DESTROYING THE PAST TO CREATE THE PRESENT:  IDEOLOGY AND TRUTH

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.

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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!

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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.”  http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/wiw/english/e_wiw     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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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?

Alien

Fairy

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.

 

 

 

 

THE NEW EVE: ALIENATED LABOR IN MARGARET ATWOOD’S “THE HANDMAID’S TALE”

Welcome to my second post on The Handmaid’s Tale.  In this post I will be covering the following topics:  Marx’s concept of alienated labor as exemplified by the women in the Republic of Gilead, the use of religion in manufacturing the consent of men and women, and, briefly, the meaning of the “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale”.

            Offred:  The Exploited Worker

Marx argued that, in a market economy, workers are alienated from their labor.  What does this mean?  On one level, Marx was concerned with the fact that the work a worker did was less valuable than the product being produced.  The example of a McDonald’s employee should illustrate the point.  Billy makes the cheeseburger, which sells at a dollar a burger.  Of course, for McDonalds to make a profit, the corporation has to cover the expenses of the raw materials (the bun, the cheese, the meat), the cost of transporting those products, the overhead of running the physical plant (water, sewage, taxes, electricity, rent, etc) and the cost of paying Billy’s salary.  For all of this to happen, the time it takes Billy to make one burger, deliver it to the customer and ring up the sale, has to be less valuable than the burger itself.  If Billy was hired and only worked long enough to make one burger before being fired, the amount of money he would get paid would not be enough to buy the burger he just made.

Not only is Billy’s work immediately worth less than the product it produces, as he works faster, his labor decreases in value.  Let’s assume that when Billy starts working, he makes twenty cheese burgers an hour and that he is paid an hourly wage of seven dollars.  Over the week, Billy’s productivity increases to forty cheese burgers an hour.  His pay, however, doesn’t go up simply because he is more productive, and, of course, the price of a cheese burger doesn’t go down either.  What does this mean for Billy?  In monetary terms, the value of his labor has decreased.  Who benefits from Billy’s devalued labor?  McDonalds.  As Marx explains,

The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labor not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.

(http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labor.htm)

So, why do workers, like Billy, work at a loss?  Few workers make this unfair exchange simply because they enjoy their work (university professors being one of the notable exceptions).  Instead, workers work so that they can pay for the commodities that they need and want and so that they can fulfil their obligations as family members and citizens.  In other words, they work unwillingly. Again, Marx explains this quite clearly:

[T]he worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labor is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced labor. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is shunned like the plague.  (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labor.htm)

Put in other terms, if Billy could afford everything he wants without working for McDonalds, he would quit tomorrow.  On the other hand, a lucky few of us enjoy our work so much that even if we had the money to retire tomorrow, we would keep on working because our work is “the satisfaction of a need”.

Most workers, however, are alienated through labor on a number of levels.  On the one hand, they are generally not the owners of the products that they produce.  To the extent that they do enjoy the commodities produced, they do so through an uneven exchange of their time and labor for those commodities.  Furthermore, because they grudgingly have to pay through their labor, the time they spend working is no longer their own.  It belongs to someone else.  During the work day, the worker belongs to the corporation or boss that pays him or her.  While there are laws limiting the power of the boss or corporation, the worker is still disempowered.  This helps explain why waiters at some restaurants sing Happy Birthday to customers about whom they don’t know and don’t care.  Beyond that, however, the worker not only produces a commodity, he or she is a commodity.  Customers thus feel that they are not merely entitled to the services or goods for which they are paid, but also to certain form of behavior from the workers providing those services and products.  When businesses say that the customer is always right, they do not mean that the customer is always right in relation to the business but rather in relation to the worker serving the customer.  Of course, in America, every worker is also a consumer of the labor of others.  These daily experiences of consuming others unwilling labor divides workers from other workers.   From Marx’s perspective, all of these experiences create four different types of alienation:

The worker is alienated from his or her essential nature.  He or she works to live instead of living to work.  In other words, he or she begins to lose his or her essential humanity and become machinelike.

The worker is alienated from the product produced by his or her labor.  He or she does not own the product, in some cases can not afford to consume the product and frequently does not have a vested long-term interest in the product.  Usually the worker also does not have much if any personal input into the design of a product.

