In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell presents us with a world where systemic thinking, a form of solipsism represented by the Party and embodied in O’Brien, has come to permeate and dominate all aspects of human living. This type of thinking, which adheres rigidly to its own logic, becomes a form of closed-mindedness that recognizes no perspective other than its own and has become, in the novel, a self-referential totalism that neither acknowledges nor sees the need for any external stimuli. As a consequence all alternative viewpoints are regarded as transgressions, deviations that must be corrected to preserve the integrity of the system in the absolutism of its ‘purity’. The principal possessors and guardians of this perfection are, of course, the Inner Party with their ‘special relationship’ to the ‘Truth’. It is they who have created a world where two and two can equal five, where ‘Freedom equals Slavery’ and so on; where anyone, such as Winston Smith or Julia, who challenges the oligarchy, must be, in the terms of its own all-pervading logic, regarded as ‘insane’: misguided blind fools who need to be ‘helped’ to think in the correct Party-determined way. The Party’s method (before the apparently inevitable requirement for torture) for the imposition and maintenance of its ‘Truth’ is the manipulation of language.
The Party has understood the central role that language plays in determining thought. Orwell, in presenting the Party in this way, seems to curiously anticipate certain trends in current Post-Modernist thinking. One of the aims of this paper will be to examine this element further. I will also consider how Orwell presents the dynamic relationship between language and power and how this constitutes and determines what we sense as reality and thus our experience and perception of truth.
O’Brien and the Party will talk about the history of the past and about history’s relation to power; but it is the control over history in its synchronous mode, history as a dynamic activity here and now, and in their control of interpretations of the future, that their domination and determination of the meanings of words gives them – their control of language itself – that is the essential basis of their ability to realize and impose their ‘Truth’ to the exclusion of all others. O’Brien makes the centrality of present-control explicit when, in the Ministry of Love, he orders Winston to repeat the Party slogan, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell, 1949/83, 232: all future references are to this edition). This is, at least to begin with, precisely what Winston objects to; and he objects to it on the very ground most likely to offend the Party; Winston rejects this view because it is not true. Winston has already considered this slogan and concluded that “…the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting” (32). Winston, will insist that two plus two equals four, at least for a time: until his very ability to think at all is stamped out; until he cannot but believe the Party’s Truth that it equals five.
Orwell is careful to ensure that we do not lose our perspective. Although he describes at length Winston’s self-questioning as to the accuracy and veracity of his own memories we are not to suppose that the events they describe never took place at all. Or that he does not remember their essential quality. When, for example, he recalls the final scene with his mother, and we hear him recall her remembered final words to him: “Come back! Give your sister back her chocolate!” (151) we do not doubt the essential reality and relevance of the scene even if we do not assume absolute accuracy in Winston’s recollection of his mother’s exact words. In the statement’s mixture of motherly authority, filial loyalty and the tinge of poignant sweetness leant by the memory of chocolate Orwell ensures that we realize, with Winston, that the truth is not merely determined by the accuracy of verbal veracity. It is Winston’s sense of the importance of the event (for him) that is its truth: a ‘combination’ so to speak of ‘actual’ fact and factual relevance: an ultimately indeterminable ratio/relationship which is the inviolable actual truth for Winston: the real truth that happened, and cannot therefore not be in this important sense (this, then, is more than any straightforward correspondence theory of truth: something is true even if it is ultimately unfathomable). Arguably this is the most important sense in which the truth exists for us; and it is precisely the sense that, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, is seen as most subversive by the Party and thus constitutes Winston’s ‘heresy’.
This, I suggest, raises a question: Why, if the relevance of truth must contain this element of individual experience to be felt as truth, can the Party apparently become so successful at imposing its ‘Truth’ on people in the place of their own truths? The answer, I hope to demonstrate, lies in the effect that the Party’s control of language also has on the ability that the population of Oceania has (or does not have) to have access to its own (real) experiences on an individual, as well as collective, level. This, I suggest, is where the Party’s power-source is to be found at its most effective and virulent: its ability to determine the nature of the perception of reality, effective reality, inducing a scotosis toward reality per se: the fullness of being. And it is in this control of reality through language that Orwell presents his most convincing and terrifying manifestation of the (mis)use of power.
But how, precisely, can the Party be so effective in this determination of reality? How is it that people can apparently be prepared and willing to accept a version of reality that seems so antithetical to so many of our basic human needs? Well, it would seem that reality is by no means as stable or certain – so concretely ‘out there’ in a Cartesian sense – as our senses may suggest it is. Orwell, writing before post-modernist ideas become current, nevertheless, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, seems to focus (through the activities of the Party) on many key elements of a post-modernist understanding of the nature of reality even if, perhaps unsurprisingly, he cannot see beyond them – a point I will return to below.
Reality, some post-modern thinkers propose, is fundamentally ambiguous: it is not simply ‘out there’. And this is not in itself a point that I wish to challenge, although I will in turn propose a different version, so to speak, of this ambiguity. To remind ourselves of some of the key perspectives on what reality is in some key aspects for certain post-modernist positions: For Derrida it is a kind of ‘text’ outside of which there is ‘nothing’; for Badiou it is ‘the event’; and, for Lacan, although the ‘Real’ ‘happens to us’ it is, nevertheless, ‘impossible’. These are all positions which resonate in important ways in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Paraphrasing Lacan, Zupancic tells us that “the impossibility of the Real does not prevent it having an effect in the realm of the possible” (Zupancic, 2000, 235). Now this is a curious state of affairs; however it does immediately suggest, it seems to me, how the nature of reality could be manipulated; and is, I will propose, by the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
To explain further: for Lacan ‘the Real’ is precisely that which lies beyond language. In his view, language only describes itself, it is always (just) language, reality – where we live – therefore becomes a kind of effect produced by language. If, for Lacan, the Real is beyond or outside of language, it is also presumably beyond human cognition. The result of this ‘impossibility of the Real’, at least in this sense, is that language and our use of it in all its historical and socio-cultural contexts and consequences becomes, in effect, our reality. Only this must be a ‘pseudo-reality’; a ‘product’ of language, a ‘thing’, reifiable and thus controllable by language assuming, of course, that language is ultimately controllable – which is exactly what Orwell does assume in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The Party controls language, thus it controls the socio-cultural matrix of Oceania, thus it determines Oceania’s people’s reality. Except, of course, because reality is not ‘Real’ it can be anything the Party wants it to be. If this is the case and, to this extent, language qua reality could in a sense be said to precede thought, then control of language, the ability to (pre)determine and prescribe what words people can actually use, would become a practically unchallengeable form of coercion: Newspeak is precisely this; the Dictionary of Newspeak is thus a weapon, and the aim of it is to prevent communication and thus ideas. As Syme assures Winston, ultimately the aim is that “there will be no thought, as we understand it now” (49). The antithesis of this, of course, is “the literature of the past” which Syme claims “will have been destroyed” (49). Humanity (or at least that part of it that occupies Oceania one assumes) and the Party will become synonymous, as O’Brien tells Winston,
“We control life… at all its levels. You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable…Humanity is the Party. The others are outside – irrelevant” (252).
