le Guin’s “The  Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” has been a reliable staple in every Introduction to Literature class I’ve taught.  This short story manages, within a few pages, to illustrate the imaginative and moral power of a well-crafted work of fiction.  By moving between first-, second- and third-person narrator, Le Guin invites her readers to participate in the construction of Omelas.

Because we, in true reader-response fashion, contribute to the creation of “joyous” Omelas, we also find ourselves complicit in what follows – a miserable child is locked away, and the joy of the city, so we are told, is dependent on the child’s misery.  The child is unnamed and its sex is never revealed.  I imagine Le Guin writing, “You want the child to have a name?  By all means, name it.  Is the child a boy or a girl?  It’s as you wish.”  As a master writer, Le Guin writes none of this.  She doesn’t need to; we’re already there, projecting on to the blank face of the child the image of children we know.

The story ends by presenting the reader with the two options apparently available to the people of Omelas: either stay in Omelas and accept the suffering of the child as the price of happiness, or leave Omelas and venture out into the great unknown.  But here’s the thing – Le Guin has invited us to be co-creators with her.  We don’t need to settle for the dichotomy she provides.  We can make other choices.  In our Omelases we can break into the basement and free the child.  We can say that no society that trades the well-being of an innocent person for its prosperity and happiness deserves to be prosperous and happy.  We can end the Festival of Summer.  And what will we replace it with?  How will we rebuild Omelas?  In any way we want.  Perhaps the Festival of Summer will become the Festival of the Children in which everyone celebrates that suffering is an unavoidable human experience, but that we share the burden of suffering and make choices so that a fragile happiness can be shared by all.

And perhaps the people who walked away from Omelas will return again.

Anyhow, by all of this I merely meant to connect you to this post by Gabrielle Bellot.

A Rose by Any Other Name

This is Rachel – I still haven’t figured out how to post under my own name…that’s rather poignant within this topic. This is the second blog that I have started about The Dispossessed; however, the other post ended up being too much information for “just a blog” and will end up being a scholarly article on “Language, Masculine Discourse, and Sexual Assault in Le Guin’s Feminist Critique of Utopia.” This blog post is NOT that. But it does tie in with that overall theme. So… on to names.

Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday night. Coincidentally, we are reading and discussing The Dispossessed this week. I also always teach two of Le Guin’s short stories in my ENG111 each semester (and sometimes in my Women’s Lit and American Lit courses). I love the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin, and so do many of my friends. I received not one, not two, but four separate text messages from other lovers of Le Guin grieving SF’s and feminist literature’s loss. One of those texts simply said, “Ursula.” That name alone was all that the text needed to say. I knew exactly who it meant, I knew what it was about that name that my friend was saying, and I felt the same emotions that my friend felt, simply by reading the name “Ursula.”

This set me thinking about names and the meaning/importance of names and the act of naming (or unnaming). In my literature classes, I regularly tell students that the names of characters are important, that authors intentionally choose the names of people and places (as well as titles, but we’ll talk about that in class tomorrow). In the article, “Personal Names and Identity in Literary Context,” Benedicta Windt-Val notes the “close connection between a person’s given name and their feelings of identity and self. …[P]ersonal names and place names are some of the most important tools of the author in the creation of credible characters placed in a literary universe that gives the impression of being authentic.” This highlights the significance between a name and an identity, as well as a name and credibility and being authentic. In many of Le Guin’s writings we see the connection between name and identity, including The Dispossessed, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and “She Unnames Them.” However, Le Guin isn’t simply naming or giving her characters names to signify their credibility or authenticity; rather she is leaving them nameless, “unnaming” them, or giving them computer generated, generic names, as a means to deconstruct and demonstrate the power in a name, challenging the naming power, challenging those who traditionally name.

Let’s look at The Dispossessed as our first example: the women and men of Anarres have non-gender specific names, given out by a computer, so that no two names are the same. Each name is a random assemblage of letters to create something uniquely unlike anyone else. This process is based on the teachings of Odo. In Le Guin’s precursor short story “The Day Before the Revolution” (1974), Odo says that the anarchist movement was “not strong on names. They had no flag. Slogans came and went as the need did. …But when it came to names they were indifferent, accepting and ignoring whatever they got called, afraid of being pinned down or penned in” (28). Out of this, the unimportance of names arises on Annares.

A name in many cultures, including many names in Latin based languages, implies gender, one aspect of identity. In the arena of gender, Annares’ computer generated names stand tall. On Urras, when discussing gender differences on Annares, the Urrasi physicists complain and/or comment on how Annaresti names are useless for telling gender, which they find troubling and a bit offensive: “‘Gvarab was a woman?’ Pae said in genuine surprise and laughed. Oiie looked unconvinced and offended, “Can’t tell from your names, of course,” he said coldly” (74). The idea of gender equality escapes the Urrasi people and the binary genders of men and women not only have distinctive, identifying names, but entirely separate spheres. The names of Annarestis deny Urrasis from easily dismissing a woman based upon her gender, as defined by her name. In this way, to this end of eliminating gender differences in names, the computer naming process on Urres works well. However, one’s name on Urres still ties closely to individual identity.

The computer generated name isn’t a name that carries with it tones or meaning from previous owners or of family heritage. The name doesn’t give the child something to live up to. For most on Annares, this naming process and their unique name appears freeing (at least that’s how Shevek seems to view it). However, we are shown that the name still ties deeply to the core of identity, as we see in the one instance, when Shevek meets someone with a too similar name. This other man insists on beating up Shevek (who tries to defend himself, but he’s still a scrawny boy). [Side bar: is it odd or coincidental that both of these characters with similar names both happen to be men? It strikes me as an odd coincidence and I believe Le Guin to be too crafty for this to merely be coincidence.] This instance demonstrates that there is ownership over the name and that ownership is worth fighting for. If their names were exactly alike, we could envision a society plagued with these sort of name squabbles. But even in this solitary instance, rather than unite people because they don’t have family ownership over the name or because the power isn’t in the hands of someone naming,  the name acts as an individualizing tool. Each name carries with it the burden of being distinctly unique and is easily threatened when it is reveled to not be so unique after all. This name, albeit randomly assigned, still carries with it the weight of identity, and here that is the identity of the individual (not the collective) and the needs of the individual seem to take precedent in this example. Le Guin enforces the notion of the “close connection between a person’s given name and their feelings of identity and self.” Even within a system where a computer randomly assigns a name, the name provides a person with a strong sense of identity.

