Wednesday, 20 February 2008

George Orwell and 1984

Here is my presentation notes on 1984 andOrwell, apologies that it was not distributed sooner.



A quick bit on Orwell:

Born 1903 and lived until 1950, when he died of the tuberculosis that plagued him throughout the writing of 1984, which was his last novel. – indeed, it is often remarked that personal problems such as the death of his wife, sister and his ill health (all in the late 1940s, and book was published in 1949) account for the rather pessimist tone of the satire, that is out of character when compared with Orwell’s previous work.

Key influences: H.G. Wells and Zamyatin’s ‘we’, who he wrote several critical articles about in his professions as a novelist, journalist and literary critic: therefore, some interaction with earlier dystopian tradition – Aldous Huxley was his French tutor at Eton – that's quite interesting, I guess.

Perhaps the most important consideration about Orwell is his left-wing political leanings: Orwell himself in later life described himself as a democratic Socialist, which can be seen in direct opposition to Stalinist Communism, which he experienced first hand whilst fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was a supporter of revolutionary socialists rather than the Spanish Communist Party’s ploy to come to a coalition with the bourgeois parties, and their later brutal suppression of anarcho-syndicalist communes under Soviet influence hardened Orwell’s opposition to authoritarian Stalinism.

This leads into:

1984 as a critique of Stalinism:

Bearing in mind the temporal and personal context of the novel, it is clear that the text has often between portrayed as more of an explicit critique of Stalinism than as a piece directed specifically at aspects of the Utopian tradition. However, this appears to take a largely satirical form, taking developments occurring in contemporary Stalinist Russia and postulating possible situations in which they are taken to their ‘logical conclusions’ as Orwell put it. For example, the treatment of Goldstein mirrors closely the demonisation of Trotsky, but to a point in which it no longer discredits him, but acts as an emotional means of forging links in society, in the form of the two minute’s hate. In this manner, these purely provide examples of elites in totalitarian societies utilising techniques such as these to produce orthodoxy, as it has been argued that such methods as informers in the family mirror Nazism as well as Communism, and that scapegoating and the forced recanting of dissenting ideas before execution as mirroring medieval Catholicism.

(1984 does not deny the emotional power of the family, but the Party do intend to channel emotional bonds of this kind to central government through the use of Big Brother - equally, unlike Huxley, Orwell's dystopia retains the family as a means of controlling members of the Party through informants; thus the power of the state is so complete that it is even present in areas that other dystopias deal with by elimination)

In this sense, it can be argued this text is as interested in all totalitarian developments, not just limited to Stalinism. Such thinking is vindicated by Orwell’s own experiences, as his first-hand view of totalitarianism in the Spanish civil war is often seen as accounting for much of the violent imagery (ie boot stamping on a persons face from O’Brien).

Goldstein’s book itself appears to provide examples that ground the text in the contextual framework of a critique of Stalinism as a corruption of more the Utopian socialist values held by Orwell himself: Goldstein contends that totalitarianism stemmed largely from greater human awareness of the nature of society and social trends, but that this development coincided with the related possibility of genuine socialist ideas of the rejection of material inequality and the existing class structures portrayed as the ‘high, middle and low’. Therefore, this sets out to portray the development of totalitarianism governments (which in turn transformed into the political structures present in 1984) as dystopian alternatives that sprung up when positive social change was beginning to appear possible.

Critique of Present:

In addition to this, it can also be seen as encompassing explicit critiques of political and social developments in this country (ie post-war misery) and ideas about an idealised past akin to William Morris. This is shown both in developments in the novel and Orwell’s life – for instance the heavily glorified and pure description of Julia and Winston’s trip to the countryside, away from the depressing environs of the city clearly mirrors Orwell’s move from London to the Outer Hebrides to complete the book as his health deteriorated.

Equally, it is telling that Orwell set it in London rather than an existing totalitarian state: this serves two purposes:
1) to draw parallels between the drudgery of post-war existence (esp. in context of his own personal problems) and thedystopian vision;
2) To create a warning as much as a critique – Orwell himself was quoted as saying that setting (London) was motivated by his aim to highlight his fear that this society could occur not only in current totalitarian states, but even in states with democratic traditions such as Britain. This reflects Bellamy – his social organisation is meant to appear achievable in the US, and so retains many recognisable American institutions (such as the Supreme Court) - Orwell does the same, but the purpose is reversed – to make a dystopian future believable, and thus to warn against it, rather than to spur people on to try and achieve it.