However, if this is the case, and in Nineteen Eighty-Four it is, then the Party, through O’Brien, is revealing a flaw in its own manipulations. I suggest that ‘the others’, those “outside”, must be anything but “irrelevant”: it is they who are beyond the Party’s language and, to this extent, they function as an aspect of the ‘Real’. O’Brien may dismiss them as “proles” and call them “helpless, like animals” but they have functioned for Winston as the representatives of something certainly “outside”, yet certainly not “irrelevant”. Their own lack of consciousness of their relevance has no consequence for the structural and structuring effect the image and idea of them has for Winston: it is his access to the ‘Real’: precisely that, like the photograph of Aaronson, Jones and Rutherford, the fact that he knows they exist (or even haveexisted) is what is important. It is because the other minor characters (Ampleforth, Syme et al) seem not to grasp this importance that their threat to the Party is so puny compared to Winston’s. They are one-dimensional; their human nature is controlled and effectively created by the Party. Regardless of what the Party thinks of them, they never seriously show any desire to challenge it. The comparatively intelligent Ampleforth assumes his “apparent” guilt and even ‘works’ at providing an ‘explanation’ for its inevitability, “These things happen…I could not help it!” (216). He accepts responsibility for his ‘guilt’ even as he acknowledges his culpabilty. In fact because Ampleforth’s and the others’ natures are a ‘product’ of the Party’s (linguistic) manipulations they are literally unable to challenge the Party; the Party’s reality is their reality: they are synonymous with it. To challenge the Party would be to question their very existence itself, even though this existence, from the reader’s perspective, is the obvious result of distortion. When the Party ‘yes-man’, Parsons, is thrown into a cell in the Ministry of Love, Winston can ask even him “Are you guilty?” and we are not surprised when the obviously innocent man exclaims, “Of course I’m guilty!”(218) because, of course, by all his Party-induced reference points he is guilty.
Neither Parsons nor the rest of the Outer Party members can relinquish their adherence to the Party. It has become the substance of their world-view. It is certain; to abandon it would be to abandon themselves; which would mean embracing an uncertainty perceived as more threatening than the, at least predictable, fate awaiting them at the hands of the Party. It is, as Lonergan has insisted, difficult to resist “the flight into certainty” (see Appendix). We might add any certainty.
By the novel’s end Winston, too, has been forcefully indoctrinated to accept the Party’s ‘reality’, but before this happens Orwell affords us a glance at how another path leading to a different and, I suggest, ‘realer’, even ultimate, reality could once have been taken. It is via his relationship with Julia.
In Julia Winston finds someone with whom he can share not only his feelings about the distortions of the Party, but who, additionally, facilitates his access to his deepest experiential memories – the very events that constitute what is real and meaningful for him. Julia, through his relationship with her, allows him to, at least temporarily, escape the deadening one-dimensionality of Party-reality. O’Brien, by contrast, remains a solitary figure locked up inside himself. He would even try to make his ‘oneness’ into a form of ‘pseudo-collectivity’ when he enthusiastically talks about “Collective solipsism” (249) apparently unconcerned about the fact that this is an oxymoron, and that ultimately the Party’s ‘philosophy’ is thus built on nothing more than this. But O’Brien has an oxymoronic mind: it is comfortable with ‘alternative facts’.
Through their relationship Winston and Julia experience the very duality of perspectives that produces a ‘both/and’ quality which can allow access to the uncertainties of the past (both public and private) in a way that nevertheless enables those very uncertainties to become a reflection, rather, of the potential openness and ongoingness of history, again both public and private. When they are together they become ‘fuller’ human beings, more complete and more open with both a past and (potentially) a future, thus they move closer to ultimate reality, the ‘fullness of being’. They are freed from the ‘eternal’ dead present of the Party. As Orwell tells us, the positive effects are comprehensive, both physical and mental, Winston had “…dropped his habit of drinking gin …He had grown fatter, his varicose ulcer had subsided… his fits of coughing…had stopped” (139). He sees goodness everywhere. Of the objectively ugly prole washer woman he can murmur, “She’s beautiful” whilst dismissing Julia’s observation that “She’s a metre across the hips” with the all-embracing, “That is her style of beauty” (205). Orwell signals this ‘realer’ reality also in the objects around them, and again an image of sweetness is used to suggest authenticity. They make “real coffee” and Julia passes a curious “kind of heavy, sand-like stuff” to Winston. “It isn’t sugar?” he says. To which Julia replies, “Real sugar” (130). This symbolizes, I suggest, the reality that is constituted by their love for each other; sweetly genuine, it is a reality based on actual experience and thus in itself authentic. It is in this sense that Alfred North Whitehead considers experience – for him this is the ‘event’ – to be the ‘realest’ reality – at least for living creatures.
Nevertheless I do not mean to propose that Orwell is telling us that this love is in any sense absolute (as the Party insists its ‘Truth’ is) for all its authenticity. In this it resembles, it seems to me, Lonergan’s concept of the ‘virtually unconditioned’ – a conditioned whose conditions are fulfilled (see Appendix). That is, a kind of reality which is relevant and true for the human being(s) experiencing it. In Lonergan’s view the ‘formally unconditioned’, that which is itself without any conditions whatever – the absolutely True – is beyond the scope of human beings. Although, of course, in Nineteen Eighty-Four it is this specifically ‘formally unconditioned’ “Truth” that the Party claims itself to be in possession of. The problem for the Party, however, with virtually unconditioned truth is that this virtual reality as humanly limited, would nonetheless permit individual freedom (at least to experience), would be subject to chance and so on: in short it is not entirely controllable. This is why the Party cannot allow it to persist; which is why it must “help” Winston and Julia back into a ‘proper’ perception of reality as the Party determines it. To this extent the Party is much like any actually-existing totalitarianism (and Orwell uses Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany as his models – although one could supply any number of models, both past and present, which fall into this category). What makes Oceania’s Party different, as O’Brien says, is that it “seeks power entirely for its own sake” (246); and to this extent the novel fulfills Orwell’s intention that it be a warning. However, whilst I do not propose to challenge the artistic integrity of what Orwell sets out to achieve, and does, in my view succeed in achieving, nevertheless I do wish to suggest that Orwell does not have any alternative but to end the novel in the way that he does (if, for the sake of making this point, I can leave strictly artistic and aesthetic questions aside for the moment), because he does not have a developed theory at his disposal (for whatever reason) that would enable him to construct a convincing argument to counter the effectiveness of the logical demands of the totalitarian nightmare he has constructed (Dostoyevsky, it is interesting to remember, has a similar problem with his Grand Inquisitor legend – literary necessity seems to impose a logic of its own which is, of course, another type of example of the power of language).
It is necessary then for Orwell’s didactic and artistic purposes that Winston and Julia meet the fate they do (see Note 1); nevertheless I propose to consider what form an alternative fate for our unfortunate couple might have taken, whilst also venturing to hope that this will still accord both with Orwell’s didactic and artistic purposes.