Naming also plays a key role in Le Guin’s short story “She Unnames Them.” The title tells us as much. In this short story (read it here), an unnamed narrator goes around and unnames animals, or rather she convinces them to give their names back. “Most of them accepted namelessness with the perfect indifferences with which they had so long accepted and ignored their names.” Doesn’t this sound exactly like the words of Odo when discussing the anarchists? The unnamed narrator acknowledges that there is power in naming and in unnaming: “it was somewhat more powerful than I had anticipated.” However, she doesn’t want the power, but rather is handing the power back to the animals to decide on the names they do or do not want. She then does the same thing with her name; she gives it back. She “went to Adam, and said, “You and your father lent me this [name] – gave it to me actually. It’s been really useful, but it doesn’t exactly seem to fit me very well lately. But thanks very much! It’s really been very useful.” With the reference to Adam, the animals, the father, and a later comment about the garden, as a reader we know who the narrator is and our urge is to name her. Le Guin knows this. If I ask my students who have just read this, “who is the narrator?” they immediately tell me that it is Eve. But she isn’t. That was the name that Adam and God the father gave her. They defined her, pinned her down, and penned her in with naming her what they wanted. The narrator gives that name back; she helps the animals to give their names back. She frees herself and helps the animals free themselves as well. Her identity and the identity of the animals now resides in their own hands. They define themselves, they name themselves, they create themselves, and they now control and tell their own story. In Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (1989), Le Guin notes “[I]n its everyday uses in the service of justice and clarity, what I call the father tongue is immensely noble and indispensably useful. When it claims a privileged relationship to reality, it becomes dangerous and potentially destructive….The father tongue is spoken from above. It goes one way. No answer is expected, or heard” (Dancing 14849). For Le Guin, this “language of power” privileges particular ways of theorizing and understanding the world. It is gender-biased at its core. This father tongue, THE Father’s tongue named everything and everyone in the world. It not only “claims a privileged relationship to reality,” it IS reality. All of reality. This “father-tongue” is what the unnamed narrator in “She Unnames Them” is rejecting. It isn’t a forceful rejection, but a giving the gift back, a careful, deliberate unnaming, reclaiming of her self, of her identity.

Lastly, to note the importance of names in Le Guin’s work, I direct us to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (read here). In this short story, our again unnamed narrator introduces us to Omelas. There isn’t a single singular name in the entire story. In this story, only “the people of Omelas” exist, with only one exception: the child who is not considered part of the people. “In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl.” This child is kept away from the people. This child MUST be kept separate from the people. No one can talk to the child. “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” All of their happiness depends upon the child being kept apart and dehumanized and all the people of Omelas know this: “They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” The unnamed, ungendered child is no longer human; even the pronoun “it” is used in reference. The child is without a name because it is without an identity, stripped of clothes, dignity, love, and name. The removal of the name here is used as a weapon against the child to dehumanize it, which is what needs to happen for the society to exist. The people of Omelas are also unnamed in the story though. This unnaming allows them to evade individual responsibility for the abominable misery of the child. As a whole, collective people, no one person holds any other one person responsible. No one is to blame. No name, no blame. The close link between a name and feelings of identity applies when all the people identify as one collective Omelas consciousness.

In many other of Le Guin’s works she plays with the notion of names and the naming process. She clearly links naming with power and names with identity. Logan Pearsall Smith said, “Our names are labels, plainly printed on the bottled essence of our past behavior.” Le Guin shows names as labels to past, present, and future behavior. Her name conveys an essence of brilliance from her past behaviors and her life of writing. May we always remember her name and the power therein.

Discussion Questions for “The Dispossessed”

  1. As Rachel and I have noted in the past, the title of a work of literature often serves as a key to understanding the work. Why might Le Guin have chosen The Dispossessed as the title?  Where does she use the words “possessed” and/or “dispossessed”?  Early editions of the novel had the subtitle An Ambiguous Utopia; the subtitle was dropped from later editions.  How so we see this novel a utopian narrative?  Why did Le Guin modify Utopia with “ambiguous”?  How does dropping the subtitle change our experience of the novel?
  2. Walls
    • Walls are a recurring motif in the novel. How do walls come to mean different things at different points in the novel?  How do walls affect consciousness?
    • At one, Shevek tells Takver that he is going “to unbuild walls” (332). Why does Le Guin have Shevek employ the unusual verb “unbuild” instead of more common verbs like “tear down” (as in “Mr. Gorbachev – Tear down this wall”)?  Are there any disadvantages to “unbuilding” walls?  Takver cautions Shevek, “It may get pretty drafty” (333).  Obviously Shevek’s determination to “unbuild” walls has consequences that extend to the people around him – the people on Anarres and Urras.  How might his act be responsible or irresponsible?
    • Finally, it is impossible to think about the wall in the novel without thinking about the “Make America Great Again” movement and its isolationist and nativist philosophy.  What might the novel tell us about living in the age of Trump?
  3. In the novel we are introduced to two dominant languages – Iotic, which presumably evolved, and Pravic, which was artificially constructed. How do these languages shape the consciousness of the speakers?  In particular, we should consider the evolving consciousness of Shevek, who is the only person who speaks both languages (Sabul can read Iotic, but doesn’t appear to be able to speak it). On page 344, while both communicating through their second language (Iotic), Terran ambassador Keng tells Shevek, “It’s as if you invented human speech! We can talk – at last we can talk together.”  What are the ramifications of this “invention” of communication, of “human speech,” particularly if it reflects Shevek’s idiosyncratic consciousness?
  4. Sex, Sexuality, Gender and Family
    • A common trope of utopian and dystopian literature is the re-imagining of familial structures. In Orwell’s 1984 sex is anathema, and as a consequence romance and families do not threaten the power of the state.  In Huxley’s Brave New World promiscuous sex is encouraged, and sex is entirely separated from procreation, thus preventing families from undermining the state.  How do partnerships, marriages, sexual relationships and familial ties on Anarres and Urras affirm or undermine social institutions and social cohesion?
    • The Odonians use “brother” and “sister” to refer to each other, thus creating a fictionalized family, while, at the same time, the elimination of the personal pronoun in connection to biologic family members (i.e. “my mother”), along with the removal of family names or naming undercuts the traditional notion of family bonds. How is it, then, that family bonds, like the bond Shevek feels for Sadik, survive?  To what extent has society on Anarres failed to escape old familial structures?
    • Shevek, as Odonian, has been indoctrinated for his whole life into respecting the personhood of others. What factors, then, lead to his sexual assault on Vea?  How does Shevek’s behavior prior to the assault establish his failure to recognize Vea as a full human?  Why does Le Guin include the sexual assault in the novel and then not return to it after the fact?
    • How tolerant are the Anarresti of queer sexuality? Does Bedap the only character who is explicitly identified as “pretty definitely homosexual” enjoy the same treatment as other characters (172)?  What does the intercourse between Bedap and Shevek reveal about the function of sex in Anarresti society?
    • How are the gender roles of men and women different on Anarres from the gender roles of men and women on Urras? How do economics and language create or encourage those differences?
  5. How does the conversation between Shevek and Ambassador Keng break the fourth wall and include us readers in the novel?

