Dystopia as Philosophical Tool

06 Oct

Over the past few years, books and film series such as The Hunger Games and Divergent have achieved a marked amount of market penetration. For at least some viewers, these franchises are likely the first exposure they’ve had to the idea of dystopian societies. These series aren’t marketed toward the traditional geek audience, so there are viewers coming to these books and films without the necessary “vocabulary” to understand them. I stuck vocabulary in quotes to indicate I don’t mean they don’t understand the words themselves, but that they don’t always have the necessary exposure and training to understand some of the themes and underlying premises at work in dystopian narratives. After all, works like Hunger Games or Battle Royale aren’t really postulating that we’re going to send children off to murder each other, and Divergent doesn’t really suggest that society is moving toward a caste system in which people are slotted into abstract “Virtues”, are they?

Not really. Dystopian fiction, even moreso than science fiction and fantasy as a whole, is at heart an allegorical form. These are not serious attempts at predicting where current social trends will lead us. Rather, they are works that examine a facet of current society, or which postulate a generally unlikely future trend, and then exaggerate it in order to illustrate a point. There’s nothing particularly new about this, and it has a long tradition as both a literary device and philosophical tool dating all the way back to the crusty and perpetually-wrong Plato.

Wait, you say, am I implying that Plato was the originator of dystopian fiction? No. Plato was, however, a writer of fiction; his philosophical writings took the form of fictional dialogues involving the character Socrates who often bore only a passing resemblance to the Socrates of history. In the pages of his Republic Plato even built a city, albeit one he considered an ideal city, to be ruled by his philosopher-tyrants. In an interesting nod to Divergent, it was also a place in which citizens would be tested for their aptitudes and then assigned to the caste that best fit them (it’s actually a little more complicated than that, and involves lying to people in order to place them where they would be of best service to the “perfect” city, but this post really isn’t about Plato).

While Plato might have been writing about a utopia, the first men to use the phrase dystopia were Bentham and Mill, two men better known for their creation of and contributions to Utilitarianism, a consequentialist-school of ethical thought. And while Wikipedia might credit Jack London with the earliest “modern” distopic fiction, I would contend that we first see it in Swift’s A Modest Proposal, a work which dates to the first half of the 18th century. While Swift’s rather scathing satire doesn’t postulate a fictional future society, it does take as its “plot” a social shift that involves the selling and eating of Irish babies (and anthropophagy is hardly unknown as a feature of dystopian fiction, be it as a fast food chain in Transmetropolitan or as the secret ingredient in soylent green).

The reason I’m not being more specific with some of these examples is because I’m honestly on casually familiar with Hunger Games and Divergent. I’m a dystopian aficionado from way back when some of the early cyberpunk works found me at a young age an did horrible, beautiful things to my fragile little mind. Yet while I may not be able to decompress the nuances of these works specifically, I feel it’s important to touch on them in their broader context, because it would be a shame to find people alienated from any work because they hadn’t been given that necessary vocabulary to understand the themes at play and that they’re generally not supposed to take these works as being literal extrapolations.

Equipping people with the necessary vocabulary to understand the philosophical themes underlying pop culture artifacts is why I started this blog in 2010, and it’s one of the major reasons I walked away from academic philosophy not long after. Philosophy as an academic discipline is largely concerned with producing future academic philosophers. This isn’t to say that philosophy isn’t concerned with issues of social justice, or the more abstract concept of justice in general, politics, or any number of things which occur in the “real” world. Yet for all its concern with the world, academic philosophy doesn’t really train its practitioners to really engage that world. You might, in any given year, have a handful of students who take the message they’ve learned in a philosophy class out of that class. There’s nothing wrong with this; it is, in fact, an awesome thing. Yet it’s also incredibly limited in scope, which is why many philosophers write books targeted at those at a broader audience. Yet when they do so they are writing like academic philosophers speaking to other academic philosophers. This is true even when our hypothetical philosophers use pop culture as the locus for their discussions. I’ve read several entries in the various <Insert title of pop culture artifact> and Philosophy series. Their content tends to range between decent philosophy but poor grasp of the pop culture artifact to outright terrible (like the article that presented the Joker as Nietzsche’s overman, showing a complete lack of understanding of both works, a trend that continued with discussion of Moore’s Adrian Veidt).

Most people do not have the necessary vocabulary to decode academic philosophers, which has nothing to do with intelligence. I managed to plow my way through a philosophy degree, and quite frankly I’m not particularly bright. Yet academic philosophy seems to have forgotten that Plato used fictional narratives for a reason – he understood their power. The reason that poets are banned from the ideal city of his Republic is not because Plato feared mimesis and the ways in which mimesis would lead us to ignore the higher truth to focus on the shadows on a cave wall, but because he didn’t want to risk competing narratives corrupting his own.

How many people have read Sartre, or Nietzsche, or Kant? How many of those readers have been influenced by those works? Now how many of those people have read Harry PotterHunger Games, or Twilight? Now how many of those readers have been influenced by those works? This is an honest question. How many people have been influenced to think that the incredibly unhealthy relationships of Twilight are something that they should want to have? Even moving beyond Twilight, how many people have had their views of “love,” and what they should view as an ideal relationship influenced by books, movies, or television? I’ve talked quite a bit about why we can’t dismiss fiction as “just fiction,” and one of the reasons is because when you start asking these kinds of questions the answers get a bit disturbing. Not because we can track anything like a direct causal relationship between things like violent media and real-life violence. The implications are far more subtle than that. But any claims that our exposure to media do not both reinforce and shape culture paradigms and mores is nonsensical.

So on a personal level, that’s why I walked away from Omelas. I suspect academic philosophy doesn’t particularly miss the loss, but then again it was never academic philosophy I was interested in speaking to.


P.S. No, it’s not an accident that there are various instances for I use the language of academic philosophy without explanation.

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Posted by on October 6, 2014 in Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture


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