The worker is alienated from the means of production.  The corporation determines how the product or service will be produced, and the worker has little if any say in these decisions.  These decisions range from where one works to how long one works to even what types of clothing one may wear at work or when one can take a bathroom break.

The worker is alienated from his or her fellow workers.  The only reason why the worker spends any time with his or her coworkers is because they’re all paid to be their working.  Their encounters are artificial interactions brought about by the exchange of capital.  Furthermore, at the workplace, the social relationship that might naturally exist between these individuals is actively discouraged by the demands of production, and the workers find themselves in competition with each other.

By now you should be asking yourself, what does this have to do with Offred and the other handmaids.  You may have noted that in our last post I said that Offred could not be considered an employee of the Commander.  While this remains true—she isn’t an employee—she is very much an alienated laborer. For her and the other Handmaids, their labor consists of going into labor and thus producing the products—children.  These children, of course, are not theirs as becomes evident when the handmaid named Janine gives birth.  The child born by Janine is named by the Wives, because, “It’s the Wives who do the naming, around here” (163).  Indeed, the fact that Janine produces the child, but does not have any claim on the child is further indicated by Offred’s observation that Janine will “be transferred, to see if she can do it again, with someone else who needs a turn” (163).

What Janine’s experience illustrates is that Handmaids are neither lovers, nor mothers.  They are wombs charged with reproducing as many children as they can have.  As Offred explains, “We are for breeding purposes […].  We are two-legged wombs, that’s all:  sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (176).  Significantly, the language Offred uses suggests her role not as a laborer, but as a product.  She has become alienated from her essential humanity.  This transformation from person to product is predicted rather ruthlessly by Aunt Lydia, who is responsible for the indoctrination of the Handmaids.  She tells them, “A think is valued […]only if it is rare and hard to get.  We want you to valued, girls.  […] Think of yourselves as pearls” (145).  While Offred presumably does not see herself as a pearl, she has begun to see herself in utilitarian terms of purpose, instead of seeing herself as individual.  She rationalizes the removal of her identity, “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name which nobody uses now it’s forbidden.  I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter” (108).  Unfortunately for her, the process of becoming a product is not far enough advanced for her quite to believe what she tells us, and she withdraws her assertion as soon as she makes it.

Given the division of labor, and the fact that the Handmaids come to see themselves not simply as producers, but rather products, it is logical that the care of the children produced by these wombs belongs to somebody else.  Products cannot care, after all, for other products.  Someone else must consume the products.  This explains, in part, why Offred’s daughter from her marriage to Luke is taken away from her to be raised by somebody else.  Offred is estranged from the child she has produced.

Through this whole process, it should be noted that while the Handmaids suffer a deterioration from being humans to being product-machines, the infants they produce experience an amelioration from being products to being humans.  Offred’s daughter, placed with a new family, is perhaps viewed as a person in a way that Offred is not.  That said, because Offred’s daughter is a woman, she too will be consumed, either as a Wife, an Econowife, a Martha, or a Handmaid, or she will be disposed of as an Unwoman.

Like Marx’s envisioned workers, Offred is also alienated from the means of production.  Sex occurs when she is most fertile.  Because sex is work, it is not meant to be pleasurable.  Offred notes, “This is not recreation, even for the Commander.  This is serious business.  The Commander, too, is doing his duty” (122).  Indeed, in spite of the apparently “intimate” nature of the relationship between Offred, Serena Joy and the Commander, from very early on Serena Joy informs Offred, “As far as I’m concerned, this is like a business transaction”(21).  The fact that the Commander also sees these sexual encounters as business, not pleasure, is indicated by the fact that he prays for “a blessing, and for success in all our ventures” (117).  Sex is a venture, and from Offred’s description, one that both the Commander and she would prefer to successfully complete as quickly as possible.  For Offred, the possibility of impregnation signifies a brief respite from her work.  She will be well treated during the pregnancy and not be required to perform her duties during the few months following the birth before she is transferred.

Although Offred only benefits in limited terms from any pregnancy, like most workers she has partially consented to the ideology under which she suffers.  She notes to the reader that she is not being raped because “nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed-up for.  There wasn’t a lot of choice, but there was some, and this is what I chose” (121).  She has also bought into the ideology of the Republic of Gilead in as much as she has come to see herself as others see her.  Offred informs us that, “Every month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure.  I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own”  (95).  The sense of failure she expresses, of course, has nothing to do with her own goals and desires.  There is nothing to suggest that she wishes to have a child at this time in her life.  Her life has become not an end of its own, but rather a means to an end, which is precisely how Marx defined the alienating effect of labor.