Discussion questions

THE NEW MAN:  EUGENICS AND HUMAN ENGINEERING IN A “BRAVE NEW WORLD”

Welcome to a long delayed post on another classic dystopian novel.  Today I’ll be introducing you in a general way to Brave New World, and we’ll be examining the relationship, if any, between biology and destiny.  This post will also lay the foundation for a later post on the 1997 movie, Gattaca.     

 

Crossing the Frontier into Huxley’s Brave New World

Huxley            Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is, I think, a departure from most of the dystopian fiction we’ve encountered or are likely to encounter.  Huxley’s description of a dystopian society, for example, lacks the grime and poverty evident in 1984.  Instead of describing rundown apartments and outdated technology, Huxley depicts a society at that is technologically advanced, that possesses a range of commodities, and that can only be described as decadent.  This departure from Orwell’s grim vision of dystopian society can perhaps be understood when one realizes that the World State was modeled, in part, on Huxley’s perception of the United States.  As David Bradshaw points out in his introduction to Brave New World, the feelies (an advancement on Hollywood movies), the over consumption of goods, the references to Ford and the Model T, and the depiction of amoral men and women living life in the present were all meant to be caricatures of life in the United States in the early 20th century.

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Can We Believe Huxley’s Vision of America?

Great Gatsby

For those of us who might wish to protest that life in America in the ’30s couldn’t have resembled life in Huxley’s World State, it might be wise to reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which was published in 1925.  The characters of that novel, with their lavish parties and decadent lifestyles, would have undoubtedly felt just as at home in the World State.

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The difference between Orwell’s dystopic vision and Huxley’s extends, of course, beyond simply the physical descriptions of their respective societies.  More surprisingly, where Orwell describes a citizenry that wears an “expression of quiet optimism” because it fears Big Brother, Huxley presents a citizenry that at least thinks itself happy, even if that happiness is illusory (Orwell 5).  Indeed, Huxley’s World Controllers are also very different from Orwell’s Big Brother and Zamyatin’s Benefactor.   For one, we, the readers, can be sure that, unlike the other “leaders”, the World Controllers actually exist.  Their function is also different.  Where Big Brother acts as a deterrent for bad behavior by creating fear, the job of Mustapha Mond is, according to himself, “to serve happiness.  Other people’s — not mine” (209).  Unlike O’Brien in 1984, Mond clearly does not have to rely on torture to control his citizens.  By comparison to 1984 and We, the apparatus of governmental control in Brave New World is virtually invisible.  Huxley dispenses with the Thoughtpolice of 1984 and the Guardians of We.  Spies apparently are not necessary in this “utopian” dystopia.  Of course there are police, but far from using the violent methods described in 1984 and We, these police use the calming influence of drugs and soothing voices to quell a rioting mob (195-196).   The results of this mob control are quick and effective:

Two minutes later the Voice and the soma vapour had produced their effect.  In tears, the Deltas were kissing and hugging one another — half a dozen twins at a time in a comprehensive embrace.  Even Helmholtz and the Savage were almost crying.  A fresh supply of pill-boxes was brought in from the Bursary; a new distribution was hastily made and, to the sound of the Voice’s richly affectionate baritone valedictions, the twins dispersed, blubbering as though their hearts would break.  “Good-bye, my dearest, dearest friends, Ford keep you!  Good-bye, my dearest, dearest friends, Ford keep you.  Good-bye, my dearest, dearest …” (196-197).

This description of the rioters parting would be starkly out of place in either Zamyatin’s or Orwell’s novels.  Nothing here suggests the violence implied by the Guardians and the Thoughtpolice.

Perhaps more striking than the absences of a police apparatus and a totalitarian regime are the things that are present in Huxley’s society.  Sexual activity, far from being discouraged, like it is in Oceania, or being controlled, like it is in The One State, is permitted and, indeed, actively encouraged.  Where Winston and Julia have to slip away Brave New World namessurreptitiously for a rendezvous in the countryside, Lenina and Bernard can simply take his plane for a romantic weekend.  Where the young women of Oceania join the Junior Anti-Sex League, the children of the World State engage in erotic play, and Lenina gets scolded for being too monogamous.

Religion, absent from the two prior novels, is also present, but it appears to be a religion that lacks dogma or condemnation of any sort.  The religion of the World State combines the fetishization of Ford with religious elements from Christianity.  The following passage shows how the World State has mimicked the Eucharist in its Solidarity Services:

The President made another sign of the T and sat down.  The service had begun.  The dedicated soma tablets were placed in the centre of the dining table.  The loving cup of strawberry ice-cream soma was passed from hand to hand and, with the formula, “I drink to my annihilation,” twelve times quaffed.  (72)

 

The soma tablets at the center of the table are meant to stand for the wafers offered during communion, and the cup of strawberry ice-cream soma replaces the cup of wine traditionally passed around among Catholic celebrants.

