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Orwell’s Language – State and Praxis

This paper took more for me to write than usual, admittedly because it’s trickier, and I think it’s walking a tightrope. Hopefully I didn’t fall off!

We were prompted for this essay, but I won’t repost that here.

I disagree strongly with the implications of this week’s prompt. When it is stated that we should “persuade Orwell to revise his novel in order to take into account this notion of natural variation”, I find that the implications of this suggest that a supposed “overthrow” of the totalitarian system in place would occur, if only the language were there to speak of it. The idealism comes when the vocabulary of “resistance” becomes a system of resistance. This prompt is about the language of recognition, of developing a vocabulary through which one could supposedly dissent. But there is not a direct causal relationship between recognition and action. I argue that, rather, one must take further steps to move the realm of language (i.e. theory), into a more explicit domain of praxis. This is the step of “action”, and this practice is where the refutation of ideology can occur.

In Orwell’s 1984 as a society, this doesn’t happen on a large level. Even the “enemy of the state”, Goldstein, is suggested to be a fictitious straw man who draws in the wary. The strongest act of dissent in 1984 is simply writing a diary, taking steps to document the unfolding of Winston Smith’s mind. The mapping of thoughts, “Thoughtcrime”, doublethink… Oceania is a mental construct, in many ways. Even Winston’s ability to escape can only happen by way of dream, even at the end – “The long-hoped-for bullet was entering his brain” (308). Suicide and assassination are beyond Winston’s situation.

There is an inability of citizens to formulate actions on their fantasies of rebellion, beyond channels explicitly given by Oceania: writing, copulation, and moments of “hatred”. The hegemonic culture around them is “recreated, defended and modified” by their supposed struggles (Williams 112, Hegemony handout). “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”, O’Brien claims in a moment of ecstasy (277). Can subversive activity ever realistically occur if even the evolution of the language is centered on repeating dissent?

There seems to be a parallel between Lippi-Green’s work in English with an Accent, and 1984 in this respect as well; both demand recognition as praxis. Lippi-Green documents legal action as a main form of dissent; for a Hawaiian radio worker, an Indian librarian, or a Chinese professor of mathematics – the only way to rail against the embedded mores of our own cultural biases seems to be found in a lawsuit. Lippi-Green demands recognition of the linguistic issues at hand, but shifts away from a resolution of them. There is no architecture suggested in the book for what a discrimination-free society resembles; it is merely implied. There is hope for a new consensus (“we agree discrimination is absurd”), rather than a new system (“we will make a society in which discrimination is absurd”).

Perhaps it is the same in our overall society though. Does our acceptance of 1984 as a “worst case scenario” lead to complacency with our own current conditions? Our proportion for discourse on the “terrors of a totalitarian society” steers us away from the capacity to change our own. We’re at a point in which it is difficult to recognize the ideologies underpinning how (and why) we lead our lives, such as “deciphering” propaganda, or moving between making discourse and taking action. Our support of a “free society” manifests itself in discourse alone, it seems at overwhelming points. Orwell, in this sense, is keenly aware of the hopes of language. If I would revise Orwell, it would be to encourage taking action, to portray a spirited diversity of tactics to resist a state, any state, which restricts freedom. Examples of how to do this come from Orwell’s life, in which he takes active steps to militantly resist fascism, and to rail against totalitarianism at every turn.

A new dialect of Newspeak won’t overturn Oceania, or Ingsoc’s ideology. There has to be a breaking from what “tend[s] to hide reality – namely struggle and contradiction” (Gramsci 197, Ideology Handout). Because I need the freedom of expression in a tolerant, public society, and it comes no closer when all I can do is hope for it.


Filed under: Books, Evergreen

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