I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Postmodern Cyberspaciality

"Surfing the net is the ultimate postmodern experience."

This post is the beginning of a series of posts in which I will work through The Postmodern God. This is an assembly of essays on the relationship between postmodernism and theology. What I appreciate about this volume, what sets it apart, is that it is a combination of anthology and commentary. It is a collection of writings from major postmodern thinkers, with extended introductions and commentaries. These introductions reflect on the possible relationship between postmodern theory and theology.

It is no easy task to discuss the relationship of postmodernism to theology. To start with, it requires understanding "postmodernism." From my experience most of the popular Christian literature and discussion on postmodernism either miss the nuance of various postmodern theorists, at best, or at worst they simply assume general popular stereotypes about "postmodernism."

Graham Ward edited this volume, and he writes an extended introduction. He immediately stimulates the reader with one sentence, to open his essay and to open the book: "Surfing the net is the ultimate postmodern experience."

We will take another post or two to expand some of Graham Ward's thoughts, but I want to focus on this connection between internet technology and the postmodern experience. How does the internet change our way of being? How does online connectivity define us in this postmodern time period?

"Cyberspace is undefined spatiality, like the contours of a perfume, and you are an adventurer, a navigator in unchartered waters, discovering the hero inside yourself. You act anonymously, simply as the unnamed, unidentifiable viewpoint of so many interactive network games, and where an identity is needed, you can construct one."

Our experience of cyberspace is the experience of a postmodern world, and Ward's essay is now nearly 15 years old. Instant connectivity is now available 24-7. With cell phones and internet plans, we can remain constantly connected. Our old notions of time and space are being re-written. Our idea of "reality" is being reconstructed.

To suggest that the "postmodern" is lived out through the experience of the internet and virtual connectivity is to suggest that the questions and issues of postmodernity are not a passing fad, but that they are being lived out through the developing technology. Theoretical discussions of the postmodern, then, are living themselves out through our every experience of text-messaging, Facebooking, emailing, online shopping, internet porn, and blogging, to name a few.

"The drug of the ever new, instant access to a vast sea of endless desire which circulates globally; browsing through hours without commitment on any theme imaginable; dwelling voyeuristically in one location until the pull of other possibilities reasserts the essentially nomadic lifestyle of the net-surfer: these are the characteristic experiences of living in cyberspace."

While all of this remains true of the internet experience, what has evolved since Ward's essay is that technology has also funneled many toward more "localized" or "familiar" online destinations. What I mean by this is social networking, like Facebook. With Facebook, one uses internet technology to connect with many friends and family that one knows "in person." I have interacted with my Auntie Carol in person, but Auntie Carol lives on a small farm in the middle of Oklahoma, a place I seldom travel to. Through Facebook, Auntie Carol and I can dialog, check on each other's status, send messages, or chat on instant messenger.

The same idea applies to cell phones and text-messaging. We can send little bytes of text back and forth. A few words, a few sentences at a time. We stay connected in a virtual way.

Although technology is keeping us connect with real, human people, what is still true is that we are living in a virtual world. We are still living "the essentially nomadic lifestyle of the net-surfer." Our reality is now a combination of "real" and "virtual." Our relationships are both physical and electronic. Our identities are now organic as well as computerized constructions.

"In this land of fantasy and ceaseless journeying, this experience of tasting, sampling, and passing on, truth, knowledge, and facts are all only dots of light on a screen, evanescent, consumable."

Some thinkers, scientists, and philosophers even speculate that we will reach a point at which our minds and consciousness will be downloaded into a mechanized body that will last forever. This is no longer purely the realm of science fiction novels, but is being discussed as a real possibility, given the exponential rate at which technology is expanding.

What are the consequences of living in such a world?

Hybrids are all the rage these days, in the automobile world. We live in a sort of hybrid world: we are both embodied and organic, but we are also virtual and omnipresent. We log in, and when we are online, we can travel anywhere, everywhere. Time stands still.

What are the ramifications of living as a hybrid?

Over the course of our lives, how many millions and billions of web pages will we browse? How many different virtual locations will we visit? How many virtual beings will we friend?

"Surfing the net is the ultimate postmodern experience."

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Self, Pilgrimage, and Vocation: A short Sunday meditation

Here is a lengthy quote from Parker Palmer, a Quaker, writer, teacher, and activist. He has a good deal to say about vocation, particularly in his small book, Let Your Life Speak.