In addition to sex and religion, the World State differs from Oceania and the One State in that it provides a range of leisure activities.  These activities include visits to the feelies, games and, of course, the use of the drug soma.  

Omelas and Brave New World            Given Huxley’s sharp departure from the model established by earlier dystopian authors, we might ask if this novel can fairly be characterized as dystopian.  Part of the ambiguity that readers experience when reading Brave New World is a consequence of Huxley’s own ambivalence about the society he had described.  While he seems to decry much of what he describes, Huxley actually had a much more complicated relationship to the themes discussed in his novel.  He was, at least up to the time of writing Brave New World, partially convinced that in order for humanity to be saved, a dictatorship might have to be imposed and eugenics (the act of selectively breeding humans for certain traits) might be necessary in order to save the European race (Bradshaw 1994).  For all of his implicit criticism of the United States and American technology, Huxley actually applied for American citizenship, and, although it was denied, lived for many years in America.  While Huxley’s description of the drug soma seems disturbing, Huxley actually used psychedelic drugs such as peyote, mescaline and LSD.  His experiences with the drug mescaline are described in his book The Doors of Perception.  All of this background information obscures any facile interpretation of Brave New World.    If the novel is dystopian, then it presents a complicated dystopia, more in line with the Ursula Le Guin’s Omelas than with Oceania or the One State.

 

Losing Human Freedom:  Predestinating and Conditioning

            If law enforcement seems remarkably absent in Huxley’s Brave New World, it is because the World State does not require force and violence to control its citizenry.  Clearly, the abdication of violent means took some time.  In describing the evolution of society to the students at the hatchery, Mond notes that in the early years, “[e]ight hundred Simple Lifers were mowed down by machine guns at Golders Green” and “[t]hen came the famous British Museum Massacre [where] [t]wo thousand culture fans [were] gassed with dichlorethyl sulphide” (44, 45).  It was only after these violent attempts to regulate the citizenry that the World Controllers came to realize that violence was a highly inefficient way of controlling the population (45).  In essence, the World Controllers recognized what John Locke, the British philosopher, had argued in the 17th century:  rulers only rule with the consent of the ruled.  The problem was that the World Controllers did not want their citizens to have any choice in giving their consent to the social structure.  Fortunately for the Controllers, science offered solutions to the nagging problem of free-will and individuality.  The solution that the Controllers would take was premised on the same ideas that would be developed by the American psychologist and writer, B. F. Skinner who, in his novel Walden II, argued that “man is determined by the state” (1957, 276).  For the Controllers, the means of determining the destiny of humanity resided in two areas:  1)  biology and 2)  conditioning.

The biologic aspect of control in the World State is premised on the assumption Picture5that biology is destiny.  If a person inherits certain genes, he or she will excel at certain activities and do poorly in other activities according to this theory.  While Huxley could not have foreseen the genetic manipulation that is available today, he was able to foresee the concept of “designer babies”.  All of the babies in the World State are, in fact, designer babies inasmuch as they are created to specifications determined by the state.  To begin, experts at the haterchery carefully screen genetic material.  The best genetic material is reserved for manufacturing upper caste members of society.  Less desirable material is reserved for the lower castes.  After the material is selected, it is carefully manipulated to produce or enhance specific characteristics.  The fetuses destined to be lower caste citizens are injected with alcohol to create brain damage, thus ensuring lower levels of intelligence.  As Mr. Forester explains to the students at the hatchery, “in Epsilons […] we don’t need human intelligence” (12).  Using this pragmatic approach, the World State only gives to its citizens what they will need to fulfill their predestined existences.  For example, citizens destined for a life in the tropics are acclimatized to hot conditions and are immunized against tropical diseases before they are even “decanted”. The state’s tampering with these humans/products effectively narrows the possibilities available to each of them.  Even if an Epsilon could possess the desire to be an engineer, for example, she would never possess the intelligence required for the job.

The production of humans is carried on along the same basis as a production line.  Indeed, Henry Ford’s automobile plant is clearly the inspiration for the assembly line at the hatchery.  Among the stages involved in this assembly line are quality control and the tailoring of each product to, as I’ve already indicated, fill specific social needs.  As Mond points out, the task of mass producing these humans is made infinitely easier by Bokanovsky’s Process, a process which allows for the creation of clones.  The result of the process is “[s]tandard men and women; in uniform batches [so that the] whole of a small factory [can be] staffed with the products of a single bokanovskified egg” (5).  Humans, then, become interchangeable cogs maintaining the social machinery.  Individual identity is sacrificed in favor of caste identity.  One of the consequence of this mass production is that citizens are also “plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about” (201).  These roles are abolished, both because they are unimportant to the continuation of the World State and because everyone is replaceable.  If a woman loses the man she was sleeping with, she can always get an identical product to replace that man.  In theory, at least, nothing distinguishes him from any of the men produced from the same bokanovskified egg.  Given that each caste member is also conditioned to have the same likes and dislikes, it is possible that the substitute product male would be identical to the original.  Who needs to worry about the concept of a boyfriend when you can date an identical individual whenever you want to?

Given the fact that the World State designs and produces its citizens, it is easy to understand why citizens like Lenina are willing to accept the hypnopaedic proverb, “Everyone belongs to everyone else”.  In the case of the World State, this is very nearly true.  This proverb echoes the law in Zamyatin’s One State: “Each number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity” (Zamyatin 1972, 21).  In both societies, the individual is viewed as a product of the state.  However, where in the One State a law has to be made to the effect that each citizen has the legal right to any other citizen’s body, no such law is necessary in the World State.  After all, the World State doesn’t merely claim to own its citizens, it actually manufactures them.