To the extent that Winston and Julia can be considered to represent a ‘last chance’ bifurcation point, and in fact Orwell originally wanted to call the novel ‘The Last Man in Europe’, then this moment of potential divergence would become a kind of ‘fluctuation point’ that could represent ‘risky’ hope in the sense of a ‘Renewal of Nature’ such as Prigogine and Stengers talk of when they describe societies as
“…complex systems involving a potentially enormous number of bifurcations exemplified by the variety of cultures that have evolved in the relatively short span of human history. We know that such systems are highly sensitive to fluctuations. This leads to both hope and a threat: hope, since even small fluctuations may grow and change the overall structure. As a result, individualactivity is not doomed to insignificance (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984, 313, emphasis added).
The ‘risk’ is made clear when they go on to say,
“On the other hand, this is also a threat, since in our universe the security of stable, permanent rules seems gone forever. We are living in a dangerous and uncertain world that inspires no blind confidence…” (ibid. 313).
It is not difficult to see, I suggest, how the individual action described here seems to tally with Winston and Julia’s perspective and actions, whilst the fear of the loss of “permanent rules” suggests the reactionary draconianisms of the Party. I should add that Prigogine and Stengers’ concept of the “order through fluctuations” that results from “complex systems” and leads to increasingly more “complex systems” implies an accommodating openness oriented to growth and development and thus radically different to the closed-system reductive thought exemplified by the Party (see Note 1).
Which raises, then, one further question: Precisely what sort of scheme or theory would enable us to convincingly propose an escape from Orwell’s inevitably triumphant dystopia? What could allow a taking of the ‘right’ path at this ‘bifurcation point’?
Well, let us return to the objectification of reality practiced by the Party, what could be called its reification of reality. For the Party, then, reality is an object, a ‘product’, as I have already suggested, a ‘thing’ which they can manufacture and thus control. In a way because, for some post-modernist thinkers, reality-as-such does not exist (it is “impossible”; or an “event”; or “nothing can exist outside the text” – to remind ourselves) it, quite independently of their ‘intentions’ as it were, begins to function as if it were a thing – simply because existence is still inevitably experienced, by flesh and blood human beings, as something, and cannot be experienced by human beings as nothing. However, I venture to suggest, this is still an erroneous perception of the true nature of things; an erroneousness that is as much a consequence of the deficiencies of our language use and relationship to it as is the fate, at the hands of the Party, of Winston and Julia a consequence of its language use. And these, in turn, are both consequences of an increasing general process of reification that has been proceeding since at least the Enlightenment and with (as Adorno and Horkheimer et al have pointed out) increasing acceleration in our own time – something that Orwell was surely aware of. But, as Eugene Webb, talking about the thought of Eric Voegelin, has pointed out:
Reality, at its deepest level, is not a ‘thing’ or a ‘fact’, but an existential tension which is structured, through the poles of ‘world’ and ‘Beyond’, as a pull toward the perfect fullness and luminosity of being that is symbolized in the language of myth by the realm of the divine. The substance of reality, in other words, at least as far as it can be known by man in epistemic experience, is nothing other than the love of God. This is, again, to speak mythically; but to articulate in all of its experiential richness a philosophical penetration into the living depths of existence no other language can be fully effective. Existential reality is not known through an objectifying ‘look’ which could subject it to cognitive mastery in the philodoxic mode, but only through the involvement of the whole person surrendering, entrusting, and, committing himself to it (Webb, 1981, 126, emphasis added).
The most relevant aspect here, as far as this discussion is concerned, is the point about myth; specifically, myth and its relation to language.
For Voegelin, the ability that we have, via language, to create myths, by which he means the attempt to explain in humanly comprehensible terms that which is, ultimately, beyond human understanding (the actual fullness of being) other than in this subjectively ‘felt’ way. For example, the signifier ‘God’ denotes an entity that, strictly speaking, must be beyond human understanding; however we can grasp the concept of God analogically, usually through some type of myth. Myth, in this sense, is thus a ‘reaching’, corresponding to Plato’s concept of Zetesis, and also a ‘lure’, corresponding to Whitehead’s notion of ‘eternal objects’, that is, for or towards that which is only dimly and imperfectly known. To put it another way: our knowledge of God is ‘virtually unconditioned’ (necessarily: by the limits of human understanding), whereas God is ‘formally unconditioned (in the sense that the signifier ‘God’ denotes that which must, out of logical necessity, be complete unto ‘itself’).
To this extent, then, our language, rather like our lives, can express, and can only be expressed, in truths (the actual record of our tangible experiences); the Truth would be an exclusive aspect, or ‘property’, of the formally unconditioned. Thus, when, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party seeks to maintain and implement the ‘Truth’, this, in fact, becomes the grossest and most pernicious distortion, a ‘trespass’ so to speak: precisely that type of reification that would seek to deny that which must escape it; all, in other words, that is especially human (Parsons, Syme et al, even O’Brien, have had their ‘humanness’ curtailed and diminished). As O’Brien assures Winston, “Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow” (240). Reduced to such a hollowness Winston would be no more than a simulacrum, entirely controllable by the Party, because, to remind ourselves, “the Party seeks power entirely for its own sake” (246). It really does desire to fill “headpieces with straw”. Alas! And can we not imagine Orwell’s wry empathy as he recalls Eliot’s poem? When the Party has attained full control over everyone, when the world is finally “hollow”, then it will have achieved its goal. It will, of course, be a “hollow” victory, entirely Pyrrhic. Once the world is hollowed, it is no longer our World.
It is against the drive of this nihilistic intent in the Party that Winston and Julia try to assert themselves and their experiences. Almost until the end Winston can see through O’Brien’s increasingly absurd claims. He cannot suppress his consciousness of their fundamental ridiculousness (“If I wished, I could float off this floor like a soap bubble” (260), O’Brien says, conclusively demonstrating that power, like evil, is ultimately banal). His sense of reality persists in its resistance, it will, “…like a lump of submerged wreckage breaking the surface water…burst into his mind” (260). Winston, while he still has the ability to think for himself as an individual, decisively rejects O’Brien’s assertion that, “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind…only in the mind of the Party” (233). Winston, even as he tries to push it under (to avoid imminent destruction), cannot deny his consciousness of an ‘other’ world, the true world: “somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a “real” world where “real” things happened” (260). This “real” world is, I suggest, the fusion (of both outer and inner ‘worlds’; the realities of both perception and apperception) constituted through the kind of relationship exemplified by Winston and Julia when they are together: in their selves, with each other, and with the world (and, potentially, with the universe ‘beyond’): A ‘whole’ existence (the expression of which can only ever be via symbols when ‘reduced’ to language: specifically the language of myth, and this too is, of course, still ‘only’ symbolism but, it seems, of a more truthful kind); a consequence of their newfound openness that can only fully come into ‘being’ in this dynamic tension.
