Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Society of Equality

Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, in conjunction with Francois Truffaut's film adaptation, reveals a glimpse into a world in which the struggles endured by various members of a class society has been remedied by providing people with a sense of equality. This remedy does not come in the historically normal form of socialism, but is found through society's expulsion of literacy. Books, which offer society a means to transfer its knowledge and allow its members to express themselves, have been replaced almost completely by technology, communication, and parks for which the people may express their aggressive tendencies, and pills to suprress what society has deemed to be unacceptable feelings and or behaviors.

In the book as well as in the movie, in order to ensure productive labor, only the most basic literacy skills are maintained. The written word has been replaced by easily digestible diagrams and cartoons. Fahrenheit 451 remains relevant today in its applicability to modern social concerns. In today's society the media and pharmaceutical industry pushes various products on consumers as to increase their feelings of acceptance and equality. In Fahrenheit 451 one of the catalysts to the complete censorship of ideas is the demand of consumers to remove offensive products and ideas. Currently various minorities are demonstrating increased dissatisfaction with the way they are portrayed in popular culture. In parellel to Bradberry's society in Fahrenheit 451 the pharmaceutical industry now pushes their products in order to “cure” any unwanted feelings.

One could argue that both Bradbury's novel and Truffaut's interpretation of Fahrenheit 451 is an examination of what happens when a society uses capitalism as a means to pursue equality. These underlying issues may be discerned through a comparative analysis of Louis Althusser's essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Althusser comes from a Marxist tradition; he argues that a classless, i.e. equal, society can only occur when capitalism has been abandoned. Althusser asserts that class societies are composed of an “infrastructure” or an “economic base” on which two levels of the “superstructure” stand. The first level of the superstructure is composed of the “Political-Legal” which consists of law and State. The second level, called “Ideology,” consists of the different ideologies found in a society such as religion, ethics, and legal. The basic premise is that the ruling class has absolute control over the mode of production, and by having that control is responsible for dictating the formation of the upper levels of the superstructure which are the “state” and the “ideology.”

Bradbury merely hints at the capitalistic nature of society with the inclusion of commercials which bombard the minds of people on the subway with “Denham's does it” (79). However, the importance of equality to this society is quickly made clear when Captain Beaty comes to check on Montag after he has called in sick, Beaty explaints to Montag that, “not everyone [is] born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone [is] made equal,” (58). In the following Levi's commercial we can see that current theme prevalent in our own society. All you have to do is purchase the Levi's products in order to be made equal.

In Fahrenheit 451 the ideology is equality through the complete censorship of ideas and thoughts, not just in the books, but through the absence of discussions between people as well. Within our own society there is a liquidation of discussion between people with technology being the catalyst. The prevlance of portable entertainment devices has undermined the family social structure. With embeded dvd systems and gaming systems in most new family vehicles there is a loss of communication between family members, the children are confined in a world of audio and visual entertainment without meaning. Children are expected to be kept entertained leaving the parents free from nagging children, as an executive from Audiovox in a presentation promoting an integration of the Playstation gaming device has said, “it is the rearseat entertainment solution.” In Fahrenheit 451 having any sort of meaningful discussions are frowned upon, and the people are kept too busy with the technology provided to have any such discussions. In the novel Clarisse remarks, “they name a lot of cars or clothes or swimming pools mostly and say how swell! But they all say the same things and nobody says anything different from anyone else,” (31). This reliance on distraction is not limited to road trips, but also invades social situations as well. All too often there is a child at a restaurant with their hand held gaming device, again keeping them preoccupied and away from having any meaningful discussions. And if the electronic babysitters aren't enough to keep your children in check, there is always a pill to cure their unruly behavior.

In our society there has been a prevalent breakdown of communication amongst family members. Parents no longer have the proper communication with their children in order to help them navigate through society, to teach them the current social norms. Instead the pharmaceutical industry has come up with the cure. The following clip demonstrated the breakdown of the family structure, and the pharmaceutical industries solution.

As you can see after watching the clip, most of what the problems that these children with ADHD have are not in fact chemical imbalances but arguably a breakdown of communication between the parent and child. The Doctor in the clip even makes the point that the founder of Jetblue who is unmedicated considers his ADHD to be his biggest asset. The video illustrates the point that the parents must establish rules and make their child aware of what is and what isn't acceptable behavior. Here are my questions about the video, wouldn't all children need to be advised as to what acceptable behavior is? Don't all children thrive better when they have a routine and consistency? Is is not common sense to keep away distractions from all children trying to focus on a task? And shouldn't all children be engaged in an activity in which they excell at in order to promote higher self esteem? So, can't we argue that ADHD is a social construct of behaviors that society has deemed to be unacceptable, fueling the pharmaceutical industries profits?

The “ideology” of equality through illiteracy is the most prevalent theme in the movie and the novel. We get another hint as to the world of Fahrenheit 451 being that of a capitalistic society. In the novel Beaty explains to Montage that it was the people that demanded less controversy, and those who had to appease the market in order to push their products complied, Beaty explains:

the people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market. Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navals to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater....but the public , knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three dimensional sex maxazines...There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the government down (58)

The issue Bradbury's novel focuses on is not that of the “haves” controlling the “have-nots,” but rather, the fact that all people who are part of any society ultimately contribute to the shaping of it - or as Althusser states, “there is no practice except by and in an ideology, [and] there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects.”

The novel addresses how the ideology of illiteracy came about, and it is not directly attributed to the “ruling class,” but through a concoction of“technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure,” (58). So we can see that it is within this capitalistic society that it is the demands of the consumer that have shaped the society into what it is in Fahrenheit 451. The following clip of a news segment regarding the controversial Illegal Alien costume illustrates how our own society is bowing down to the demands of the censorship of ideas that society has deemed to be controversial.

The movie clearly places greater importance on the idea of equality. It goes to some effort to demonstrate that the people are so much alike, or in other words equal, that they are not able to see differences beyond something as trivial as a choice in hair style. This focus on equality is clearly shown through the characters of Clarisse and Linda. In the movie, Clarisse asks Montag what his wife is like, and he remarks, “ [Linda] is rather like you, except her hair is long.” Truffaut made it a point to have the same actress playing both parts in order to emphasize the disintegration of individuality. A further example of the importance the film places on the idea of equality occurs near the end when Montag is on the run from the police. The News televises the intense chase and finally the execution of a man which they, with the help of the police, have made the public believe is Montag. Both instances clearly demonstrate the unpleasant consequences when a society places too much importance on equality and in so doing forces its members to sacrifice their individuality.

We see these themes of equality and the dissolution of individuality through capitalism today. They bombard us through the television, through the radio, and even through advertisements. Morning news programs include segments instructing women on how to create the perfect smile with the right makeup and what hairstyle is right for your stereotypical face shape. Segments have appeared recently which describe to the audience how everyone can fit into “skinny jeans,” and if you're too plump there is a workout program just for you called “the skinny workout,” which will allow you to purchase what has become the latest trend. You can have all this in our very own capitalistic society at a price custom fit for each class of individuals. We too can have the sense of equality that those of Fahrenheit 451 have found.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation.” Trans. Brewster. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, Monthly Review Press 1971.

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. 50th Anniversary Ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 1953.

Fahrenheit 451. Dir. Francois Truffaut. Perf. Julie Christie, Oskar Werner, Cyril Cusack, Anton Diffring, Jeremy Spenser, Alex Scott. Vineyard Films, Ltd., 1966.

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