Biologically predestinating individuals determines the likely future of each citizen; conditioning makes them happy with that lot.  As the Director of the hatchery explains, “All conditioning aims at that:  making people like their unescapable social destiny” (13).  This conditioning occurs through a number of different techniques.  There is both physical conditioning, as when Delta children are electrocuted to make them dislike and fear books, and verbal conditioning, as in hypnopaedia.  The point of hypnopaedia is to shape the mind of the child through repeated suggestions, until, according to the director at the hatchery,

at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind.  And not the child’s mind only.  The adult’s mind too — all his life long.  The mind that judges and desires and decides —- made up of these suggestions.  But all these suggestions are our suggestions!  [….] Suggestions from the State.  (25)

 

The director’s point is made even more cogently by Mond when he explains to John Savage the role of Epsilons in the World State:

Only an Epsilon can be expected to make Epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren’t sacrifices; they’re the line of least resistance.  His conditioning has laid down rails along which he’s got to run.  He can’t help himself; he foredoomed.  Even after decanting, he’s still inside a bottle — an invisible bottle of infantile and embryonic fixations.  Each one of us, of course […] goes through life inside a bottle. (203)

 

A very similar view of the power of conditioning is presented in B. F. Skinner’s Utopian novel, Walden II.  In Walden II, the spokesperson for the society, Frazier, explains to his guests:

Our members are practically always doing what they want to do—what they “choose” to do—but we see to it that they will want to do precisely the things which are best for themselves and the community.  Their behavior is determined, yet they’re free (Skinner 1976, 279).

Frazier’s assertion that citizens can be free even when their behavior is predetermined presents a paradox.  To a certain extent, the citizens of Huxley’s World State have a more accurate understanding of the limits of freedom and predestination.  Thus, when Lenina observes to Henry that perhaps Epsilons, whom she personally finds revolting, don’t mind being Epsilons, he responds, “Of course they don’t.  How can they?  They don’t know what it’s like being anything else.  We’d mind, of course.  But then we’ve been differently conditioned” (66).  Henry goes on to explain to Lenina, “if you were an Epsilon […] your conditioning would have made you no less thankful that you weren’t a Beta or an Alpha” (66).  Evidently Henry recognizes that he and Lenina aren’t in fact free; more disturbingly though, this lack of freedom doesn’t bother either of them.  To a certain extent, these two products of the World State are far closer to the machine-men envisioned in Zamyatin’s One State.  After all, Henry and Lenina can’t help but be happy.  The state has won, not because it has shaped reality to suit its citizens, but because it has shaped its citizens to suit its reality.  Unlike the rebels in Zamyatin’s One State and Orwell’s Oceania, far from rebelling, these citizens of the World State cannot even grasp the concept of rebellion.

Although upper caste members of society seem to lack choices just like their lower caste counterparts, they do, in fact, have some capacity for rejecting the conditioning that they have experienced.  Perhaps they require an element of rationale thought and free will to ensure that society continues to operate smoothly.  The possibility of bucking this system is revealed by the Director’s criticism of Bernard Marx, “Alphas are so conditioned that they do not have to be infantile in their emotional behavior.  But that is all the more reason for their making a special effort to conform.  It is their duty to be infantile, even against their inclination” (88).  As I shall show in my next post, the inclination to remain infantile is encouraged by promoting unconstrained consumption and instant gratification.

Works Cited

Huxley, Aldous.  Brave New World.  Perennial, 1998.

Skinner, B. F. Walden Two. MacMillan, 1976.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny.  We.  Penguin Books, 1972.

 

FORNICATING FOR FREEDOM:  SEXUAL SUBVERSION IN THE TOTALITARIAN STATE

Michael D. Amey

I’m back with yet another post on 1984.  In this post I’m focussing on a major recurring theme in dystopian fiction:  the power of sexual acts to liberate and enslave individuals. This theme is also evident, of course, in We, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale.

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Controlling Sex, Controlling Citizens

1984 coverWhen we think of sex, many of us envision an activity that occurs fairly much the same way among people everywhere.  We generally do not imagine, unless we’re thinking very carefully about sex, that sex is somehow a culturally mediated activity.  Put more simply, we often think that sex is natural—stripped of culture and simply a response to biologic urges and hormones.  As various scholars have shown, however, this is a misconception.  In her essay, “The Traffic in Women:  Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex”, Gayle Rubin uses an analogy to question the idea that sex is devoid of cultural content:

Hunger is hunger, but what counts as food is culturally determined and obtained.  Every society has some form of organized economic activity.  Sex is sex, but what counts as sex is equally culturally determined and obtained.  Every society also has a sex/gender system – a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention and satisfied in a conventional manner, no matter how bizarre some of the conventions may be. (538)

The point that Rubin is making is absolutely relevant to the depictions of sex that we have seen in 1984 and in We.  The sexual activities in both of these novels are sharply delineated into licit and illicit behavior, acceptable relationships and unacceptable relationships.  These divisions undoubtedly seem alien to many of you, and this partially because behind these divisions are not grounded on a simple distinction between the natural and the unnatural, but rather upon the will of society determining what citizens should “accept” as natural or unnatural.  In the case of these novels, the will of society is, in many respects, distinct from the will(s) of our own society.

But why, we might ask, do Zamyatin and Orwell spend time discussing sexual relationships, and why do the States in both of their novels place such a premium on controlling sexual behavior?  Part of the answer to this question can be found in another of Gayle Rubin’s essays, “Thinking Sex:  Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality”.  She argues in the introduction to this essay that:

The time has come to think about sex.  To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine or nuclear annihilation.  But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality.  Contemporary conflicts over sexual values and erotic conduct have much in common with the religious disputes of earlier centuries.  They acquire immense symbolic weight.  Disputes over sexual behavior often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity.  Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress.

            The realm of sexuality also has its own internal politics, inequities, and modes of oppression.  As with other aspects of human behavior, the concrete institutional forms of sexuality at any given time and place are products of human activity.  They are imbued with conflicts of interest and political maneuvering, both deliberate and incidental.  In that sense, sex is always political.  But there are also historical periods in which sexuality is more sharply contested and more overtly politicized.  In such periods, the domain of erotic life is, in effect, renegotiated. (4-5)

Dystopian fiction, by nature of its fundamental character, tends to depict historical periods when sexuality is contested and sexual codes are redrawn to enhance the state’s control over individuals.  The amount of control that the One State exercises in We, for example, is evidenced by the Lex Sexualis: “Each number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity” (Zamyatin 1972, 21).  This law functions on a two-fold level:  first, it serves as an express reminder to the citizens that they are commodities to be consumed both by each other and by the state, and secondly, it serves to remind them that in this absolute Communist society, the state owns everything, including bodies, reproduction and sexual enjoyment.

