Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Limits of Language: Andrew Hodges's "Towards 1984"

I missed Alan Turing's centenary, though I didn't have much to say about it anyway.  Turing was a brilliant man, brutally mistreated by his government for his queerness, and he deserves to be remembered for a number of accomplishments.  One of the most impressive things I've learned about him as a person was that he doesn't seem to have felt any guilt about being queer, which was unusual though not unique among British buggers of his generation.  (The circle of friends that included W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, for example, seems to have been just as comfortable with their sexuality as Turing.)

But the mentions of Turing that I encountered online often mentioned Andrew Hodges's 1983 biography of Turing, Alan Turing: The Enigma (Simon and Schuster).  When I read in the gay press that Hodges was working on the biography, I began looking forward to it.  Hodges was well-qualified to write it, for he not only had the mathematics and technical background to understand Turing's professional work, he was a gay activist and writer, co-author with David Hutter of an important Gay Liberation pamphlet called With Downcast Gays, published in 1974 but available online.  This was important because even in the 1980s, most biographies of important gay or lesbian figures were marred by homophobic armchair psychoanalysis purporting to show why the Subject had turned out That Way.  Hodges was having none of that, and his groundbreaking biography not only did justice to Turing but helped set the tone for future biographies.

Aside from With Downcast Gays, I'd also read an article by Hodges published in the Canadian radical gay magazine The Body Politic at the end of 1979.  Its discussion of the way language affects our ability to think about homosexuality made a big impression on me -- it was the first critique of Orwell's dicta about language I'd read till then -- but it was never reprinted anywhere and wasn't available online as far as I could discover.  The flurry of attention to Turing's centenary and to the biography reminded me that I'd been meaning to write to Hodges and ask him about it.  I knew he had a website with some of his writings on it, but "Towards 1984" wasn't there, so I hoped to persuade him to add it; I could even send him the text if he didn't have it.  So I wrote to him, and he kindly gave me permission to post it here.

As its title implies, "Towards 1984" is dated now, but as Hodges wrote, the issues it (and Orwell's novel) deals with are still current.

by Andrew Hodges
(This article first appeared in Body Politic #59, December 1979 / January 1980.)

As the real 1984 approaches and becomes just another calendar year, one thing is certain: there will be no lack of voices claiming to draw political lessons from George Orwell's book. Indeed, the election posters for Mrs Thatcher's Conservative Party have already suggested that we should believe Labour policy to be leading Britain into an Orwellian nightmare. 1984 has sold millions of copies; it is a standard text for school examinations. But what does it hold for us?

A number of Orwell's suggestions have become reality; a number have not. That is not the point. The real value of the work is as a modern Gulliver's Travels, as serious political satire, and in particular as a thesis on the politics of language. It was Orwell's idea that language was not simply a means of communicating thought, in the way that an open road affords space for every kind of traffic. Rather, language could be more like a railway system, with a laid-down schedule which could convey only ideas of a defined shape and size, fitted into the compartments which the managers provided. Only these right ideas could ever be used.

But Orwell's target was narrow and distinct: not the language of everyday conversation, but the official languages of his own class and time, the British educated middle class of the 1930s and 1940s. Wartime censorship, Communist Party theory, military euphemism, Times leaders and newsreel journalism -- every case involved its own trahison des clercs in which state violence of revolting enormity could be justified or concealed by the manipulation of language. It was his thesis that language was not merely symptomatic of engineered thought; rather, that language determined what thoughts it was possible to have. "How could they believe it?", "How could they accept it?", Orwell asked of his contemporaries, and his answer was that once they had accepted a political language, then their thoughts could not be other than would fit inside its concepts.

