Chapter two narratives

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If golden ages enabled utopias, utopias inspired dystopias. Dystopias depict dysfunctional societies that exaggerate features of the present, like bureaucracy, capitalism, socialism, advertising and technology, to show their truly dreadful consequences when used for perverse ends. Evgeny Zamyatin’s, We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984 and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies are classic representatives of this genre. A few dystopias are counterfactuals set in the present, as are the spate of novels premised on a German victory in World War II.116 In the second half of the twentieth century, dystopias far outsold utopias, and several of them (e.g., 1984, A Clockwork Orange) became box office hits when turned into films. Utopias and dystopias are a good barometer of the mood and expectations of intellectuals and sometimes of the population more generally.

Dystopias were unknown in the ancient world, although utopias were a source of parody in classical Athens. Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, Thesmophoriazusae and Birds ridicule them as politically and socially naive. In modern times, this tradition finds expression in Gulliver's Travels, which can be read as a parody of Bacon’s New Atlantis. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can also be interpreted as a critique of utopian thinking. Her monster is a prescient warning of how scientific knowledge, ostensibly intended to benefit humankind, can give rise to unintended horrors. Dystopia came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century in response to industrialization, bureaucratization, materialism and mass politics. H. G. Wells, an early master of the genre, published six utopias and two dystopias. When the Sleeper Wakes, which first appeared in 1899, describes the world encountered by its hero Graham, who regains consciousness after being in a coma for two hundred years.117 In the interim, he has inherited sizeable wealth, which has been managed astutely by a trust -- the “White Council” -- established in his name. They have used the income to establish a globe-spanning economic and political order. Graham’s revival comes as a shock to the Council, which puts him under house arrest and tries as far as possible to keep him ignorant of their society and the turmoil that his awakening has provoked. He manages to discover that he is the legal owner and master of the world and that a revolutionary movement, led by a man named Ostrog, is trying to overthrow the established order.

Graham is liberated by Ostrog's agent and survives a harrowing flight across the roofs of London’s skyscrapers while pursued by armed monoplanes. He arrives at a massive hall where the workers and underprivileged classes have gathered to launch an uprising and, led by Ostrog’s brother, chant the Song of the Revolution. In an ensuing mêlée with the police, Graham escapes and wanders around a London engulfed by fighting. He eventually encounters Ostrog, leader of the now triumphant revolution, who provides him with comfortable quarters and, at his request, flying lessons. Through his friendship with a young woman, he learns that the people are suffering as grievously under Ostrog as they did under the previous regime. In a subsequent confrontation with the new leader, Graham realizes that he has no real commitment to economic and social reforms but is interested only in power. To suppress a growing insurrection in Paris, Ostrog uses African shock troops to get the workers back in line. Graham demands that he keep the Africans out of London. Ostrog agrees, but promptly breaks his promise. With the help of the workers, Graham escapes captivity a third time and makes a beeline for his aircraft. Ostrog’s forces hold a few landing areas to which the air armada bringing troops in from Africa heads. To delay the air fleet and give the workers time to capture the landing sites, Graham uses his airplane as a battering ram and knocks several transport airplanes out of the air. He also brings down Ostrog's machine, seemingly at the cost of his own life.

Wells’ novel is remarkably prescient. Coming of age in a world where the popular press and mass electoral politics made their debuts, he recognized how easily they could be exploited by ambitious politicians to advance parochial ends. He envisaged politics as becoming a struggle for power divorced from any principles or rules of the democratic game. To make successful appeals, politicians would nevertheless have to associate themselves with symbols venerated by the masses, even create them. “The Sleeper” was the most potent symbol in the society, and the White Council and Ostrog struggle to control the now very much awake Sleeper while Graham attempts to assert his identity and use it for benign ends. In contrast to Marxism, Wells understood that politics could dominate economics because the drive for power would eclipse that for wealth, as it does for the villains in the Sleeper novels. Wells projects the racism of his day into the future, making it another political weapon that the elite can exploit. The masses are enraged but cowed by widespread rumors of atrocities – which the author is careful never to confirm – allegedly committed by African troops in the course of their occupation of Paris. The novel can nevertheless be read as a critique of colonialism and socialism. The “White Council,” an unambiguous reference to a consortium of colonial powers, manages the world in its own interest, using capital extracted from the labor of the masses. Ostrog is a socialist revolutionary whose real goals turn out to be no different from the exploiters he so vocally opposes.

