6 August 2009
The Veil of the Soul: Ideology and Speculative Fiction
In an attempt to define "art," Edgar Allen Poe described it as the "reproduction of what the senses perceive in nature through the veil of the soul" (264). In this statement, Poe suggests that the subject/object of art is always thrice-removed from the "original." Art is firstly only a reproduction. Secondly, it is filtered by senses which may vary from artist to artist. And lastly, there is a third filtering element, more abstract and harder to define, which Poe calls "the veil of the soul." The word “soul” is hard enough to define. But the statement begs another question: what exactly is this "veil" that obscures the material world from the observer? This is the question I will be exploring in this paper. My argument is that one is always surrounded by a "veil," by an occluding fabric of ideology that mitigates reality. While drawing from the theoretical works of Louis Althusser, in his piece "Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses," I will use two classic utopian/dystopian novels, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World as works that function to reveal the ideology in our present world, even as they attempt to speculate on a fictional world, far off in the future.
The veil (Ideology) is everywhere. It surrounds us. It's breathed in. It cannot be avoided. Eventually, the veil, which was at one point an external feature of the environment, is (mis)taken for an internal one. And as reality is always seen through it, filtered by it, and defined by it, its presence is unnoticed. To Althusser, Ideology “‘represents’ the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (162). The use of the word “represents” instead of the word “reflects” when describing ideology is an important distinction. A “reflection” might suggest that there exists a source reality that can eventually be traced from the reflected object by following it to a mirror or a chain of mirrors. And, that the reflection that is witnessed by the observer is somehow closely related to a reality. However, such an understanding of ideology is, as Graham Turner puts it, “primitive” (130). Instead, Althusser uses a more precise term, “representation”; reality is then more of a construction built upon the material of myths, culture, codes and signification, which are themselves creations of the ideology itself (Turner 131).
The "imaginary relationships" that ideology represents are largely produced by symbols—a major system being language itself. Through words and letters, our universe is constructed and constrained. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell draws interesting focus to the power that language can have controlling thought. The novel takes place in a transition period, where the watermark of a previous ideology is still visible beneath the surface -- and by those of age that can still remember. A lingering vestige of the older ideological order is the language. People are still capable of committing "thoughtcrime," against the party because they have the words/symbols to do it. “Throughtcrime” is the (criminal) act of having a thought that runs against the dominant ideology in Oceania. In an effort to quash this vulnerability, the party has commissioned a new language "Newspeak," whose main feature is its limited dictionary. Supposed “excess words,” like "excellent," "splendid," "superior," have been eliminated, and the word "good" is used in its place, with special prefixes to allow for degrees of "goodness" (like "plusgood," "doubleplusgood," etc). The idea is that, once the freedom of expression— the tools being language—are stripped to bare necessity, the very thoughts of individuals can be controlled.
In Brave New World, we see this same connection between "thought" and "language" through the character John the Savage. While John is providing Bernard a back-story of how he came to be, we learn that John first comes into a sort of enlightenment when he is given a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Before being given this book, John does not know his thoughts nor can he produce them with any clairvoyance until he appropriates language:
"What did the words exactly mean? He only half knew. But their magic was strong and went on rumbling in his head, and somehow it was though he had never really hated Pope before; never really hated him because he never been able to say how much he hated him. But now he had these words....they gave him a reason for hating Pope; and they made his hatred more real; they even made Pope himself more real." (132)
Interestingly, in Brave New World, the very book that provided John with his enlightenment experience is one of the (many) books that the Regional World Controller, Mustapha Mond tells us is banned in the society. This further suggests that there was a recognized danger in literature/language that could potentially undermine the dominant ideology.
Furthermore, as poststructuralism informs us, words and their meaning never correspond linearly to one universal truth or object. Words are enveloped in a chaotic web of the signifier and the signified, and thereby, their meanings are always in flux. It is therefore possible that a chain of signification can be disrupted, or rerouted, to adjust the meanings of existing ideas and signifiers into a direction that best suits the needs of the dominant ideology. The speculative fiction genre presents this to us in ways that a reader or viewer will easily notice, particularly by distorting the signification of words that may seem stable. For instance, the word “mother,” which might in our chain of signification readily call to mind recollections of nurturing, safety, love, et al, has a completely flipped association in Huxley’s Brave New World. In that world, the word “mother” is tied into filthiness, smut, and is often blushed at when uttered, as though it were an expletive.