There is, however, an ironic twist in Offred’s role as “an ambulatory womb”.  Offred’s mother earlier made use of her father in much the same way that Offred is used by the Commander.  Offred remembers her mother saying, “A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women.  Not that your father wasn’t a nice guy and all, but he wasn’t up to fatherhood.  Not that I expected it of him.  Just do the job, then you can bugger off, I said […]”  (155).  The difference between the position of Offred’s unnamed father and herself is perhaps only that he has more options that she does, and agrees to do “the job” because it is something he wants to do.  Like Offred though, he is not expected to be invested in the baby-product that is born as a consequence of his “work”.  If Offred is an ambulatory womb, then her father was, at least from her mother’s point of view, merely an ambulatory penis.  In both cases, the “worker” is alienated on several levels from the process of (re)production.

Continue reading “THE NEW EVE: ALIENATED LABOR IN MARGARET ATWOOD’S “THE HANDMAID’S TALE””

THE ANGEL IN THE HOUSE: THE CULT OF DOMESTICITY IN MARGARET ATWOOD’S “THE HANDMAID’S TALE”

“Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m Through”

– Sylvia Plath

Female characters play a significant role in dystopian literature.  In early dystopian fiction this role has frequently been limited to being the catalyst for rebellious behaviour.  In other words, women provide the initial impetus for characters like D-503, Winston Smith, and John Savage to act.  To a certain extent this pattern is merely an extension of a long tradition in Western literature.  From the Illiad, with its account of heroics inspired by the kidnap of Helen, to the romances of the Middle Ages, with knights going off to rescue damsels in distress, to the more recent tales, like the Star Wars adventure set in motion by the captured Princess Leia, women have long been depicted as providing the motivation for male action.   The Handmaid’s Tale and The Stepford Wives challenge this stereotypical representation of women by making women not the cause of the story, but rather the story itself.  Beyond that, both of these dystopias will suggest that for women, dystopia consists of the construction of a patriarchal-masculinist utopia.  In this first post on The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ll be focussing on providing a feminist understanding of how patriarchy operates in our world.

Dystopian societies in fiction are frequently divided into hierarchical classifications that differentiate between the types of power that each group possesses.  In 1984 and Metropolis these divisions are at least partially modeled on the Marxist categories of workers and owners.  In Brave New World and Gattaca, on the other hand, while there are still the categories of workers and owners (Vincent, in Gattaca, can be interpreted as making the transition from “worker” to “owner”), groups are “scientifically” differentiated according to their biologic and genetic characteristics.  While this latter form of classification may seem further removed from our reality than the class system presupposed by Marxism, the truth is that the oldest and most universal demarcation between those with greater power and those with lesser power is based on whether a person has an XY chromosome and is thus classified as a male, or an XX chromosome, and is classified as a female.

Although there is no natural explanation for why women are routinely disempowered, there can be little debate that being born female in many cultures relegates one to a separate and unequal status.  As Kate Millet notes in her influential book, Sexual Politics:

[A] disinterested examination of our system of sexual relationship must point out that the situation between the sexes now, and throughout history, is a case of that phenomenon Max Weber defined as herrschaft, a relationship of dominance and subordinance.  What goes largely unexamined, often even unacknowledged (yet is institutionalized nonetheless) in our social order, is the birthright priority whereby males rule females.  Through this system a most ingenious form of “interior colonization” has been achieved.  It is one which tends moreover to be sturdier than any form of segregation, and more rigorous than class stratification, more uniform, more enduring.  However muted its present appearance may be, sexual dominion remains nevertheless as perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power (Millet 1972, 24-25, italics mine).

 

The absence of any “natural” justification for this subordination of women is commented on by the philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, who argues in her book The Second Sex,

One is not born, but becomes a woman.  No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society:  it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine. (1952, 249)

What does she mean by this claim?  She means that while the presence or absence of certain sexual organs may be defined by genetics, the way one is treated because of the presence or absence of those sexual organs is culturally determined.  One is born male or female (in her opinion), but one becomes a man or a woman because of culture.  This perhaps helps clarify why our culture has terms like “girly men” and “manly women”.  People so labeled have not “become” entirely what is expected of them.