In the twentieth century, influential dystopias explore the malign consequences of bureaucracy, materialism and socialism. Evgenii Zamyatim’s We, published in 1924, was the first fictional exposé of the Soviet experiment. He lived through the 1906 and 1917 Russian Revolutions but spent much of the First World War in Newcastle, where he worked in the Tyne shipyards. We combines the authoritarian socialism of the Soviet Union with the rationalization of Tyneside’s labor, and carries both to deliberately absurd lengths. His “One State,” led by the Benefactor and his Guardians, has existed for 1,000 years and came into being after a Hundred Years War that all but annihilated European civilization. Citizens have numbers instead of names: odd numbers preceded by consonants for males, and even numbers preceded by vowels for females. They are confined within the green walls of their cities and march four abreast to work every morning in matching uniforms. Privacy is verboten, but sex is sanctioned as a form of release and recreation. It is entirely heterosexual and must be preceded by the filing of a requisition form. Liaisons with appropriate partners are scheduled by the “Sexual Department” after an extensive study of candidates’ hormonal levels. Space engineer D-503 rebels, stimulated by his love for E-330, a member of a dissident group. Their plot to takeover the space station fails. D-503 is captured and “fantasiectomized,” a surgical procedure that removes his imagination. Now reconciled to “One State,” he betrays the other conspirators, who are tortured and executed.

Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1932, is an industrial dystopia superficially portrayed as a utopia. People appear to live secure, healthy and hedonistic lives in a technologically advanced society where poverty and war have been eliminated. So, too, have art, literature, science, religion and family – everything that makes people who they are. The government maintains social stability through a rigid social order and the free distribution of hallucinatory drugs. Brave New World shares much with Zamyatin’s We, which Huxley claimed never to have read. He acknowledges the influence of H. G. Wells’ Men Like Gods and The Sleeper Awakes.118 Huxley was impressed by the soft-sell, totalitarian bent of American mass advertising and assembly line production introduced by Henry Ford. In Brave New World, Ford is made the Lord and the symbol “T,” derived from the Model T, replaces the cross and becomes the dominant icon of the society. Ford's famous dismissal of history as “bunk” is the official line of the World State. Isaiah Berlin describes Brave New World as “the most influential modern expression of disillusionment with purely technological progress.”119

George Orwell’s 1984 is an unambiguous dystopia. The novel is set in in 1984 London, a city that has become a provincial capital of the totalitarian state of Oceania, one of three world superpowers. Ubiquitous billboards feature photographs of “Big Brother,” the party leader, and the slogan “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.” Citizens are barraged by propaganda beamed at them from televisions and loudspeakers in public places. They endlessly hear that “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength.” Like contemporary CCTV, television cameras monitor the population to detect social and political deviants. The principal protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the powerful Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites history, destroying and adding evidence to the records of people, making some of them “unpersons” as the need arises. The past is made totally subservient to contemporary domestic and foreign policy goals. War is continuous, as allegedly are the victories won by Oceana’s forces. Both justify economic hardship and the authoritarian political regime.

In Brave New World, for which the United States was the model, people are pacified through access to pleasure. In 1984, modeled on the Soviet Union, they are kept in line through fear and punishment. Neil Postman observes that Orwell and Huxley were responding to different concerns:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the Feelies, the Orgy Porgy, and the Centrifugal Bumble-puppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.’120

Orwell’s 1984 is closer to Zamyatin’s We in its plot and politics. The society is hierarchical, with Big Brother at the apex, the Party in the middle and the all but nameless “proles” at the bottom. Winston Smith lives in a drab one-room apartment and survives on a near subsistence diet of black bread and synthetic food supplemented by rotgut gin. He is discontented, and keeps a secret journal which he fills with negative thoughts about the Party. He has an illicit romance, which serves as a catalyst for his alienation from Big Brother and attempt to join the Brotherhood underground. The Brotherhood appears to be set up and run by the Party as a clever means of identifying dissidents. Winston is betrayed, imprisoned, interrogated, tortured and brainwashed. He emerges, disgusted by his former affair and with renewed love for Big Brother.