Similarly, the phrase “Big Brother” has been readjusted in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, away from the strictly familial into associations of “government,” and “surveillance.” (Interestingly, this same phrase has been transformed in our own vernacular due to the popularity of the novel.) This act of transformation is done very profoundly in the motto of Oceania: “War is Peace / Freedom is Slavery / Ignorance is Strength.” Here, the party in Orwell’s novel is merging the binary opposite of a word to the word itself, thereby removing the concept itself. If “war” is the same thing as “peace,” then the two are equal, have nothing to distinguish themselves from each other, and are canceled out altogether.
This is precisely one of the goals of speculative fiction—or of Orwell, and Huxley at least. By showing us a version of the future, they call to attention things occurring in our present. In this case, we might want to pause and consider some of the ways our ideology has reassigned meaning to words in our language. Do the words “Middle East,” or “Muslim” have additional associations aside from merely geography and religion respectively? How about the words “white,” “black,” “female,” “male,” “gay,” “straight,” “Christian,” “Buddhist?”
The “veil” can also condition our way of thinking—our morals, our values, our desires, our beliefs—to conform to a certain dominant ideologue. We see this throughout both Brave New World, as well as Nineteen Eighty-Four. Conditioning in Brave New World has been turned into a prescriptive science. Using a newly developed method called “hypnopaedia” a person is given their set of moral values and beliefs through repetitive hypnosis.
The child's mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child's mind. And not the child's mind only. The adult's mind too–all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides–made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions! (29)
One of the protagonists in the novel, Bernard Marx, is an expert in hypnopaedia, and whenever someone would spout out a nugget of supposed intrinsic wisdom, Marx would often retort back with how many repetitions were required to instill that bit of information in ones unconscious mind. According to Bernard, “sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth” (47).
In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, there are other forms of conditioning. One striking example is the Two Minutes of Hate that the citizens of Oceania are required to perform daily. In the hate session, party members are gathered together and made to watch images of the Party’s enemies, in particular the archenemy Emanuel Goldstein, by focusing hateful thoughts and utterances towards these images. As D. Richards points out in his essay “Four Utopias,” the two minutes of hate is especially acute, as it not only conditions a certain behavior of aggression towards opponents of the Ideology, but it also uses the energy of sexual privation away from its natural use and exploits it to further the state’s own ends (226). Winston Smith makes direct reference to this fact in the novel:
What was more important was that sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war-fever and leader-worship. There was a direct intimate connection between chastity and political orthodoxy. (Orwell 133)
The war-fever rampant in Oceania is then, like the hypnopaedic conditioning in Huxley’s World State, not based on any self-realized conclusion, but something that the ideology has instilled on its subjects. For Oceania, keeping war-fever running interminably has become critical to keeping the society afloat. In the Goldstein book that is given to Winston to read, the reader learns that a perpetual state of War keeps the economics of the system moving and is required to preserve the status quo, and allow those in power, to stay in power. Again, one might be able to draw connections—as the speculative fiction genre invites us to do—about our own present reality, and whether similarities exist. Can a connection be drawn to consumerism in our own society? Is the “consumer”-fever that is ingrained in modern American culture something internal to our nature or something conditioned to us by external forces? What about our cultural positions on religion, women or minorities? Are our prevailing feelings/thoughts/beliefs about any of these items (or anything for that matter) our own?
Further, and what Althusser stresses in his essay, is ideology’s need for survival. According to Althusser, “every child knows that a social formation which did not reproduce the condition of production at the same time as it produced would not last a year” (127). We see this reproduction occurring with the hypnopaedia conditioning in Brave New World. We see it occurring in Nineteen Eighty-Four in the two minute hate, and the building up of war-hysteria. The veil, which may at first seem light, transparent, and insignificant, or how Althusser puts it, “a dream,” is actually a complex system with a "material existence." It is further complicated by the apparatuses that are commissioned to support and help reproduce the ideology. Althusser calls these “Ideological State Apparatuses” and points to several examples, such as the church, the family unit, the media, schools, literature, etc.
In both novels, the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) are shown to us in various forms. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, we learn that the family unit, especially children, are the ears and eyes of the State, and would report even their own parents to the State at the first sign of unorthodoxy. We see the character of Parsons, who according to Smith seemed rather loyal to the party’s ideas, end up in the same holding cell that Smith is in for thought-crime. Parsons was accused by his own children.