On of the most prominent themes prevalent in the dystopian future presented in Nineteen-Eighty Four is that of language, and in the particular the ways in which the state attempt to utilise the perceived links between language and reality as a means of affecting the ways in which people form ideas and reactions to the rigidly imposed political and social system they find themselves in.

This is explored extensively in the state programme of ‘Newspeak’, an attempt to create an artificial language that would actively prevent its speakers from not only expressing but formulating ideas contrary to the official party line: this has a very prominent place in the text, as the hypothetical concept is practically established as an appendix to the novel.

This appears to have many contextual links with Modern Literary theory, especially the work of Whorf: that reality itself is a linguistic construct, and one that fundamentally influences our perception of events. This is also seen as a common thread with varying dystopian pieces of writing, as Walter Meyers believes this provides a key area of contrast between dystopian and eutopian creations, with the former (eutopias) favouring a regimented attitude to language, and the latter (dystopias) a belief in allowing linguistic freedom within which language can develop. This provides a key point of contrast between this and previous works we have studied on this course:

For example, there is a clear engagement with the issue of language in many works, with More’s Utopia and Gulliver’s travels being prominent examples. However, these approach language in subtly different ways: in Utopia and in the varying lands of Gulliver’s travels, languages and the ways in which inhabitants speak are utilised as reflections on the already established natures of the speaker, rather than as active constituent factors in the shaping of society.

This appears to link well with the idea of the role of human design over divine providence that appears to run through all Utopian thought: in the first extract (Chapter One of Goldstein’s book), the development of the totalitarian states are equated to a growth in the understanding of cyclical social conflicts, and greater human understanding of psychology and language clearly plays a key role in the development of ‘Newspeak’. Seen in this manner, it appears that the treatment of language in 1984 (as opposed to earlier utopian works) appears inextricably linked with this idea of intellectual human developments (rather ironically).

Technology and Progress:

As with varying other modern dystopian visions, such as Huxley’s Brave New World, there also appears to be a great emphasis on the possibilities presented by technological development. In such a way, it can be interpreted to be a presentation of the dystopian possibilities of developments of certain technologies, as compared to previous Utopian visions of science such as in Bacon’s New Atlantis or in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Much of this is presented in the State’s utilisation of technology as a means of keeping tabs on members of the inner party – the two way control of the telescreens provide the central party with a form of personal surveillance that was impossible even within systems of control that 1984 self-consciously mirrors, such as the Medieval Catholic church. Indeed, in extract 1, Goldstein’s book places great emphasis on the role of technology in allowing such unfettered state control to occur, and this links well with the idea of greater understanding of social dynamics allowing the Party to break from natural cycles of social conflict. Equally, this break from any conception of the individual and private sphere also appears to be reinforced by the telescreens, as the lack of any privacy at any time can be seen as a social tool to reinforce state loyalty over personal whims, a key idea portrayed in many previous utopias.

Yet, it can also be argued that this is not as straightforward denunciation of technological advancement as it would first appear. For example, whilst the party utilises technology for totalitarian means, it is their use of it that comes under explicit criticism by the book, unlike the technophobia espoused in Butler’s Erewhon. Indeed, as M. Keith Brooker points out, the attitude to knowledge portrayed by the party runs contrary to the conditions of technological progress, and in Goldstein’s book there are several claims that the state's resources are devoted entirely to surveillance and military technology, to keep party members in check and wage continuous war.

