Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Nineteen Eighty-Four

To Be Free Is Free to Be

My provocation is this:  utopia is not the place to go looking for freedom. At least not the right kind of freedom. Ironically, I think, we should examine that which is so often associated with oppression, submission, and silence—dystopia.

 The idea for this paper came to me a year ago while watching an episode of Caprica, a spin-off of Battlestar Galactica. Here, Tad (gamertag:  Hercules) turns to Tamara and says:

“Look, I know this must seem really random to you, but this game—it really does mean something to me. It actually allows me to be something.”

Without pausing she fires back:

“Maybe if you weren’t in here playing this game you could be something out there, too.”

I think this exchange points to an interesting way in which the relationship between youth and the world is often cast:  youth are dreamers and cultivate their online selves at the expense of their real lives. But I think that this distinction between virtual and real is growing false and that the development of youth’s relationship with the intangible has everything to do with their relationship to the real.

Truth be told, this is actually my favorite episode of the series and it takes its name from a poem, “There Is Another Sky”:

There is another sky

Ever serene and fair

And there is another sunshine

Though it be darkness there

Never mind faded forests, Austin

Never mind silent fields

Here is a little forest

Whose leaf is evergreen

Here is a brighter garden

Where not a frost has been

In its unfading flowers

I hear the bright bee hum

Prithee, my brother

Into my garden come!

All of this from a woman who would never see the garden for herself.

But that’s sort of exactly the point, right? I mean, Dickinson and Tad are my people—they are the ones who are mired in the dark and they are the ones searching for a light, something more, something better. Something like a utopia.

And what is Dickinson’s garden, really, other than a form of utopia? Hearing those words, we picture a pastoral safe haven that is admittedly different from the technological utopias that we’ve been discussing in class but definitely a vision for a world that is better.

The trouble is that our utopias rarely come alone:  utopias are born out of dystopias, slide into dystopia, and maintain a healthy tension by threatening to turn into dystopias. As I’ve thought about this over the course of the semester, I have come to wonder if all utopias are in fact false for one person’s utopia is easily another’s dystopia. So we have this back and forth that is, as we have seen, instructive, but I’m most interested in the scenarios like those in Nineteen Eighty-Four and A Brave New World wherein an established utopia sets the scene for what has become a dystopian nightmare.

Somewhat like the life of a teenager. Tyler Clementi was perhaps the most high-profile case in a string of gay teen suicides that occurred in the fall of last year. At the time, I can remember being incredibly upset—not at Dharun, Clementi’s roommate—but at myself and my colleagues. “This death is, in part, on all of us,” I remember telling my peers for these are the kids that we are supposed to be advocating for and we’ve failed to change the culture that causes these things to happen. We’ve known about bullying in schools for a long time and we can make steps to alter that but we can also work to make youth more resilient.

Looking to do just that, columnist Dan Savage started a project called “It Gets Better” that attempted to convince gay youth to stick around because, well, “it gets better.” Once the initial goodwill wore off, I began to get increasingly upset at the project—not because the intent was unworthy but rather because the project showed a certain lack of understanding and compassion for those it was actually trying to help.

Telling a teenager that things will get better somehow, someday is like telling him that things will get better in an eternity because every day is like a million years. Telling a teenager your story means that you are not listening to theirs. And what about all those youth who don’t feel like they can tough it out until they can leave? They feel like failures. What you’re really after with this whole thing is hope, but I think that the efforts are misguided.

I was frustrated because this position caused youth to be passive bystanders in their own lives—that one day, they’d wake up or go off to college and things would magically get better. There might be some truth to that but what about all of the challenges that youth have yet to face? Life is hard—for everyone—and it’ll kick you while you’re down; but we need to teach our youth not to be afraid to get back up because the wrong lesson to learn from all of this is to become closed off and cynical.

So what are some of the ways that we can take a look at young adult culture and reexamine the activities that youth are already engaged in, in order to tell young people that they are valued just as they are?

For me, Young Adult fiction provides a great space in which to talk about themes of utopia/dystopia, depression, and bullying. So much more than Twilight, there was recently a discussion over this past summer on Twitter with participants employing the hash tag #YASaves. The topic was sparked in response to claims that the material in Young Adult fiction was too dark. Case in point, The Hunger Games centers on an event wherein 24 teenagers fight to the death in an arena. And I say this with the caveat that I am not a parent but I get that position—I really do. Years of interacting with parents and their children in the arena of college admission has convinced me that many parents want the best for their kids—they want to protect them from harm—but simply approach the process in a way that I do not find helpful.

