Sunday, September 09, 2012

From Huxley to Orwell

Years ago, I was arrested and provoked by a literary comparison made by the estimable social and media critic, Neil Postman. In the introduction to his seminal book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman compared two dystopic and well-known novels: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell. Postman claimed that we were then (1985) living in a kind of Huxlian world, a world in which the state need not legally enslave us or ban books or “flush things down the memory hole.” The last phrase comes from Orwell, whose nightmare scenario is that of totalitarianism: a boot stamping a human face forever. Postman convincingly argues in his inimitable clear, clever, and sober style that we are “amusing ourselves to death” through our infatuation with television and other technologies. These devices have an “ecological effect,” in changing our entire sensory environment—a point he develops in several books, including Technopoly.  The state need not impose its brutal will on willing slaves—those who refuse to think critically or understand history. These sheeple pose no threat. They are too diverted, too a-mused (which means “not thinking”).

For many years, I have agreed with Postman’s theory. But now, twenty-five years after first reading the book (and I have read it three times), I realize that our “brave new world” can easily become a “1984.” In other words, the Huxlian world of stupefied (but well-entertained, of course) drones provide the prelude to the total statism of Orwell’s nightmare. An energized and ideologically-directed politician is never content with the status quo. His political vision requires more: remaking the human in the image of the state. The previous stupefaction dismantled critical thinking, a knowledge of history, and a concern for truth (acedia). Now the sheeple can be penned in, totally directed, and redefined as “political animals” in the worst sense possible (and not Aristotle’s).

That, I suggest, is the state in which we find ourselves. Oblivion of one kind paves the way for oblivion of another kind. Or: stupefaction leads to statification—at least when the right man is in place. If Barack Obama wins a second turn, this will be our fate. May God have mercy

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