Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Reading 1984: Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever

There's no missing the fact that 1984 is satire. It's not comedy, but it is clearly that combination of hyperbole, criticism, and allegory that most effectively skewers the shortcomings and excesses of its target. The entire piece is such an exaggeration of the kind of police state that Stalin aspired to and that East Germany so nearly accomplished that it can not even be rightly described as science fiction. The book itself points out the technological bottleneck that makes its own central conceit--the telescreen--entirely unrealistic. There is simply no way to be monitoring everyone all the time.

Where it finds its feat is in the small manipulations. The emotional truth of the book--source of the characters' investment in the world around them--is played out through an elaborate sting operation that could very well be a regular honeypot that the Party operates at a much lower level of expense than they would incur if they constantly monitored everyone's telescreen. I'm referring here to the junk shop and its attached apartment. Through this sting, which could very well be a long-term operation (the book gives us no reason to believe it's not--Winston himself returns to it at such long intervals that it is not believable that it would be constructed just for him), we see the ways in which the Party lulls their target into a false sense of security and then waits until he slips up and commits a rather minor infraction (not being home by curfew) before they swoop in to punish him.

The dynamics at play in the scene where Winston is finally caught out are harsh and unsettling, and the timing of the raid is calculated to make them so. By waiting until he has had a chance to fully commit to his rebellion (even though they instigated his commitment), and then until he slips up and violates a minor rule, the Party gives Winston an action that he was directly responsible for that he can also directly attribute to his capture. This association makes it easier for him to see that capture as something he is responsible for, as seen in his internal recriminations during and directly after the raid itself.

The raid is not the only time that we find ourselves confronted with moments of stark psychological realism in the book, either. There is a reason why the interrogation scene, the source of both the "four lights" conversation and the "boot stamping on a human face forever" soliloquy, is so often aped in genre fiction (including in my very favorite Star Trek:The Next Generation episode). That reason is simply that, for all its symbolism and all its powerful manipulation of the archetypical abuses of power, there is a very personal connection being made between Smith and his interrogator.

It's not simply that Smith is being manipulated and gaslighted into denying reality. Nor is it the creepy, behaviorism-reminiscent 'retraining' of his reality that sinks in deepest for the reader (although it is powerful). Underneath all of that, there is the very simple emotional exchange that happens when Winston is forced to abandon his belief in his hero and role model. His interrogator and torturer, the abuser that wishes to retrain him to deny reality for the Party's glory, is the exact same person that Winston strives so hard to gain the approval of. He is the target for Winston's hero-worshipping fantasies, and the stern but wise father figure who, regardless of his stoic demeanor, is imagined to always be in agreement with Winston's intuition.

In the moment where Smith yields totally to O'Brien, he is not merely yielding to Big Brother's agent or the Party's interrogator. He is in fact embracing the truth behind Big Brother himself, by accepting the simultaneous and contradictory roles of O'Brien--the man that Winston actually revered as much as he was supposed to revere Big Brother, and who he trusted more than he trusted any other character, really, including Julia. His interior monologue, which is so quick to criticize Julia's attitude and lack of outrage regarding the Party's bullshit, is never anything less than effervescent in its descriptions of O'Brien's trustworthiness and character. O'Brien is the proxy object of Winston's affections, but they are the same affections that Winston mocks in others when he sees them directed toward Big Brother or reversed during the Two Minutes Hate.

This makes it so that, in effect, the scenes during which O'Brien forces Winston to deny the evidence of his senses and the mathematical truths of arithmentic are scenes wherein the stan-in figure for fatherhood in Winston's life is the abuser who wants to consume his very sense of identity. And that truth, lying at the bottom of the inhuman behavior that we are forced to witness during the interrogation, makes Winston's bargaining, trust, and eventual breakdown all the more truthful. It also makes it possible for the final scene--the moment in which Winston finally and truly loves Big Brother--to play honestly. What other epiphany could remain to him except to finally realize that O'Brien's life lesson to him, the core truth that he really was trying his best to impart to Winston all along--is that the entire system of Winston's society exists in order to force each person within it to confront the fact that the target of their affections, the larger-than-life hero that they revere, really does exist only to devour their sense of self and to replace it with affection for him.

And that, to me, is the most brutal aspect of the entire book. Not its critique of the forces that would co-opt a revolution. Not its assertion that any attempt to secure economic equality would be subverted to cement economic inequality. Just the bleak fact that whoever we trust to be our heroes, whoever we are willing to surrender our critical faculties to and adore, is likely to be using that adoration to warp our sense of ourselves and to subvert our existence to theirs.

In the first post in this series, I wrote about the various institutions that I equated with Big Brother during my various reads of this book. There is a reason why so many groups can be viewed as Big Brother--it is because in the end, Big Brother is not communism. He's not the church. He's not behaviorism or neuronormativity or heterosexist culture.

In the end, Big Brother is the brutal demonstration of the end result of treating people as means, and not as ends in themselves. This makes him all of those things, and also every failed father and abusive spouse. Every teacher who secretly hates children. Every faux-relationship-counseling radio charlatan who hands out quick fix advice and then blames the recipient when it doesn't work.

Big Brother is the administrative system that runs without assessment. The program that exists to perpetuate itself. He is Skynet, the zombie virus, and the dark, conspiracy-riddled fears of everyone who secretly avoids the prescription drug industry.

He's the best monster in the dark, because we can see him in so many things. That, and not some grand conspiracy orchestrated with the quiet compliance of 98% of the population, is why the future is a boot stamping on a human face forever. Because there are so many places that the boot can come from, and there is no way to ensure that we've protected against all of them.