“You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone” (Orwell 69).
In Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother’s primary goal is the total mind and body subjugation of those living within its sphere of influence. One of the methods used to achieve this goal, as quoted above, is to cut ‘language down to the bone.’ However, this attempt to limit the meanings available to the people of Oceania is not, nor can it ever be, a solution to the problems faced by a totalitarian regime. As we have recently seen in China’s attempt to suppress the use of Kim Jong-un’s name[i], outlawing a word (or sequence of words) does not prevent a human subject from simply using their remaining vocabulary to create new metonymic, metaphoric, and idiomatic forms of oppositional expression. Simply restricting the words available to create meaning is not an effective method for restricting thought; one of Big Brother’s chief fanatics, O’Brien, tacitly acknowledges this intrinsic failure when telling Winston “our neurologists are at work” removing the “sex instinct… laughter… literature… [and] science,” from the human subject (Orwell 450). In other words, O’Brien knows an attempt to restrict oppositional thoughts by placing limits on vocabulary cannot succeed; they must remove the human subject as such for Big Brother’s project to accomplish their totalitarian goals. Such failed attempts to control opposition through language are a common theme in human history: Turkmenistan’s former dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, changed the word for “the month of April and the word for bread… to his mother’s name, Gurbansoltan” (Mathis-Lilley). The Brits employed tactics similar to those of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth during WWII, the wartime “Ministry of Information” was “designed as ‘the center for the distribution of all information concerning the war’” (Irving). As history has shown, these attempts to control language inevitably fail. The extreme level of censorship Britain’s Ministry of Information employed to suppress dissent remains a black mark on British history and Niyazov’s linguistic modifications were never able to take a solid hold. In this paper, I will show how language’s ability to infinitely abstract meaning into complex systems of difference renders any direct attempt at suppression of thought impossible.
History’s failed attempts to suppress dissent through linguistic restriction demonstrates one of language’s most overlooked elements: its infinite ability to generate new meanings and capacity to take on new, unexpected, and seemingly contradictory meanings. When applied to the fields of computability and computer science this infinite ability becomes truly sublime. Computers understand two things, on and off. However, from the computer’s perspective these two things essentially amount to one thing, on or nothing. In other words, from a computer’s perspective all meaning is founded on being and absence of being. Computers are only capable of manipulating this single state of knowing (on/not-on) with three basic functions: reading a sequence of ons, writing a sequence of ons, and modifying a sequence of ons. A common maxim within the world of computer science, ‘if you can’t do it with a pen and paper, you can’t do it with a computer,’ is not a joke or metaphor. Computers are only capable of doing three basic things to a datum only capable of existing in a single state. The implications that arise when one applies the concept of linguistic meaning making to the concept of computability cannot be understated. No one (beyond those prone to masochistic academic pursuits and certain forms of mathematics) writes computer code as a sequence of ons; the development of FORTAN in the early 1950’s rendered the use of binary code in computer programming needlessly esoteric. While programming in binary is not technically impossible, such programs are unmanageable, complicated, and entirely without practical use. The impracticality of communication with a computer in its native language necessitates a disconnect between the computer and the computer programmer. This disconnect is one of the foundational principles of computer science; in a surprisingly apropos turn of phrase, this process is called abstraction. Computer scientists have devised hundreds[ii] (if not thousands) of different ways to abstract a computer’s binary limitations into human readable coding languages. Many programmers consider it terribly bad form to ‘get to close to the hardware’ and avoid abstraction when designing a program. These methods of abstraction have enabled a computer’s restrictive system of being and non-being to devise massive virtual worlds (World of Warcraft, Second Life,) networks of communication billions use every day (the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc.,) mathematical feats (Machine Learning, Wolfram Mathematica,) and enhancements to human capacity previously outside the scope of our wildest dreams; Google’s AlphaGo beating the world’s best go player[iii], and IBM’s Watson proving better at diagnosing cancer than a team of doctors[iv] are two recent examples, and every day a new wonder is revealed. This incredible level of meaning generation stands as strong evidence in support of Lacan’s theory of discursive subjectivity. According to Lacan, “all determination of the subject, and therefore of thought, depends on discourse” (Lacan, Seminar XVII 152). Within a computer’s simple structure of on and not-on, the human mind has the capacity to produce an infinite number of meanings. In other words, within the realm of computability the impossible reality of a subject determined by discourse exists in a tangible form many interact with every day.
As I have explained above, a computer can only comprehend the ‘on’ half of its structure. This forms an uncanny connection between the not-whole of phallic jouissance and the ‘off’ of a computer, both states are impossible and necessary. From a computer’s perspective, the existence of ‘on’ necessitates the existence of ‘off,’ but the computer has no means of signifying ‘off’ within its limited system of signification. This is to say, as the existence of phallic jouissance necessitates the existence of an impossible feminine jouissance, the existence of ‘on’ necessitates the existence of ‘off.’ A computer has no means of signifying ‘off,’ but ‘off’ must exist for ‘on’ to have meaning. In the same way the human subject compromises for the disconnection from limitless jouissance with discursive displacement, computer programmers inscribe an infinite number of abstractions and displaced significations upon a computer. However, any questions involving a computers jouissance should not be directed at the computer itself: a computer’s jouissance is merely a reflection of whomever is currently programming it. Simply put, the programmer wants the computer to reveal a digitized manifestation of their desire. Therefore, the very act of writing computer code “constitutes a medium (support) that goes beyond language’s effects” (Lacan, Seminar XX 93). The non-existent gap between the programmer and the computers they program demonstrates the real’s function in the symbolic realm in a tangible way. In the same way all masculine desire is mediated through the phallic function, a computer comes to engender the object a in the form of the programmer’s displaced desires. The only way a programmer can successfully approach the computational real “remains rooted in fantasy” (95). The computer’s not-whole—its underlying lack of meaning—is only comprehensible once it has been subjected to the effects of language. Even a simple device built from a series of tiny electrical switches cannot be understood until it is made subject to the all-encompassing symbolic realm.