Lest we be too quick to criticize this control of sexuality in the One State, it might be wise to consider the control of sexuality in our own society.  First, while, in most states in the United States the traffic in sex is illegal, “sexiness” is a hot commodity that both sells all manner of goods and is itself sold in a wide array of forms.  The fact that sexuality and sexiness are marketed and consumed in our society is evidenced by pornography’s status as one of the largest online industries.  Perhaps the primary difference between us and the numbers of the One State is that while we and the citizens of the One State both agree, for the most part, that sex is a desirable commodity, the citizens of the One State, in accordance with their standards of equality, are unable to profit from the exchange of sexual favors.  By contrast, many Americans make a great deal of money from sexual activity.  What is interesting, however, is the fact that while many of the states legalize the sale of sexuality and sexiness in the form of pornography, most states have outlawed prostitution, thus denying, as it were, many women and some men the right to earn money by using and selling what is theirs—their bodies.  In a sense then, our government has determined who can profit from sex, perhaps to the detriment of the majority of sex workers, who work illegally.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, another effect of the Lex Sexualis is to end marriage and families.  This is desirable because it allows the state to create absolute bonds of loyalty with its citizenry.  No longer does a woman think about her husband, or a man think about his wife.  Instead they focus on the relationship with the state.  This substitution of the state for a loved one occurs in both We and 1984.  For example, as I noted in the previous post, the woman who works next to Winston is involved in “tracking down and deleting from the press the names of people who had been vaporized and were therefore never considered to have existed.  There was a certain fitness in this, since her own husband had been vaporized a couple of years ago” (42).  She can do this both because she has developed the capacity for doublethink and because her relationship to Oceania takes precedence over her relationship to her husband or any other individual.

The fact that the woman working next to Winston is single best suits the needs of the Party.  Her loyalty, however, is suspect because she may not have willingly chosen to be single.  By contrast, Comrade Ogilvy, represents the untainted devotion desired by the state because he “had taken a vow of celibacy, believing marriage and the care of a family to be incompatible with a twenty-four-hour-a-day devotion to duty” (47).  Yet surpassing even Ogilvy in his loyalty, is Winston’s estranged wife, Katharine, who has sex with Winston, but only as part of “our duty to the Party” (67).  Katharine, perhaps as a consequence of conditioning, perhaps through the will of doublethink, has invested the symbolism of sex, not with lust, certainly not with love, but with patriotism.  Her reconstruction of the meaning of sex is evidenced by how she experiences it:  “She would lie there with shut eyes, neither resisting nor co-operating, but submitting” (67).  This description of how she experiences sex significantly aligns, as we shall see, with the experiences of Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale.

In addition to having sex with Katharine, Winston also has sex with an older prole prostitute and with Julia.  These sexual encounters are distinctly different in nature.  For Winston, the prostitute represents nothing more than simple sexual release—I choose not to use the word “satisfaction” because it scarcely seems satisfactory.  This encounter is not particularly dangerous either, for, as Orwell explains,

Tacitly the Party was even inclined to encourage prostitution, as an outlet for instincts which could not be altogether suppressed.  Mere debauchery did not matter very much, so long as it was furtive and joyless, and only involved the women of a submerged and despised class.  (65)

Furthermore, while the act of sleeping with a prostitute is certainly punishable in Oceania, it is generally not a capital offense.

Significantly, while debauchery is tolerated when it involves Proles, debauchery with Party members is punished much more severely.  Orwell goes on to clarify why the Party opposes relationships within the Party:

The aim of the Party was not merely to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control.  Its real, undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act.  Not love so much as eroticism was the enemy, inside marriage as well as outside it.…  The only recognized purpose of marriage was to beget children for the service of the Party.  Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema.…  The Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it.  (65-66)

Later Orwell, notes that the “sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it to account” (133). The Party’s success in distorting sex is evidenced both in Katharine’s submission during sex and in Winston’s revulsion with the sexual experience he has with the prostitute.  This revulsion prevents Winston from regularly frequenting prostitutes.  As a consequence, his own sexual desires remain constantly thwarted.  This sexual repression is “turned… to account” by creating “sexual privation [that] induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship” (133).  Orwell illustrates the relationship between frustrated sexuality and the attitudes of citizens by describing a Party rally in sexual terms:  the mob’s mood is like a “great orgasm […] quivering to its climax” (180).

While Winston’s sexual liaisons with the prostitute cannot be counted an act of rebellion—after all “the Party was even inclined to encourage prostitution”—his relationship with Julia is, in his and her minds, an entirely different matter.  A number of differences seem to exist between the relationship Winston has with the prostitute and the one he has with Julia.  Unlike Winston’s low risk encounter with the prostitute, Julia’s and Winston’s liaison risks their freedom and their very lives.  This risk severs any ties they have to the Party and creates a situation where their loyalties, by necessity, are redirected towards each other.  For a comparable modern example, we might consider the relationships of homosexuals during much of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Because homosexuality was illegal in America and most European countries, homosexuals found themselves, by the very nature of their desires and activities, outside the law and, to a certain extent, alienated from society. Given these facts, we should expect that homosexuals, like Winston and Julia, would formulate ties that largely ignored the claims of their societies.  That social commentators are aware of the subversive nature of sexuality becomes apparent when one examines modern conservative commentators, like Maggie Gallagher, who argue that homosexuality threatens society by undermining the institution of marriage.  Marriage (and having children), in other words, becomes a “duty to society” in a way that is not dissimilar to Katharine’s conception of sex as doing one’s duty for the Party.  This permits those in power to cast the offenders as sexual traitors.

Winston’s relationship with Julia also differs from this relationship with the prostitute in that it permits them together to create a reality separate from the Party.  As Orwell explains, “the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party’s control” (133).  By contrast, Winston’s furtive, and unsatisfactory sexual involvement with the prostitute merely confirms the control that the Party exercises over all aspects of life.