Thus, to be an individual oneself is to ultimately be able to fully acknowledge the individuality of an other whilst recognizing a shared humanity that would be antithetical to the false collectivity propounded by the Party. Winston and Julia represent, then, that which is the real world, the world that O’Brien and the Party will destroy. The Party can only recognize and therefore tolerate itself, which, at least partly explains why it can inflict pain so readily and remorselessly; it cannot recognize the actual otherness that constitutes the humanity of the specific individual. When O’Brien says he is helping Winston to “sanity” he means it ‘sincerely’ as it were. “Everyone is washed clean”, he says (239) and even Winston recognizes that “he is not a hypocrite; he believes every word he says” (239). This is the true horror, the real terror that Orwell wants us to feel and be aware of: the inhuman mindless destructiveness of exultant “lunatic enthusiasm” (239). Finally, it is the lunatic enthusiast’s “Truth”, the consequence of their systemic-thinking and its rigid adherence to its own solipsist logic – which we identified at the start – that Orwell is warning us against. It is a logic that, in O’Brien and the Party, transcends, or thinks it transcends, all dichotomies; ultimately it considers itself beyond even all binaries (even the Party’s ur-binary – hate Goldstein; love Big Brother – would be finally transcended) its “God is Power”: it is Power: it is God. Only a lunatic believes he is God. God, as we said earlier, must remain a symbol of that which is (and must remain) Beyond; our lure that is to be ‘reached for’ (Zetesis – see below) but not attained. Attainment, or rather its assumption, would be a form of hypostasy (see Appendix); in this case an extreme manifestation of reification, both virulent and lethal.
However, it is in Winston and Julia and through their relationship that we see the consciousness of that which is beyond (the present and ahistorical ‘collective’, solipsistic individualism) that, for all that it can only finally be expressed and grasped analogically through a consciously mythologizing language. For example, the rhymes that Winston is so fond of are a case of a kind of mythologizing language. Their importance lies in their ability to connect Winston to an important aspect of his past experience; thus they function, so to speak, as a kind of ‘portal to anamnesis’: they bring the past alive and allow Winston a sense of its meaning and reality. The rhymes therefore allow access to a form of “involuntary memory” of the forceful kind described by Bergson, that brings the past into the present in the same way that we, as individuals too, feel the past come alive when, for example, we hear a tune or melody that meant something to us in an earlier time. Any sense can be stimulated so as to cause this effect; Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea opening up a panoramic, almost multi-dimensional access to his past experience as a fully consciously felt present experience being, perhaps, the most famous literary example. Whereas, by contrast, everything produced, and thus felt, by O’Brien and the Party, is flat and one-dimensional. Nothing really exists, at least ‘nothing’ meaningful. Even Goldstein and Big Brother probably do not, and never have, existed; Goldstein’s book (thebook) is unreal, a fake, as O’Brien tells Winston, “I wrote it. That is to say, I collaborated in writing it. No book is produced individually, as you know” (245); but the sort of collaboration afforded by “collective solipsism” must be like a form of talking to oneself for oneself; a room (or a world) of people in this condition could never produce anything new, they would be sterile, entropic. Whereas, on the contrary, Winston and Julia’s talking is between two individuals communicating real memories and sharing real experiences thus leading to new understandings. This is what I have elsewhere referred to as the ‘ontological necessity’ of the human condition (see Appendix): simultaneously an acceptance of human limit and an opening up of human potential. In this sense even just two people can create a new reality, can ‘generate something’ that adds to the world through the fertility of their dynamic inter-relationship, a complex system similar of the kind described by Prigogine and Stengers and mentioned above. The two-in-oneness of Winston and Julia is thus immeasurably greater than the ‘one-in-oneness’ of the Party. Of course, in the analogical functioning of our language three-in-oneness symbolizes God; and in this sense Winston and Julia together are ‘closer to God’, in their recognition of their humanness in its limit, than O’Brien and the Party could ever be despite all their claims to absolutism.
Curiously, perhaps, does Orwell himself seem to recognize a need for something like the concept of God, the Good, the beautiful or a summum bonum (see Appendix), at least fleetingly? When O’Brien asks of Winston, “Do you believe in God” (252) and to Winston’s negative reply asks what, in that case, could defeat the Party, even he knows that Winston’s “spirit of Man” will never be enough on its own. Even if Winston is not the “last man”, the concept of ‘Man’ is finally as “collectively solipsistic” as the solipsism of the Party. Man must reach beyond himself.
But why should the beautiful/the Good be more real than its opposite? For philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Aquinas and, more recently, Voegelin, Whitehead and Lonergan this resolves itself into a question of order. Order here equates with goodness: the harmonious, the intelligible, the God-like, and the summum bonum. For them, to put it simply, history or the meaning of human life are synonymous, a kind of process through which and in which meaning reveals itself as unfolding: a dialogue in which human beings reach (Zetesis) for and are drawn (Helkein) by that which is Beyond; a situation in which any and every human individual must acknowledge his or her essential limits, and the limits of the phenomenal universe of sense-perception. For example, no-one is responsible for their own creation; or, further, as Glenn Hughes has put it, “the entire universe of objects and relations in space and time is not a complete or sufficient explanation of its own existence” therefore, as he goes on to say, “existence presupposes prior causes” and “an infinite series of dependent causes does not answer the question, ‘Why does the universe exist?’” (Hughes, 2003, 19, italics in the original), therefore that human individual should also be aware, even feel drawn by, that which transcends those limits. Thus life can be seen as a form of ‘midwayness’ (what Plato calls ‘metaxy’) – somewhere between the ‘Depth’ (Apeiron – a kind of disorder or chaos) of the inorganic and the ‘height’ of the ‘Divine’ (Nous – at its simplest a highly organized type of order). This form of ‘midwayness/metaxy’ resolves itself as a never-to-be-transcended-as-such tension (taxis), which recognizes ‘itself’ as both limited to this and yet, at the same time, inextricably linked to its ‘Beyondness’. Any attempt to deny either the Beyond or the Depth, or to claim a ‘special knowledge’of either (both forms of ‘gnosticizing), would be a type of reification that would lead to hypostasis (see Appendix) which would ‘collapse’ the tension of the metaxy resulting in a supposed knowledge of Truth (usually expressed in the dogmas of systemic doxi – rather like the Party’s in Nineteen Eighty-Four) with the consequent ‘certainty’ that the imposition, by any modus operandi, of this ‘Truth’ was justified. Just what, in fact, we see O’Brien doing, in the Party’s name for ‘sanity’, to Winston and Julia.
Oceania is not harmonious, or beautiful, or good, or godly, as Orwell makes clear; but it is certainly dedicated to the depths of disorder, and ultimately death – the final descent into the inorganic: the rejection of life itself. In O’Brien’s words to Winston we surely see manifested his utter repudiation and rejection of human life and all humanness, as well as any notion of fullness of being, when he asks, “What are you? A bag of filth…If you are human that is humanity” (255). Whereas for Winston, in absolute contrast, the prole woman is beautiful fundamentally, despite her physical ‘ugliness’.
Ultimately it is only the Good and the Beautiful that is real, that has meaning, that is intelligible. It is more like the openness to growth of the ‘complex-systems’ described by Prigogine and Stengers, that leads to the “Renewal of Nature” (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984, 312). The Party must lead to chaos/Depth/Apeiron; whilst Winston and Julia would lead to greater order/transcendence/Nous.
