Sex, Drugs, & Totalitarian Control

March 27, 2017 § 9 Comments

tumblr_o7m63hn1mI1v1dyl1o1_500Since the end of my Disney-princess days and the start of my adolescence I have been taught that apathy is beautiful and to love is to submit yourself to ruin. There are about five different abbreviations to say to your friends via text, “I don’t care,” and countless others to describe a sexual relationship you’re having without ever using the word “dating.” “Seeing each other.” “Hooking up.” “Hanging out.” “Chilling.” “We’re in a thing.” “Talking.” Sometimes we even resort to an anxious shrug and launch into a conversation having to do with just about anything else.

When you’re with the person you’re “chilling” with, talk of God or poetry or desires beyond drugs or alcohol or sex is completely off limits. Time spent in the daylight is too risky because white light has a way of exposing flaws and the feelings in your eyes that are much easier to hide when it’s dark and only the moon is watching. There’s an art to apathy, or at least, to pretending not to care. It involves a lot of leaving texts on “read” and silences when conversations start to sink their feet into something concrete. It involves a lot of smiling when you’re not the least bit happy and “keeping your options open” when you really just feel like committing.

Having become well versed in this science, reading about the romantic entanglements  in Aldous Huxley’s, Brave New World felt more like reading a slightly exaggerated version of a millennial hookup story than any science fiction future. Throughout the novel, both men and women describe having sex with one another as “having” another individual, alluding to temporary ownership or possession rather than intimacy or even reciprocal action— like “sleeping with” or “having sex with.” This is seen in a lot of today’s colloquialisms as well, “banged her,” “tapped that,” “hit that,” all of which have no romantic undertones and in fact, allude to violence.

The character of Lenina is a perfect embodiment of the incredibly sexual, carnal sort of reality that Huxley crafts. She is no stranger to sexual encounters; once in the novel upon entering the Alpha Changing Rooms, she is said to have been, “a popular girl and, at one point or another, had spent a night with almost all of [the men in the room]” (63). Her only understanding of the word “love” and her only understanding of relations with men, is sexual. We see this both in her relationship with Bernard and with John, however even she, the poster child, the pin-up girl, for hookup culture, struggles at times with this way of life.

During a conversation she has in the beginning of the novel with her friend Fanny, Lenina confides in her, saying, “‘Somehow, I hadn’t been feeling very keen on promiscuity lately. There are times when one doesn’t. Haven’t you found that too, Fanny?’ Fanny nodded her sympathy and understanding. ‘But one’s got to make the effort,’ she said, sententiously, ‘one’s got to play the game. After all, every one belongs to every one else’” (48). This notion that ‘every one belongs to every one else’ is repeated often in the book, relating the concept of human relationships to both the communist desire to eliminate individuality as well as the capitalist-encouraged relationships we have with material goods. To ‘belong’ to a person, to ‘have’ a person, is reflective of the idea that the commodification of the human body is the same as our commodification of all other goods. This is the only way Lenina understands relationships. Whenever Lenina has an encounter with John that leaves her pining for him, she resorts to taking soma, nor can she understand his declaration of love spoken with grand metaphors and poetic references towards the end of the novel (174). These irrational human inclinations to pine after someone, to allow someone other than ourselves to wield such power over our own happiness, to devote our lives to a relationship, and to love in language as flowery and impractical as poetry—these are not conducive to the society Huxley has created because they are not rational and cannot be satisfied by material goods.

However, there are some positives to Huxley’s future view of sexual relationships. For one, female sexual agency. John does not understand the sexually liberated, emotionless way in which both men and women operate in the World State. Throughout the novel, John places Lenina on a pedestal as an ethereal creature. He yearns to shield her from anything lewd or ‘unholy.’ He ‘loves’ her for the beautiful image he has made her out to be, not for who she really is. By making John this way, Huxley demonstrates that the commodification of women specifically has a history that started well before the concepts of capitalism and communism were introduced. John commodifies Lenina into an object he wants to possess—a pure, holy, innocent object. When Lenina attempts to be sexual with him after he declares his love, he calls her a whore and eventually calls for her death (177). While Huxley’s future eliminates the possibility of great love and feeling, it also eliminates the virgin-whore dichotomy that has shackled women for centuries. In theory, John’s ‘love’ for Lenina sounds grand and it feels tragic that it cannot be reciprocated and nurtured, however, in reality, his perception of women is flawed just as the perception of women has been for all of history. If there is any remnant of true feeling, of true romantic love in the novel that should have gotten the chance to be expressed, it is at the start of the novel in Bernard and in his respect for Lenina, although it is snuffed out.