In this quote he equates the search for vocation with the search for self, which is the journey of a pilgrim. We've talked a good deal on this blog about self and pilgrimage. So, I thought I might share this quote:

"Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free 'travel packages' sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage--'a transformative journey to a sacred center' full of hardships, darkness, and peril.

"In the tradition of the pilgrimage, those hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost--challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge. If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he or she seeks. Disabused of our illusions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now--in every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within our own hearts."

I like that he links the search for self with a pilgrimage. I appreciate the rather unromantic, realistic appraisal: the pilgrimage is hard. It's tough. It ain't easy going. Perhaps that's why so many of us fail to feel like we are doing something truly vocational, even though the U.S. affords us so many more job opportunities than others have. Most of us end up pushing paper for a living. It ain't all bad, of course, but it isn't a vocation, not a true sense of calling, not something a pilgrim has struggled to find.

I also like how Palmer mentions that these trials of the pilgrimage work something important in us, something we could get in no other way: striping the ego of the illusion that it is in charge. Can we get to this place without pain? Without failure?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

On undocumented immigration laws in Arizona

I thought I might share a short response I wrote on facebook about the Arizona Immigration Bill that passed on Monday, now awaiting the signature (or possible veto) of the Governor.

Here's a description of the bill from FoxNews: "The bill contains several provisions. Among them, it would create a new state misdemeanor crime for failing to carry alien registration documents; allow officers to arrest immigrants unable to show documents proving their legal residence; allow people to sue if they feel a government agency has adopted a policy that hinders immigration enforcement; prohibit people from blocking traffic when they seek or offer day labor services on street corners; and make it illegal for people to knowingly transport illegal immigrants."

Some have applauded the effort to "crack down" on illegal immigration.

Here was a short thought of mine on facebook, while conversing with some folks on the issue:

"Let's stop making it such a simplistic issue and recognize that the problems in Mexico are our problems too. They are our neighbors. We have exploited them, and that's part of the reason their nation is in trouble. We have damned up the Colorado River and used it's resources so that much of it no longer gives water to Mexican farmers. We have subsidized corn and other grains in the U.S. so that we can sell them for less than cost, and we have exported these cheap grains to Mexico, putting yet more farmers out of work. We have allowed the cartels to grow strong and powerful because we have purchased so many of their drugs.

We have impoverished the farmers and made the criminals wealthy. Let's take stock of our sins before we condemn starving undocumented immigrants who risk death to feed their families."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Freedom in the hopeless

"Losing all hope was freedom."

From Fight Club (film), 1999. After Jack cries for the first time in the testicular cancer recovery group. So, he starts to attend support groups every night. "Every evening I died, and every evening I was born again, resurrected."

Monday, April 19, 2010

God is Power

I want to continue blogging about this month's novel of the month. In this entry, I want to share a few thoughts and raise a few questions on how power relates to faith and our theology about God.

Big Brother is the symbol of absolute power in Orwell's novel 1984. In the story, all citizens are under constant watch by Big Brother. Big Brother sees all, knows all, is everywhere, and holds all power. The rule of Big Brother is, in fact, an exercise of power for power's sake. "God is power."

Love, on the other hand, empowers the other. Love sets free the lover; love risks being wounded by the one loved. Love is vulnerable and open, never coercive or controlling. Love "keeps no record of wrongs" and "always hopes," as it is put in 1 Corinthians 13.

So, what of God?

Theological conceptions of God are often mixed. God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipresent (in all places). God is the enforcer of justice, in the sense of keeping score of humanities virtues and vices. But God is also love.

I find that our conception of God often contains theologies of God as both all-powerful and loving. In God, power and love are conflated. God may punish us, but it is only for our good, to bring us back to our senses.

But notice that this is also the approach of Big Brother. When Winston is being tortured, he is told it is to shake him out of his confusion and make him sane. From Winston's perspective, he just wants to be free. He hates living under the gaze of Big Brother. For Big Brother, on the other hand, "freedom is slavery," a slogan that has an eerie similarity to many religions and many versions of Christianity.