Although “freedom from” represents a necessary pre-condition, it would seem that a true(r) sense of agency is the province of “freedom to.” And yet much of the rhetoric surrounding the current state of politics seems to center around the former as we talk fervently about liberation from dictatorships in the Middle East during the spring of 2011 or freedom from oppressive government in the United States. And these sound like good things, right? But here those dystopias born out of utopias are instructive for they show us what happens when “freedom from” collapses. Like “It Gets Better” which forwards its own vision of a life free from bullying, the dream rots because “freedom from” leads to a utopia—a space that, by its very nature, has no exit plan.

But, to be fair, perhaps “freedom to” has a stigma, one that Dan Savage is likely familiar with.

I imagine that there is a certain amount of disillusionment with this for “Free to Be…You and Me” has not really altered the perception that boys can have dolls or that it’s okay to cry. We are not yet truly free to be. But I would argue that it is not the concept of “freedom to” that is the issue here, it is the way in which it is defined—according to the song, it is a land where children and rivers run free in the green country.

In short, a utopia.

What if we applied what we learned from this course and instead of a place, recast utopia as a process of becoming? A dream of perpetual motion, if you will. What if we taught youth to think about how “freedom from” mirrors the language of colonialism and instead suggested that the more pertinent issue is that of freedom to? Not just freedom from censorship but freedom to protest, freedom to information and access to it, freedom to be visible, freedom to be anonymous, freedom to wonder, freedom to dream, and freedom to become. We are quickly seeing that virtual spaces are becoming hotbeds for these sorts of fights and the results of those skirmishes have a very real impact on the everyday lives of young adults. If there are teens who view high school as a war zone shouldn’t we arm them with better tactics? What if utopian described not a place but a type of person? Someone who fought accepted notions of the future and did not just wait for it to get better but challenged it, and us, to be better. Just maybe someone like a poet.

I opened with Emily Dickinson and I will return to her to close.

We’d never know how high we are

Until we’re called to rise

And then, if we are true to plan

Our statures touch the skies

Take what you’ve learned from this class and encourage youth to struggle with these notions of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Help them rise.


The Truth Shall Set You Free?

Young people handle dystopia every day:  in their lives, their dysfunctional families, their violence-ridden schools.

—Lois Lowry[1]

The Age of Information.

Today, more than ever, individuals are awash in a sea of information that swirls around us invisible as it is inescapable. In many ways, we are still grappling with the concept as struggle to sort, filter, and conceptualize that which surrounds us. We complain about the overbearing nature of algorithms—or, perhaps more frighteningly, do not comment at all—but this is not the first time that Western society has pondered the role and influence of information in our lives.

Access to information provides an important thematic lens through which we can view dystopic fiction and although it does not account for the entirety of the genre’s appeal in and of itself (or, for that matter, the increase in its popularity), we will see that understanding the attraction of dystopia provides some insight into the the societies that produce it and elucidates the ways in which the genre allows individuals to reflect on themes present in the world around them—themes that are ultimately intimately connected with the access and flow of information. My interest here lies specifically in YA dystopic fiction and its resonance with the developmental process of teenagers.

Lois Lowry’s quote suggests that today’s youth might be familiar with tangible aspects of dystopia even if they do not necessarily exist in a state of dystopia themselves; dystopia, then, is fundamentally relatable to youth.[2] Interpersonal violence in schools—on both the physical and virtual levels—has become a growing problem and can be seen as a real life analogue to the war-torn wastelands of YA dystopia; although the physical destruction present in fiction might not manifest in the everyday, youth may identify with the emotional states of those who struggle to survive.[3] And, given the recent and high-profile nature of bullying, issues of survival are likely salient for modern youth.[4]

As a writer, it should come as no surprise that Lowry, like literary critic Darko Suvin, primarily describes the concept of dystopia in literary terms; while a valid, if limited perspective, this does not preclude the term also possessing socio-political implications, with one potentially arguing that the relatable nature of dystopia extends far beyond the iterations outlined by Lowry into the realm of ideology.[5] On a basic level, dystopia often asks protagonists to perform a type of self-assessment while simultaneously evaluating preexisting hierarchal structures and systems of authority.[6] Given that this process asks individuals to contrast themselves with the society that surrounds them, one might make the argument that the themes of utopia and dystopia possess an implicit political element, regardless of authors’ intentions.

