Sunday, May 13, 2012

Names the Same

(Anthem, chapter 1)

Last time, I sat analyzed Rand's foreword and took a close look at the environment that Rand grew up. Those types of literary theory - historical and deconstruction - are good for analyzing and attempting to understand why Rand is where she is, and how she got there. I should say that I'm just as vulnerable to the whole "death of the author" thing as the next person is, but I'll try to stay impartial (pfft. Like we know that's going to happen). I'll try to keep with the historical and deconstructive methods of analysis - unlike how the term is used, I'll really be using deconstruction, but this won't be a deconstruction proper since I'll be using other literary analysis methods, too.

So anyway, having analyzed Rand's foreword, we now hold our nose and plunge headfirst into the novel proper. I promise you that it's not as heavy-handed as Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, but that's like saying, oh, I dunno, that the sun isn't as hot as AB7. While both are clearly hot, there's a bit of a disparity between the degrees of hot that we're talking here.

So, let's get started.

It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see. It is base and evil. It is as if we were speaking alone to no ears but our own. And we know well that there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone. We have broken the laws. The laws say that men may not write unless the Council of Vocations bid them so. May we be forgive!
This is the first paragraph, and it sets the tone nicely for the book. One of the things that my students complained about when we were studying the book is the pronouns; it actually makes reading the novel slightly irritating for me; the use of plural to describe the singular is confusing. But, it's no more confusing or awkward than the "singular they"; although I will admit, the fact that the book is written "first person" makes it a bit worse simply because it happens so often. The singular they is third person, which is when the narrator tells the story from an impartial view point. It makes the singular they more bearable than the use of the plural first, especially when the story is told from the first persons perspective.

Recall that Rand mentioned the evils of collectivism in her opening foreword, and went on to harp about how evil it is and how it leads to concentration camps and such. The fact that she grew up in the soviet union, under red fascism, and the fact that every intellectual and his brother thought that fascism was going to be the new order of the day back in the 1930s leads me to believe that her accusations and criticisms of collectivism are criticisms of fascism in particular, as opposed to something laid at the feet of all types of collectivism. One of the traits of fascism is the obliteration of the self in the name of the state; this is one of the reasons why personalty cults are so intimately associated with fascism. They give someone something to live through and identify with. You exist to serve the state. This really is sort of like what you'd get if you took fascism to it's logical extreme; of course, fascism to it's logical stream is like a star that's passed the Chandrasekhar limit; it implodes into a singularity and becomes a new black hole.

Control of education is also something that you'd see in fascist states. An ignorant population is a population that serves better. Compare with how the proles are treated in Nineteen-Eighty Four or how women are treated in The Handmaid's Tale. Both of those portray functionally fascist states (in the case of the first, it's a form of red fascism, while in the second, it's theofascism - but it's still fascism in either case). Compare FOX viewers, who are traditional fascist sheep, or compare how education is handled in right wing circles. Worth pointing out is that fascism isn't purely a right-wing ideology, but that doesn't matter. It's a right wing statist approach to the world, and right now, right-wing statism is the big intellectual intoxication in the right-wing. Of course they talk about small government, but it's all lies. And they get away with it because of a lack of education on behalf of the sheep that blindly follow them.

So I maintain that this is a criticism of fascism, and that's the lens that I'm going to be reading it through. I know that Rand attack communism (because she attacks altruism), but that didn't come until her philosophy had fully formed. Right now, we're looking at the embryonic nature of her philosophy. Growing up, it was a criticism of fascism.
We are twenty-one years old. We are six feet tall, and this is a burden, for there are not many men who are six feet tall. Ever have the Teachers and Leaders [sic] pointed to us and frowned and said: "There is evil in your bones, Equality 7-2521, for your body has grown beyond the bodies of your brothers." But we cannot change our bones or our body.

That's because for a science fiction setting, this book suck eggs. But Rand wasn't looking to explore the implication of mind uploading or genetic engineering, so I won't take it that way. "There is evil in [his] bones," the Teachers said. Why there's evil in his bones is because he's different, but ultimately, he's different because Rand wanted a hero who stood above the crowd in a very literal sense. He's larger, stronger, and more intelligence - like most of Rand's protagonists, we're getting our first glimpse of Gary Stu 0-451-19113-7. Equality isn't as bad as the other protagonists in Rand's works, because this is an early work and she hasn't gotten around to it yet.

