Guide to the classics: Donald Trump’s Brave New World and Aldous Huxley’s dystopian vision


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A graffiti portrait of Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World.
Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr, CC BY

Keith Booker, University of Arkansas and Isra Daraiseh

In our series, Guide to the classics, experts explain key works of literature.


A year-and-a-half into the presidency of Donald Trump, some see this administration as the stuff of dystopian nightmares. Trump’s apparent disrespect for truth is suspiciously similar to the manipulation of history in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. The crass, three-ring-circus texture of the current crowd in Washington recalls the degraded America depicted in Mike Judge’s 2006 cinematic farce Idiocracy. However, the English writer Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic Brave New World might provide the best dystopian gloss on our contemporary predicament.

Like most good dystopian fiction, Brave New World is not a prediction but rather a diagnosis of dangerous tendencies in Huxley’s present. One of the most striking elements of Huxley’s vision of the future involves factories in which infants are designed to perform specific social functions.




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These Stepford babies are later conditioned through standardised educational practices. This motif is not primarily a cautionary tale about the potential abuse of genetic engineering. Rather, it is a commentary on existing class inequalities and the use of education to reinforce social obedience. It exemplifies the fundamental tendency of capitalism to convert humans into commodities, interchangeable and bereft of genuine individualism.

Aldous Huxley.
LIFE Magazine/Wikimedia Commons

Certain aspects of Huxley’s dystopian society strikingly resemble our current situation. A lack of respect for history, a population conditioned to consume goods at breakneck pace, a tendency toward globalisation, and the pacification of individuals via an entertainment culture curated to squelch any inchoate rumblings of critical thought: all of these are hallmarks of Huxley’s and our worlds.

An illustrious family

Born in Surrey, England, in 1894, Aldous Leonard Huxley was a member of one of England’s most illustrious intellectual families. He also went on to become one of the most important English writers of the 20th century, though he was also important as a social and philosophical commentator — and spent the last 26 years of his life living in the United States.

His brother, Julian, was a prominent biologist knighted by the queen. Aldous and Julian were the grandsons of well-known naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley, a leading 19th-century advocate for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Aldous himself considered a career in biology or medicine, though he eventually turned to literature instead.

By the time Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, he was well established as a British novelist; works such as Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923), and Point Counter Point (1928) arguably made him the most important English novelist of the 1920s, while also prefiguring Brave New World in important ways with their satirical treatment of British society.

A trip to the US shortly before the writing of Brave New World also contributed to Huxley’s formulation of his thoughts for the novel. (He moved there in 1937, where he would write more dystopian and utopian novels such as Ape and Essence (1948), Brave New World Revisited (1958) and Island (1962).)

History is bunk

In Brave New World, Huxley’s World State has arisen in the wake of a global war that nearly destroyed humanity. Its policies are officially driven by a desire to prevent a recurrence of this war at all costs. Stability and placidity in every aspect of life are of paramount concern. The public is protected from anything that might upset them and rock the social boat. However, the underlying goal is to ensure the smooth operation of the consumer capitalist economy and to remove any historical reminders that things might be other than they are.

The first edition of Brave New World.
Wikimedia

Huxley presents us with the basic characteristics of his dystopian society through a loosely constructed narrative told largely from the point of view of Bernard Marx. An “alpha” who has been engineered and conditioned to be among the society’s intellectual elite, Bernard finds that his own individualist tendencies make him unable to function comfortably in this conformist society.

We are also introduced to Mustapha Mond, a “world controller” who attempts to explain to Bernard the rationale for the State’s policies, including its rejection of literature and history as sources of wisdom.

Also important to the narrative is “John the Savage.” Born biologically on a “Savage Reservation” and brought up reading the works of Shakespeare, John grows to adulthood outside the controls of the World State. He is eventually brought to London, where he finds himself so unable to fit in that he is driven to suicide.

The lack of respect for history in Huxley’s world is encapsulated in the slogan “history is bunk”. The phrase is but one of many slogan-like modules of prepackaged “wisdom” that pass for public discourse. This particular phrase is attributed in the novel to Henry Ford – the central cultural hero of the society – who was at the height of his influence at the time Brave New World was written. A true forerunner of Donald Trump (but a much better businessman), Ford is an honoured icon of American capitalism even today. Yet, he was also an admirer of Adolf Hitler and a philistine with no respect for culture.

Henry Ford on the cover of Time in 1935.
Wikimedia

It should thus come as no surprise that the devaluation of genuine understanding in Huxley’s imagined world includes the suppression of most of the great works of world literature. This is ostensibly done because they might trigger strong emotions. The true reason is that such works are not easily reduced to consumer commodities.

The World State is the ultimate consumer society, even if it cannot match the marketing sophistication of today’s global capitalism. Designed along “Fordist” lines, this society is devoted to economic efficiency, but only in the narrow consumerist sense of boosting sales.

Not only are individuals treated like commodities, but they live in a world that is saturated with the ethos of marketing. They are constantly bombarded by jingle-like slogans that encourage as much consumption as possible. Individuals are urged to replace rather than repair, because “ending is better than mending”.




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Disturbing resonances

Huxley’s vision of a World State underestimates the staying power of nationalist rhetoric, of which Trump’s “America First” agenda is but one example. Yet, amid the mad scramble to exploit all potential sources of cheap labour, we have established trade networks that extend into all the nooks and crannies of the global market.

These networks involve individuals and institutions from a wide variety of cultures. When combined with the current trend toward the globalisation of world culture, these networks are so effective that a World State seems redundant, if only in terms of capitalist business practices.

Culture is key to the functioning of Huxley’s entertainment-oriented society. The populace is numbed by happy-making drugs that have “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects”.