Put another way, as feminist theorist Elaine Showalter points out, “gender is not only a question of difference, which assumes that sexes are separate and equal; but of power, since in looking at the history of gender relations, we find sexual asymmetry, inequality, and male dominance in every known society” (1989, 4).  Thus, according to de Beauvoir, Millet, Showalter and other feminists, the discrepancies that exist between men and women in terms of power are not—contrary to what readers of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus might believe—natural,  but rather social; not innate, but rather constructed.

Although there is nothing natural about the limitations placed on women, western societies have worked to rationalize the inequities of the gender system by appealing to “natural law”.  As feminist critic, Monique Wittig explains,

The ideology of sexual difference functions as censorship in our culture by masking on the ground of nature, the social opposition between men and women.  Masculine/feminine, male/female are the categories which serve to conceal the fact that social differences always belong to an economic, political, ideological order. (Wittig 1992, 2)

In other words, the terms male and female become a means of obfuscating the fact that women are frequently denied the rights granted men.  The fact that more women don’t protest this unfair treatment is not surprising.    As the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu points out,

Being included, as a man or woman, in the object that we are trying to comprehend, we have embodied the historical structures of the masculine order in the form of unconscious schemes of perception and appreciation.  When we try to understand masculine domination we are therefore likely to resort to modes of thought that are the product of domination.  […]  The dominated apply categories constructed from the point of view of the dominant to the relations of domination, thus making them appear as natural (Bourdieu 2001, 5, 35)

In simple terms, women (and men) have been conditioned to accept the inequities between the sexes.  As, Huxley would say, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do.  All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny”(1989, 15).  Atwood provides a slightly different take on conditioning by noting the human capacity to adjust to the demands of society.  Her character, Aunt Lydia, informs the women she is educating that “Ordinary […] is what you are used to.  This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will.  It will become ordinary” (45).  In the case of gender differences, society both works to make the social destiny of men and women seem inescapable and, at the same time, natural and preferable.  In other words, the gender roles we’ve been assigned since birth have become “ordinary”.

Atwood pictureMargaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a future American society, the Republic of Gilead, which has returned to “traditional values” and thus cost women many of the freedoms that they gained during the 20th century (9).  The patriarchal nature of this society is indicated by the fact that women are distributed to the men.  The dictum upon which this distribution is based is summed up in the slogan of the Republic of Gilead, “From each […] according to her ability:  to each according to his need” (151).  Women are judged only by their abilities at fulfilling certain social functions.  They are never to be the recipients of the abilities that they and others possess.  Men, by contrast, are judged only according to their need and are always the recipients.

Not all men, of course, benefit equally from this distribution of women. When Offred, the protagonist, first encounters her Commander’s chauffer, Nick, for example, she notes that he is of “[l]ow status:  he hasn’t been issued a woman, not one.  He doesn’t rate;  some defect, lack of connections” (24).  The fact that Nick is judged not to need, or warrant, a wife, is consistent with the inequitable distribution of power in our society.  As Arthur Brittan has observed, “Although a large number of men may benefit from patriarchy and heterosexualism, this does not mean that they all benefit equally; similarly, not all women are equally oppressed” (1989, 139).

The status of each of the women available for distribution is indicated by the nomenclature used in the Republic of Gilead.  Each of the handmaids, along with being given the Biblical title of handmaid, is also given a temporary title that indicates her relationship to the man who own her.  Consequently, the protagonist is called Offred because her owner is Fred.  Once she is transferred, her title will change to match her new owner.  Similarly, other women, who belong to different social groups also have different titles, all of which are indicative of their relative positions in society.  The women who are married to the Commanders are called “Wives”.  The consistent capitalization of this title signals that the word “Wife” means more in the Republic of Gilead than it does in our society.  A Wife is not simply a married woman—she is a woman who is allowed to marry, unlike the other women in society.

On a lower station from the Wives who are married to the Commanders are the Econowives, who are married to lesser men.  The Econowives, as Offred explains, “are not divided into functions.  They have to do everything; if they can” (32).  Beneath these multipurpose wives are the handmaids, who are responsible for reproduction and the female servants, or Marthas, who are responsible for the housework.  In addition to Aunt Jemimathese women, who are clearly connected to specific households, if only on a temporary basis, there are also the Aunts, who have the responsibility for educating and indoctrinating the handmaids.  The title of “Aunt” works on two specific levels.  On the one hand, it is suggestive of an older, wiser, family member, someone whom the handmaids are meant to admire and turn to for advice.  On the other hand, the title evokes the use of the word “aunt” as part of the history of slavery in the United States.