Another problem that my students had with the book was the names of the protagonists. By themselves, the use of the first plural or the names would not pose much of a difficulty. Yeah, they'd be irritating, but they'd be bearable. Together, they make the novel very difficult to read. She could've just stuck with "Equality" and "International" as character names, but she added the number, likely because she wanted to emphasize how you were no longer an individual under fascist collectivism. You were an entity of the state - you were a stick, bound against the ax hilt with a rope. So you no longer have a number - you have a number. All people have this bracelet with their names written on it. The reason that the name is the way it is is because Rand knows enough about human psychology to realize that humans identify by their names. It's part of what makes us unique; that's one of the reason why names are so powerful and why you end up with "name magic" in cultures around the world. Names usually have meaning that we identify with, even if we've lost what it means over time in the Western world (case in point: my name is Joshua. Joshua comes from the Hebrew יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, or Yehoshua, which means "God is salvation." It's also shorted in Greek to Ἰησοῦς, or Iesous. That is, Jesus. That's right. I'm an atheist named after God. Let that one sink in for a minute). Sometimes, these name meanings are intrinsic values that we hope our children will embody. Other times, it's just a pretty name that the parents select because it sounds good. But we identify by our names; it's the first way that we learn to identify by ourselves. By taking away names, you take away a very important part of an individual. This has been used in much better dystopias than Anthem, but it's present here because Rand wants to reinforce how collectivism stripes you of that individuality.

Note that Teachers and Leaders are capitalized. Don't chalk this up to the regular right-wing propensity to capitalize words in the middle of the sentence for no reason; Rand has a purpose for doing this. Remember in the foreword she talked about "production for use, not profit." I'm running off of the assumption that when you "produce for use", that is, design things that are meant for use rather than your own personal gain, your purpose is denigrated. Your job is worthless, and because your job is worthless, your identity is undermined. Anyone who slaves away in cubicles all day can tell you that getting trapped in the middle of a vast bureaucracy can make you feel like a valued employee. Rand is making the point here, by capitalizing these jobs, that your job begins to replace your identity. It's just another way that you can lose your identity. Brazil explored this theme, too. So does Dilbert, but you'll note that both Brazil and Dilbert are comedies; Rand's work is not intended to be comedic. "Intended" is the key word there.

In this way, the book probably would've been more effective had Rand used their jobs, given them by State, as their character's names instead of this Equality 7-2521 business. You have a number from birth, and then when you get old enough and the Council of Vocations assigns you a job (which is what they do), you take that job as your name. The connotations of taking your job as your name, then you can drive home just how meaningless your individuality happens to be. Since individuality is a major theme, it would help emphasize it that much further. So, your name is now "Toilet Cleaner," since that's your job.

Here's the thing with that though. The reason why you can't do this is because readers will never be able to tell one toilet cleaner from another toilet cleaner without some kind of identifying feature in their name, or without an accompanying description. She doesn't do that, because she knows as well as I do that it would make reading the book a nightmare (more of one than it already is). So we get names like Equality, International, Brotherhood, and all that good stuff. Which defeats Rand's purpose of proving that collectivism undermines the individual. Why? Aren't those individual names? Are those a way for the people to, if not just the reader, to identify one character from the next? Why did International get that name? That's a cooler name than dumb old Equality. I want International instead. I thought we were all equals here.

But we're not. Even in Rand's straw dystopia, she couldn't make everyone 100% equals without creating a sea of bland, featureless individuals. By our vary nature, human beings are wired to recognize faces and tell faces apart; children recognize their mother's face within the first month, and they learn more faces as time goes along. We read body language and facial cues, and we can tell people apart based on their faces - we're not as good at it as crows and ravens are, but we can do it nevertheless. This is an evolutionary feature that has ensured our survival. Making everyone 100% equal would make this book impossible to read. "Hello Toilet Cleaner." "Hi, Toiler Cleaner." While not ideal, even a string of numbers after the name - Toilet Cleaner 10203 - would still serve as an individualistic moniker or identifier. My number is better than your number. It's not ideal, but it still undermines Rands position. This is not a dystopia where everyone is totally equal. Everyone has a different name, everyone has a different number. Your point about replacing names with numbers doesn't totally undermine individuality, because they're still different.

Being fair, Rand is handicapped here not by language but by human nature itself, and it serves to undermine her point about how collectivism obliterates the identity. As long as you are human, you are an individual. There's no way to get rid of it. There's no way to change that. I don't care if you run around with a crow bar and break the knees of everyone who stands taller than their peers - they still won't be anymore equal, because now their peers have functioning knees and this person doesn't. Even most parts in a machine have identities, especially key parts important to making the machine run; they have serial numbers, so if we have an issue, we can take it in. Some parts function better than others. Even a machine couldn't achieve what Rand is doing here. As a part, I still have an identity. I am still my own individual, and my name, Equality 7-2521, proves it. I am who I am; this is my number and my name and I wear it proudly. I may have it inscribed on this band around my wrist, but this band identifies me. It makes me stand out. I am not part of the herd. I am what I am (literally - remember? I'm named after God :P). Your attempt to obliterate individual by replacing names with a string of numbers and words like "Equality" and "International" has backfired, because these are just as individualistic as "Carrie" and "Jun" and "Priya." It's not just that someone didn't think this through, it's that it just can't be done with human psychology as we know it.