To me it seems that if love is to be love, then it must relinquish any hold it has on power. This seems to me to be one of the most fundamental meanings of the cross. And I'm not alone in thinking this way. Paul in his letter to the Philippians says that Jesus Christ did not consider "being equal to God" as something to be grasped. Instead, he humbled himself into the "form" (morphe) of a servant. The Greek here is interesting, and I think it carries over into most English translations. Christ was in the "form" (morphe) of God, but chose to take on the "form" (morphe) of a servitude. Theologically, Philippians 2 presents the doctrine of "kenosis," that Christ "emptied" himself. God, in the form of Jesus Christ, empties himself. This is, I think, an exchange of power in an act of love.

Although the scriptures and the Christian tradition present a God of weakness, they also contain references to the God of power. How does one interpret this theologically? How does one appropriate this in life and spiritual practice? For many in the States (and in the modern West in general) the God of power is the sexiest and most dynamic theology to appropriate. It also fits well into an imperialistic philosophy of conquest and strength that has been one of the defining characteristics of the modern world. Even in the last decade, we in the States have been told that it is our duty to use power to spread democracy to the world.

Is God a God of power? Or a God of weakness? Does God take on the strategies of Big Brother? Does God act toward people like Big Brother toward Winston: using his power to break us and force us into “sanity.”

Is it possible that we read our own desires for power into God and religion? That God/religion/ideology becomes a front for our need to dominate and control?

Friday, April 16, 2010

On being a lesbian and a Christian....and laying low for a decade or so

I was on a recent facebook exchange with some people who were discussing Jennifer Knapp. Knapp is a Christian music artist who left the biz. a decade ago and has been hiding out in Australia. She says she left because of the strain of the business, perhaps disenfranchised and disillusioned. However, it also turns out that she is a lesbian, which would have been a difficult thing to deal with a decade ago. It still is, of course; but Knapp is recording a new album in the States, and she is fully disclosing her sexual orientation.

When I was in college, I liked Knapp's first album, but shortly thereafter I kind of lost all interest in Christian music. I liked Knapp's style, and I'll probably try to find that album and listen again. She always struck me as kind of raw and real.

The aforementioned facebook discussion was a long battle between those who were sympathetic to Knapp's sexual orientation and those who said that the Bible condemns homosexuality. The discussion quickly turned into a debate on what-does-the-Bible-say-about-homosexuality. Here was my brief response:

Many Christians on the issue of homosexuality are looking to turn to the Bible for an "answer" to the question "is homosexuality wrong/sinful, or is it okay?" But why do we use the Bible in this way?

Perhaps the Bible was meant to guides us into the tradition of the sacred faith, to demonstrate the differing and diverse ways that people of faith have dealt with their humanness and with God's God-ness and with the world's world-ness.

Maybe the Bible wasn't meant to be an answer key. Why do we feel such a pressure to "justify that position biblically!"? I think such an attitude is mistaken from the start. It cuts us off from the heart of faith, which is a spirit-led life. In my opinion, the New Testament was meant to anchor us in Jesus (the Gospels) and in the early church teachings and praxis (the rest of the NT). These stories and teachings are diverse. Early Christianity was very diverse.

The faith needs to be reinvented by each generation, by each person. It always has been this way, and it always will be.

So, I suggest that we both dig into the scriptures but also use the wisdom, love, and discernment of the spirit as a guide...all of this in dialog with each other.

What are your thoughts?

How does religion or Christianity relate to one's sexual orientation?

Do you agree with my thoughts on how the scripture texts should be used in the debate about sexuality?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Derdy Dancing

My brother (code name Derd) has achieved some small amount of YouTube fame. He's had almost 37,000 hits on this video.

I think you will find it to be sweet.

Monday, April 05, 2010

My Corporation. Your Big Brother.

We are continuing on in this month of BIGNESS. This, of course, in honor of Big Brother, George Orwell’s symbol of totalitarian domination in his novel 1984. In my review, I made a few societal comparisons between the world of Big Brother and our own, contemporary Western culture.

