1984: Comments on Technology and Utopia

January 25, 2017


Below is a brief essay I wrote in my last year of undergrad at LSU (2013) for a capstone seminar in postmodern theory in fulfillment of my English minor. Given recent events and rhetoric following the presidential election, I thought I would dig it up and post it here. The book, along with The Handmaid's Tale and Brave New World seem to be blueprints for certain elements of contemporary society. Somewhat eerie. 


When Eric Blair, George Orwell's pseudonym, penned 1984 in the mid-twentieth century, it is unlikely he fully grasped the impact the text would have on contemporary society by means of phrases coined in the novel making their way into English vernacular, such as Newspeak, doublethink, and Big Brother, to name some of the more popular terms. At times less examined is the reliance on technology as a social actor in 1984. As Blair's concern for the surveillance state operating under the guise of socialism passes through time, so then have others since critiqued apparatuses similar to Big Brother, including Michel Foucault's conception of the panopticon. Given recent revelations of unprecedented, massive international and domestic surveillance activities by the United States government through its National Security Agency, terminology from the totalitarian world of Orwell's Oceania is so powerful, it enters contemporary discourse with no stated referent.


It is tempting to discount 1984 as a mere reactionary tale in response to two world wars and the dystopian ends of Nazi Germany and the rise of the Soviet Union. However, 1984 stands seemingly out of history, as it embodies many postmodern elements, including its depiction of memory, language, and totalitarian regulation of thought, yet was conceived in modernity. Close examination of the text reveals how postmodern theory can inform the reader as to the condition of those who reside in the futuristic city of Oceania through analysis of the unreality of information created and altered by the Ministry of Truth, the subject's quality of Being in 1984, and, how, ultimately, Newspeak and doublethink contribute to a flattening of reality consistent with contemporary postmodern theory. One could argue the book itself has become detached from its original and taken on a simulated meaning of its own, but that is beyond the scope of this analysis.




The control of information in Oceania through the Ministry of Truth and the Times is paramount to the Party slogan in 1984 that reads, "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” As Winston and others rewrite the past in their work at the ministry at the behest of those on the other side of the pneumatic tube that feeds them alterations to history, so then is the present and, thus, the future altered to fit the Party's ever-changing narrative. The Party is always seemingly truthful as no one seems to remember much of the past. We are given a glimpse into the struggles Winston faces in recognizing truth from fiction, propaganda from lies. The constant shift of which country Oceania is at war with, the contradiction in rations of chocolate, and the ever-increasingly impossible quantity of goods produced by the Party all work to confuse and subdue consciousness as inclusive into the machinery behind the glaring façade of Big Brother in that the "past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.” As we become further aware of Winston's acknowledgement of the Party's misinformation campaigns, he recognizes a corrupt regime in "the split between 'appearance' and 'reality' of justice is recognized by the members of the corrupt society, but the power of society is on the side of 'appearance.' Hence, the pursuit of 'reality' is unprofitable to the point of being deadly.” As is the case with Winston and other members of the Outer Party who are so trained through routine doublethink and stripped of any contemporary sense of identity down to the discouragement of family structure, the outward recognition of misinformation by the Party would indeed result in eventual death.


Appearance must always mask reality in 1984, and the key mechanism in doing such is the alteration of information, as "some master brain in the Inner Party would select this version or that, would re-edit it and set in motion the complex process of cross-referencing that would be required, and then the chosen lie would pass into the permanent records and become truth.”_ The logic of the Party dictates:


"[The] mutability of the past is the central tenet of Ingsoc [English Socialism]. Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it. It also follows that though the past is alterable, it never has been altered in any specific instance.”


Production of information to alter the past at any given moment for any given reason becomes the new past, thus, the present becomes hyperreal—a simulation of altered historical context as dictated by the Inner Party.




Perhaps one of Plato's most recognized works is the so-called allegory of the cave. Within the text, prisoners are shackled to a wall in a cave facing an interior wall to which their vision is fixed by force. Behind, unbeknownst to the prisoners, showmen stand on an elevated passageway holding shadow puppets. As they perform, a fire behind them illuminates the figures, and their shadow is cast against the interior cave wall for the prisoners to observe. Outside of the cave is the ascent to sunlight. Plato uses the allegory to describe quality of Being for those in the cave when one of the prisoners is unshackled and must be dragged toward the sunlight. However, once he has reached the beyond of the cave, he is blinded by not only sunlight, but also by the truth of reality, having realized the shadows were lies.


