Laura Frost: You probably didn’t read the most telling part of Orwell’s “1984″—the appendix

“[T]he notion that the novel concludes with a brainwashed, broken protagonist, Winston Smith, weeping into his Victory Gin and the bitter sentence: “He loved Big Brother,” are not exactly right. Big Brother does not actually get the last word.” — Laura Frost

The Problem with PleasureAfter news of the Prism program came out a couple of weeks ago, the sales for George Orwell’s worryingly prophetic novel 1984 shot up by several thousand percent. 1984 is a notoriously grim novel, but, in a recent article at Quartz, Laura Frost argues that Orwell’s work is decidedly less grim when one takes into account what she believes is the most telling part of the entire novel: the appendix. Frost is a professor of literature at the New School, and the author of The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents.

In her article, Frost argues that the appendix, despite coming after “THE END,” “changes our whole understanding of the novel”:

After “THE END,” Orwell includes another chapter, an appendix, called “The Principles of Newspeak.” Since it has the trappings of a tedious scholarly treatise, readers often skip the appendix. But it changes our whole understanding of the novel. Written from some unspecified point in the future, it suggests that Big Brother was eventually defeated. The victory is attributed not to individual rebels or to The Brotherhood, an anonymous resistance group, but rather to language itself. The appendix details Oceania’s attempt to replace Oldspeak, or English, with Newspeak, a linguistic shorthand that reduces the world of ideas to a set of simple, stark words. “The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought.” It will render dissent “literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

But it never comes to pass. The Party’s plans—the abolition of the family, laughter, art, literature, curiosity, pleasure, in favor of a “boot stamping down on a human face forever”—are never achieved because Newspeak fails to take. Why? Because it was too difficult to translate Oldspeak literature into Newspeak. The text Orwell singles out to exemplify this, intriguingly, is the Declaration of Independence. The “author” of the appendix argues that these ideas cannot be expressed in Newspeak, specifically the part about governments deriving their legitimacy from the consent of the people, and citizens having the right to challenge any government that fails to honor the contract. As long as we have a nuanced, expansive system of language, Orwell claims, we will have freedom and the possibility of dissent.

Frost claims that the “appeal to the integrity of language and principled thought” Orwell makes in the appendix to 1984 is directly applicable to the obfuscating and innocent names of programs like Prism.

He writes: “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell maintains that misleading terminology and evasive explanations are endemic to modern politics. “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” including practices like imprisoning people “for years without trial,“ Orwell writes.

After looking back at the famous Apple advertisement based on 1984, Frost argues that technology can be a freeing as well as an oppressing force:

This is contemporary technology’s founding myth: the garage band ethos of its early founders going up against centralized, bureaucratic cultures like IBM by putting technology into the hands of the people. Obviously, scrappy startups have grown into multinational corporations led by wealthy CEOs, and most successful social networks are now run by powerful companies. However, we are surrounded by examples of technology used to question the status quo: Twitter and the Arab Spring is one example, Wikileaks is another, and so is Snowden.

When Orwell wrote 1984, he was responding to the Cold War, not contemporary terrorism. He did not anticipate the full reach of digital technology. Even so, he was correct in seeing a future where the government had greater control but also a belief in the people’s ability to use language for dissent.

Read the full article here.

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