It was a small step for him to suggest in 1984 that the State might consciously impose its official language upon its servants with that very objective in mind. This was a major theme of the book, summed up in its definition of "Newspeak", the officialese of the Anglo-American superstate. It was its purpose that:
...the expression of unorthodox opinions, above a very low level, was well-nigh impossible. It was of course possible to utter heresies of a very crude kind, a species of blasphemy. It would have been possible, for example, to say "Big Brother is ungood." But this statement, which to an orthodox ear merely conveyed a self-evident absurdity, could not have been sustained by reasoned argument, because the necessary words were not available....
The modern Newspeak of "extremist", "moderate", "security", has continued to keep Orwell's critique as alive as ever. But our reaction to Orwell's ideas must necessarily be more critical. In 1984, it was possible to escape from the official thought by means of ordinary language, the old English language, associated with good old ordinary decent things and feelings. Orwell seems to have thought the common language of his day to be a perfectly adequate vehicle for thought. But was it? Was it only the official, or state-imposed language that constrained what it was possible to think? Clearly we can see that it was not: in Orwell's own description of Newspeak, he wrote:
In somewhat the same way, the Party member knew what constituted right conduct, and in exceedingly vague, generalised terms he knew what kinds of departure from it were possible. His sexual life, for example, was entirely regulated by the two Newspeak words "sexcrime" (sexual immorality) and "goodsex" (chastity). Sexcrime covered all sexual misdeeds whatever. It covered fornication, adultery, homosexuality, and other perversions, and, in addition, normal intercourse practised for its own sake....
Millions of readers must have swallowed unquestioningly Orwell's definition of homosexuality as a "perversion", together with the connotations of "immorality" and "normal" -- just as they would have gone along with the use of "he" in that paragraph to imply (as a "rule of grammar") a person of either sex. Why not? These were the available concepts, the "proper words" that English had to offer. Whether Orwell intended this classification consciously or not is beside the point; in either case this was simply the ordinary written English of 1949, in which sexual expression had to be packaged and valued by a tiny range of nasty words.

To be more precise, a writer who was sufficiently sensitive to value-judgment might, by a sufficiently laborious discussion, avoid the unconscious communication of received ideas. Thus in 1948, the authors of Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male had been able to use the word "homosexual" in a very precise sense, carefully detached from the connotations of "abnormal." It was no easy task, as they themselves explained, and one which met with profound resistance from the "scientific" world as well as from popular opinion. But for those without access to the language of academic authority, words imposed the bounds of possible thought, in which "queer is good" was almost as self-evident an absurdity as "Big Brother is ungood."

Another observation to be made on reading 1984 is that all those features of the State which Orwell presented in imagination as the most deeply appalling were none other than those which in 1949, were being experienced in reality by homosexual people in Anglo-America. Not only the commonplaces of censorship, blacklisting, guilt by association; not only imprisonment on police say-so; but compulsory drug treatments, castrations, electric shocks, even brain surgery; the implication and betrayal of friends or lovers; the required confessions of thoughtcrime in the dock. Worst of all, according to Orwell's book, defiance was robbed of all meaning when history would never know or care, when the past would not even be known to exist.

But Orwell would never have perceived the connection. And we too are so well trained to think of homosexual oppression as not counting, not mattering, not being "real" politics or history, that it seems fanciful to make the comparison, a slur on "real" political martyrs. But this training is itself performed by the available language, which has defined homosexual oppression as a "non-political" form of dissidence, as a "social" or "psychological" or "medical" problem. Perhaps most poignant of all is the fact that Orwell chose as a symbol of escape from the official system the drama of a spontaneous heterosexual affair. For the millions of readers, the ultimate dreadfulness of 1984 has been brought home as the system where love to be a crime, where lovers could not even be seen to touch, even to know each other for fear of the State; where the smallest sign of affection was a political gesture. And how many of them have considered that all of this was so for homosexual lovers in the real world of 1949, of 1959, of 1969, of 1979? Indeed, our position is in a sense worse than that of Orwell's rebels, who at least had the cultural resources of "ordinary language" in which to express their spontaneity. But for us, the ordinary language of sexuality is something that must be fought for: childhood training and cultural values discarded and a second language learned in order that spontaneous feeling can be realized.

And yet, for that reason, one cannot but be cheered by reading 1984. The figure of Winston Smith was brought to say and believe that "Big Brother is good," just as so many of us have succumbed to "Queer is bad," yet so many of us have not given in. Not only have we continued to utter the "crude heresies" that the old available words allowed, but we have, since 1949, since 1969, found new words, new images, new language to express ourselves. So often we are immersed in conflicts over what seem mere words: our words (the straightforward use of "gay") are hated; the available "ordinary" words ("promiscuous", for example) constrict a million different experiences into one foolish epithet; the official words of psychology and of law degrade and imprison thought as well as people.

Yet we are gaining: with an ever-expanding vocabulary of word and picture, poetry and history, music, film and art. Orwell, against his own will, reminds us that the expansion of language is no ignoble cause, nor some unreal shadow of "real" politics, nor our own strange peripheral problem. 1984 has touched so many people because it touches the heart of things that matter. That is its lasting integrity and heroism -- and that is ours, too.