Muckelbauer and Deleuze have used Sophist to examine Plato's conception of the ideal, the copy, and the semblance, or in postmodern terms, the original, the copy, and the simulacrum. The triad of original-copy-simulacrum is key to the theoretical analysis of 1984 throughout this text. While postmodern thinkers have focused on Sophist and Cleitophon, it is my intention to expand postmodern theory to Plato's cave found in Republic. As mentioned above, there is a triad of perceived realities existing in the cave—light outside of the cave, shadow puppets, and shadows—as original, copy, and simulacrum: the original, or model, exists as the truth of Being, or aletheia, which is ultimately unattainable, the shadow puppets themselves are copies with regard to their original, and the shadows produced by them represent the simulacrum, as they have no regard for the original and are distorted versions of the copy; yet they stand alone without a referent. As Plato's allegory divides quality of Being into three realities, the shadowy world of Oceania in 1984 follows suit. The day-to-day routine of Winston Smith and other members of the Outer Party becomes apparent as "everything faded away into a shadow-world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain” indicating the quality of Being has been diminished to that of the flattened shadow on the wall of the cave, as found throughout the text, for example, thirty pages later into the text a similar passage indicates the same status of Being as "everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.”


Further, the triad original-copy-simulacrum exists congruous with another platonic concept—being-thought-symbol. Plato's description of the metaxy places existence in an in-between state similar to the postmodern subject—the tension between profound truth, or nous, and the depth of reality, or apeiron, as "reality [is] intelligible as such by the consciousness of nous and apeiron as its limiting poles. All 'eristic phantasies' which try to convert the limits of the metaxy, be it the noetic height of the apeironic depth, into a phenomenon within the metaxy are to be excluded as false.” Thus, it is possible to encounter a false Being resulting in contaminated thought and resulting symbols of articulation—the thing, the perception of the thing, the articulation of the thing. The ontological status of Winston, and other members of the Outer Party, then, is predicated on a false premise. Thus, thought represents a copy outside of true experience articulated by a false symbol that has no relation to the absolute original. The symbol becomes emptied of meaning as it is differentiated along a chain of relation to the original, causing attenuation of the symbol as it exists across the strata of reality. Since the symbol consists of different signs in different modes, we can have a symbol exist through varying modes of reality, but the meaning can change in that "symbols can lose their substance; the emptied symbol can still be used for purposed widely differing from its original and essential function as the indispensable means of constituting existence in historical form.” If opposites are allowed to exist in thought, so then might an opposite conception of reality exist—unbeing or non-existence, complicating the quality of Being.




As language is condensed, so is thinking in 1984 as something discouraged unless it aligns with the tenants of Big Brother. Newspeak seeks to eliminate thought as understood in the text to create orthodox unconsciousness through doublethink—a self-induced mechanism of brainwashing that dyscitizens of the Outer Party engage in to prevent being reported to the Thought Police. The reality-thought-language system of detached simulacra with no referent becomes disorienting, and since the origin, or quality of Being, is distorted, so then will there be a precession of simulacra that surround and confuse the subject, as evidenced in 1984 through Winston's inability to accurately recall life prior to Big Brother, the bombardment of false copies in the form of misinformation from the Ministry of Truth via ubiquitous telescreens and loudspeakers, and the contradictions of party propaganda:






Building off the previous theoretical grounding of being-thought-symbol as synonymous with original-copy-simulacrum in the realm of quality of Being, let us examine this particular party slogan. The first line reads "WAR IS PEACE.” As we have established the original Being is corrupt, so then will thought and symbol follow in the same manner. However, yet to be established is the function of the simulacrum as independent from the original as a creation of synthetic reality to conceal the absence of original truth of Being. Thus, as war becomes peace in the practice of doublethink--the canceling effect of reality control—the hyperreality of Being in 1984 masks that the war is not real. Further, "FREEDOM IS SLAVERY” can be analyzed in the same way: The freedom of The Party lies in the slavery of everyone else. Through doublethink, the hyperreal freedom conceals the truth of slavery, or the absence of freedom and justice, and so on with "IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” Ignorance is orthodoxy. The strength of the Party's Oligarchical Collectivism lies in the ignorance of the people and creates the intended reality, as the "essence of oligarchical rule is not father-to-son inheritance, but the persistence of a certain world-view and a certain way of life, imposed by the dead upon the living. The party is not concerned with perpetuating its blood but with perpetuating itself. Who wields power is not important, provided that the hierarchical structure remains always the same,” while "it is by means of doublethink that the Party has been able--and may, for all we know, continue to be able for thousands of years--to arrest the course of history.” The "hierarchical structure” here is the structure of doublethink as articulated through Newspeak:


[I]f all records told the same tale--then the lie passed into history and became truth [...] Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. 'Reality control,' they called it; in Newspeak, 'doublethink.'”


The repetition of this pattern of thought truncates language and becomes a false copy built upon a false history manufactured by the Party. As language is truncated, so is thought, as the totality of Being is flattened in 1984 to the point of cognitive oblivion that:


[E]ven in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.


The lie existing ahead of the truth is the precession of the simulacra. When the collective is complete through Newspeak through truncation of thought, (1) the completion of the revolution in 1984 when thought crime is eliminated; (2) the false war will be won resulting in a false peace; (3) there will be no original, as memory is terminated, and all thought becomes based upon a prescribed, singular, totalitarian language void of meaning; (4) subjectivity will no longer be relevant since all will speak the same language that has one singular symbol with a singular meaning that encompasses all of existence. The addition or lack of a thing in relation to a thing is the core of language. Newspeak seeks to unify the positive and the negative--a seemingly impossible task yet possible through reality control; (5) thought becomes singular and relies not on broad symbols but one discrete sign that contains all meaning—the totality of Big Brother; (6) there will no longer be any need for any original, as the shadowy world that exists in Plato's cave is Oceania—it reveals its postmodern hyperreality as a means of tyranny and oppression through campaigns of misinformation, the panopticon of surveillance, and the truncation of language (symbol), doublethink (thought), and as a result, existence (Being).