It would seem, then, that it is a consciously analogical, mythologizing language, a dynamic, ‘metaxic’ form that is both real, in the sense of being experienced- based, and yet, at the same time, trans-historical, and, perhaps paradoxically, imaginary and symbolic, that is, to quote Voegelin a form of “consciousness of the Beyond of consciousness which constitutes consciousness by reaching into it [that] is the area of reality which articulates itself through the symbols of the mythic imagination” (Voegelin, 1990, 188) that seems to offer human beings their best chance to be, and to at least approximate toward, and become and remain conscious of, the summum bonum. Even if this being must, in any and every case, be lived out in (to slightly, but vitally, adjust Rorty’s notion) a contingent and ironic universe (as fragile and as easily destroyed as Winton’s crystal paperweight), where human solidarity-in-openness (to that universe in its final unknowablity) is the most ‘certain’ thing. This inherent imperfection in human knowledge, in the human condition itself, requires, undeniably, a kind of ‘faith’ because, as Aquinas, utilizing Heb. 11.1, said, “imperfect knowledge belongs to the very notion of faith, for it is included in its definition, faith being defined as the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not (ST, Ia – IIae, q.67, 3.).
Orwell, then, has presented Winston and Julia as moving through three distinct phases. Initially they are both searching for something. Essentially they each have a need for contact and communication. Winston tries to believe, whilst writing in his notebook, that he is communicating in a way that can transcend his present; he tells us that the diary is “For the future, for the unborn” (6). And he makes this attempt by recollecting his own past. Julia, too, wants a specific type of communication: with someone who is not submerged in the ‘dead present’ of the Party. She explains her attraction to Winston, “I’m good at spotting people who don’t belong. As soon as I saw you I knew you were against them (113 – emphasis Orwell’s). What they find in each other is the freedom to be: for each other and for themselves, as we have seen.
The next phase that Orwell depicts them moving to is what I have described as their ‘metaxic’ middle period, enjoying their mutual discovery that they each possess what Bergson calls “l’ame ouverte”, receptive, outward reaching, hopeful. As such Winston will feel a “mystical reverence” when he ‘senses’ the ‘immortality’ of the “valiant figure” of the prole washer woman and, through her, connects with a humanity “the same – everywhere, all over the world, hundreds of thousands of millions of people…ignorant of one another’s existence” and yet they represent “the power that would one day overturn the world. If there was hope, it lay with the proles!”(205). Winston thus describes a sameness in difference, which is also a difference in sameness: a world made up of people who, like Winston and Julia at this moment, are both individuals and yet meaningfully connected, however unobjectively aware of this they may be (see Note 2).
The final phase of Winston and Julia, as individuals, and in their relationship with each other, comes after they have been ‘returned to sanity’ at the hands of the Party in the Ministry of Love. When they meet for the last time, on a suitably “vile, biting day in March [we have returned to a more primitive time than the relative hope of the “bright cold day in April” with which the novel opened] when the earth was like iron and all the grass was dead…” (272) they can see each other, but they cannot now feel what they once had. All they are left with is the sense of their betrayal – of each other and themselves. They have become ‘products’ of the Party; their ‘souls’ have been “vaporized” even if their bodies haven’t. Julia’s “thickened, stiffened body…no longer recognizable” disappears into the crowd, her individuality, the body that Winston knew, and all the shared experience of openness gone as well for both of them – they are ‘alive’ but more ‘dead’ in a sense than death itself would have rendered them, if they could have died and thus escaped the Party. Theirs has become perhaps the worst kind of existence: an entropy that will not ‘run down’. Winston returns to the Chestnut Tree Café and, in a final irony, embraces the only ‘love’ now left for him: “He loved Big Brother” (279).
Orwell has shown us how the use and abuse of language can have potentially tragic consequences. He has also demonstrated how language, power and concepts of truth and reality are complexly interrelated. Nineteen Eighty-Four would thus seem particularly timely and relevant to our present world of virulent media where phrases like ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post truth’ are so readily used to destabilize any notions of what may actually correspond to them. If language is thus reduced to a sort of jockeying for position amongst (equally valid or invalid) points of view, then it is also reduced to a power struggle, and the truth becomes merely the dominant viewpoint.
Winston and Julia would have understood why they must accept (virtually unconditioned) truths even as they come to know they must reject the (Party’s) ‘Truth’ for the (formally unconditioned) Truth. Except, of course, in Nineteen Eighty-Four they are unable to; and this is what should fill us with horror and foreboding: they cannot; we can. To allow Orwell himself the final word: “Nineteen Eighty- Four could happen…The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends on you”. This is Orwell’s warning. Luckily for us Nineteen Eighty-Four is still in the future. At least for the time being.
1. This, I suggest, is a curious example of thought preceding language. What I mean is the frustration one feels at having to use the same signifier – system – to signify two essentially different things. The nature of the ‘simple’ closed-system of the Party (and for all its ‘complexity’ “Doublethink” is fundamentally banal) is radically, perhaps completely, different to the nature of the ‘complex’ open-system described by Prigogine and Stengers and paralleled by Winston and Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This problem would thus seem to suggest a fundamental difficulty with the perspective on language taken by some post-modernist thinkers, in so far as there must be something beyond or outside of language that we certainly are aware of and can ‘feel’ even as they await the evolution of signifiers that would enable us to fully describe this ongoing process of differentiation (in Voegelin’s sense – see Appendix) of our consciousness.
2. Not that we should necessarily assume that Orwell himself shares Winston’s optimism regarding ‘revolution’ from the proles. The only thing we are certain of, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, is that the docility of the proles can apparently be relied upon; their ‘unconsciousness’ of themselves and their power presents their lack of self-organization into a threatening order and coherence as an underdeveloped phenomenon that could actually challenge the Party only in potentia. As the street-planners, police and politicians of our own time know, you only need to watch some of the people some of the time, and these are not necessarily going to be the ‘criminal element’ who, in any case, are never organized enough to represent a threat to the incumbent power-structure of society. Rather it is the law-fearing, law-abiding citizen who, like the ‘outer’-Party member, must maintain and uphold – but not threaten - the power-structure, and therefore must be watched, by the ‘inner’-Party (where the actual power resides), whether through the meta-Benthamite telescreen, or the remotely-controlled cameras of our own city streets. The Party machinery may change, as may its political persuasion, but this is an evolution-in-kind: it is still there.
Appendix: Voegelin and the “Ultimate Good”
Voegelin considers the summum bonum to be, in the words, in an unpublished essay, of Elizabeth C. Corey, the “essential condition of rationality itself”, and that this “overarching and governing purpose” must always and everywhere be recognized. In Voegelin’s view, without this “purpose” as at least a structural principle of understanding, there could be no basis for what Oakeshott calls “having a feel” for things.
Unless experience is something, it is, logically enough, nothing. And how could one “feel” nothing? Experience, to speak syllogistically, either has a purpose, or it doesn’t. It is from the resolution of this ur-binary that the dynamic complexities and tensions of the particularly human experience of the universe in its simultaneous synchronicity and diachronicity – its ‘both/and’ quality – evolves. If this ur-binary is resolved negatively then everything that follows can only be the random groupings of chance or the immanently-curtailed and limited patterns of discrete entities brought together by human design and, as such, their only ‘meaning’ would certainly not extend any further than what could be deduced by propositional logic (paradoxically ‘somethings of nothing’); and, as Lonergan has pointed out, nothing is not intelligible, and the non-intelligible cannot be said to exist in the rational universe in a necessary or structuring way: it is random chance, statistically inevitable but ultimately meaningless in the sense that it communicates nothing but the fact of its own existence (a), existence outside of structure and thus outside of dynamic communicability and therefore outside of human history if this is to be understood as any kind of search for order or meaningfulness.