At it's core, equality is not about making everyone equal. It's about spreading the privilege that society holds for certain groups of individuals. It's not about bashing people back in the hole because they can do something that nobody else can do. It's about making sure that they live up to their potential and they're not bashed in the hole because they represent a group that's not popular with the majority in society. So long as you remain human, you will still have individuality. There will be a disparity between talents, between knowledge, between abilities and learning styles - you can't level that out nor should you try to.

And while we're here, let's take a look at that first person plural pronoun, since that forms a core of Rands claim that collectivism assaults individuality. Saying "I" is the greatest crime in this society that Rand has created. They managed to obliterate the "I", and they replaced it with the first person plural. Remember what I said about everyone being an individual? The "I" is an integral part of the human experience, because humans are sapient. They are self-aware. Doing anything remotely close to what Rand has happening here would be incredibly difficult; it would require rewiring of the human brain and psychology and possibly excising or imposing a drug regimen that would push down the ego and the identification of self - in short, something that removes sapience or suppresses sapience. And because we're not entirely sure where self-awareness comes from (it may well be the brain attempting to organize the outside stimulus that it experiences, in which case you'd have to figure out how to build a work around and you'd need to rewire the entire brain and you'd have an entity that's not remotely human anymore), I don't foresee it happening. "I" will exists, so long as self-awareness exists. And I can't think of a type of self-awareness that removes self-awareness. This is one of the reasons why this book is so heavy-handed, despite not being as bad as Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged - because you're undermining the very nature of what it means to be a human being, and not even fascism does this for everyone. In fact, fascism will elevate the individuals who it feels are worthwhile - whether they're Aryans or "native born (white) Americans" - so you still have that individualism present. You are an American Citizen. Therefore, you are better than them. And while you work for us, the State, and you worship us, the State, and you are a tool for us, the State, you are still you. Germans still had identities in Nazi Germany. Even the victims had a series of numbers to distinguish them - which, while a serial number is far from idea and dehumanizing, it doesn't remove your individuality. Because the number is still unique to you.

So what if they make it illegal? What if they train students from the day they're born to refer to 'we', rather than 'I'? That'll work, won't it? I doubt it. Even if you don't teach someone the word which they refer to themselves, they'll take another word and use it to refer to themselves. 'I' might be illegal. That's fine. "We", then serves double purpose. When We're around an authority figure, "we" is plural. But when we're by ourselves, it can be singularity, too. It'd be interesting to see how linguistics would morph in that situation; every language in the world has the first person singular pronoun. One would develop to replace the one you made illegal. "We" and "Wes", maybe.

I see what literary point here Rand is looking to make with this, but looking behind the text and behind the purpose reveals a smoke-screen. This, while not impossible, would require such heavy personality editing (you'd need to remove the personality entirely, come to think of it) that whatever creatures were in it wouldn't be recognizable as humans from the psychological perspective. Even ants, the predominate entity often associated with group behavior and submission to the group, have individual chemical markers that they use to identify themselves with. Even ants have an method of expressing individuality, even though they're barely sentient, let alone sapient.

In this world, individuality does not exist despite people have unique names and appearances, and where the first person pronoun does not exist despite the protagonist showing self-awareness and understanding about themselves, and all of the individuality present in the names. Despite the protagonist having a distinctive personality, they don't know about the first person pronoun. Call me jaded, but my Willing Suspension of Disbelief just snapped in half. This won't work at all in the way that Rand intends it to; individuality can never be totally subjugated. You will always be your own person, you will always have a way to refer to yourself alone, and "I" as an idea, the first person pronoun, will never go away. Not as long as we remain human. And while I can think of a few collectivist types that dehumanize people, I can't think of any that literally remove your humanity from you (unless they kill you. But Equality isn't dead) like what happens here in Rand's novel (and even then, not completely). Once again, Rand can not do it, because the novel would be unreadable if she did. But the mere fact it'd be unreadable undermines her point - humans, collectivist and individualist, are still individuals. As a socialist, I see nobody trying to crush my humanity and strip me of my personality and consciousness, reducing me to a vegetable. So her point here isn't just moot; it's totally missed its mark.

Deconstruction theory specializes in Fridge Logic. The sad thing here is that I didn't even get to the fridge - I'm still on page two.

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