In the recent March-April issue of Orion, Christopher Ketcham writes about the “Bigness worship” in our culture. Here is his take:

“We prefer our Big Macs and our Whoppers, our food portions supersized, our big cars and sprawling cities, our enormous football players (growing bigger every year, the average offensive lineman now topping three hundred pounds), our big breasts and big penises and big houses (up from an average of 1,200 square feet in 1950 to 2,216 square feet today), our big armies with big reach, and, though we complain about it incessantly, big government that spends big money running up big debt (more now than at any other period in our history). That we allow corporations to grow to outrageous size is just another symptom of the disease. Bigness worship permeates every layer of the culture; it is racked into our brains with every turn of the advertising screw; it is a totalizing force.” (17, “The Curse of Bigness”)

I was intrigued to see that he uses the word “totalizing force” to describe our situation. Ketcham’s idea here is that worship of all things big, itself, turns into a totalizing force, one which does not seem dissimilar to Orwell’s Big Brother.

In 1984, those with creativity are continually suppressed by torture and execution. Even those who are loyal to the Party will disappear if they show too much of a creative impulse. The modern big corporation of the West operates on the same model, says Ketcham. It looks for an “Organization Man”:

“Creativity, in any case—the radical’s creativity, which is the only kind—is not what the corporation looks for. Rather, it pursues what William Whyte called ‘the fight against genius.’ It looks for Whyte’s ‘Organization Man,’ who seeks protection, safety, succor in bigness, who can be relied on to conform and submit. What it lacks in creativity, of course, the big corporation makes up for in coercion.” (19)

In point of fact, Ketcham says, small is better. Small is more efficient. Smaller groups are “more cohesive, effective, creative in getting things done.” He continues, “Hundreds of studies in factories and workplaces confirm that workers divided into small groups enjoy lower absenteeism, less sickness, higher productivity, greater social interaction, higher morale—most likely because the conditions allow them to engage what is best in being human, to share the meaning and fruits of their labor.” (22)

There seems to be a psychology of meaningfulness at work. When workers integrate themselves with their workers and their works in a way that does not reduce them to a number or to a title, then they have a healthier psyche, and this results in better results…..which everyone kind of already knows. It is also why every contemporary big corporation will make it their top HR priority to create a “meaningful” environment. While this is the stated purpose, it cannot ever truly be achieved, or at least it is rare. In the end, more human workers are still only a means to an end, with profitability and growth being the ultimate objectives.

In the old days, at least the corporations were a bit more straight-forward in their goals and objectives: you are a cog in the machine. Like it or get out. Today’s corporation undergoes a form of what Orwell calls “doublethink.” Doublethink is “to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them.” It is not only to say one thing and do another, but to psychologically learn to immediately forget that one is engaging in doublethink: “to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved the use of doublethink.” So, the HR person at a big corporation truly believes they are working for the good of the worker, while simultaneously working for the good (and drawing their paycheck from) the corporation.

Ketcham says that the result is “one of alienation, powerlessness, meaninglessness.”

“Large groups develop quickly into a committee structure, with an executive or leadership that directs and often dominates the decision-making process. Power, in other words, is centralized, hierarchies are built, authority is increasingly top-down, consent is gently coerced or it arrives by default, as members of the group simply stop participating—not speaking, or initiating, or deciding, or acting, their invisibility growing in proportion as the group grows in size. In short, the experience of most members of the big group could accurately be described as one of alienation, powerlessness, meaninglessness.” (22)

For the subjects of Big Brother, powerlessness is of course the primary reason for being. Big Brother exists solely and only for power. The subtle but serious point that needs to be made here, however, is that Big Brother is the only one with power. In reading 1984 it is clear that even those who are higher up in the Party must somehow shut down their humanness. There is madness in their eyes, even if they are far and away more intelligent than anyone else in the society. As such, there is the same alienation, powerlessness, and meaninglessness even among the most powerful. Those who abuse power, who impose de-humanization on the masses, cannot escape the same fate themselves.

The result of any Big Brother approach to society, culture, religion, family, or any other institution is that the power resides in the symbol. All others become de-humanized in various ways. This, I think, is part of the genius of Orwell’s 1984. He never really rests power in the hands of any one person or in any group of people. The power resides in the Party, or in the abstract Big Brother. The Party is immortal, because it is a symbol and an institution.

In our contemporary society, technology is crucial to the process of dehumanization. Ketcham cites Ghandi: “Every machine that helps every individual has a place, but there should be no place for machines [that] turn the masses into mere machine minders.” (23)

It is beyond dispute, of course, that our modern 20th century obsession with all things big has been aided by the machine. It is also beyond dispute that globally we divide ourselves, roughly, into two processes: slave labor from poor and banking and paper-pushing done in other nations. The white-skinned people, mostly, are the bankers and paper-pushers, those of brown skin from poor countries are the cheap labor force. The other important ingredient in this equation, of course, is the technology to pump cheap oil out of the ground.