These novels indicate that dystopias are not the work of traditional conservatives. Their authors do not defend capitalism, religion or Victorian values. They are not opposed to modernity, but to the dangerous political and economic directions in which they believe it is heading. Wells was a socialist, but broke with the Fabian Society because he considered it insufficiently radical. He ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1922 and 1923 as a Labour Party candidate. Huxley was not directly involved in politics but was attracted to social experimentation, drugs and the counter-culture that emerged in California and the American southwest, where he lived after 1937. George Orwell, born Eric Arthur Blair, chose to experience colonialism in Burma and live in poverty in Paris and London. He fought in the Spanish Civil War and throughout his adult life maintained a deep commitment to social injustice and intense opposition to authoritarianism.

Bacon, More, Hegel and Marx were optimistic about the future and wrote utopian tracts or novels. Rousseau and Nietzsche broke with this tradition and envisaged a bleak, culturally desolate future. For many intellectuals, two World Wars and the Holocaust appeared to confirm Nietzsche’s pessimistic view of history. Post-structuralists like Foucault and Derrida not only reject the Enlightenment “project” but condemn progressive narratives of history as dangerous falsehoods.121 Dystopia more or less triumphed over utopia in the course of the twentieth century as intellectuals became increasingly disillusioned with the allegedly liberating power of reason. The failure to achieve a classless society, by peaceful or revolutionary means also hastened the demise of utopia.122 Many of us respond negatively to utopias because of their authoritarian political structure and oppressive regulation of private life.123 In the Second World War’s immediate aftermath, Scottish poet and socialist Alexander Gray exclaimed that “no Utopia has ever been described in which any sane man would on any conditions consent to live, if he could possibly escape.”124

Utopias flourished in the immediate post-war years and garnered wide audiences. B. F. Skinner's Walden Two (1948), Robert Graves, Seven Days in New Crete (1949) and Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962) follow the time-worn formula of distant island or future worlds that reject industrialism in favor of a simple, agricultural life. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, such idylls seem impractical and unattainable, if not undesirable. As history’s course is never linear, it is not impossible that optimism will return at some future date. If so, we can expect it to give new life to utopias. To be compelling, they will have to take a new form, and as we will see, contemporary science fiction is already experimenting with possible outlines.

 Wilde, Soul of Man Under Socialism, p. 24.

2 Kermode, Sense of an Ending, pp. 35-36.

3 Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, Book 19.12 and 14,

4 Weber, Economy and Society, I, 24-43, 212-16 and 319-325; Durkheim, Rules of Sociological Method, pp. 51-55, argues that habits, custom and tradition account for most behavior most of the time. They prevail because of our cognitive need for simplification. Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct; James, Principles of Psychology; Simon, Administrative Behavior; Turner, Brains, Practices, Relativism; Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice; Steinmetz, State/Culture; Hopf, "Logic of Habit in International Relations."

5 Taylor, “To Follow a Rule.”

6 Goffman, Behavior in Public Places, Interaction Ritual, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Stigma.

7 Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, p. 95.

8 Derrida, Of Grammatology.

9 Hume, Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, section iii, and “On the Study of History.”

10 Dilthey, “Understanding of Other Person and Their Life Expressions.”

11 Somers, “Narrative Constitution of Identity.”

12 Bruner, "Life as Narrative," Acts of Meaning and "Narrative Construction of Reality"; Schank and Abelson, Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding; White, "Value of Narrativity";

Brooks, Reading for the Plot. Ricoeur, "Narrative Time” and Time and Narrative.

 Geertz, Local Knowledge; White, When Words Lose Their Meaning; Dworkin, Politics of Interpretation; Hales, “Inadvertent Rediscovery of Self in Social Psychology”;Bruner, "Life as Narrative”; Sarbin, Narrative Psychology; Gergen, and Gergen, "Narrative Form and the Construction of Psychological Science”; Williams, "Genesis of Chronic Illness”; Kleinman, Illness Narratives; Spence, Narrative Truth and Historical Truth; Schafer, Analytic Attitude; Valentine, Fluid Signs; Turner and Bruner, Anthropology of Experience.

13 White, "Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality," On Narrative; and Content of the Form; Mink, "Autonomy of Historical Understanding" and "Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument"; Danto, Narration and Knowledge.

14 Ricoeur, “Narrative Identity,” p. 198.

15 Heider and Simmel, "Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior"; Michotte, Perception of Causality.

16 Bertaux, Biography and Society; Bertaux and Kohli, "Life Story Approach"; Freeman, "History, Narrative, and Life-Span Developmental Knowledge"; Linde, "Privates Stories in Public Discourse."

