Dystopian Literature: In Conversation with Critical Discourse and Contemporary World | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 04, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:02 AM, July 04, 2020

Dystopian Literature: In Conversation with Critical Discourse and Contemporary World

The twentieth century's interactions with the popular revolutions, capitalist advent, authoritarianism, World Wars, repressive state-system paves the way for a frowning skepticism about the Enlightenment metanarrative and nuances the global literary firmament with dystopian motif. And, we got classic dystopian authors like Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, William Gibson to name a few. Political sensitivity and literary imagination are the two pivotal components of their oeuvres. Dystopia, popularly conceived as an imagined state or society where suffering, injustice, repression and control mechanisms are the essentialist features, accounts for the post-apocalyptic human condition. Hence, appears the dystopian fiction showcasing such human (or posthuman) condition. The bracketed "posthuman" entails a confusion that our academia is dealing with vis-à-vis the generic blur of dystopian fiction attempting to negotiate between modern fiction, postmodern fiction, sci-fi novel, cyberpunk novel and the like. Perhaps such obscurity is what gives and will give the dystopian fiction available popular and discursive currency across the decades and perhaps centuries.   

Let's start with a storyline. There is a state ruled by the "Party" led by a powerful "Big Brother." In this state of the Big Brother, the Ministry of Truth controls information: news, entertainment, education, and the arts. People in general and the party members are forced to believe that black is white if the state of the party demands it which they call doublethinking. In this state, people have no privacy as their apartments are equipped with telescreens so that they may be under surveillance. The so-called Thought Police or "The Private Eye" employs undercover agents so check any so-called subversive tendencies against the Big Brother. Everyone of the country is forced to love their Big Brother, an attitude they call "positive nationalism." 

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Yes, we are talking about Orwellian prophetic dystopian novel. Published in 1949 and set in 1984 in the fictional superstate of Oceania, Orwell's Nineteen eighty-four: A Novel visualizes a world order when the world falls victim to endless war, mass state surveillance, authoritarianism and thought control. Humans cease to apply logic and reason and conform to the imposed and propagated ideals of the state. None can go beyond what the state makes them believe; any breach of this situation is considered to be a thoughtcrime and hence punishable. Even the linguistic ability is curtailed and controlled by imposing Newsbreak as the official language with simplified grammar, and limited vocabulary restrain freedom of thought. Orwell envisioned an advent of post-truth era in his 1949 book. Slogan like 2+2=5 is what Orwell presented as false dogma which the individuals are meant to believe even if they do not have any scientific or empirical proof. We find such Orwellian resonance later in the economic concept of "propaganda model" (Chomsky and Herman) or Chomsky's "manufacturing consent." We can trace literary sampling of Foucauldian "panopticon" or Bentham's architectural surveillance in Orwell's telescreen, a device that is equipped with television, secret camera and microphone to bug and control any non-conformist discourse, an accusation which nowadays is unsettling big tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook. The uncanny pop-up of Amazon or Daraz ad of my favorite ear-pods on my Facebook home page is perhaps what Orwellian telescreen or modern Alexa can perform by invading our privacy and tracking our preferences. To establish the affective control of emotion, Ministry of Love regulates, converts, and punishes any unorthodox emotional behavior and if the cases are serious, they are sent to the torture cell Room 101, a nightmarish reminder of Abu Ghraib, Alcatraz Prison or Guantanamo Bay for the contemporary readers. Even, memory hole, a device to delete unwanted and unorthodox (to the state, or course) memories is present in the novel as a hegemonic tool. Perhaps, we can relate it to the electrocution or lobotomy used in the treatment of trauma and other pnemonic discrepancies.

Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, once Bolshevik and Coomunist party member also disengaged himself from Stalinist ideological and literary essentialism. His discomfort with the regulatory aesthetic norm namely "socialist realism" is present in his literature. Set in a futuristic and totalitarian One State run by the dictator Benefactor (literacy predecessor of Orwellian 'Big Brother'), Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1921 novel We, embodies a geopolitical reorganization and hints at the occupational nature of the imperial states. The all-pervasive glass structures in order to ensure mass surveillance help us again to read what Jeremy Bentham prison-design meant. Visibility as a instrument for overpowering endorses Foucauldian Knowledge/Power nexus. The specter of Cartesian Machine-Animal (machina animata) returns in the form of the nameless and codified characters of the novel who are watched by secret police, psychologically castrated by Great Operation in order to avoid mutiny, cannot have dreams and sometimes function as "tractor in human form." Zamyatin's prophecy of a late-capitalist dehumanization and post-humanist mind-body re-embodiment has a tacit resonance of Frederic Jameson's famous pronouncement, "Postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism." When someone dreams big in We, they are detected as having mental illness, a discursive violence that Michel Foucault has repeatedly mentioned in The Birth of a Clinic and Madness and Civilization. The use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the prolonged war causing human loss just aptly reflects the contemporary imperial attitude of the G8 nations.

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1931/1932), apart from its common literary chronotope of a totalitarian state in the future "World State," heavily and almost accurately anticipates the genetic, biotechnological, scientific and environmental futurism such as Psycho-Phone (machine for sleep-learning), cloning, test-tube baby, mood enhancement, classical conditioning, simulation technology and the like. The citizens of the World State with a predetermined class/caste based on their intelligence detected through "childhood indoctrination programme" resonates the race and caste politics across the world, or the contemporary polemics about eugenics.     

Oftentimes called an oppressive and depressive speculative dystopian fiction, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale underscores the telling feminist question of women's position in a patriarchal matrix. The handmaid Offred is just another victim of a phallocentric nexus who lends her womb to other elite infertile couples. Living in a repressive male-dominated state called Republic of Gilead where women have only three confined status- wives, Marthas (domestic servants) or handmaids (a form of fertility slave), Offred the handmaid, has lost all human agency. Atwood's novel is rich in its gynocritical preoccupation and can serve as a seminal text in understanding the capitalization of women's bio/body-capital and the devastating psychological aftermath of it. Mahasweta Devi's Breast Stories (trans. Gayatri Spivak) also delineates what Spivak calls "the harsh indictment of an exploitative social system." Narrated from an intimate gendered perspective, such dystopian can also complement Hélène Cixous' famous gendered writing discourse called "écriture feminine."  

Within South Asian context, Prayaag Akbar's Leila (2017) envisages the extreme margin of caste/social segregation where people are resettled and separated by building dividing and confining walls. Akbar delineates an ecological apocalypse with sheer scarcity of drinking water and fresh air where big corporation like Skydome produces fresh air. Spatial demarcation of rich and poor neighborhood is strictly maintained. Heavily guarded walls, brutish army of "repeaters" (some readers are reminded of the RSS cadets), communal and classicist hatred, ecocide, massive urban restructuring, child labor, brainwashing mechanism – all lead Shailini, Leila's mother, to the verge of an unbearably surreal future. Echoing the social and political fabric of India, Akbar's portrayal is thus a reflection of the unbearable present and projection of the fearful future.        

Be it futuristic or science-fictional, or set in the contemporary world, dystopian fictions serve as a powerful critic of society and its different repressive mechanism. Among other thematic components like mind-body duality, anthrop omorphism, geo-spatial re-mapping, posthuman condition, perhaps the most pervasive aspects that almost all dystopian fictions deal with is the issue of the control over human life and death, critical concerns popularly known as biopolitics and necropolitics. Critics like Giorgio Agamben, Michel Foucault, Achille Mbembe, Jasbir Puar et al. have extensively contributed in this field accommodating different intersectional concerns such as race, ethnicity, religion, xenophobia, and coloniality. Dystopian fiction has a generalized thematic umbrella which updates itself according to the cultural and geographical specifications, yet this genre remains intimate to our own narrative, true to our own time and place. Every individual, every period, every place has its own anecdote of dystopian narrative. Sometimes as social commentary while sometimes as political forebodings, dystopian fiction has always drawn attention of theorists, sociologists, cyber-critics to name a few schools of thought.   


Kazi Ashraf Uddin is Associate Professor, Dept. of English, Jahangirnagar University.


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