Regardless of one’s place, we all are mostly expected to fill roles that contribute directly or indirectly to the growth of big institutions, which themselves fit into this new, global economy.

But there is hope. Orwell’s dystopian is bleak. In the end, the hero breaks down, the last man falls. Big Brother is immortal. But Ketcham’s point is that bigger is not better, by definition. Smaller is more efficient. There is creativity and imagination in smaller groups, something that is suppressed in Big Brother corporations. The use of power to trample creativity ultimately backfires; it exposes the weakness and vulnerability of Big Brother.

“The bigger and more complex our institutions become, the weaker and more vulnerable they really are.” (22)

Rebellion, then, must come through creativity. Apathy only contributes to Big Brother’s domination. This is what I always enjoy when I read or watch the novel/film Fight Club. The creativity of the displaced and malcontents ultimately can work underground to destroy the system.

What kind of creativity is necessary to bring human-ness back to Western society? What kind of imagination is needed to break the cycle?

How can we create a world that is decisively smaller? Less reliant on people feeling like cogs in the machine?

Does creativity become a spiritual force? Is creativity one of the most fundamental spiritual virtues? Is this spiritual creativity, in itself, a form of anarchy?

The State of Fiction

Special thanks to my friend Aeyn, for loaning me his copy of The Point, issue two, from which I take this quote, about the state of the novel in today's world:

It is perfectly fair--and what's more, manifestly accurate--to say that social and cultural conditions are presently antithetical in lots of ways to creating literature that resonates with the times....The novelist is caught in a double bind: in order to properly capture the feel of a kinetic, overloaded modern world she must pack more, and more varied, material into her work, but does so for an audience that has less and less inclination to engage with it. Alternatively, the novelist simplifies and straightens her work in order to win readers, but at the expense of representing the world as she truly perceives it to be (i.e. "selling out"). There is a concern that the novel is simply unable, structurally, to harmonize with an era where the written word has been so heavily marginalized by sound and image." (p. 50, "Hard Feelings" by Ben Jeffery)

My friends, why did I embark on the Human Narrative Project? If only I had known that the novel was extinct! Perhaps it is not too late. We can make a subtle change: change the Human Narrative Project from a review of the great novels to an exploration of the world's greatest Youtube videos.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

1984 by George Orwell

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake”

George Orwell’s 1984 is a novel exploring power. As literature, I found the writing good but not particularly compelling. The novel was clearly written to discuss political and philosophical points of view. From a purely literary perspective, one might object to such a practice. In the case of 1984, however, I find that Orwell’s imagination and creativity overcomes any objection to writing a novel for the sake of theoretical discussion. In actual practice, I do not think that it is possible to divide the message from the media, the content of writing from its language. The two are inseparable.

The genius of 1984 is Orwell’s ability to create a totalitarian world that explores power, politics, and the human subject. The Orwellian world of Oceania sets its characters in a context of absolute power and domination. The Party differs from the Fascist or Communist powers of the modern world in that they do not pretend to embody any humanistic ideals. Their objective is clear: “power entirely for its own sake.” The undoing of German Fascism or various Communist regimes is their ideological pretense. The Party recognizes that it must root all of its activities in terms of power, stated explicitly.

The symbol of The Party is Big Brother. Big Brother is a giant face that can be seen on posters, walls, and screens throughout Oceania; but Big Brother is also the representation of the power of the state, the symbol of its strength, the divine and eternal metaphor.

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU. Big Brother is omnipresent. Big Brother is ever-present, keeping watch to be sure that there is no one who will oppose the power of the Party. Through technology, Big Brother is able to monitor the masses and every individual. Everyone at every time knows that they are being watch.

Big Brother is given credit for his benevolence. If the economy grows, manufacturing forecasts are surpassed, or food rations increase (as they always do), this is due to the wisdom and foresight of Big Brother. Big Brother provides all that is needed.

Big Brother is omniscient, all-knowing. Big Brother demands that your speech be controlled by controlling language. The language is continually being reduced so that the fewest words may be used. As language is reduced, the capacity for consciousness, reflection, and critical thought decrease accordingly. Free thought is a vice. Big Brother can do all of the thinking necessary for the world. Big Brother knows all.