Throughout the story, the relationship of Offred to her Commander remains obscure.  The initial relationship is not, technically, sexual, although they do have sex.  Offred describes a sexual encounter between him and her in the Ceremony in these terms:

The red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher.  Below it the Commander is fucking.  What he is fucking is the lower part of my body.  I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing.  Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved.  Nor does rape cover it:  nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for.  There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.  (121)

Consequently, she is not—until later in the story—his mistress (210).  As the relationship is established in the beginning, she cannot be a mistress.  The word mistress presupposes a woman involved in a  sustained intimate relationship with a married man whose wife is typically either ignorant of the affair, or who, if she is aware of it, disapproves of the affair.  The relationship between the Commander and Offred is clearly not intimate, even in a sexual sense, nor is it even particularly enjoyable for either of the parties involved.  As Offred explains, from the Commander’s perspective, “The sexual act, although he performed it in a perfunctory way, must have been largely unconscious for him, like scratching himself” (207).  Offred’s experience of the sexual act is also distant.  She objectively records that,

What is going on in this room, under Serena Joy’s silvery canopy, is not exciting.  It has nothing to do with passion or love or romance or any of those other notions we used to titillate ourselves with.  It has nothing to do with sexual desire, at least for me, and certainly not for Serena.  Arousal and orgasm are no longer thought necessary; they would be a symptom of frivolity merely, like jazz garters or beauty spots: superfluous distractions for the light-minded.  (122).

Not only is the act devoid of all passion, the act is done with the permission of the Wife, Serena Joy, and indeed, occurs with Offred’s head lying on Serena Joy’s lap.  These facts alone make it evident that Offred is not intended as a mistress for the Commander.  In any event, lest there should be any confusion about her role, Offred disabuses the reader of the “fantasy” of the kept woman:

We are for breeding purposes:  we aren’t concubines, geisha girls, courtesans.  On the contrary:  everything possible has been done to remove us from that category.  There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts; no special favors to be wheedled, by them or us, there are to be no toeholds for love.  We are two-legged wombs, that’s all:  sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices (176).

Offred is not, then, a prostitute or kept woman.   She is not the Commander’s employee, for she receives no wages and can never quit her duties to the Commander.  As the slogan, “From each […] according to her ability:  to each according to his need” suggests, there is no question of her being compensated for fulfilling the Commander’s needs (151).  Of course she can refuse to fulfill her role as a handmaid, but to do so risks exile to the colonies.

Offred is not family either, although the social group to which she, the Wife, the Marthas and the Commander belong is meant to resemble a family.  Indeed, during her earlier indoctrination, Aunt Lydia explains,

For the generations that come after […] it will be so much better.  The women will live in harmony together, all in one family; you will be like daughters to them, and when the population level is up to scratch again we’ll no longer have to transfer you from one house to another because there will be enough to go round.  There can be bonds of real affection […] under such conditions.  Women united for a common end!  Helping one another in their daily chores as they walk the path of life together, each performing her appointed task.  Why expect one woman to carry out all the functions necessary to the serene running of a household?  It isn’t reasonable or humane.  Your daughters will have greater freedom.  (209-210, italics mine)    

Although the future envisioned by Aunt Lydia is one of family, even she is uncertain of how this family will be constituted, for while the handmaids “will be like daughters”, they clearly won’t be daughters of the families to which they are assigned.  In any event, Offred’s membership in the family is undercut by the fact that she will be reassigned as soon as she has performed her duty to the Commander’s family by producing a child.

The relationship then, that Offred has to the Commander is one of property to owner.  Early on, when her society begins the transition to the Republic of Gilead, Offred’s friend, Moira, tells her, “Women can’t hold property anymore.  […]  It’s a new law” (231).  The reason, of course, why women cannot own property is because they are themselves property.  Logically, property cannot own property, or hold down a job, or have any of the freedoms granted to a citizen.  Offred is keenly aware of the fact that all women are property in the Republic of Gilead.  Reflecting on the structure of her little community, she muses,

I wait, for the household to assemble.  Household:  that is what we are.  The Commander is the head of the household.  The house is what he holds.  To have and to hold, till death do us part.

