Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

1984: Liberal Politics in a Post-Human World

Many professionals in other fields feel that literature has much to teach us about ourselves and about the society we live in. In Black Sun, Lacanian psychotherapist and linguist Julia Kristeva utilizes literature by Gerard de Nerval, Dostoyevky, and Marguerite Duras, among others, to talk about female melancholia. Political writer and literary critic Irving Howe writes about Solzhenitsyn, Andre Malraux, and George Orwell to talk about politics and the novel. Philosopher Richard Rorty also discusses the writings of Orwell in addition to Proust and Nabokov as well as a number of literary theoreticians such as Derrida and Nietzsche. By looking at a writer like George Orwell through the eyes of Richard Rorty and Irving Howe, we can see just how necessary literature is in its ability to show us aspects of where our society and government may go if we are not careful. Orwell's 1984 is a cautionary tale about what it means to lose our humanity and how stripping away our language contributes to that loss of humanity.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, books like Pamela by Samuel Richardson or Julie by Jean-Jacques Rousseau were said to strengthen our ability for truly inclusive democracy by teaching us to empathize with people different from us, in these cases, men empathizing with women. Literature has changed, however, in the 20th and 21st centuries. With mechanized warfare and now with technology that could not have even been imagined in earlier centuries, novels have changed to reflect a very different social reality. The early 20th century saw the perversion of the revolutions in Russia followed by what we now commonly refer to as the “horrors of World War II” and many writers in the post-war era were rightfully disheartened and cynical. Theodor Adorno asked if it was even possible, ethically, to write poetry after Auschwitz, saying ultimately that it was, indeed, barbaric that poetry was still necessary. Adorno says that suffering, “demands the continued existence of art while it prohibits it; it is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it” (8). In the midst of all of these discussions about what had happened and what might happen, came George Orwell's most famous novels, Animal Farm and
1984, a fable and a cautionary tale, both focused on democracy betrayed.

One of the major aspects of democracy is the concept of the self. Literary and political critic Irving Howe wrote that ”the idea of a personal self, which for us has become an indispensable assumption of existence . . . [is] a cultural idea” (178). Growing as it did out of the liberal era, “it is susceptible to historical growth and decline and may also be susceptible to historical destruction” (178). Arthur Mizener describes

Orwell himself as a result of the cultural/liberal idea(1) of the human, saying that Orwell represents

“the great liberal tradition of western civilization at its best, the informed, sceptical [sic], compassionate mind, able to use the insights of any doctrine without fanaticism, completely unaffected by the lure of submission to cheap creeds . . .” (687)

At least one strain of literature was emerging, that of science fiction and dystopian fiction, focusing not on the positive, on empathy for other humans as an important part of the democratic mindset. In dystopian novels the focus was on cautionary tales of ways that we might end up losing our selves and our humanity. Rorty further echoes this when he says that while Orwell “was not the first to suggest that small groups of criminals might get control of modern states and thanks to modern technology, stay in control forever” that he was the first to ask how intellectuals would deal with a situation where “it had become clear that liberal ideals had no relation to a possible human future”(171). Howe takes it a step further, saying that “Orwell is trying to present the kind of world in which individuality has become obsolete and personality a crime [emphasis mine]” (189). “The whole idea of the self as something precious and inviolable is a cultural idea and as we understand it, a product of the liberal era,” which presumably, in the world of 1984, is now over.

Richard Rorty talks about Orwell as being “of his time” and in fact quotes Howe as well, saying that “Orwell is one of those writers 'who live most significantly for their own age'” (169). But ask anyone who has read 1984 for the first time, and they will tell you it is as true now as it was in 1948. 1984 was one of those novels on the cutting edge of what we now call “dystopian” literature, which abounds plentifully in science fiction. There are a number of novels that are not read much anymore except for their historical significance, but I think it is wrong to place 1984 among those just yet. And in fact, Rorty himself is quick to say that “his description of our political situation remains as useful as any we possess” (170). Rorty talks about Orwell's “earlier warnings against the greedy and stupid conservatives together with his warnings against the communist oligarchs” (170), but what makes 1984 such an enduring model is the stranglehold that both technology and language hold over our society now more than ever. We are closer to the Orwell's world with our 24/7 news media, with media outlets that cannot be trusted, and with advertising language that tells us what is hot is cold, what is up is down, ignorance is strength, war is peace, freedom is slavery.