Big Brother is the one who is everywhere, monitoring your movements. Big Brother is the all-knowing one, controlling your speech and thought. In addition to these two exercises of power, there is a third method of domination: the power to crush any rebellion. Big Brother is the omnipotent, all-powerful one who can unleash a force that will bend any will. Big Brother can use violence to exterminate any act or expression of freedom. This is not just any independent act that threatens the Party; rather, Big Brother will destroy any act of a free self. Through violence, torture, and pure force, Big Brother will break the mind and will of any rebel. What is most shocking, however, is that Big Brother will even unleash such immense power as to force a person into loving Big Brother.

“Winston, you are no metaphysician”

Within this context of absolute power, there are two individuals who dare to assert themselves as human beings, each in a different way. Winston Smith is the primary character, the main protagonist. Winston is the everyman, and as such he is not a philosopher of surpassing intellectual powers. Nonetheless, he is no slouch, and his self-discovery is a theoretical and ideological one.

Winston works for the Party. His job is to rearrange the “facts” of the past so that Big Brother is always correct and always looks good. Winston changes history. It is through this that he begins to question the Party and desire to defy Big Brother.

Julia’s path is not ideological. Winston was born before the Party took power; Julia was not. All that she knows is the power of Big Brother. So she plays along with the whole thing as though it were a game, and she looks for opportunities to slip outside of the watchful eye of Big Brother and live her life as fully as she can. Her sensuality and lust for life are her way of rebelling and asserting herself as a self.

Together Winston and Julia seek to defy the Party by meeting in secret. They become lovers, friends, and co-conspirators.

Orwell’s world in 1984 is one in which technology advancement allows the government a level of god-like omniscience, monitoring the movements and speech of each person. Technology is also used to transmit a continuous stream of media propaganda, to keep all citizens aware of the power and glory of the Party. Controlling the language and speech of individuals is important to Big Brother. There is a word, “duckspeak” that is praised by the Party. It is not speech in the true sense; rather it is “noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.”

If Orwell’s world appears to be one in which technology has invaded the freedom of individuals, is the situation all that different in our contemporary, Western world. The Orwellian totalitarian future is one in which there is a centralized intelligence that controls the media stream and monitors the speech and actions of citizens. Our media world is perhaps much more random and chaotic. There is no centralized control of media, but does this mean there is more freedom?

The contemporary discussion usually presumes that because we can choose to shut of the television or log off of the internet that we are free. However, the fact remains, that most of us in the developed tech-savy West we are no less plugged in than the members of Orwell’s dystopian society. It begs the question of whether we are really more free. Are we more free because most of our populace can choose between Fox News or CNN? Or is this choice more a matter of illusion. Perhaps the point is not that we can choose between cable news or the internet, perhaps the greater point is that we are constantly plugging in to media, a media that always seeks to capitalize on ratings by selling advertising.

In a sense, our current climate is sort of a voluntary limiting of freedom, based on a perceived choice between which media we want to be our Big Brother for the day. While we often praise ourselves in the U.S. for being the land of the free, there is a disturbing parallel between Big Brother and the media.

Every society and culture has its mechanisms of control and manipulation. What perhaps is most disturbing about life in the States is that we seem to be under the naïve assumption that our perceived freedom of choice with regard to media means that we are less subject to manipulation. In reality, our nation has become polarized into two ideologies, both of which are often inconsistent and seemingly random. On any particular issue, we can be sure that the same people will line up on either side, and that the discussion will be less rational or fact-based, resembling more the quacking duckspeak of Orwell’s novel.

This all raises a very serious question of what it means to be free in an era of our eternal news-byte media. If the result of media submersion is the same in Orwell’s novel as it is in today’s Western society, a sort of “duckspeak,” then how much “freedom” do we truly have? When public discussion is more about “noise uttered in unconsciousness” than it is about creative and original thought, then what right do we have to say that our freedom (so-called) is really and truly all that superior to Big Brother. That we choose to submit our minds to hours a day of connectivity does not make us any more free. In fact, it is probably more the perception of choice, much as an alcoholic may have a momentary sense of freedom in choosing between spirits for his next drink.