            The hold of a ship.  Hollow.  (103-104).

The hold of a ship conjures for the reader the image of the hold of a slave ship.  To a certain extent, though, Offred is even less than a slave, whose freedom is tacitly stripped away.  She explains, “I wait.  I compose myself.  My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech.  What I must present is a made thing, not something born” (86).  To place this again in Simone de Beauvoir’s famous phrasing, “One is not born, but becomes a woman” (1952, 249).  Offred has become a womb.

Works Cited.

De Beauvoir, Siomone.  1952.  The Second Sex.  New York:  Bantam.

Bourdieu, Pierre.  2001.  Masculine Domination.  Trans.  Richard Nice,  Cambridge:  Polity Press.

Brittan, Arthur.  1989.  Masculinity and Power.  Oxford:  Basil Blackwell.

Millett, Kate.  1972.  Sexual Politics.  London:  Abacus.

 

Showalter, Elaine.  1989.  Introduction:  The Rise of Gender.  In Speaking of Gender.  New York:  Routledge, pp. 1-16.

 

Wittig, Monique.  1992.  The Straight Mind and Other Essays. New York:  Harvester.

 

 

Life Under the Bell Jar: Surveillance and the New World Order in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” II

From a distance we are instruments
Marching in a common band
Playing songs of home, playing songs of peace
They’re the songs of every man
God is watching us, God is watching us
God is watching us from a distance

– “From a Distance” as sung by Bette Midler

Welcome to my third post on dystopian literature.  In this post, we’re going to begin by examining the religious imagery in We.  A casual reader of Zamyatin’s We, might at first conclude that religious imagery and religious themes play a limited and insignificant role in the novel.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Indeed, while Zamyatin’s novel is set in a secular, post-revolutionary, rationalist society, much like the one envisioned by Soviet communists, religion remains a significant, apparently indestructible frame of reference for D-503 and the other citizens of the One State.  The survival of religious imagery in a state officially dedicated to reason and the elimination of the imagination is surprising, and can perhaps only be explained by either assuming that humans are endowed with an inherent sense of religious awe (the religion gene, if you will) or that the One State fosters a secular form of religion because faith in the state is necessary to the continuation of the state.

A Historical Case for the Existence of Secular Religions

We need to ask, is a secular religion even feasible?  While the term secular religion seems, at first glance, an oxymoron, further consideration of the history of communism as it was practiced in the Soviet Union suggests that there are a number of shared features between communism and traditional Christianity.  While Christians seek salvation from sin, Communists seek salvation from class warfare and social injustice.  Both Christians and Communists believe that history will eventually end.  Christians envision this end to history occurring when Christ comes to reclaim the earth and establish his kingdom.  Communists, following the writings of Marx, argue that after an intense class struggle, a new classless society will be formed.  Because class conflict, which Marxists consider the engine of history, will have stopped, history will also cease.  Christian and Communist leaders alike have frequently made the case that sacrifices and suffering now are necessary to the attainment of either the Kingdom of Heaven or the workers’ paradise.  Christians often speak of the unity of Christians, and Christian leaders frequently exhort their followers to act like brothers in Christ.  Communists believe in the unity of the workers, and of course, Karl Marx famously ended his Communist Manifesto with the phrase “Workers of the world unite”.  Just as some Christians venerate saints and decorate their homes with icons and statures, so, too, Soviet Communists venerated Lenin and Stalin and decorated their own homes with the pictures and statues of revolutionary heroes.  Pilgrims from both faiths frequently make visits to the tombs of their fallen leaders.  Both Christians and Communists have texts that they refer to for guidance and which they believe provides insight into future events:  the Bible for Christians and Das Kapital for Communists.  Communism, of course, is not the only secular movement to adapt and assimilate religious imagery.  Nazism, with its pomp and circumstance also contained major religious motifs.   For an example of this religious imagery in action, examine the picture of Hitler to the left.

Hitler as MessiahIn particular, note the “heavenly light” surrounding Hitler and the bird, possibly a dove or eagle, above him.  The bird is a common motif in Christian artwork, where it symbolizes the descent of the Holy Spirit.

Lest you should think that I only see how religious iconography is co-opted by anti-religious states to foster a secular state religion, let me share some personal examples of how religious imagery is used for better or worse to develop our American identity.