This technological opposition of the party is shown in the importance of the creation of a static society to the Party. For example, Goldstein’s book emphasizes the necessity of a static society for a particular elite to remain in power, in this case the upper echelons of the Party. However, this dystopian idea (that of aimless human existence with little to achieve) is belied by the possibility that there are definite aims that the Party are undertaking that represent a twisted progress to their greater aims of ultimate control: indeed, as Newspeak is as yet largely developmental in the contemporary context of the novel, the Party does appear to conceive of a day in which the formal application of coercion would be rendered unnecessary due to complete thought control, and thus a near Marxist state ‘withering’ could occur, although the remaining observation of power would be a lot different to hypothetical utopian socialism. This draws interesting parallels with the anarchist utopias considered by Morris and Le Guin as these utilise public coercion to maintain order in the face of limited legal and political frameworks. The possible future of Oceania would not even require such uncertain social methods, as citizens would be effectively engineered to follow the party line. Yet, as O’Brien mentions, there are no official laws to be broken anyway, and that Party terror is as much preventative as retributive. Thus, to a certain degree, this implies similar arguments to the self criticism of Le Guin, although it is clear that in the Dispossessed and classic anarchist utopias informal codes of conduct appear to be derived from rational human conceptions of truth (and right and wrong), as opposed to the fluid yet unchallengeable truth of the Party.

However, it is difficult to establish the ideas of the ‘book within a book’ as a genuine critique by the author of Oceania, as it is later established in extract 2 that the book itself has been constructed by the Party for their own ends. However, this itself may be equally observed as a satirical take on the monopoly of the information that the Party has, as it displays them as in control even of the information created as a means of subverting their power.

Nature of Power:

A key factor in 1984’s inversion of utopian traditions and in its satirical critique of present societies is the nature of the aims of the Party. This in itself appears a departure from Utopian tradition, and even traditional critiques of Utopianism – whilst the Utopian/dystopian binary opposition operates throughout utopias of the past, all, in some manner, appear motivated by the aim to produce a fairer, or ideal society; dystopian elements of varying left-wing utopian systems appear therefore largely a practical by-product of a system that provides either too many central powers, or in the case of anarchism, a vacuum of authority. However, in the case of 1984, O’Brien makes it clear whilst torturing Winston that the Party does not operate for the common good, but for its own perpetual power. This in itself can be attributed to the exaggeratory nature of satire, as this goes beyond the public motives of Stalinism, Nazism or any other real totalitarian movement. Equally, the dual purpose of 1984 as both a critique and a warning can explain this: as Goldstein’s book explains, INGSOC and its counterparts are themselves offshoots of totalitarian movements, and as such this could be perceived by Orwell as an expression of the raw power of Oceania that lip-service to radical ideas are no longer needed.

Equally, the structure of society must be taken into account, as this is not to say that INGSOC’s ultra-surveillance and control applies to all: indeed, such repression only appears to be exercised on party members, leaving the remaining 85% (the proles) relatively free to live out their lives. This in a way appears to hark back to the Guardian class of Plato’s Republic, as the highest appear the only ones under the social control of governance. However, this comparison is extremely crude, as the state does appear to exert some control over the proles, in the shape of proletarian culture, that embodies all the perceived degeneracy of mass media contemporary to Orwell (such as pornography and tabloid newspapers); in this sense, it can be argued as almost a dual state – on the one hand the state is a meritocracy, but one that operates with ruthless adherence to party principals. On the other hand, proles live aimless lives of economic subjugation with no prospects of betterment. Are these two eventualities that are directly contrasted to Orwell’s self proclaimed 'Democratic Socialism'???

In addition to this, the proles are often seen as a key anti-socialist aspect of the book, as the descriptions of them by Winston and Goldstein portray them as base, degenerate and subject to near primal drives: they are equated to cattle. However, this is assuming that Orwell is embodied in the characters that oppose the dystopia in the book: yet, this may be making more implicit comments on the ways in which social behaviour is conditioned by the society in which a person originates: as such, these two figures, that provide the most prominent examples of anti-Party activity, are still conditioned by the Party’s portrayal of the pitiful proles. In this way parallels can be seen with Shevak in the Dispossessed, as despite opposing Annaresti isolationism, he still maintains a view on Urras that is wholly Odonion. Equally, this once more portrays the absolute power the Party possesses in 1984 once it has gained control of knowledge as well as the means of political power.

1 comment:

Sarah Rees Jones said...

This is a great post, Stephen. There is a lot to pick up on. I especially like the way that you talk about language constructing the human.

I have redated it - so that it sits in the archive between Huxley and Digital Utopias, as it did in class.