Hence, subjectivity, if it could be said to exist at all, would be a kind of (meaningless) irrelevance, a random or chance phenomenon itself, and thus an uncontrollable element that could only de-stabilize the universe of discrete phenomena. Which, of course, is why Oakeshott’s ‘rationalists’ and Voegelin’s ‘gnostics’ want to control everything by rules, regulations and ideological, political or religious dogma or ideology – the practical consequences of what Lonergan calls the ‘flight into certainty’ (Lonergan, 1957/1992, 33).
But, if this was the case, if this was an accurate description of the nature of subjectivity: a de-stabilizing randomly operating disordered – and thus disordering – chance ‘product’ of a chance concatenation of (non)events and nothing more, how could we describe the ‘I’ that experiences without succumbing to that very ‘flight into [false] certainty’ that Lonergan perceives to be a pernicious loss of our humanness? What, then, is it that apprehends and/or creates the discrete phenomena initially? What, exactly, is having the ‘objective experience’?
It would seem, then, that there must be some kind of subject that experiences objects for there to ‘be’ any objects at all! Thus the problem becomes the question of the relationship between both subject and object and object and subject. An apparently irreducible mystery is revealed by the attempt to explain this dynamic tension; and any explanation that fails to treat of both tensional elements qua tension will have to valorize either one or the other element; for Voegelin a type of reification that leads to an unjustifiable hypostasis. This tendency to hypostasize would, in Voegelin’s view, collapse the tension thereby leading to an imbalance: ironically a form of hyper-subjectivity presented as ‘rational’ objectivity. The mystery here is revealed in the recognition that the tension can thus be seen as the ‘realest’ reality. In essence reality could be described as this tension.
It is this ‘in-between’ state or condition of reality, consisting as it does in the dynamic relationship between subject and object, that Voegelin, using a concept derived and modified from Plato, describes as the metaxy: a form of (historical) process that only as a whole can begin to describe the nature of reality whilst avoiding the aporias of the immanentist hypostases. However if, as Voegelin says, “Man experiences himself as tending toward…perfection” (Voegelin,1966/2001,103-104), a similar notion to Lonergan’s concept of the motive force of the “pure and disinterested desire to know”(Lonergan 1957/1992, 28-29), then the metaxy is not exactly ‘neutral’ because, if the order of things, and order in history, is to unfold, it must be oriented toward the divine/Beyond understood as an unattainable completeness (similar to Lonergan’s notion of the “formally unconditioned” as opposed to the “virtually unconditioned” which is available to human beings – a discussion of which is beyond the scope of the present essay) which can only be manifested, here and now, via an acknowledgement of human limitation as an ontological necessity as expressed in: traditions (religious and secular); myths; analogical language and so on. Precisely: concepts and practices that recognize the essential structural role of the transcendental summum bonum.
The urgent task for human beings thus becomes a dual one: identification of historical structures of meaning that most accurately reflect the ontological necessity (and, logically enough, the identification of those that do not), and the ongoing development of structures that facilitate both human socio-cultural evolution and the continued differentiation of consciousness required to assist the ongoing understanding and communication of the ontological necessity as the essential condition of humanity revealed in its (unended) history , as it seeks to find and manifest the unfolding of its existentially-oriented but Beyond-tending order.
The work of Voegelin, Oakeshott, Lonergan and others would seem to fulfill these criteria, whereas the short-termism of, for instance, Party-Political (self) interests, capitalism, exploitation of natural resources, scientism and so on, would seem not to. It would seem, perhaps paradoxically, that we come up against one further binary: either we recognize the (structural) necessity of the summum bonum (even if we choose to regard this as nothing-but a formal device of expedient facilitation in an ultimately contingent universe) and proceed accordingly (the precise nature of this procedure is outside the scope of this essay and could be said to constitute the subject of the bodies of work of the above-mentioned writers); or we find ourselves and our history continuing to lurch directionless and lachrymose in this all-too-real vale of tears, with us the ‘players’ on its “great stage of fools”.
(a) This must not be regarded as an attempt to deny the fact that events that are irrational or senseless exist per se i.e. as ‘things’ that have happened and will continue to happen. That is to say the consequences of chance, both through human activity and via natural disasters, accidents and so on, on human beings – the phenomenon of randomness – as well as individual and collective acts of destructiveness – malice – are as apparently inevitable as they are ‘senseless’. This is not rational but it cannot be explained away – however great the temptation. The acceptance of the limit of humanity’s ability to explain is an essential element of the recognition of our condition as ‘virtually unconditioned’. A failure to acknowledge this limit would lead to ‘gnostic’ forms of derailment. This is, I would certainly agree, not an entirely ‘satisfying’ explanation, the important point, however, is that it is the only explanation. The random, the malicious – call it what you will – is a function in and of our condition (an aspect of what I have called the ‘ontological necessity’) even when recognizing this essential irrationality rationally must involve us in an acceptance, at least from our human temporal perspective, that it is a condition of aporia; or, hopefully at least, metaxic aporia.
Hughes, Glenn (2003) Transcendence and History. The Search for Transcendence from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity. Columbia: University if Missouri Press.
Lonergan, Bernard (1957/1992) Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Oakeshott, Michael (1975) On Human Nature. Oxford: OUP.
Orwell, George (1949/1983) Nineteen Eighty-Four. Essex: Longmans.
Prigogine, Ilya and Stengers, Isabelle (1984) Order Out of Chaos (Man’s New Dialogue With Nature). London: Heineman.
Voegelin, Eric (1966/2001) Anamnesis. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
Voegelin, Eric (1990) Published Essays 1966-1985, Complete Works Volume 12. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Webb, Eugene (1981) Eric Voegelin, Philosopher of History. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Zupancic, Alenka (2001) Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan. London: Verso
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Written by Stephen H. Conlin
Steve Conlin is an independent scholar whose Master's thesis was on Hans-Georg Gadamer's "Truth and Method" from the University of Southhampton in the United Kingdom.
Published in 1949, the dystopian novel Ninenteen-Eighty-Four is the conclusion of George Orwell’s writing; what is more, it is the conclusion of almost everything that Orwell had written since 1936. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell created a totalitarian universe, Oceania, with its own history and inner mechanism and became so famous that it gave gay to a new term known as “Orwellian” which has come to describe actions or organizations reminiscent of the totalitarian society depicted throughout the novel.
In this essay, I am going to explain the different examples about ‘manipulation of language as a weapon of mind control and abuse of power’ that we can find in the novel, that is to say, the different methods the author uses to show us this.
George Orwell’s writings are focused basically against Fascism. The situations he live throughout his life made him reject any kind of totalitarian society. He lived terrible moments which shocked him, like for example when he travelled to Catalonia during the civil war. At this moment it was when he really realised the dangers of totalitarism. The Word War II also affected him very much indeed. Orwell was against the war because he thought it would lead to some kind of fascism in England. To him it was a repetition of Spain where some people during the civil war wanted to fight Franco in the name of bourgeois democracy.