“God is Power”

Reading 1984 is helpful to me because it states that the Party’s explicit aim is to power for its own sake. Our modern Western ideals center on democracy as a control measure for power. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So we assume in the United States that if we have appropriate checks and balances, then we can gain more freedom. Many in the U.S. are disturbed by any perceived expansion of government power. An expansion of governmental power means a loss of freedom. It is an equation that is a given in many circles of thought.

Friedrich Nietzsche believed strongly in the will to power. He criticized democracy. Democracy, Nietzsche believed, will limit the ability of great people to do great things. It will, in essence, make everyone mediocre and prohibit the rise of great creative people. Democracy, says Nietzsche, merely gives rise to a herd mentality.

Looking at the current state of political discourse in the U.S. today, with its tone of “duckspeak,” groupthink, and talking points, it is clear that there is a marked inability for individuals to cultivate their own unique perspectives. For me, this speaks in favor of Nietzsche’s critique of democracy.

While Big Brother pursues power for its own sake, in our democratic society the power plays are more subtle but no less real. The lesson of 1984 in light of our contemporary society is to understand that power is always at work. Power is no less controlling or manipulative in democratic societies as it is in Orwell’s totalitarian state. In democracy, the masses must simply perceive themselves as making their own choices. Because democracy requires the illusion of choice, the manipulation and control mechanisms cannot be overtly manipulative, as they are in 1984.

What seems to me to be the commonality between Big Brother and contemporary society is that both evidence a lack of rationality and love in public discourse. We tend to see the worst in our opponents, the various sides being convinced that other political parties are out to limit their freedoms or otherwise do harm to their fellowman. This intense fear and suspicion, ironically, makes one most vulnerable to manipulation by those who are presumably “on my side.” When one proceeds in public discourse with humility, reasoned arguments, and charity toward those who disagree, one is far less inclined to fall into duckspeak, and far more likely to create a society where members are far less naïve to the workings of power.

Power is always with us. Power is god, in the lower “g” sense.

“You must love Big Brother”

In the end, Winston and Julia are caught by the Party. They undergo torture to cleans their minds. By sheer force, Big Brother forces Winston to believe what they want him to believe.

But belief is not enough.

“To die hating them; that is freedom,” Winston thinks to himself. If he can retain this thought, this private, inner rebellion, then at his death he will have reserved for himself a moment of freedom and independence.

Big Brother knows this, and so it is not enough to merely bend the will and mind, Big Brother will use his power to force Winston to love him. And it works. In works because Big Brother breaks down his body and soul, forcing Winston to deny Julia, his only true love. After months of torture, Winston is completely broken. There is nothing left. He spends most of his days drinking. Everyone pities him. The Party no longer monitors him. There is no need, because Winston’s psyche has no power left in it to assert itself in anyway.

Striped of all power of the mind, will, and heart, Winston is sitting in a café, drinking some filthy gin. He hears a report of a military victory of Big Brother. He is genuinely cheered by the news. And finally, something clicks in Winston. He realizes the folly of his rebellion. He understands now. Everything is clear.

“Oh cruel, needless misunderstanding. Oh stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast…but it was all right…he had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

With this the novel closes. Winston loves Big Brother. Big Brother, of course, does not love Winston; but even if he did, the love was gained by force. Here, at the end of the novel, we find the correlation between love and freedom. We understand, at a fundamental level, that love gained by power, by brute force, is not love. Love without the freedom to choose love is still brutality. Love is only true when the lovers are free to reject or embrace the other.

On their own, these sayings can seem cliché. As such, it is the narrative of 1984 that brings to life phrases that have been overused. The story, the characters, the world that is created through fiction can bring us to really see love and freedom in real life. This brings me back to my first point in this review: that the form of writing and the content are inseparable. The ability for ideals to stir us through story is directly related to the ability of the writer to take us into the narrative and into the minds and hearts of the characters. There are certain things that we have to be shown, not merely told.

I believe 1984 to be an important novel. By carrying power to an extreme, we can reflect on the ways in which power is always working, in ways that are subtle but no less extreme. It would only be a superficial and shallow reading that would presume that the control and manipulation of Big Brother is no less present in all societies. This tends to give support to the idea that power itself is not the issue. Rather, power must be discusses in the context of a society whose modus operandi for public discourse is charity, humility, and rationality.