Totalitarian control of language and, therefore, thought through an increasingly relentless bombardment of party slogans, news from the Ministry of Truth projected by telescreens, and a rigid system of strict routine is the Party's primary method of controlling identity through a false history. The basis of production of identity through performance will be examined using Baudrillard's concept of integral reality as a theoretical grounding with examination of the media's role in reproducing the social and dictating identity construction in 1984. If reality has reduced itself to operational codes of performativity presented by the Inner Party through its various propaganda outlets—the Times, telescreens, loudspeakers, Two Minutes Hate, Hate Week—the "pursuit of happiness, artistic expression and the democratic organization of the good have all lost their relationship to the symbolic order of the social; for as the power of the system to maximize its performativity increases, so historical time (the occurrence of events whose particularity both threatens and determines the progress of ethical life) is displaced by a logic of inclusion which projects itself up on the contingency of the past and the openness of the future.” The telos of the Party "sets out the conditions of a complete temporal involution—the erasure of historical time through the performative codes (of sexual identity, ethnic difference, cultural diversity, etc.) which determine the appearance of the real.” Immediately, we see not only a flattening of Being itself, but of mental capacity diminished to the point the subject is unable to construct identity independent of the codes or scripts portrayed through the Inner Party's media machine, and it is that "contingency which the simulacrum intercepts with all of the technological artifice” described in 1984. The reproduction of the social by the Inner Party leads to a simulation of the reproduction that leads to production of identity based on a false copy—the simulacrum of identity that masks any notion of the original self, if such a thing can be grasped.


Winston, through his writing, attempts to reconstruct his identity based on his memory, a fleeting collection of fragments pasted together on paper in the privacy of his room, out of site from Big Brother. In the beginning of the novel, the fragments are nearly incomprehensible, as his thoughts and memories are seemingly scattered throughout his consciousness—confusion caused by a flattened integral reality. For example, he writes early on "theyll shoot me i dont care theyll shoot me in the back of the neck i dont care down with big brother they always shoot you in the back of the neck i dont care down with big brother—.” This attempt at discursive identity is Winston's attempt to break from simulation, but as stated above, identity is fleeting and always slightly out of grasp, as the lie always precedes the truth—the simulacrum always precedes the reproduction creating a cycle of further confusion and anxiety. Once Winston becomes conscious, or awake, realizing something like the truth, as O'Brien, a clandestine member of the Inner Party, explains:


"[R]eality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.”


Winston's reality becomes apparent, as it is revealed the flattened Party identity is indeed a manufactured product of Big Brother created through technological simulation. O'Brien further elaborates:


"Until this moment you had never considered what is meant by existence. I will put it more precisely. Does the past exist concretely, in space? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening?”


Here we see the postmodernism of history as a collection of memories and written fragments assembled in way to create a narrative that is quite subjective. Since memory in 1984 is virtually eliminated and writing outside of one's duties is forbidden, the Party's control of the written record determines history as a patchwork of alterations to dictate contextual identity. If the Party says Oceania is at war with Eastasia one week and at war with another country the next, then that would be the truth for the subject of the Outer Party.




1984 is a remarkable novel from a technical standpoint but also functions as a warning of the potential tyranny that could erupt out of socialism—it is worth noting that Eric Blair was himself a socialist, so 1984 is likely not meant to be a criticism of socialism, but rather its corrupt form as seen in the Soviet Union. What is often overlooked, however, is Blair wrote in a time when much of the theoretical basis of postmodernism had yet to enter discourse. Oceania provides nearly a perfect example, though caution must be used not to take the example too far, as Nealon points out in his critique of exemplarity of the simulated world overrun and flattened by simulacra from the base of reality to the heights of delusion existing on a flat plane with no depth.


The Ministry of Truth's control of information through written word and altered history is the ontological basis of the subject in 1984, and the quality of Being, as established, is greatly diminished when foundations of thought and language become corrupt. Further, this leads to a deformity in the construction of identity, as it is not based on a reaction to other identities, but, rather, is engulfed by the Party and molded into the ideal citizen that keeps Oligarchical Collectivism functioning. Discursive reality comes to a head at the end of the novel when Winston finally "traced with his finger in the dust on the table: 2 + 2 = 5.” It is then that his identity is truly flattened, the lie becomes truth, the past unalterable. While tyranny, surveillance, and plutocracy remain in public discourse in regard to 1984, it is the consequences postmodern totalitarianism that should be examined more closely to discern how and when it is possible to construct reality for the benefit of a small elite ruling a larger body.


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