The dystopian novel: A theory of mass culture

Date of Completion

January 1997


Literature, Comparative|Literature, Canadian (English)|Literature, American|Literature, English




Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange initiate a dystopic literary tradition that wrestles with the complex relation between politics and mass culture, a tradition developed in later twentieth-century American literature. Writing in response to specific totalitarian manipulations of the masses in mid-twentieth century, these European authors establish themes and symbols, including mass surveillance, behavioral conditioning, exploitation of leisure, reduction of language, and internalized self-discipline, that North American authors then develop to explore repression in contemporary America. Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, Don DeLillo's White Noise, and Douglas Coupland's Generation X and Shampoo Planet continue this tradition by examining how advertising, media, schools, corporations, malls, and theme parks condition the masses to submit to dominating powers. Such culture industries and institutions produce transformations of perception with grave political impact, and serve totalitarian forces by making the agents of power invisible and thus difficult to contest. This abstraction of power erodes individual autonomy and helps to reproduce repressive power structures.^ Marxist theories concerning culture industries, ideology, hegemony, and art reception, focus on how political institutions influence and condition individuals. Post-structural and psychological theories about the panopticon, narcissism, and cultural inertia consider how state and private institutions discipline individuals and how individuals may contest mass manipulation and take responsibility to shape their lives.^ Literary texts in turn use satire to theorize dystopic societies in which totalizing forces exploit culture industries to disguise coercion as free choice. The disciplinary surveillance that Huxley, Orwell, and Burgess portray becomes more subtle in the worlds of Atwood, DeLillo, and Coupland. In capitalist democracies, apparent diversity of product choice and images masks centralization of power; American plurality of ideologies does not so easily dismantle the prevailing illusion of monoculture. Yet while mass culture may manipulate individuals to conform to the status quo, the novels also illustrate how mass culture offers new technologies, modes of perception, and discourses which individuals may use to contest the increasingly diffused repressive institutions. Ultimately, fiction does not merely reflect reality but functions as a vital instrument for ideological analysis. ^