Winston’s sexual encounter with the prostitute also acts to dehumanize and degrade both the prostitute and Winston.  She, after all, is a shoddy, forbidden commodity for which he pays two dollars.  He is a desperate man who pays for something that has been Winston and Julialabeled perverted by his society.  By contrast, Orwell emphasizes the fact that Julia and Winston freely engage in sex.  To ensure that this is not a transaction, Winston specifically asks Julia if she enjoys sex, to which she responds, “I adore it” (126).  Her response stands in contrast to Katharine’s philosophy of sex as social duty and the prostitute’s philosophy of sex as commodity.  Julia is having sex in part simply because she enjoys sex.  This free exchange of sex helps humanize Julia and Winston and perhaps even ennobles them.

While their sexual encounter is a free one, it is not an uncontaminated one.  After all, as Orwell points out “you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays.  No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred” (126)  Beyond being about desire, then, their sexual activity becomes a denial of the Party’s power.  Winston’s revels in her sexuality because, “the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire:  …was the force that would tear the Party to pieces” (126).  As Orwell explains, “Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory.  It was a blow struck against the Party.  It was a political act”  (126).  In light of the Party’s determined effort at either wiping out or subverting the sexuality of the citizens of Oceania, it is indeed difficult to interpret this act as anything other than an assault on the Party’s control.

 

“FROM THE AGE OF UNIFORMITY, FROM THE AGE OF SOLITUDE”:  BEING ALONE BECAUSE OF THE CROWD

Michael D. Amey

Welcome to my second post on Orwell’s 1984.  In this post I’m going to focus on isolation, collectivism and surveillance.  These themes are essential aspects of a number of dystopian novels and movies, and are present in We, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Matrix, Feed and Jennifer Government, to name a few examples.

“Every Breathe You Take, Every Move You Make, Every Bond You Break, Every Step You Take, I’ll Be Watching You”

(Lyrics from “Every Breathe You Take” by the Police)

woman being watched advertisementMichel Foucault, the philosopher who provided us with the concept of the Panopticon, would have reveled in the abundant irony of a rock band called the Police singing the lyrics of “Every Breathe You Take”.  The song, apparently intended as a romantic gesture, chronicles the jealous, obsessive voyeurism of a jilted lover.  In a particularly revealing moment, the speaker in the song laments, “Oh, can’t you see, you belong to me”.

Implicit in the lyrics of this song is the relationship between an individual who is watched and the institution or individual doing the watching.  The ownership that the lovelorn singer claims is based on his ability to spy on the object of his love constantly, even as she does mundane things like breathe and walk.  This, in itself, however, is not enough to ensure his claim on her.  For him to own her, she must be aware of his vigilant gaze:  “oh, can’t you see, you belong to me”.  In other words, she must see him seeing her for the power of the gaze to be operative.  A similar approach to this use of the gaze as means of control and ownership is suggested in the lyrics of the traditional Christmas song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.  The addressee, in this case a child, not a woman, is told:

He sees you when you’re sleeping.
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!

Surely, if a child ever believed these lyrics, then he would assume that Santa had ownership over him in as much that nothing the child did would ever escape the gaze of Santa and all behavior could be subjected to rewards and punishments by Santa.  He would regulate his behavior to suit what he imagined Santa desired, and thus would, ironically NOT “be good for goodness sake”.  As with “Every Breathe You Take”, surveillance in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” depends for its success on the fact that the child is aware that he is being watched.  If the child is unaware of Santa’s all pervasive gaze and ability to dole out rewards and punishments, then Santa’s power ceases to function.

George Orwell’s Oceania functions on a similar premise.  Party members are subjected to constant visual and auditory scrutiny via telescreens, listening devices and the spying eyes of neighbors, friends and family.  Significantly, these instruments of scrutiny do not function independently of each other; rather, they are merely hundreds of eyes and ears working for the face of the Party, Big Brother.

For the most part, there is nothing covert in this surveillance.  Just as the lyrics from “Every Breathe You Take” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” would suggest, surveillance, by itself, is not enough.  Instead, the citizens are kept constantly aware of the fact that they’re being watched.  They are informed by posters that “BIG BROTHER ISUncle Sam WATCHING YOU”.  The “YOU” at the end of the sentence is imperative, because the citizen is left with no doubt that he or she has been personally sought out as the object of attention.   Furthermore, the fact that each citizen is being constantly inspected is driven home by the ubiquity of the image of Big Brother.  Orwell illustrates this by describing Winston looking at a coin:

He took a twenty-five-cent piece out of his pocket.  There, too, in tiny clear lettering, the same slogans were inscribed, and on the other face of the coin the head of Big Brother.  Even from the coin the eyes pursued you.  On coins, on stamps on the covers of books, on banners, on posters, and on the wrapping of a cigarette pack—everywhere.  Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you.  Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed—no escape.  (27)

These images serve as a constant reminder of the fact that every aspect of life is under continuous scrutiny.

In discussions that I have led with students in classes on the wide sweeping surveillance powers granted the United States government by the Patriot Act, most students have seemed unconcerned by this potential invasion of privacy.  They remind me that if I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing to be afraid of.  Presumably it is only terrorists and evil-doers who need worry that the NSA might be eavesdropping.  Perhaps my students are right.  It is worth noting, though, that in Oceania, the citizens also, technically, have nothing to fear from the watchful eyes of Big Brother.  After all, Orwell, in discussing Winston’s use of a journal, notes that “This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws) ….” (6).  In theory, then, it is impossible for Winston to break the law.  Nevertheless, he is concerned because if he were “detected it was reasonably certain that [his use of the journal] would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labor camp” (6).