Rather than being romantic or emotional, the society in which Huxley’s characters operate is an expensive one, where people fly planes and play elaborate golf games and rely on drugs for contentment and it is intentionally designed that way: “We do not want want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones,” (198).The things that the “Savage” John cares about—God, poetry, freedom, those are not as easily commodified and thereby go discouraged in such a society. In order for the totalitarian rule in Huxley’s book to function, John’s desires cannot exist, people need to fully buy into the capitalist understanding of ‘happiness.’ A New York Times article discussing Huxley’s vision for the future described it as, “The totalitarian rulers in Huxley’s book do this not by oppressing their citizens but by giving them exactly what they want, or what they think they want — which is basically sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll — and lulling them into complacency. They don’t mourn their lost liberty…they don’t even know it’s gone.” While there are definitely criticisms of communism as well as capitalism in this novel, looking at it from a modern day lens the problems Huxley points out with capitalism are of more significance as is the threat of becoming someone constantly searching for happiness through material goods.

But how different is Huxley’s fabricated society from our own? In much of the discussion surrounding artificial intelligence and personhood, many say that the reason why AI will never be equal to humanity is because it won’t be able to have empathy, to love, to feel the way human beings are capable. However, we live in a world where the suppression of those very same feelings is encouraged, where those qualities hailed in arguments about AI are shunned and seen as shameful in our relationships with one another.

While I applaud the sexual agency seen much more frequently in today’s society and in Huxley’s novel and I disapprove of the slut-shaming and sexist idolization of women as seen in John’s view of Lenina, I also worry that human beings may be trying to act too much like machines and also, what this means for women specifically. If John’s virgin-whore dichotomy persists and yet Lenina’s attitudes towards sex are trendy—how does a woman win? And should she want to? Is being rational always preferable—is it sustainable—is it healthy? The inner turmoil faced by both John and Lenina is the same as it is in the many American children who grow up to see that after a first kiss it’s far more likely to hear “see you never,” than “happily ever after.” What makes us aspire to live such an apathetically sexual life? Is it fear of vulnerability? Is it the threat of being out of control? Do we really search for the kind of happiness described in the novel, one that is “never grand” because we are afraid of the rough waves that come with fluctuating human emotion (199)?

Works Cited:

Before Sunrise. Dir. Richard Linklater. By Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan. Perf. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Columbia, 1995.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. London: Vintage Classic, 2014. Print.

McGrath, Charles. “Which Dystopian Novel Got It Right: Orwell’s ‘1984’ or Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Feb. 2017. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.

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§ 9 Responses to Sex, Drugs, & Totalitarian Control

  • resnichm says:

    On the subject of the communist versus capitalist hold over the body, New York Times article you referenced is a really interesting. The World State gave it’s people everything they wanted in order to be “happy” and in doing so, gave them total control. The opposite of this was what the fascist regimes did only a few years later: strip the people of everything that could make them happy, down to their basic needs of survival, in order to gain total control.
    Your analysis of the role of the body and sexuality in a communist point of view versus capitalist point of view adds to the complexity of the argument for which Huxley was arguing. He presents both the body as a commodity, something to consume, and the body as something for the people to share. The concepts should conflict directly, but somehow don’t in the World State. Brave New World was written in 1932, just at the start of the Cold War. I wonder how popular this book was in those years, and how it could have influenced history had the different political leaders read it.