He thought that Totalitarian societies and specially the one portrayed in the novel wanted to turn humans into machines, to replace the organic by the inorganic, to create synthetic happiness by eradicating all that may evoke natural passions and personal inclinations. They want in this single state all buildings have walls of glass so that the actions of the occupants are visible. Only during sex are the curtains drawn for a brief moment, sexual behaviour being strictly controlled by the Sexual Bureau. This soulless society is ruled by a dictator, the Benefactor, who is supported and helped by a political police (who in this case would be The Big Brother), the Guardians, that hover above the cities with surveillance equipment. Confessions are extracted by torture and criminals are simply liquidated. Informing, even on family members and friends, is a sacred duty.
This is basically what is about Ninenteen-eighty-Four; but what is important here is the way they achieve so, the way they get to control people. They make use of plenty of techniques such as control of information and history, psychological manipulation, physical control, technology, etc, but the ones I going to deal with in depth in my essay are those related to mind control, the ways in which they manipulate people’s minds.
Orwell believed that totalitarianism and the corruption of language were connected. He focused especially on political language where you distorted events and concepts by calling them something else. You said things in such a way that you avoided producing an inner picture of them. As an example, in Politics and the English Language. He said that ‘If thoughts can corrupt language, language can also corrupt thoughts. ‘ This idea would eventually lead to Newspeak.
This mentioned forms of manipulation are harder to fight against because they are aimed at the mind. First, the entire system is based on falsification of history – for two purposes. Outwardly the Party is infallible and is forced to change all information when it has been wrong in some connection or other. The falsification of history takes place in the Ministry of Truth where Winstonworks. Of course he knows what he is really doing, but that does not worry him because so many changes have already been made that he is just replacing one lie with another. The second purpose is to eradicate memory from the minds of people. The only reason why people put up with their miserable conditions is that they have been told that it was much worse before the revolution. And as no correct information about the past exists, nobody knows if it is true. Perhaps it really was worse before, and then you shouldn’t complain.
Language as Mind Control
One of Orwell’s most important messages in 1984 is that language is of central importance to human thought because it structures and limits the ideas that individuals are capable of formulating and expressing. If control of language was centralized in a political agency, Orwell proposes, such an agency could possibly alter the very structure of language to make it impossible to even conceive of disobedient or rebellious thoughts, because there would be no words with which to think them. This idea manifests itself in the language of Newspeak, which the Party has introduced to replace English. The Party is constantly refining and perfecting Newspeak, with the ultimate goal that no one will be capable of conceptualizing anything that might question the Party’s absolute power.
When it is necessary to manipulate with history and your own memory it is equally necessary to forget that you have done so. This is accomplished with a mental technique, which in Oldspeak was called reality-control and in Newspeak is called doublethink:
“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.” [NEF pp. 31-2]
Newspeak is the official language of Oceania and its purpose is to fulfil the ideological demands of Ingsoc. In 1984 no one employs Newspeak as the only means of expression, but it is expected that Newspeak will have replaced Oldspeak around year 2050. Newspeak consists of abbreviations, and Orwell writes in his Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four on Newspeak that already early in the twentieth century abbreviations were part of political language. It was especially widespread in totalitarian countries and organisations. As examples he mentions Nazi, Gestapo, Komintern, Inprecorr, Agitprop. From a totalitarian viewpoint the advantage of abbreviations like these is that their meaning is limited and altered so that all associations are removed.
The purpose of Newspeak is not only to be a medium for the ideas and worldview of Ingsoc; it is also meant to make all other ways of thinking impossible and thus remove all heretical thoughts.
” ’Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. […] Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. […] In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.’ ” [NEF pp. 45-6]
At a point Winston writes in his diary that he understands how but not why. This why George Bowling already asked in Coming up for Air in 1939, and in Nineteen Eighty-Four O’Brien gives him the answer.
“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. […] Power it not a means, it is an end.” [NEF p. 211]
First of all you have to realise, O’Brien says, that power is collective. The individual only has power if he ceases to be an individual. Alone and free man will always suffer defeat. It has to be this way because man is mortal. But if the individual can subject himself completely, if he can escape from his identity, if he can let himself be engulfed so much by the Party that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal. Next, you have to realise that power is power over people, over the body and especially over the mind.
” ’If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.’ ” [NEF p. 215]
The Thought Police have telescreens in every household and public area, as well as hidden microphones and spies in order to catch potential thought criminals who could endanger the sanctity of the Party. Children were carefully brainwashed from birth to report any suspected thought criminal, even their parents.
Newspeak is a fictional or artificial language. At the end of the novel there is an appendix on Newspeak (the artificial language invented and, by degrees, imposed by the Party to limit the capacity to express or even think “unorthodox” thoughts), in the style of an academic essay, and explains how the language is designed to standardise thought to reflect the ideology of Ingsoc; that is, by making “all other modes of thought impossible”.
By means of the creation of this newspeak, what they want to achieve is a language that does not allow any bad though or even contrary to the Party. By eliminating any thought contrary to the Party they make sure that they all love it and cannot destroy it.
This suited the totalitarian regime of the Party, whose aim was to make subversive thought (“thoughtcrime”) and speech impossible.
The Newspeak term for the existing English language was Oldspeak. Oldspeak was supposed to have been completely eclipsed by Newspeak by 2050.
The genesis of Orwell’s Newspeak can be seen in his earlier essay, Politics and the English Language, (which is explained much more in deep here) where he laments the quality of the English of his day, citing examples of dying metaphors, pretentious diction or rhetoric, and meaningless words – all of which contribute to fuzzy ideas and a lack of logical thinking. Towards the end of this essay, having argued his case, Orwell muses:
I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words or constructions.
Thus Newspeak is possibly an attempt by Orwell to describe a deliberate intent to exploit this decadence with the aim of oppressing its speakers.
A comparison to Newspeak may arguably be seen in political rhetoric, where two opposing sides string together phrases so empty of meaning that they may be compared to the taunts young children toss back and forth. The arguments of either side ultimately reduce to “I’m good; he’s bad.”
Charges of Newspeak are sometimes advanced when a group tries to replace a word/phrase that is politically unsuitable (e.g. “civilian casualties”) or offensive (e.g. “murder”) with a politically correct or inoffensive one (e.g. “collateral damage”). Some maintain that to make certain words or phrases ‘unspeakable’ (thoughtcrime), restricts what ideas may be held (Newspeak) and is therefore tantamount to censorship. Others believe that expunging terms that have fallen out of favour or become insulting will make people less likely to hold outdated or offensive views. The intent to alter the minds of the public through changes made to language illustrates Newspeak perfectly.
Either way, there is a resemblance between political correctness and Newspeak, although some may feel that they differ in their intentions: in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Newspeak is instituted to enhance the power of the state over the individual; politically correct language, on the other hand, is said by supporters to free individuals from stereotypical preconceptions caused by the use of prejudicial terminology. It is this attempt to change thought through changing (or eliminating) words that earns political correctness the connection to Newspeak. The main distinction is that politically correct language is often inspired only by politeness, while Newspeak has a more explicit limiting political motivation.
