More than pos­si­ble

Ge­orge Or­well’s clas­sic has never been more rel­e­vant than right now.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - star2@thes­tar.com.my Sharmilla Gane­san

TRULY, what can be said about Ge­orge Or­well’s Nine­teen Eighty-Four that has not been said al­ready? Es­pe­cially in a 2017 of al­ter­na­tive facts, fake news, con­stant sur­veil­lance, and cy­ber at­tacks?

As Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency be­gan in Jan­uary, the book from 1949 shot to the top of the best­seller lists in the United States – partly due to Trump’s aide Kellyanne Con­way birthing the term “al­ter­na­tive fact”, which for many smacked dan­ger­ously of the book’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Min­istry of Truth and its at­tempts to shape re­al­ity.

But per­haps even more than that, Or­well’s al­most 70-year-old novel speaks di­rectly to our cur­rent anx­i­eties over many as­pects of mod­ern life, from our fear of con­stant sur­veil­lance to our un­cer­tainty over facts. As life be­comes ever more re­liant on tech­nol­ogy, Or­well’s dystopian vi­sion of the fu­ture be­gins to seem not just pos­si­ble or even prob­a­ble, but pre­scient.

Per­va­sive screens to oc­cupy our at­ten­tion, which can also be used as a method of sur­veil­lance? The de­lib­er­ate use of lan­guage to fit a spe­cific agenda? Al­ter­ing or re­fram­ing his­tory to con­form to the state’s vi­sion of it­self? A cult of per­son­al­ity around a leader who re­mains largely a con­struct of the me­dia? All of these are el­e­ments of Or­well’s novel and could also be a re­al­ity in many parts of the world to­day.

The Bri­tish au­thor wrote Nine­teen Eighty-Four based on his ob­ser­va­tions of the Soviet gov­ern­ment of his day, as well as his ex­pe­ri­ences of pro­pa­ganda by the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment dur­ing World War II.

In the novel, Win­ston Smith lives in the rem­nants of Bri­tain, now un­der a po­lit­i­cal regime called English So­cial­ism (or IngSoc). The state’s leader is the om­nipresent en­tity known only as Big Brother, best ex­em­pli­fied by the slo­gan “Big Brother is watch­ing you”.

Win­ston works for the Min­istry of Truth, where he is re­spon­si­ble for rewrit­ing records to main­tain the ver­sion of his­tory the state re­quires, as well as delet­ing peo­ple’s pasts.

He, how­ever, se­cretly dreams of re­belling against Big Brother and be­gins keep­ing a jour­nal crit­i­cis­ing the rul­ing party. If caught by the Thought Po­lice, this would mean cer­tain death for Win­ston. Fur­ther­more, he also be­gins an af­fair with a woman named Ju­lia, who shares his dis­like of the gov­ern­ment, and they are forced to carry on the re­la­tion­ship in se­cret.

At the risk of spoil­ing the novel, things do not end well for Win­ston. Or rather, they end ex­actly as Big Brother would want them to. Which is a pretty bleak, if not out­right ter­ri­fy­ing, state of af­fairs.

Count­less words and con­cepts have crossed over from Nine­teen Eighty-Four into reg­u­lar us­age, from phrases like “thought po­lice” and “dou­ble­think” (si­mul­ta­ne­ously ac­cept­ing two con­tra­dic­tory be­liefs as cor­rect), to the con­cept of Big Brother. The term “Or­wellian” it­self has now come to mean a pol­icy of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism con­trolled by pro­pa­ganda, mis­in­for­ma­tion, and sur­veil­lance.

As ex­cel­lent a book as Nine­teen Eighty-Four is, re-read­ing it to­day can be a dispir­it­ing en­deav­our. But there’s a rea­son the novel ex­pe­ri­ences a con­tin­u­ous resur­gence of in­ter­est, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing po­lar­is­ing times like these. It is both a warn­ing and a tal­is­man; a les­son on what could be, and an idea of how we can arm our­selves against such a fu­ture.

Sharmilla Gane­san is cur­rently an Asia Jour­nal­ism Fel­low at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore. She is read­ing her way through the ti­tles in 1001 Books You Must Read Be­fore You Die. Join the con­ver­sa­tion at face­book. com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @ Sharmil­laG.

— Screen cap­ture

A scene from MGM’s 1984 movie adap­ta­tion of Or­well’s Nine­teen Eighty-Four, a book from the 1940s that re­mains distress­ingly rel­e­vant to­day.

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