Implicitly then, the abolition of the laws (in itself a paradoxical exercise of law) does not guarantee greater freedom for the citizens or the absence of crime and criminals.  Indeed, as Orwell makes clear when he describes show trials in Oceania, the absence of laws does not even prevent the exercise of a corrupt legal system.  Consequently, instead of reassuring the citizens that no crime can be committed because there are no laws to break, this “lawless” society creates the potential for anything and everything to be considered a crime.  The crime, however, which is fundamental to all crimes is Minority Reportthoughtcrime (19).  Some of you will remember from my earlier posts about We that in the One State freedom is believed to be root cause of all crime.  Orwell takes Zamyatin’s logic one step further by realizing that crime occurs because people think.  Machines are incapable of committing crimes specifically because they cannot think.  By contrast, all humans are, by the very fact that they are incapable of maintaining complete control of their thoughts, thoughtcriminals. This unfortunate flaw in human nature is revealed to Winston by the usually loyal Parsons.  He explains to Winston (for the benefit of the unseen watchers) that thoughtcrime is

insidious.  It can get a hold of you without your even knowing it.  Do you know how it got hold of me?  In my sleep!  Yes, that’s a fact.  There I was, working away, trying to do my bit—never knew I had any bad stuff in my mind at all.  And then I started talking in my sleep.  Do you know what they heard me saying?  […]  ’Down with Big Brother!’  Yes, I said that!  Said it over and over again, it seems.  (233)

 

The fact that Parsons, a man who diligently “tries to do his bit” is capable of thoughtcrime indicates that no one is innocent.

As I indicated earlier, part of the power of the surveillance in Oceania is linked to the fact that it is, for all intents and purposes, incessant.  In the first few pages Orwell informs us that:

The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously.  Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, could be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.  There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any moment.  How often, or on what system, the Though Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork.  It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.  But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.  (3)

Of course, what Orwell describes matches the operation of Foucault’s Panopticon where surveillance is “visible and unverifiable”.  The broader consequence of this unverifiable but visible surveillance is that,

he who is subject to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles, he becomes the principle of his own subjection. (Foucault 203)

In other words, “You had to live—did live from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized” (3).

The guilt that rests on all citizens, even those, like Parsons, who truly strive to remain innocent, has its impact on ever aspect of how they lead their lives.  Early on, Orwell describes Winston moments before he takes the risky decision to write in his journal:  “He had set his features into the expression of quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear when facing the telescreen” (5).  The point that this description makes is that citizens like Winston “wear” expressions instead of having them.  This learned expression is a disguise meant to conceal the “illegal” activity going on in the mind of the citizen. This expression is, in particular, a means of keeping the one last possession available to the citizens of Oceania:  “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull” (27). Of course, the Party has taken steps to penetrate this last place of concealment.  Those watching are trained to spot any gesture or expression that might be indicative of thoughtcrime.  Thus, on a deeper level than Winston realizes, “in moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy but always against one’s own body” (102-103).  The body becomes the traitor of the mind.

The unblinking gaze of Big Brother also has an impact on the larger community.  This gaze creates conformity among members, as illustrated by the group activities and even by the enforced exercises.  In spite of the fact that these group activities are compulsory—though this is never explicitly stated—the activities also become genuine.  Orwell explains that the “horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a  part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.  Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary” (14).  What this suggests, is that a process is in Lynchingplace of control that is initially coercive, but then becomes less coercive as the individual enacts the role assigned to him or her.  Thus, while Winston may initially be acting because he is aware of the judgmental gaze of others and Big Brother, he eventually ceases to act and embodies, instead, the desired behavior.  His conformity is tied to the well documented concept of mob mentality, an unthinking mentality that the Party fosters through emotional events like Hate Week and Two Minutes Hate.

The importance of collectivism to the functioning of Oceania is further illustrated by the fact that:

In principle a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed.  It was assumed that when he was not working, eating, or sleeping he would be taking part in some kind of communal recreations; to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous.  There was a word for it in Newspeak:  ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity. (82)

It is worth noting that the expectation of constant communal activities in Oceania bears a striking resemblance to how cults operate.  Time alone allows people to form independent opinions that are more than mere reactions to the emotions and opinions of other people.  Such independent opinions are dangerous to the cohesion of most groups.

Ironically, for all of the communal activities that citizens of Oceania participate in, each of them remains separated from each other, from citizens of the past and from citizens in the future.  Parsons, for example, has a wife and children, but this does not mean that he has a family.  After all, it is his own daughter who turns him in for saying, “Down with Big Brother” in his sleep.  (We should pause here to consider one of the dilemmas that faces Parson….   Because he was asleep, he doesn’t know what he was saying or if he was even saying anything at all.  His daughter may have made up the whole story and reported him for the excitement of the experience and the approval she would receive from her peers.  At the same time, he can’t doubt her claim because to doubt her claim would be illustrate his own disloyalty to Big Brother.  As Parson tells Winston, “You don’t think the Party would arrest an innocent man, do you?” (233).

The fact that families do not function according to traditional expectations is further highlighted by Winston’s reflections on his family life:

Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there were still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of family stood by one another without needing to know the reason.  (30)

Indeed, this failure of the family is represented by one of Winston’s colleagues:

He knew that in the cubicle next to him the little woman with sandy hair toiled day in, day out, simply at tracking down and deleting from the press the names of people who had been vaporized and were therefore never considered to have existed.  There was a certain fitness in this, since her own husband had been vaporized a couple of years ago. (42)

Replacing the traditional family structure is the relationship of the individual to the state.  For this reason, the Party wisely personifies itself as, appropriately enough, Big Brother.  Of course, although Big Brother is a term derived from a familial relationship, Big Brother is not a family member.  No one has a relationship with Big Brother, even though Winston believes, on the final page that Big Brother loves him and he loves Big Brother.

Winston’s reflections on tragedy highlight the fact that it is not merely the institution of the family that has broken down.  Love and friendship have also ceased to be meaningful.  The “friends” Winston has are clearly not friends; they barely deserve the term acquaintances.  Even his relationship with Julia, which is the most intimate relationship he has, is not one that ends his isolation.  While Julia cares for him, she does not understand him or share his desire to rebel for the sake of greater freedom.  The ultimate tragedy for these two characters is in the fact that having promised not to betray each other, they are unable to avoid the betrayal that their change in feelings for each other entails.

Lastly, we must note the irony involved in Winston’s greeting in his journal:

To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone—to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone:

            From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink—greetings! (28)

 

Winston, of course, cannot address the past both because the past is the past and because, in Oceania, the past doesn’t exist.  Furthermore, he can’t hope to address the future because the future will either be controlled by the Party, in which case Winston —as part of the undesired past—will be obliterated from history, or the future will be so different from Winston’s present that nobody will understand what he is describing.  Thus, he is cut off from both the past and the future and exists only in the terrible present.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel.  Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin Books, 1991

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