During this year’s Melbourne Festival I attended the Headlong Theatre stage production of 1984, and a panel discussion (Language, perfomance and power: reflecting on 1984 in 2015) featuring Daniel Raggett, the associate director of the production, Denise Varney, Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne, and Robert Hassan, head of the Media and Communications Program at the University of Melbourne.
The play is very cleverly staged, weaving what could have been mere utilitarian scene changes or allusions to off-stage action into an integral part of the performance. Making explicit use of the appendix of the book, the action starts with parallel stories playing out in the same space, around the same table: Winston starting to write his diary and going about his daily routine at work, and a group of academics from the book’s imagined future discussing his writings and their meaning. Shifting attention from one to the other is achieved by temporarily freezing the movement in one group while the other continues. The theme of revising history, of deleting and ‘unwriting’ is brought to life by a sequence in which the same scene is replayed over and over with fewer and fewer characters. The sense of privacy and seclusion in Winston and Julia’s secret meeting place and the co-existent invasion of that privacy and ultimate exposure is evoked by the use of a live video feed from cameras hidden in the room, projected onto a screen above the stage. The room, which we are initially led to think is off stage, is in fact concealed on stage behind layers of scenery and is later exposed, stripped and dismantled by the uniformed thugs of the regime in a brilliant scene change to the spartan Room 101. In contrast to this complete change of scene pragmatically and relentlessly unfolding in front of our eyes are the internal shifts which occur in utter darkness punctuated by intense and overwhelming bursts of light and noise which draw us in to the experience of Winston’s psychological intimidation and final capitulation. Despite the appendix of the book leaving us with the positive message that the totalitarian regime had not prevailed, my identification with Winston had me leaving the theatre feeling demoralised and beaten down. As I reflected on the relevance of the book in 2015, this was a pointed reminder that we should not overlook the suffering of the individual that occurs both because of and in spite of our attempts to socially engineer a ‘better’ world.
The panel discussion took up a number of interesting points. One thread which they explored was the power of theatre and its ability, with the actor-audience interaction (however subtle), to create a sense of immediacy and emotional connection which other media cannot achieve. The other main thread was that of the relevance of 1984 in today’s world. This is a broad topic and the discussion can easily be hijacked by a tendency to interpret its relevance in a literal and therefore limited sense rather than to examine the themes behind the depiction of a fear-driven totalitarian state (for more on this I recommend listening to the debate between Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens on the ABC Radio National program The Minefield on 20 August 2015). This tendency was illustrated by the examples chosen for discussion by the panel. There was some reference to contemporary examples of Newspeak such as the term rendition, and panelist Robert Hassan posited that in contemporary society the ‘Big Brother’ of surveillance was represented not by government but by corporations, who use reward rather than fear to ensure our acquiescence (notwithstanding that governments are attempting to access and make their own use of the data gathered by this surveillance), but on the whole the discussion was fairly superficial and barely touched on the important themes in the novel of the mutablity and hence controllability of memory and recorded history, and the use of language to exert control over ideas including the very notion that the content of thought can be controlled. A pity, because these themes are actually fundamental to any examination of the relevance of the novel in 2015.
The idea that the very concepts underlying our thoughts can be influenced by the language available to describe them is not new, and will be familiar to anyone who speaks more than one language. I’ve discussed this briefly in a My Medieval Life blog article about cultural context in historical research where I refer to Umberto Eco’s Experiences in Translation. The practicalities of applying this knowledge in order to completely suppress thoughts deemed undesirable, as described by Orwell in 1984, is limited by the continual evolution of language by means of appropriating foreign-language words, mashing together existing words to create composites and inventing completely new slang and other words. Thousands of years’ worth of linguistic evidence says that that Newspeak simply won’t happen. Where this concept, the idea that we can influence the content of thought by altering the mental environment in which it occurs, does intersect neatly with an area of current relevance is in the corporate co-optation of mindfulness meditation to use as a tool for increasing worker productivity. One of the principles underlying the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation is that all thoughts – and their associated emotions – are of equal (un)importance. With practice we can learn to direct our attention and hence let these fleeting thoughts pass by without the resulting suffering. While this may be appropriate in the original context it is more problematic when the technique is intentionally used to increase the tolerance for unhealthy workplace conditions. In the words of the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986) “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”. Similarly, the principle of reframing thoughts that underlies cognitive behavioural therapy – which by extension implies that there are ‘good thoughts’ and ‘bad thoughts’ – slides dangerously close to the Orwellian concept of thoughtcrime. Might mental illness be described as thoughtcrime? Thomas Szaz’s views on this topic from his 1970 book Ideology and Insanity remain highly relevant today.
Of more importance though, is the idea that memory is mutable, and that by controlling information about the past we can rewrite history and our memories will follow suit. Orwell expressed this idea in a newspaper article some five years before the publication of 1984: “The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future”. In a more innocent way we seek to rewrite our own histories all the time. We cut our ex-spouses out of photographs, we throw away souvenirs and we delete social media posts, as if by removing evidence we can actually alter the reality of the past. Certainly our current ‘reality’ can be influenced by the information we have available. Going back to discussion panellist Robert Hassan’s view that corporations are the contemporary ‘Big Brother’, it is not difficult to see that this concept extends beyond his specific comments on surveillance to the ways in which these same corporations control our access to information with the intention of influencing our decision making, by means such as personalised search algorithms and targeted advertising. While we may be aware of it to some extent, this influence is exerted far more subtly than government attempts to control and suppress information on matters currently in the public eye, such as offshore detention facilities and government-corporate business relationships, in an attempt to control public perception and opinion in favour of the policies of the government of the day.
All of which supports the argument that 1984 is still a highly relevant text in 2015. We may not live in the totalitarian state of his novel, but the concerns which Orwell raises are ones we should continue to examine today.
(originally published 22 October 2015)