However, there exist striking instances where Orwell’s speculation have matched with reality. Orwell suggested that all philosophies prior to Ingsoc (English Socialism) would be covered under the term ‘oldthink,’ bearing with it none of the nuances of these ideologies, but simply a connotation of badness. Since the Cold War, a similar effect has been wrought on the word ‘communism,’ where it no longer bears with it, to most people, the doctrines of Marx, Engels, or Lenin, but rather a general bad connotation. (Much the same could be said about ‘fascism,’ perhaps with even more accuracy.)
Two examples unrelated to political correctness are Basic English, a language which prides itself on reducing the number of English words, and E-Prime another simplifed version of English.
Political groups often avail themselves of the principles behind Newspeak to frame their views in a positive way. Thus the term “estate tax” was replaced by the “death tax.” A similar effect may be observed in the abortion debates where those advocating restrictions on abortion label themselves “pro-life,” leaving their opponents presumably “anti-life.” Conversely, those advocating greater availability of abortion call themselves “pro-choice,” and the opposition “anti-choice,” to engender similarly positive emotions.
Another common use of Newspeak today is the overuse of abbreviations. To quote from the 1984 Appendix “It was perceived that in thus abbreviating a name one narrowed and subtly altered its meaning, by cutting out most of the associations that would otherwise cling to it.” Attention is also drawn to the use of such abbreviations by totalitarian regimes prior to World War II.
Even more powerful are acronyms like “Ofcom,” “AIDS,” “OPEC” and “NAFTA,” which can be pronounced as if they were proper words. This is most vividly seen in an acronym like “laser,” which today is nearly always written in lowercase. Acronyms contain less information than the full term and tend not to trigger spontaneous associations; this also makes them ambiguous and therefore vulnerable to misuse.
*Basic principles of newspeak (short summary)
The Party barrages its subjects with psychological stimuli designed to overwhelm the mind’s capacity for independent thought. The giant telescreen in every citizen’s room blasts a constant stream of propaganda designed to make the failures and shortcomings of the Party appear to be triumphant successes. The telescreens also monitor behavior—everywhere they go, citizens are continuously reminded, especially by means of the omnipresent signs reading “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU,” that the authorities are scrutinizing them. The Party undermines family structure by inducting children into an organization called the Junior Spies, which brainwashes and encourages them to spy on their parents and report any instance of disloyalty to the Party. The Party also forces individuals to suppress their sexual desires, treating sex as merely a procreative duty whose end is the creation of new Party members. The Party then channels people’s pent-up frustration and emotion into intense, ferocious displays of hatred against the Party’s political enemies. Many of these enemies have been invented by the Party expressly for this purpose.
The idea of “doublethink” emerges as an important consequence of the Party’s massive campaign of large-scale psychological manipulation. Simply put, doublethink is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s mind at the same time. As the Party’s mind-control techniques break down an individual’s capacity for independent thought, it becomes possible for that individual to believe anything that the Party tells them, even while possessing information that runs counter to what they are being told. At the Hate Week rally, for instance, the Party shifts its diplomatic allegiance, so the nation it has been at war with suddenly becomes its ally, and its former ally becomes its new enemy. When the Party speaker suddenly changes the nation he refers to as an enemy in the middle of his speech, the crowd accepts his words immediately, and is ashamed to find that it has made the wrong signs for the event. In the same way, people are able to accept the Party ministries’ names, though they contradict their functions: the Ministry of Plenty oversees economic shortages, the Ministry of Peace wages war, the Ministry of Truth conducts propaganda and historical revisionism, and the Ministry of Love is the center of the Party’s operations of torture and punishment.
Just in order to understand better what doublethink means, it is necessary to give an example like “blackwhite”. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink.
The same happens at the end of the novel, when the protagonist does not believe in the Party and the members make them a brainwash and he finally says that he believes but it is not true. For them, it is not enough to say that you believe on the Party, Actually you have to believe it, to be sure that you love it, even although it means to betray what you previously thought.
It could be said that Doublethink is an integral concept of George Orwell’sdystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and the word doublethink is part of Newspeak.
Orwell explains that the Party could not protect its iron power without degrading its people with constant propaganda. Yet, knowledge of this brutal deception, even within the Inner Party itself, could lead to collapse of the State from within. Though Nineteen Eighty-Four is most famous for the Party’s pervasive surveillance of everyday life, this control means that the population of Oceania—all of it, including the ruling élite—could be controlled and manipulated merely through the alteration of everyday thought and language. Newspeak is the method for controlling thought through language; doublethink is the method of directly controlling thought.
Newspeak incorporates doublethink, as it contains many words that create assumed associations between contradictory meanings, especially true of fundamentally important words such as good and evil; right and wrong; truth and falsehood; justice and injustice.
In the case of workers at the Records Department in the Ministry of Truth, doublethink means being able to falsify public records, and then believe in the new history that they, themselves, had just written. As revealed in Goldstein’s Book, the Ministry’s name is itself an example of doublethink: the Ministry of Truth is really concerned with lies. The other ministries of Airstrip One are similarly named: the Ministry of Peace is concerned with war, the Ministry of Love is concerned with torture and the Ministry of Plenty is concerned with starvation.
Moreover, doublethink’s self-deception allows the Party to maintain huge goals and realistic expectations: If one is to rule, and to continue ruling, one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality. For the secret of rulership is to combine a belief in one’s own infallibility with the power to learn from past mistakes. Thus, each Party member could be a credulous pawn, but would never lack relevant information. The Party is both fanatical and well-informed, thus unlikely either to “ossify” or “grow soft” and collapse. Doublethink would avoid a “killing the messenger” attitude that could disturb the Command structure. Thus, doublethink is the key tool of self-discipline for the Party, complementing the state-imposed discipline of propaganda, and the police state. Together, these tools hid the government’s evil not just from the people, but from the government itself, but without the confusion and misinformation associated with primitive totalitarian regimes.
Doublethink is critical in allowing the Party to know what its true goals are without recoiling from them, avoiding the conflation of a regime’s egalitarian propaganda with its true purpose.
Paradoxically, during the long and harrowing process in which Winston is systematically tortured and broken, he contemplates using doublethink as the ultimate recourse in his rebellion—i.e. to let himself become consciously a loyal party member while letting his hatred of the party remain an unconscious presence deep in his mind, and let it surface again at the very moment of his execution so that “the bullet would enter a free mind” which the Thought Police would not have a chance to tamper with again.
Since 1949 (when Nineteen Eighty-Four was published), the word doublethink has become synonymous with relieving cognitive dissonance by ignoring the contradiction between two world views—or even of deliberately seeking to relieve cognitive dissonance. Some schools of psychotherapy, such as cognitive therapy, encourage people to alter their own thoughts as a way of treating different psychological maladies (see cognitive distortions).
Orwell’s “Doublethink” is also credited with having inspired the commonly used “Doubletalk“, which itself does not appear in Orwell’s book.
And for an excellent overview of political language and doublespeak in general, Michele Damon, a technical writing graduate from UCF has created a Doublespeak site that takes a very comprehensive close look at the misuse of language to corrupt and mislead thought.
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