Thursday, July 18, 2013

Facecrime (Update 3--the Final Update)

As I've mentioned before, I'm taking some time this summer to look back at some of my favorite pieces of writing. When I started this, it was mostly genre pieces. I've read Jacqueline Carey's first D'Angeline trilogy, some old Clive Barker, and even a little Robert Silverberg.

For the last couple of weeks, I've been taking a break from the genre work and re-reading some of the old literary classics I loved as a kid (meaning elementary through undergraduate years for me). It's been surprising, to see how many books I don't actually care for and to realize that some of them I never cared for--I just read them because I was told they were good. Then I accepted that what I had read was what good writing looked like, and that made me try to write that way. The Catcher in the Rye comes to mind as an example.

One thing that I've been surprised by as I re-read some of these "important works" is that I don't actually care for Milan Kundera. When I was about twenty I was fascinated with him. Now, though, he seems to be dwelling on simple intellectual concepts for inordinate periods of time and with much fanfare and hand-waving to distract us from the fact that his points are not actually important or deep, just self-absorbed. (The work I tried to re-read was The Unbrearable Lightness of Being, and I'm open to the idea that it's just the translation I have.)

Another thing that's surprised me is how much more richness and depth I've found in George Orwell. When I first read 1984, it was a terrifying and eye-opening experience. I was in third or fourth grade, and my father assigned the book to me alongside some jingoistic bullshit pro-military books like The Raid at Entebee to help teach me about why communism was terrible and we were right to fear it. (This was the year before the end of the Soviet Union.)

When I first read that book, it occurred to me that the system Orwell was criticizing didn't have to be communism--it could be any system wherein you were told to do something you knew was wrong, but you had to do it anyway. This led to a grounding because my mother accused me of "not even trying to clean my room" after I'd been shut in all morning and told that I would not be allowed out of it until it was cleaned. I had sorted most of my toys into piles by size, and I was proud of that. She was mad that they were still in the middle of the floor. When she declared that I had "done nothing", I replied with something along the lines (can't remember the exact wording) of "Mommy's ability to know what she wasn't here to see is doubleplusungood but still orthodoxy."

After that, I was condemned to spend an entire summer only reading books from the children's section of the library.

I read the book again in both high school and during my undergraduate years in college, and both of those times it seemed to me that the book's critiques of orthodoxy, totalitarianism, and sex-negativity as social control applied just as strongly (if not more strongly) to fundamentalist Christianity and to Catholicism than to communism. Most especially, the idea that orthodoxy was built to perpetuate suffering, and the "boot stamping on a human face forever" speech made me feel this way. The three slogans of the Ministry of Truth did, too, though. "War is peace, Ignorance is strength, Slavery is freedom" was uncomfortably close to the beatitudes I was forced to recite for years after I realized that they were contradictory non-thoughts.

The sex-negativity was the clincher for me, though. The fact that not only was chastity and purity valued, but that the sex impulse was directly channeled back into veneration for Big Brother and that this redirection of humanity's natural instincts was a key component in the Party's control.... well, if you were raised Catholic, you should be able to see the parallel. Regarding the clergy as being married to (and it is implied, romantically devoted to) Christ, that every passion and impulse returns to him... it has a ring of the Junior Anti-Sex League to it. So, I went into my twenties firmly convinced that 1984 was only about communism on the surface, and that it was in fact a highly subversive critique of organized religion.

Now, I'm reading the book in my thirties. This time, I'm not so convinced that Orwell intended the anti-religious reading to be the primary one, but I'm also sure that he did not intend the anti-communism on the surface of the book to be the primary message. In that, I'm pretty sure that he was limiting himself to a speculative demonstration of the end result of Stalinism specifically, especially since Goldstein is obviously a Trotsky surrogate and therefore, still a communist of a kind.

Now, the book is a study on social control. I have some thoughts on the way that the specific predictions of totalitarianism's end results seem antiquated when you're reading this book in a surveillance state, but that's another essay. Reading this book as a study in the various methods used to achieve dominance over people through behavior modification, though, and the internal hell it creates in the subject, reveals new depths to Orwell's critique, as well as interpretive applications beyond mere political commentary.

Take, for instance, the idea of facecrime. From p. 65 of the Penguin mass market paperback edition (1989 printing):
It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself--anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offence. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called.
All it takes to turn this from a commentary on the surveillance state into a critique of behavior modification/policing of neurodivergent children is a single word change. Make "telescreen" into "adult". If we can read this and know that the state's judgment and meting out of punishment for facial expressions is an egregious emotional and intellectual violation, then why can't we see the same thing about "treatments" like ABA that would employ psychological techniques that they claim are only recently discovered, but which are point-for-point reproductions of the oppressive behavior modification routines of totalitarian states in literature?

I'm going to leave this post at this point, but I will be returning to 1984 repeatedly as I read it, and I will be highlighting items such as the state-sponsored gaslighting inherent in the operations of the Ministry of Truth and the importance of linguistic control not only as a tool of power, but also as a tool for liberation.

For my friends who write more explicitly theoretical work (I'm looking at you, That Autistic that Newtown Forgot), I invite you to add further commentary to my work and/or to join me in providing a disability-theory and/or neurodiversity-based criticism of the book if you find yourselves so inclined. PM me on Facebook with your response posts and I will add links below.

Update: Never one to turn down a chance to connect disability theory to other aspects of cultural criticism, That Autistic that Newtown Forgot responded with a good theoretical comparison between gender analysis and disability theory that also touches on a possible interpretation of the role of the Two Minutes Hate. You can find it here.

Update 2: Alyssa, of Yes, That Too has posted a couple more essays in this series. The first is a paper she did some time back for school. The second is a new essay based on the discussion that has taken place over the last few days.

Update 3: I've posted my next 1984 essay, and you can read it here. I will no longer be adding links to this one, but I will add future essays on this topic from outside bloggers to the table of contents at the bottom of the next essay.

Keep the essays coming. It doesn't matter if you're connecting one aspect of Orwell's world to kyriarchical societal structures or if you're comparing totalitarian methods of mind control to behavior modification "therapies" or anything in-between. I'll have at least 2 more posts (and I promise at least one will be about boots stomping on a human face forever), so this will be a thing for a little while yet.