May 07, 2003

I had read the novel a couple of times in Middle and Upper School. Filtered through those adolescent impressions, in spite of its undoubted importance as a critique of totalitarianism, 1984 had always felt like science fiction to me. It's suffused with cold, and inhabited by the Byzantine apparati of oppression. This always requires erecting contraptions for the sake of atmosphere and plot that just feel elaborate and busy to me. I wonder if going back to it as an adult might affect my perceptions of the book, whether the vision of a prole singing would impact me more than its steel and concrete drabness.

Interestingly, in his introduction Pynchon calls the internet "a development that promises social control on a scale those quaint old 20th-century tyrants with their goofy moustaches could only dream about." I find this odd and paranoid, not because of the accepted wisdom that the internet is a democratizing influence--that is a cliche perhaps--but because Pynchon's predilection for rooting out secrets and subversiveness should have him reveling in a hurtling etherworld where hackers deface government and corporate websites, war-chalkers root out wireless networks, bloggers aggregate and debate. The WASTE symbols that Sixties college students used to scrawl in university bathroom stalls reminds me of the chalk iconography of war-chalkers. Thomas should get out on his computer a bit more.

It's ironic that the late 20th Century dystopian vision of a dehumanized police state with its accoutrements of technology is entirely wrong about the challenges that confront us now in the 21st. Rather than Progress running roughshod over basic human rights, it's reversion to Medievalism that threatens individual freedom. I wonder whether we are philosophically equipped to handle this challenge when for the last 80 years our energies were bent on critiquing and opposing Fascism/Stalinism/Maoism. This ideology of stentorian music, posters and statuary of musclebound mechanics and industrial production wrapped up in the trappings of Science and Progress is taking its last paradoxial and asphyxiated breaths in North Korea. If anything, science and progress have helped rather than hurt us. It's the wild-eyed fundamentalist plotting by firelight in a shack or a cave (whether he's in Afghanistan or Montana) with antiquated visions of what will buy him a place in heaven that frightens me more than the spider-like probes of Minority Report. I can opt out of registering my email address; I can turn off my cell phone. I can't prevent a 767 from colliding with my workplace. Not that we should be lazy about the issues of privacy that the wireless and internet world have spawned. But I think we have a vocal and vociferous enough group of technophiles defending the privacy border.

There are those that would argue that we shouldn't stop short with Medievalism being the greatest threat to modern society because the response to that threat entails aspects of that technological police state. And I'd be forced to agree up to a point. The biggest difference is that we have mechanisms for self-examination and public debate about whether we overstep in our desire to protect ourselves. For those captive in the Middle Ages, there is absolutely no legitimate and protected manner to make this critique.

Though Orwell pitched his story 40 years into the future, what he was really responding to was the here and now; i.e. what he'd seen as an disillusioned Republican in the Spanish Civil War, the brutalism of Hitler and Stalin. There is nothing really prescient about 1984. And, as Pynchon points out, he missed the boat on fundamentalism. be continued... Posted by erich at May 07, 2003 10:23 AM

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