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  • woodrume says:

    My transition to a university filled with high-achieving young adults has often left me thinking about the conflicting notions of romantic relationships that Grace mentioned. Our current culture, especially that which exists among more privileged communities (and often in more densely populated areas), equates progress and maturity with the ability to remain rational and untethered to romantic relationships; the focus for young adults is instead on advancing our future careers. In Nebraska (where I grew up), however, I know several peers who have already set wedding dates and many more who have been seriously dating for several years. As Grace said, given these opposing options, there seems to be no way to win. For women, this is especially true because our familial roles are often over-emphasized and depicted in direct opposition with our professional lives. If a woman commits too fiercely to a relationship, she risks being deemed foolish and allowing the relationship to squander her professional potential. If she instead follows her career wholeheartedly, she risks being seen as cold and overly ambitious. This notion of undisturbed rationality as a sign of personal progress is mirrored in Brave New World, though it is interesting that it is depicted as an end rather than a means. There is no career to advance, no promotion to relocate for; the rationality regarding relationships, or the lack thereof, exists solely to maintain stability.

    Liked by 2 people

  • kaylabartee says:

    I find your argument on apathy and sexuality to be very interesting on how such illusions of feminine freedom seems to also come with a certain captivity as seen with the female character Lenina. I also agree that John is more than a flawed character with his reliance on Shakespearean ideals especially about women.

    What interests me the most about your post is the idea of humans imitating machines with mute emotions, and how humans are so concerned with machines showing the very thing that has become almost taboo in society due to its connection with weakness and vulnerability. It makes me wonder then about the multiple portrayals in modern science fiction where humans are seen projecting such repressed emotions along with their sexual desires unto AIs such as in Ex Machina, Blade Runner, or Her. It is as if as humans, we have a fantasy of AIs solving this very problem of emotional suppression; a machine something that seems to provide stability and control rather than the constant questioning of relationship status. However, such idea connects back to your point on dependency on the materialism, and how it creates an illusion to answer of happiness making these works seem cautionary. It makes me wonder to what extent does modern science fiction aims to critique this dependency or simply explore it?

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  • tiffjku says:

    The questions Grace brought up about sexuality and female agency have weighed on me from time to time. I often begin to wonder what romantic relationships” really are. I really liked how Grace compared the apathy some women show nowadays to robots and how we as humans may be becoming more robot-like. It’s how we describe people who seem unfeeling, yet it is those unfeeling emotions that takes place in the business world. In one of classes, we talk a l lot about capitalism, money, business, and economy. In a mock self-help book, a possible critique on capitalism, one of the chapters talked about how if you want to get rich, you have to be ruthless. You have to put aside emotions because people will use you and destroy you if you aren’t just as cruel. You can put your walls down all you want, but that does not mean in any way others will do you the same favor. In this way, being without emotions is a sort of protective barrier. But at what cost? Is it humane to do that? Humans aren’t perfect. We have flaws. We aren’t robots for this very reason. Emotions are hard to control. I think we do become robot-like in order to protect ourselves from getting hurt but at the cost of losing a bit of our humanity.

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  • Olivia Peel says:

    Reading your blog, I feel compelled to draw an inelegant (yet ever so classically me) parallel to the wonderful show Parks and Recreation—particularly the plight of one Ann Perkins. For one, the concept of forced apathy that you talk about is something that Ann really struggles with in an episode of Parks and Rec. She attends a singles mixer and is utterly disastrous until she runs into a coworker who coaches her in the nuances of apathy (like “making them work for it” and “seeming available, but not too available” [S3 Ep9]).
    A good while later, Ann finds herself dating a series of men and constantly losing herself to them. She dates a fitness junkie and becomes a fitness junkie, she dates a cowboy and becomes a cowgirl, etc. Ann Perkins ends up realizing that the reason she is unsuccessful in her relationships is that she isn’t really aware of herself. She is so focused on being with someone else that she doesn’t take the time to consider her own needs, goals, inner life, etc. Once she takes some time away to really focus on herself, she is able to figure out what she wants, which ultimately leads to a successful relationship.
    So what is the point of this? Why on Earth am I bringing this up? I’m not going to lie, this train of thought is heavily influenced by the fact that I semi-recently finished the show and a good portion of my thoughts are Parks and Rec inspired. But I do think I have a point here.
    In Brave New World, Lenina really doesn’t seem to have much of an inner life. A combination of the soma, conditioning, and the concept of the “social body” see to that. I wonder how Lenina’s romantic relationships would change if some of these variables were changed? At one point, Bernard even expresses a desire to be “more on my own, not so completely a part of something else. Not just a cell in the social body” (90).
    To make a long post short, I think that modern day media can help us understand and interpret the characters from Brave New World. But perhaps Brave New World can also help us understand where we are as a society. (So basically I agree with you)