A couple of years ago I told my then Spanish flat-mate about “The Pledge of Allegiance”.  His eyes grew large as I described children in schools across America, hands on their hearts, facing the flag each morning, chanting in unison.  When I finished, he said, “So it’s like you have an entire army of small children.”  I explained to him that the function of “The Pledge of Allegiance” was not to turn little children into a miniature militia or “uber patriots”.  My response rings hollow even now.  What precisely did we mean when we said:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag

Of the United States of America

And to the Republic, for which it stands,

One nation, under God,

With liberty and justice for all.

Amen?

What exactly is entailed by this oath of “allegiance”?  In other words, what are we agreeing to?  More specifically, what are we promising about our attitudes and our behavior  in relationship to the flag and the nation?  Does such an oath bind us to support every war that our country engages in, even if we question the morality of that war?  What about that “one nation, under God” bit?  How can we be sure that our nation is under God?  Does this statement presume that we and our nation are more important to God than other people and other nations?  If so, why us instead of them?  Does our assertion that we belong to one nation mean that we’re going to all give up our differences, and act as one?  Are atheists, who don’t believe in God, part of this one nation?  Is an oath identifying a God they don’t believe in any way binding for atheists?  It has to be noted here that the phrase “one nation, under God” was added during the Cold War specifically to differentiate “God-fearing” Americans from the “ungodly” Communists.  What are we to make of the final ringing “With liberty and justice for all”?  Are we to assume that that “One nation, under God”, actually does provide “liberty and justice for all”?  It seems hardly likely in a nation where more black men are in prison than at college, and where competent women still hold substantially fewer powerful positions in society, and are paid less than their male counterparts.  What limits our ideal goal of liberty and justice for all?  Should we take an oath swearing to support a nation that is supposed to provide “liberty and justice for all”, but will never be able to achieve that Utopian ideal?  But of course, the Oath of Allegiance is not meant to be analyzed, any more that the unanimous elections held in the One State are meant to be analyzed.  Both are symbolic gestures that speak to our (unanalyzed) position as members of the community.  Both gestures indicate that the state is dependent upon, and yet more important than the individual.

An earlier memory from my childhood comes to mind.  My father, brother and I are in our car traveling across the US, listening to a Christian song.  The song begins by telling of a statue in New York harbor that represents freedom to the world.  The singer’s voice swells to proclaim, “I’m so proud to be called an American.  To be named with the brave and the free….”  The theme changes slightly.  There is a cross on a hill called Calvary.  The singer is proud to be known as a Christian, to be named with the redeemed.  What could be better, I ask you, than this fortunate combination of church and state?  Who could not be proud of being both an American and a Christian?  I was fifteen at the time and was uncritical of this particular equation of being Christian and American.

My identification with Christianity may have even been stronger than my identification with my nation, though they were so closely intertwined that it is difficult to separate them.  I remember quite clearly as a child singing and marching to a song that went:

I’m too young to

march in the infantry

ride in the cavalry

Shoot the artillery

I’m too young to

Fly over the enemy,

But I’m in the Lord’s army.

Yes, Sir!…

This song presents faith, one could argue, both in terms of a modern military and in terms of an unquestioning patriotism.  Similarly, this combination of faith, militarism and patriotism is evident in an email I received on the eve of the war with Iraq:

Subject: PRAY BEFORE IT STARTS A torch has been lit today to be passed along to your e-mail friends…asking them to pass it along….and along….and along. We can do something about the threat of war; both in Iraq and with terrorists. In the Old Testament, God’s armies were always led by the priests. When the waters parted in the Jordan, it was the priests’ feet which first hit the turbulent river. In the New Testament, Christians are also referred to as priests…all Christians. We must, therefore, go in first. As the possibility of war approaches with Hussein and Iraq, we are asking the priests to step in first…..ahead of our military. Let us be setting up camp for our soldiers’ entrance into the conflict. How? By prayer. Let us be sending in “prayer missiles,” “cruise and scud prayers” to target enemy plans. “Patriot prayers” to shoot down incoming threats. We should be praying for two things: (1) that the enemy leaders become confused, disoriented, and distrustful of each other; that their entire system of attack fall apart, and (2) that in God’s wildest ways, these enemies would become aware of His deep love for them and the war Jesus has already fought for them, personally, on the cross. God had Gideon reduce his army from 32,000 to 300 men. He then equipped them with nothing but trumpets, pitchers, and torches. What an odd combination to fight off well-armed soldiers. When Gideon gave the command, the Bible says the enemy fled crying and turned on each other…all because God messed with enemy plans. Prayers were started for this about a month ago. On CNN last weekend a report came out that although Hussein has nothing to lose, his generals do. Is confusion beginning to develop? Please pray for God to set the stage for defeat of all those who intend to do harm. When our men and women of uniform arrive on the scene, may they be surprised at how God had camp set up before they ever got there. Would you please do two things? (1) pray, and (2) pass this along to those you know will pray. May we build an e-mail army of over a million in force…beginning with you.