17 Becker, Outsiders; Memmi, Colonizer and the Colonized; Goffman, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Stigma; Lebow, White Britain and Black Ireland; Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks; Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color; Nicholson, Identity Before Politics.

18 Beck, “The Reinvention of Politics”; Lash, “Reflexivity and its Doubles.”

19 Price and Tanenwald, “Norms and Deterrence”; Reus-Smit, Moral Purpose of the State; Klotz, Norms in International Regimes; Lebow, Cultural Theory of International Relations.

20 Augustine, Confessions.

21 Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.

22 Rousseau, Émile; Goethe, Werther.

23 Malinowski, “The Role of Myth in Life”; Basso, “Stalking with Stories"; Herdt, Guardians of the Flutes; Gross and Barnes, eds., Talk That Talk.

24 Hayes, Essays on Nationalism; Kohn, Prophets and Peoples; Deutsch, Nationalism and Social Communication.

25 Deutsch, Nationalism and Social Communication, p. 81.

26 Herodotus, Histories; Freud, Moses and Monotheism; Anderson, Imagined Communities.

27 Williams, Life of Goethe, pp. 215-16.

28 See especially, Seigel, Idea of Self. For a more widely cited but more partisan reading, Taylor, Sources of the Self.

29 Hopf, Social Construction of International Politics; Also, Clunan, Social Construction of Russia's Resurgence, who identifies five distinct post-communist identities.

30 Guzzini, Geopolitics Redux, esp. ch. 1.

31 Lebow, Cultural Theory of International Relations.

32 Wolin, Politics and Visions, p. 19.

33 Khanna, “Text as Tactic”; Williams, “Utopia and Science Fiction.”

34 Lebow, Forbidden Fruit.

35 Hobbes, Leviathan; Riley, General Will Before Rousseau.

36 Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia; Rawls, Theory of Justice, esp. ch. 3. For critiques, Dworkin, “Original Position”; Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, ch. 3; Kilcullen, Rawls.

37 Hegel, Philosophy of History, Part III, 3(b). Benhabib, Critique, Norm and Utopia, pp. 42-43, maintains that Hegel’s model of “transparent ethical life” is a “retrospective utopia.” See also Wenning, "Hegel, Utopia, and the Philosophy of History."

38 Benhabib, “Toward and Deliberative Model of Democratic Legitimacy.”

39 Huxley, Island.

40 Skinner, Walden Two.

41 For documentation of prehistoric warfare, Keeley, War Before Civilization.

42 Lovejoy and Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, pp. 1-7.

43 Frye, “Varieties of Literary Utopias.”

44 Finley, “Utopias Ancient and Modern.”

45 Seneca, Epis, 90.46.

46 Homer, Iliad, 13.3-9.

47 Pliny, Natural History, 4.88-89; Plutarch, Life of Serorius,.8.2-3.

48 Bremmer, “Paradise”; Noort, “Gan-Eden in the Context of the Mythology of the Hebrew .”

49 Tablet 1, 103-221.

50 Benjamin, “Paradisiacal Life."

51 For modern readings, Barr, Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality; Wallace, Eden Narrative.

52 Augustine, City of God. Book XIV, 24, pp. 472-73.

53 Ibid., XXII, 1-9, XIII, 12-15 and XIV, 12-14, who defined curiosity as man’s desire to transform his perfect human knowledge into perfect divine knowledge and thus become like a god.

54 Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, pp. 73-75; Vidal-Nacquet, Black Hunter, p. 252, offers the same judgment about the last century of Hellenic studies.

55 Wilde, quoted in Kermode, Romantic Image, p. 56.

56 Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts, ch. 1, and Is There a Text in the Class, pp. 323-24, 347-48; White, When Words Lose Their Meaning, pp. 18-20, 286-91; Iser, Implied Reader.

57 Heinberg, Memories and Visions of Paradise; Goodwin and Taylor, Politics of Utopia, on the conservatism of golden ages.

58 Leibniz, Theodicy.

59 Clarke, City and the Stars.

60 Smith, Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Wealth of Nations, II.ii, p. 362.

61 Kateb, Utopia and Its Enemies, pp. 68-112.

62 Hesiod,

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