An example of an ISA in Brave New World are the "Solitary Service" days that all citizens of the community are required to participate in. In these community services, a group of individuals perform a ritual where they worship "Ford," gather together in a circle, consume the drug "soma," and in effect, reproduce those conditions that make the ideology of the World State survive. One of those conditions is a surrender of their individuality. In a scene where Bernard is participating in the Solitary Service, the group is passing along a cup of strawberry ice-cream soma (much like the cup of the last supper in Christian communion), repeating the words "I drink to my annihilation."
Ultimately, the individual is nothing more than a subject of the ideology. The subject is “hailed” or interpellated by the ideology and at that moment given a subject position. In both of these novels I’ve been examining, the main characters that are presented have a subject position that have been determined by the dominant Ideology. Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a member of the Outer Party; he responds to the name/signifier “Winston Smith”; he works at the Ministry of Truth. Likewise, in Brave New World, we read that Bernard Marx is an Alpha-plus psychologist; his name is “Bernard”; and with the position that he is in, he is expected to enact a certain role. Both of these characters in each of these respective novels has a relationship to the ideology created by the ideology itself. They become subjects of the ideology. Bernard cannot be an epsilon because that is not “who he is”; “what” he is, is not determined by something internal to himself, it is determined by something external to himself. Similarly, Winston Smith cannot be a Prole, nor can he be a member of the elite Inner Party. The infrastructure of value and wealth in the Nineteen Eighty-Four society is merely a construction not based on a material reality.
Speculative Fiction, I argue, does not want us to enter and leave the diegetic universe created by the author and not bring back any critical thought to our own present “reality” or dominant ideology. Subject positions are given to the characters in these two novels before they were born. How are we given subject positions in our own lives? Are the subject positions based on anything specific to ourselves, or are they functions of an external force? What makes the death of someone living in upper Manhattan seem more newsworthy then 100,000 similar deaths in Rwanda? Why did black human beings in the 1800s have a price tag, and considered less than human? This is all a function of the imaginary relationships that are provided for us by the dominant ideology. The final question is of course, why? Why is there a “veil” to begin with, and who is benefiting from it?
While there may be many other reasons why certain dominant ideologies exist, a major reason which Althusser mentions is simply, power. O’Brien from Nineteen Eighty-Four tells Winston in one of the final sections of the novel, that the ultimate goal of the Party is power:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power.... power is not a means; it is an end. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. (263)
In Brave New World, a different form of power is at work: control. It is fitting that the leader of the World State is called the “World Controller.” The social system is controlled. Birth is controlled. Values are controlled. There is even a predestination process that all newly manufactured children must pass through. And ultimately, thought is controlled, and likewise, reality is controlled, and represented back to the subject in a form.
Both novels have a class hierarchy that is a pyramid in structure. The majority reside at the base, supporting the structure. And, as one travels up the pyramid, those with an elevated position account for a smaller and smaller percentage of the structure, yet have the most power and visibility. The dominant ideology in both these novels serves to better the lives of the minority at the highest ranks of the society: the Inner Party and the Alphas. The zeal to keep the ideology alive and reproducing, and ultimately the purpose of the ideology itself, is to sustain the livelihood of this privileged minority. The middle-rung of this pyramid, as Marx would argue, continues along this path since their lives are relatively comfortable (at least compared to those below them) and hold a glimmer of hope of becoming the upper-level classes themselves. Marx also suggests that the middle and upper class over time exchange places, however, the base class of the pyramid always remain at that level. The moment the lower class (proletariat) becomes aware of their situation and revolts, is the moment when according to Marx, the structure collapses and a new ideological order can emerge.
Speculative fiction as a genre can provide us an interesting glimpse into our own “reality,” and in particular, the various ideologies that may be at work representing to us our relations to reality. Of course, speculative fiction itself is in no way outside of the pervading ideology, as it must employ the same codes and signifiers to articulate itself and enter our own frame of reference, especially for it be comprehensible. Nevertheless, the questions it allows us to ponder—to reevaluate our reality, our thoughts, as well the superstructure and codes that surround us—are all incredibly useful and can further our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. As Edgar Allen Poe mentions, there is a veil that exists. And as light and insignificant as the veil may seem, it does have a material existence, and in fact, re-presents and frames our own existence back to ourselves. Can we ever remove the veil? Not likely. However, a recognition of its existence, and how it can affect our thoughts, emotions, beliefs, desires, wants, needs (etc), may provide us some insight into who we are, and who we are not, and why some things are what they are, and why others may be (or may not be) all that they seem.
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