Huxley’s World State was centred on consumerism and entertainment.
Shutterstock.com

Huxley’s future humans are fed a nonstop dose of popular culture. Designed to amuse and stupefy, this breed of pop culture neither challenges nor inspires. Content is delivered via high-tech mechanisms which foreshadow our own world wide web. Artefacts such as virtual reality “feelies” (echoing the then-new “talkies”) seem highly familiar to a modern audience. As does their effect on the general population.

In Huxley’s world, even human relationships have been made an arm of pop culture. Sexual promiscuity is encouraged and emotional attachments forbidden. Relations between the sexes are just another form of entertainment. Sexual reproduction has become obsolete. Motherhood is an unthinkable obscenity and the parent-child bond has been eliminated. These details differ from Donald Trump’s recent proposed changes to abortion regulations, but they are equally misogynistic.

Frighteningly, although the characteristics of Trump’s America differ from the World State, the differences almost all make 21st-century America seem worse than Huxley’s nightmare consumerist world, from racial hatred to a looming climate crisis.

We are not just in danger of achieving a Huxleyesque dystopia. We are in danger of blowing past it to something Huxley couldn’t possibly have imagined.The Conversation

Keith Booker, Professor of English, University of Arkansas and Isra Daraiseh, Assistant professor, Arab Open University, Kuwait

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Before Westworld was Mudfog – Charles Dickens’ surprisingly modern dystopia



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George Cruikshank’s impression of Dickens’ dystopia.
Philip V. Allingham of Victorian Web, Author provided

Lynda Clark, Nottingham Trent University

If you’re a fan of the TV series, Westworld, you’re probably aware that it’s based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name. What you may not know is that the concept has been kicking around for a very long time. While Crichton insists his dystopian vision had no “literary antecedents”, there’s at least one writer who may beg to differ. Charles Dickens imagined a robot theme park way back in 1838. Just like Westworld, the patrons of Dickens’ park are able to enact their “violent delights” on realistic humanoid androids.

In the short story titled: Full Report of the First Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything, a group of scientists meet to discuss a variety of proposals, including the classification of a one-eyed horse as “Fitfordogsmeataurious” and a snuffbox-sized machine for more efficient pickpocketing. The most vividly described of these outlandish ideas, though, is entrepreneurial inventor Mr Coppernose’s suggestion for a park filled with “automaton figures” which would enable wealthy young men to run riot without causing a public nuisance. Sound familiar? So, how do the two parks measure up?

Dickens’ dystopia is in a book of short stories.
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

In purely physical terms, Dickens’ park is much smaller. The series’ showrunner, Jonathan Nolan, has indicated that Westworld covers around 500 square miles, while Coppernose suggests a more modest “space of ground of not less than ten miles in length” for his park. But both demonstrate a similar attention to detail when it comes to creating a realistic environment for their patrons to explore. Westworld offers trading outposts, farmsteads and wide open plains populated by robot cowboys, saloon girls and the Ghost Nation Tribe. Coppernose’s park strives to recreate a version of semi-rural England using “highway roads, turnpikes, bridges [and] miniature villages”, inhabited by automaton police officers, cab drivers and elderly women.

Delos Incorporated (the company which owns Westworld) expects its players will use these environments and android “hosts” to engage in both whitehat (heroic) and blackhat (villainous) activities. Meanwhile, Coppernose assumes only the most base and destructive behaviour from his park patrons. This is evidenced in various design choices, such as the “gas lamps of real glass, which could be broken at a comparatively small expense per dozen”, and the vocal abilities of the automatons themselves which, when struck, “utter divers groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete and the enjoyment perfect”.

Yet this advanced speech technology isn’t the only thing Coppernose’s automatons have in common with Westworld’s hosts, as demonstrated in George Cruikshank’s illustration. Here the lifelike robots are shown to be operational despite missing limbs – something we’ve seen during diagnostic sessions with Westworld’s damaged hosts in the repair lab.

While Coppernose doesn’t provide specific details of any maintenance crews, it seems he has a similar rotational system in mind when he suggests a stock of 140 automatons, with around half kept in reserve so that broken units can be exchanged. However, rather than the spooky warehouse filled with dormant hosts seen in Westworld, Coppernose has a far more space-saving storage solution, keeping inert robot police officers on shelves until needed.

Only human after all

Although its never been explicitly explained in the show, showrunner Lisa Joy has described the “good samaritan reflex” as a safety measure programmed into all Westworld’s hosts – including the animals. This ensures that if a guest is at risk of endangering themselves or another guest, a host will step in to save them from harm. Humans don’t fare so well in Dickens’ park – Coppernose advocates the use of “live pedestrians … procured from the workhouse” for the wealthy park guests to run down in their cabriolets.

Natural born killer: Westworld’s Man in Black.
HBO

However, this is where a theme only lightly touched on in Westworld is brought to the fore in Dickens’ text: the disparity between justice for the rich and the poor. Coppernose’s affluent young adventurers must attend a mock trial following their wild and destructive behaviour, where wooden-headed automaton magistrates side with the defendants rather than the robot police attempting to prosecute them. Dickens describes this process as “quite equal to life” serving to underline the inequality at play in the justice system.

While Westworld primarily focuses on what it means to be human it does hint at this same idea: that we’re inclined to overlook the bad behaviour of the rich and powerful. When wealthy park patron “Man in Black” kills hosts indiscriminately, security chief Ashley Williams says: “That gentleman gets whatever he wants.”

The ConversationOf course, now that Westworld’s robots have gone rogue, the Man in Black may not go unpunished in season two. Perhaps the retribution Dickens would doubtless have liked to have seen will be delivered not by the courts, but the robots themselves.

Lynda Clark, PhD Researcher in Creative and Critical Writing, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.