Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My Thought Crimes: Dystopian Literature, Existentialism, and Us


One of the main themes of early to mid 20th century, is this theme of the existential crisis of the individual. While planes and cars and the radio connected societies, individuals who went off to war were stripped of their humanity.

World War I and II offered technological horrors never before seen, and men and women were trained to live as cogs in a military machine that was indifferent to human interests. This caused a huge internal conflict within many.

There is a fabulous speech by Charlie Chaplin in the film, "The Great Dictator." Someone uploaded this and matched it with a song from the Inception soundtrack, take a few minutes to watch this:

The part of the speech I want to highlight, is the part where Chaplin depicts the general sentiments that I'm trying to illustrate regarding technological advancements vs. the isolation and brutality of humanity in the first half of the 20th century:

"We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The airplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men . . .

Soldiers! Don't give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don't give yourselves to these unnatural men - machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men!"

The Individual Oppressed

Oppressive governments and the repression of the individual for the good of the society were also common themes. As such, there was an emergence of dystopian literature in the first half  and middle of the 20th century.

Books like Brave New World, 1984, and those that followed depict societies where individuals who don't conform are antagonized and repressed. The struggle of the individual within society is a huge catalyst for the storytelling of dystopian literature.

I can't help but think those themes are recurring again today. The explosion of technology, especially with regards to hand held phones, the internet, the immediacy of information, people are more "connected" but because of this connection to the rest of the world, the individual struggles to be an individual in the midst of all the noise and information that is cascading in on us.

(By the way, it absolutely drives me bonkers when people use the term "Brave New World" as something positive, because it demonstrates that they have absolutely no idea what the book was actually about. Huxley's "Brave New World" wasn't a good thing!)


This is a little long, but in it the professor offers up a fabulous lecture on authenticity in the era of youtube. This starts at 17:30 because it is where he discusses the idea of a loss of community and "human connections" in the age of commercialization and networking:

I connect a lot with what he said in his lecture, and have even written about authenticity in my blog. I almost wonder if I would have ever looked inward if I didn't have my blog to function as a sort of journal or mirror to my identity. Who knows? All I know is this fascinating stuff. If you have the chance, definitely watch the whole lecture.

Resurgence of Dystopian Literature

So with all this talk of authenticity, of isolation despite being connected with the world, is it any wonder that dystopian literature is having a sort of major renaissance? By definition, a dystopian novel is about an individual struggling against a society, and this recent search for authenticity in the new web age has caused a lot of people to consider what it means to be an individual within a larger context. It seems as though every other book getting published these days is a dystopian novel. (And yes I am being hyperbolic.)

I made two graphs to depict the number of commonly accepted dystopian novels published by major publishers in the last century.

(source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dystopian_literature)

What is most telling about the first graph which depicts the number published each decade, is the sheer number in the last ten years alone. It seems to peak in the 20th century in the 60s, but just explodes in publications after the year 2000. Also, it is only 2011, so I'm sure the number for the current decade in the graph is going to be as large as, if not surpass, the 2000s.

Existentialism, Part II? 

Anyways, I started to think that all this dystopian literature is a sign that people in technologically advanced nations are going through an existential crisis again. It's as if we are entering a retro-modern era. The "civil-disobedience" we see with movements like Occupy Wall Street is an expression of the right to an individual to speak freely, in spite of corporatism and the state. People are seeing themselves as cogs in a system, a highly bureaucratic and complicated system that attacks individualism for the sake of the whole. And they aren't liking it.

But the whole what? The corporation? State? What is that? And in law, a corporation is actually legal fiction for a "person". And when you dig deeper, you learn that the etymology of the word "person" comes from the Latin "persona" meaning mask. And when you consider our legal system is really just a bunch of words. . .

"You're nothing but a pack of cards!"
A Game

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts
- William Shakespeare 

The more and more I think about everything, the more I realize the following:

It's all a big game.

Yes, dystopian literature is fun. But have we stopped to ask ourselves why so many are connecting with it right now? Is it mindless escapism? Or is the mind trying to find meaning in the chaos of a society that oppresses individuality? What is happening in our culture? And where will we end up after all is said and done?

Why do you think dystopian literature is so prevalent today?


  1. As always, amazing!

  2. Did you see what happened to the OWS library yet?  D=

  3. I heard. Made me sad. Reminded me of Fahrenheit 451. :(

  4. Miri Gifford ShortenNovember 22, 2011 at 7:56 PM

    I have to come back and finish this, I was only able to read the first half and I'm in a noisy room so I can't watch the videos. I really want to, though, they look interesting.

    I feel like I'm going through that struggle myself right now, although it sounds totally dramatic of me to compare my own with that of the militarism of the early 1900s. In a way it really is similar, though, in that I've grown up in a conformist, repressive culture that doesn't accept unorthodox behavior and beliefs. 

    Anyway, great post. I'll be back to comment on the rest when I get to finish it.

  5. Miri, thank you for your comment. I think what you are saying totally makes sense. Especially in the context of existentialist philosophy.

    "The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself."-Friedrich Nietzsche

  6. This is a very smart post. I'll admit that I hadn't given dystopian fiction much deep thought. And I had no idea about Huxley's "Brave New World," so thanks for helping me avoid that faux-pas. =)
    I think you’re on to something, though. My next book is semi-dystopian, so I will definitely be thinking about all of this for a while. Thanks for the brain food.

  7. Thanks, Annie! 

    Dystopians are definitely enjoyable to read and write as well. :)


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