Moreover, consider the prevalent construct of the secret as a defining characteristic of dystopian societies like those presented in the classic works of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.[7] Often located in the cultural history of the dystopia (e.g., “What events caused us to reach this point?”) or the sustained lies of the present (e.g., “This is for your protection”), acquisition of new (hidden) knowledge represents a fundamental part of the protagonist’s—and, by extension, the reader’s—journey. For young adults, this literary progression can mirror the development occurring in real life as individuals challenge established notions during the coming-of-age process; viewed through the lens of anthropology, dystopian fiction represents a liminal space for both the protagonist and the reader in which old assumptions and knowledge are questioned during a metaphorical rite of passage. [8],[9] And, although the journey itself provides a crucial model trajectory for youth, perhaps more important, however, is the nature of the secret being kept:  as Lowry alludes to, modern youth undoubtedly realize that their world—our world—like that of any dystopia, contains elements of ugliness. The real secret, then, is not the presence of a corrupted underbelly but rather why rot exists in the first place.

Aside from the type of knowledge or even the issues latent in its accessibility, however, we can see that modern culture is undergoing a rather radical reconfiguration with regard to the social structures surrounding information flow. Although we still struggle with the sometimes antagonistic relationship between citizens and the State mirrored in classic and YA dystopia, we have also developed another dimension:  citizen versus citizen. Spurred on by innovations in technology that have made mobile gadgetry increasingly affordable and accessible to the public, on-location reporting has grown from the relatively useful process of crowdsourcing information to a practice that includes surveillance, documentation, and vigilante justice as we display our moral outrage over someone else’s ungodly behavior through platforms like paparazzi photos, tweeting of overheard conversations, and the ever-popular blog—we, in effect, have assumed the mantle of Big Brother. It would seem that, like Dr. Moreau, we have been granted knowledge and ability without wisdom.

Moreover, let us consider how youth currently exist in a culture of confession that was not apparent during previous cycles of utopia/dystopia. Spurred on in part by daytime talk shows, reality television, press conference apologies, and websites like PostSecret, the current environment is suffused with secrets and those willing to share their intimate stories for a price. Somewhat in opposition to confession’s traditional role in Catholicism, secrets now play an active role in public life despite their private nature, a process that mirrors the juxtaposition of personal and public histories by protagonists in YA dystopia.[10],[11] Moreover, we quickly come to see the increased relevancy of this trend when we consider how individuals, groups, organizations, and societies begin to define themselves in terms of the secrets that they hold about others and themselves. The prevalence of events like corporate espionage, copyright infringement lawsuits, and breakdowns in communication between youth and parents all point to entities that wish to contain and restrict information flow. If being an American in the 20th century meant being defined by material possessions, being an American in the 21st century is to be defined by information and secrets. And, if this is indeed the case, how might we view our existence as one that occurs in a series of ever-expanding dystopias? As it turns out, Lowry might have been more correct than she realized when she noted young people’s familiarity with dystopia.

But perhaps this development is not so surprising if we consider the increasing commodification of knowledge in postmodern culture. If we ascribe to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s argument regarding the closely intertwined relationship between knowledge and production—specifically that the cultivation of new knowledge in order to further production—and therefore that information sets are a means to an end and not an end in and of themselves, we witness a startling change in the relationship between society and knowledge.[12] In opposition to the idealistic pursuit that occurred during the Enlightenment period, modern conceptualizations seem to understand knowledge in terms of leverage—in other words, we, like all good consumers, perennially ask the question, “What can you do for me?” Furthermore, the influence of commercialism on Education (i.e., the institution charged with conveying information from one generation to the next) has been probed, conjecturing that educational priorities might be dictated by concerns of the market.[13] Notably, these cultural shifts have not disavowed the value of knowledge but have changed how such worth is determined and classified.

The Frankfurt School’s pessimistic views of mass culture’s relationship with economic influences and independent thought aside, Lyotard also points to the danger posed by the (then) newly-formed entity of the multinational corporation as a body that could potentially supersede or subvert the authority of the nation-state.[14] Businesses like Facebook and Google accumulate enormous amounts of information (often with our willing, if unwitting, participation) and therefore amass incredible power, with the genius of these organizations residing in their ability to facilitate access to our own information! Without castigating such companies—although some assuredly do—we can glimpse similarities between these establishments’ penchant for controlling the dissemination of information and the totalitarian dictatorships prevalent in so many dystopian societies. In spite of the current fervor surrounding the defense of rights outlined in the Constitution, we largely continue to ignore how companies like Google and Facebook have gained the potential to impact concepts like freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of information; algorithms designed to act as filters allow us to cut through the noise but also severely reduce our ability to conceptualize what is missing. These potential problems, combined with current debates over issues like privacy, piracy, and Net Neutrality indicate that power no longer solely resides in knowledge but increasingly in access to it.