Orwell's “Politics and the English Language” is frequently seen as the essay in which Orwell was working on a theory of language that would influence, if not become, Newspeak in 1984 . Philip Rahv says that “Newspeak is nothing less than a plot against human consciousness . . . to reduce the range of thought through the destruction of words” (182). In “Politics and the English Language” Orwell talks about the way the language becomes dull and flat and in doing so, makes us not only duller and flatter ourselves, but makes us indifference to the actual perversion of language. This is a form of contracting the language, as in Newspeak, and limiting our own range of language and therefore thought. He writes, for example, about dead metaphors that cease to have any meaning, pretentious diction, abstract words, which he calls meaningless words, like democracy, patriotic, realistic, justice. These are words that have no objective referent (146). Orwell is against what he calls “ready-made phrases” (147) suggesting instead that an ethical writer will ask himself “is this image fresh enough to have an effect” (148). If it can't have an effect, it can't produce thought in either the writer or the reader. Orwell then uses these examples to talk specifically about political speech, saying, for example, that “a comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism cannot say outright ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results in doing so.’” He must instead say:

While freely conceding that the soviet regime exhibits certain features with the humanitarian may be inclined to deport, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavaoidable concomitant of transnational periods and . . . “

By inuring ourselves to ugly language that says nothing, we will be that much desensitized to ugly convoluted language that actually says horrible things, justifies cruelty. Collateral damage and acceptable losses come to mind.

George Kateb describes the way in which all of this can be rationalized in the name of group identity (8), which in 1984 must be preserved at all costs. “The group is a we [emphasis his]” Kateb says, “an incorporated self that is oneself enlarged to include everyone else or that is oneself and everyone else diminished” (8). We can think, here, of the “two-minute hate” that occurs everyday in Oceania against one of the other two countries in the world of 1984. It doesn't matter which country they are currently fighting against and thus currently hating. What is important is to maintain the group identity by having an enemy to hate. Kateb talks about “the preservation of group identity through group pride and xenophobia” (8). Kateb is concerned with morality and the world of 1984 is decidedly immoral. Rahv reminds us that “‘Doublethink’ is drilled into the Party members, which consists of the willingness to assert that black is white when the Party demands it and een to believe that black is white, while at the same time knowing very well that nothing of the sort can be true” (182). Few of the workers in 1984 have the conscience or consciousness, let alone the language, to express any kind of disagreement with the official policies that they live under. Kateb tells us that “aesthetic motives help to animate the pursuit of ideals . . . that are loved more than morality of are so loved that the moral const does not break into consciousness with any force” (11). The “two minutes hate” is an aesthetic practice that leads to group identity, much like cheerleading to urge on your team. To challenge the “two minutes hate” would not only damage moral, but would also constitute a thoughtcrime. As Rahv says, the goal of restricting language is make “thoughtcrime literally impossible because there will be no words in which to express it” (qtd in Rahv, 182). It is literally unthinkable.

Rorty further echoes this when he says that while Orwell “was not the first to suggest that small groups of criminals might get control of modern states and thanks to modern technology, stay in control forever” that he was the first to ask how intellectuals would deal with a situation where “it had become clear that liberal ideals had no relation to a possible human future”(171). Howe takes it a step further, saying that “ Orwell is trying to present the kind of world in which individuality has become obsolete and personality a crime [emphasis mine]” (189). “The whole idea of the self as something precious and inviolable is a cultural idea and as we understand it, a product of the liberal era,” which presumably, in the world of 1984, is now over.

So what role does the novel have to play if we are indeed at the end of a liberal era where we are not talking about the individual self anymore, but instead are talking about being “post-human?” Does being post-human mean that we have lost empathy, lost our humanity? In “History as Nightmare,” Irving Howe talks about the way that “Orwell has imagined a world in which the self . . . is no longer a significant value, not even a value to be violated.” Like 18th century novels, Rorty contends that Orwell, among other things, means to create or at least remind us of, our humanity, of our ability to empathize with others.

Works Cited
Adorno, Theodor. “On Commitment.” Trans. Francis McDonagh. Acessed April 10, 2009.
Howe, Irving. “The Fiction of Anti-Utopia,” The Orwell Reader: Text, Sources, Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1963.
Howe, Irving. “Orwell: History as Nightmare.” The Orwell Reader: Text, Sources, Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1963.
Kateb, George. “Aestheticism and Morality: Their Cooperation and Hostility,” Political Theory, vol 28, no 1, Feb. 2000, pp. 5-37.
Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. New York: Columbia University Press,1989.
Mizener, Arthur. “Truth Maybe, Not Fiction.” The Kenyon Review, vol. 11, no. 4, 1949, pp. 685–688. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4333102.
Orwell, George. 1984. The Orwell Reader: Text, Sources, Criticism. Ed. Irving Howe. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1963.
Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language,” The Orwell Reader: Text, Sources, Criticism. Ed. Irving Howe. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1963.
Rahv, Philip. “The Un-future of Utopia,” The Orwell Reader: Text, Sources, Criticism. Ed. Irving Howe. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1963.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

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