    Liked by 1 person

  • I find your assertion that the society in Brave New World is one in which women have an admirable sexual agency to be slightly problematic in light of the authoritarian control asserted over the residents of the World State. While sexual relationships are free and frequent in the World State, they’re also seen as a moral imperative (along with all other forms of consumerism). While the World State society has a radically different view of sexuality than more puritanical societies, socially mandated sexual relationships remove a critical element of choice for both men and women. They feel immense societal pressures to express their sexuality in exactly the same way: casual, detached, and with many partners. Agency requires free will, and sexual promiscuity as a moral imperative does not leave a lot of room for free will.

    An especially horrifying example of this can be seen in the beginning of chapter 3, in which a young male child is uncomfortable with the erotic play he is demanded to engage in, and as a result is taken in to see a psychologist “just to see if anything’s at all abnormal.” What society could claim any form of agency if children unwilling to engage in casual sexual activity at the command of the state are seen as abnormal? This doesn’t sound like sexual liberation.

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    • Alison Maas says:

      I agree with you, Austin. I too found the sexual activity of “Brave New World” very problematic as it continued to remind me of “1984.” The two set in opposition, Big Brother’s pressure and the government’s laws in “1984” force men and women to desert their sexual emotions. On the other hand, Huxley plays with the other extreme of the government forcing often and detached sexual interaction. What I think both authors are attempting to comment on is not the nature of humans sexuality, but how sexual attraction might be something controlled by the government when totalitarian regimes take over. The two authors demonstrate that forcing any form of sexuality, whether excessive or suppressive cannot be controlled by the government and must be personal choice. This commentary is revolutionary in its own right, as even today we see the government trying to curb sexuality with things like abstinence classes (much like the anti-sex league in “1984”). Either way, the two authors seem to be commenting more on government interference in human personal choice.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Grace, you write that we already live in Huxley’s loveless, unfeeling world, which you connect to concerns about the effects of AI on society. I would like to respectfully challenge your claim on several levels.

    First, Huxley foresees clones, but not AI. His cautionary tale (if it is indeed cautionary) addresses the problems with industrialization, consumerism, and state control, but the discussion of AI seems quite separate. Therefore, I hesitate to accept the connection you’re making between relationship dynamics in Brave New World and AI.

    Second, I would like to challenge the implicit warning about AI in the statement that “many say that the reason why AI will never be equal to humanity is because it won’t be able to have empathy, to love, to feel the way human beings are capable.” I have not encountered anyone who is concerned that AIs cannot love or feel. We might be concerned with humans who turn to AI for emotional fulfillment instead of their warm-blooded fellows, but I do not expect AIs to love me back.

    Finally, I would also like to challenge your claim that our current society (America? Vanderbilt?) encourages suppression of romantic feelings. I’m more concerned with the commercialization of “love” through Valentine’s Day gifts than I am with the idea that we are not socially permitted to express our love to each other. I would accept an individual account of feeling shamed for showing “too much” affection. I can relate. But I don’t think you can claim that the same lack of adult maturity and empathy in BNW is present as a universal issue for “our society.”

    Please take my comments with a grain of salt; I am not criticizing your central argument, just this one section about AI.

    Cheers,
    Alisha

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  • mihirakonda says:

    I’m really glad you brought up Bernard’s feelings for Lenina in your discussion of female representation in the novel. You say that his feelings are probably the closest to true romantic love and respect. I completely agree with you there and I think it’s interesting to think about how Bernard’s fleeting feelings may be more real than John’s passionate devotion. Both of the men don’t agree with the value system of the World State. However, Bernard is better able to see a more true Lenina because he understands that she is a product of her society, though he is disappointed in her at times. On the other hand, John has no regard for the real Lenina and is instead wrapped up in his image of her. Perhaps the explicit, visible forms of brainwashing that the World State engages in allow Bernard to easily see how society has shaped Lenina whereas the more insidious forms of brainwashing that take place in the Savage Reservation (i.e. the establishment of a value system that everyone buys into) make it more difficult for John to comprehend the the ways in which Lenina has been moulded by the World State.

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