In light of these examples, it is possible to argue that religious imagery plays an important part in shoring up every social structure, even those (perhaps especially those) which claim to be secular.

Perhaps the function of religion in the One State is to establish faith in the absolute truth of the governing ideology.  The success of this imagery is evidenced by D-503’s refusal to question the ideology of the One State.  Even when he admits his own rather innocent crimes, he does so without any hint that the One State might be to blame.  Instead, when he envisions the possibility that O-90 might betray him, he decides that,

In my last moment I shall piously and gratefully kiss the punishing hand of the Benefactor.  Suffering punishment is my right in relation to the One State, and I will not yield this right.  We, the numbers of our State, should not, must not give up this right—the only, and therefore the most precious, right that we possess. (Zamyatin 1972, 114-115).

This right—which D-503 a little further recognizes does not exist, numbers can have no rights—is premised on the proposition that the One State is always right and the offending number always wrong.  The religious nature of the punishment is made clear earlier, when D-503, watching an execution notes:

According to the descriptions that have come down to us, something similar was experienced by the ancients during their “religious services”.  But they worshiped their own irrational, unknown God; we serve our rational and precisely know one.  Their God gave them nothing except eternal tormenting searching; their God had not been able to think of anything more sensible than offering himself as sacrifice for some incomprehensible reason.  We, on the other hand, offer a sacrifice to our God, the One State—a calm, reasoned, sensible sacrifice.  Yes, this was our solemn liturgy to the One State, a remembrance of the awesome time of trial, of the Two Hundred Years’ War, a grandiose celebration of the victory of all over one, of the sum over the individual.  (Zamyatin 1972, 45-46).

The function of these public executions is not merely to intimidate citizens; the executions also serve to bind the individual citizens into a community.  The citizens become accomplices to the State terror, and naturally they must justify their actions and inactions by agreeing to the fiction that the State is always right.

On another level, a state religion / ideology is an extremely powerful tool for defining “Truth”.  As the philosopher Michel Foucault has noted,

Truth is a thing of this world:  it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.  And it induces regular effects of power.  Each society has its régime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth:  that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish between true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.  (1980b, 131)

In the One State, these highly publicized state religious performances are among the mechanisms used to distinguish between true and false statements, ideas and practices.

Along with using religious imagery as an instrument of control in his fictitious society, Zamyatin also seems to be using the novel as a religious allegory.  D-503—enclosed in the safety of the Green Wall, watched over by the Guardians, whom he compares to archangels, obedient to the Table of Hours, watched and judged by the Benefactor—is a type of Adam.  Like Adam, D-503 is seduced by a woman, I-330, who introduces him both to illicit sexual activity and to critical thought.  The destruction of the Green Wall invites comparison to Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden.  Even the name of the rebels, the Mephi, is a reference to Mephistopheles, a demon who offers knowledge and power to the legendary Dr. Faust. What Zamyatin is providing then is a parable of the fall of man.  Unlike the author of the Genesis account, however, Zamyatin’s sympathies lie with the rebels.  For him, God / the Benefactor, is a tyrant who deprives people of their freedom and individuality.  So important is this idea of freedom that Zamyatin has I-330 explain that revolutions against authority must be infinite (1972, 174-177).  In other word, each time a revolution has succeeded and established itself as an omniscient authority, the citizens must once again revolt.  This call to constant revolution on the part of Zamyatin is echoed in his essays.  Indeed, in his essay “Tomorrow”, he notes,

“The world is kept alive only by heretics: the heretic Christ, the heretic Copernicus, the heretic Tolstoy. Our symbol of faith is heresy…”.  We is Zamyatin’s contribution to this “heresy”.

Continue reading “Life Under the Bell Jar: Surveillance and the New World Order in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” II”