I am supposed to be writing about Brave New World this week, but each time I sit down to do so, I am put off by the task. Perhaps because I’ve read it too many times? Because what I would say here, I’ve already thought about ad naseum and so the writing is not longer interesting to me? I’m not sure, but it feels done to me, and I still have the doing of it ahead.
While 1984 was the dystopia I was required to study in Grade 10, it whetted my appetite for fiction about fascist futures and post-collapse life, the next most obvious book being Brave New World. Since my first teenage encounter with it, I’ve made several readings – this being the fourth or fifth dalliance into Huxley’s cynical take on the possibilities of human control over life. Fukuyama would call this “our posthuman future”. For the record, although Huxley doesn’t even begin to imagine the type of enslaving technology available in our present, he did believe very much in the future he predicts in BNW as exemplified in a letter circulating on the Internet that Huxley wrote to Orwell several months after the publication of 1984.
For those few of you who haven’t read this classic novel – the story is premised on a society organized along the lines of Fordism. That is a mechanized, assembly-line, technologically savvy future in which everything – including humans – is controlled through design principles of efficiency and optimum production. A mastery of hypnosis and psychology have merged into the ultimate tool of mind control, and where that doesn’t work the drug soma is prescribed outside of working hours to keep the population in a continual state of disconnect (while simultaenous activity ensures they will never be alone). There are still “primitive” reservations in areas of the world which haven’t much development or exploitation potential – and it is in one of these “wild” zones that the Brave New World is cast into relief as protaganist Bernard Marx and his companion Lenina travel there on a holiday. Of course there is a full synopsis at Wikipedia if you don’t know the work…..
Of course we recoil at this “future”, one in which free will is traded for a type of cardboard happiness constructed out of conditioning and drug taking. While the reservation ostensibly exists outside of this, its marginal status ensures that the lives of people immersed in ritual, tradition and family are seen as ludicrous in their refusal to alleviate their psychic suffering through immersion in the controlled society. “Primitivism” to Huxley is a base thing, ignoble and dirty, a perspective shared by many of his fellow intellectuals of the 1920s and 30s unfortunately). In a 1947 introduction to the novel Huxley himself noted that he really only shows two possibilities: the insanity of the modern world, against the “lunacy” of the primitive and thus chides himself that a third option of break-away state of educated free people be proposed as a possible place of escape. (To some degree these states do exist in the modern world, as islands of exile for those Alphas who just can’t fit in – but Huxley doesn’t explore what those exile-spaces look like).
But although we are meant to turn away from Huxley’s vision, I can’t help but thinking that an awful lot of people in our society today would gladly trade their free will for a state of monotone bliss. In fact, I can’t help but thinking that a lot of people in this society are attempting to live in their own BNW bubbles through unbroken consumption of media, disconnected sexual encounters and the social hypersexualization in general, drug-taking and consumerism. If a government came along offering a permanent employment, extended youth and an end to relationship miseries alongside that culture of mindlessness which already exists – wouldn’t a lot of people raise their hand to participate with no revolution or civil war at all?
And why not? Unless it is, as Fukuyama suggests, the struggle for the self and recognition that is fundamental to our human nature – and it is this human nature that has some checks and balances built in based on our ability to reflect and empathize with others. (Not that it’s a perfect mechanism by a long shot, but it is posited by philosophers and evolutionary psychologists that empathy which grows out of the “theory of mind” implicit in believing in a deity, go a long way to keeping human behaviour in check). Without the threat of aging, without the struggle to form relationships with our children and spouses, without the stress of having to pick a course of education or find a vocation – what kind of humans would we be? Huxley posits that people are vapid and bland, though not necessarily difficult to get along with for the most part. Is this true of the consumer-obsessed of our current state?
While I would like to believe that we are not so cartoonish as the characters in BNW, reality television and celebrity culture would tell me otherwise. It’s this seeming lack of imagination which saddles so many of us into believing we want what our parents wanted, or what our neighbours have, or what someone else will look up to (money/fame) and so we shed our individual natures in order to follow a path of conformity fed by the constant messaging of lack (as in – you don’t have enough, you’re not good enough, you need more stuff to be better). And in the end who does this serve? Well to some degree it must serve us by creating a (false) sense of security and inclusion which the need for would be hardwired into us from our evolutionary past – and to another degree it serves the Alphas (Politicians, Corporate Overlords, and the Professional Class in general) who tap into those innate desires and needs in order to create their sense of security and inclusion. The difference between the Alphas and the rest of us is that they have some deeply-held need to dominate, and usually come from a class advantage that allows them to. (Not unlike BNW – ahem.)
And now here I find myself on the threshold of the question of whether free will even exists in the first place, and that’s where I will need to end.
I recognize that *everyone* uses BNW to talk about our modern existence and the seemingly empty culture we are living in and co-creating – but Huxley’s most famous work isn’t still read today because of its literary merit so much as that its commentary resonates within us. It still speaks to our deepest fears – which is the sense that to live controlled is to not live at all – that to mechanise birth is to introduce the sterility of death – that to stamp out our connection with nature is to destroy our link to the divine questions which have fueled our art, literature and politics. And then what? We lose the drama of living, of history, of violence, of change – flattened our, levelled (as Kierkegaard would say), and thus neutered of any desire except that which is sold to us in the form of a pill or a new skirt or a night in a hot new club.
Yeah, I think that sounds pretty dreadful, but I’m afraid there are a lot of people who don’t.