[1] Lois Lowry, quoted in Hintz, Carrie, and Elaine Ostry. Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults. (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[2] One might even argue that those who read dystopian fiction most likely do not inhabit a dystopian world, for they would not have the leisure time to consume such fiction.

[3] This point, of course, should not be taken in a manner that discounts the legitimate struggles of children who grow up in conflict states.

[4] See Ken Rigby, New Perspectives on Bullying. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2002and Marilyn A. Campbell “Cyber Bullying: An Old Problem in a New Guise?” Australian Journal of Guidance and Counseling 15, no. 1 (2005): 68-76.

[5] Clare Archer-Lean, “Revisiting Literary Utopias and Dystopias: Some New Genres.” Social Alternatives 28, no. 3 (2009): 3-7.

[6] Kennon, Patricia. “‘Belonging’ in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction: New Communities Created by Children.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 15, no. 2 (2005): 40-49.

[7] Patrick Parrinder, “Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon.” Critical Survey 17, no. 1 (2005): 6-21.

[8] Hintz and Ostry, Utopian and Dystopian. 2003.

[9] Parrinder, “Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon.” 2005.

[10] Shannon McHugh and Chris Tokuhama, “PostSecret: These Are My Confessions.” The Norman Lear Center. June 10, 2010. http://blog.learcenter.org/2010/06/postsecret_these_are_my_confes.html

[11] John Stephens, “Post-Disaster Fiction: The Problematics of a Genre.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 3, no. 3 (1992): 126-130.

[12] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979).

[13] Suzanne de Castell and Mary Bryson, “Retooling Play: Dystopia, Dysphoria, and Difference.” In From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. (Cambidge: The MIT Press, 1998).

[14] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition. 1979.


A Spoonful of Fiction Helps the Science Go Down

Despite not being an avid fan of Science Fiction when I was younger (unless you count random viewings of Star Trek reruns), I engaged in a thorough study of scientific literature in the course of pursuing a degree in the Natural Sciences. Instead of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I read books about the discovery of the cell and of cloning; instead of Jules Verne’s literary journeys, I followed the real-life treks of Albert Schweitzer. I studied Biology and was proud of it! I was smart and cool (as much as a high school student can be) for although I loved Science, I never would have identified as a Sci-Fi nerd.

But, looking back, I begin to wonder.

For those who have never had the distinct pleasure of studying Biology (or who have pushed the memory far into the recesses of their minds), let me offer a brief taste via this diagram of the Krebs Cycle:

Admittedly, not overly complicated (but certainly a lot for my high school mind to understand), I found myself making up a story of sorts  in order to remember the steps. The details are fuzzy, but I seem to recall some sort of bus with passengers getting on and off as the vehicle made a circuit and ended up back at a station. I will be the first to admit that this particular tale wasn’t overly sophisticated or spectacular, but, when you think about it, wasn’t it a form of science fiction? So my story didn’t feature futuristic cars, robots, aliens, or rockets—but, at its core, it represented a narrative that helped me to make sense of my world, reconciling the language of science with my everyday vernacular. At the very least, it was a fiction about science fact.

And, ultimately, isn’t this what Science Fiction is all about (at least in part)? We can have discussions about hard vs. soft or realistic vs. imaginary, but, for me, the genre has always been about people’s connection to concepts in science and their resulting relationships with each other. Narrative allows us to explore ethical, moral, and technological issues in science that scientists themselves might not even think about.  We respond to innovations with a mixture of anxiety, hope, and curiosity and the stories that we tell often reveal that we are capable of experiencing all three emotional states simultaneously! For those of us who do not know jargon, Science Fiction allows us to respond to the field on our terms as we simply try to make sense of it all. Moreover, because of its status as genre, Science Fiction also affords us the ability to touch upon deeply ingrained issues in a non-threatening manner:  as was mentioned in our first class with respect to humor, our attention is so focused on tech that we “forget” that we are actually talking about things of serious import. From Frankenstein to Dr. Moreau, the Golem, Faust, Francis Bacon, Battlestar Galactica and Caprica (among many others), we have continued to struggle with our relationship to Nature and God (and, for that matter, what are Noah and Babel about if not technology!) all while using Science Fiction as a conduit. Through Sci-Fi we not only concern ourselves with issues of technology but also juggle concepts of creation/eschatology, autonomy, agency, free will, family, and society.

It would make sense, then, that modern science fiction seemed to rise concurrent with post-Industrial Revolution advancements as the public was presented with a whole host of new opportunities and challenges. Taken this way, Science Fiction has always been about the people—call it low culture if you must—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.