Herein lies the ultimate failure of any totalitarian project: even within a binary structure of on/not-on the human mind can generate an infinite number of distinct meanings. So long as any method of generating meaning exists, the human mind will always be free from total external control. The only sure-fire way to restrict human thought is to remove the human capacity for thought altogether. If we have access to an ‘on’ we will always have the limitless capacity to create new meanings. In the words of Orwell’s fanatical O’Brien, “the German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to [Big Brother] in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives… one does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship” (Orwell 479). Later adding, “power is collective… the individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual… reality is inside the skull” (482; emphasis added). However, the confidence of these statements is undermined when O’Brien goes on to say “obedience is not enough… how can you be sure that [an individual] is obeying your will and not his own?” (485). Here, O’Brien acknowledges the impossibility of a fully realized state of mental oppression; so long as a single being capable of language exists, so long as a single source of meaning exists, Big Brother’s mission cannot succeed. If someone who, like Winston in 1984¸ remains to stand “as the guardian of the human spirit” no form of oppression can successfully restrict the human capacity to creative thought. As my examination of computability has already shown, our minds can construct an infinite number of meanings within the restrictions of a binary system; even our mechanical and electrical creations are subsumed by our limitless capacity to create. Put simply, the human being, so long as one exists, is invulnerable to external oppression of thought. A slave’s body may be oppressed through violence, but a slave’s mind will always dream of freedom. Even multi-generational forms of systemic oppression fail to fully subjugate the minds of its victims—the children of American slaves had never known freedom, but they were no less capable of desiring it; one does not need to experience a thing before imagining it. Moreover, the master’s existence necessitates the slave’s knowledge of freedom, so long as the master exists, the slave must always know freedom. The only way to resolve the possibility of revolt faced by a system of total oppression is to either remove the slave and render everyone a master or remove the master and render everyone a slave. However, both slaveless and masterless systems share a fundamental flaw: without a master there is no slave, and without a slave there is no master. For any system of oppression to remove the possibility of dissent the system must first negate the existence of the slave entirely, or they must give up their position of mastery and become a slave. In other words, the only way to oppress the human capacity for linguistic creativity is to remove the human subject from the equation entirely.
Now, I must revisit Lacan’s theory of the master’s discourse: the master’s position in the upper-left hand corner—the position of the agent—is no longer as stable as it appears. Who is the master of a computer program? The programmer writing the logic, or the computer’s definition of the limitations the programmer’s logic must obey? Before the programmer can assume his role as agent, he must first learn to extract his own desire from a structure entirely defined by the machine he intends to master. Put another way, a programmer must first contrive some means of making a computer recognize his agency before he can assume his position as agent. As Hegel states in his famous dialectic, any master, be they real ‘beings’ or otherwise, can only become master through the recognition of the slave. So, to answer my initial question, the master in these examples is not a being of the human variety, the master is discourse itself. Instead of theorizing the master’s discourse, the complicated nature of mastery leads to a theory of the master as discourse. This is to say, in many situations it is discourse itself acting as the master, and there exists no being not subject to one of these masters as discourse. Whether Big Brother is a man, woman, puppy dog, or pony is irrelevant to O’Brien. Big Brother’s ‘being’ must be nothing more than a master signifier; if Big Brother was an actual person at some point, any such existence is of no consequence to those now under his sway. In fact, if Big Brother was a real being, this would render him impotent as a master within the master discourse: there is no way a real being could come to hold his ever shifting ideological positions for any length of time. History is filled with examples of the spectacular failure all ‘human masters’ inevitably succumb to. While Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini may have filled the agent’s position for a time, they all struggled with dissent from within their own ranks. Hitler was so often subject to assassination attempts from within his circle he was unable to trust those who’s very existence maintained his position as master[v]. So long as a ‘being’ fills the role of master, the master is always subject to those he appears to rule. The only thing capable of maintaining the role of master over time is not a being, but a master signifier. Big Brother contains only the meanings he is given, Big Brother means nothing beyond what those subject to his discourse allow. Thus, any human agent elevated to the position of master is inevitably revealed as a mere instrument, a “magnificent Cuckold of history” entirely constructed by those they enslave (Lacan, Seminar XVII 171). The master is not formed through the Hegelian process of forced recognition, but through the very structure of language itself. It is not man who is master of language, but language who is master of man. If one desires true mastery, one must first remove the capacity of language from those one wants to enslave.
In conclusion, the human ability to generate limitless meaning from seemingly meaningless systems indicates a profound power intrinsic to language itself. Our unbounded capacity to form meanings from nothing is the cause of the digital age we all now enjoy. From a binary system of on/off we have created machines with capabilities inconceivable less than a century ago. Moreover, these same creative powers render us immune to any attempt at suppression of thought; even a mind subject to the most brutal acts of physical oppression cannot be deprived of its imagination. A slave’s body can be forced to work, and a torturer can force one to speak, but no one can extract the human capacity to dream. In the linguistic realm of the mind, everyone is free.
Irving, Henry. Chaos and Censorship in the Second World War – History of Government. https://history.blog.gov.uk/2014/09/12/chaos-and-censorship/. Accessed 9 Apr. 2018.
Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XVII – The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Translated by Russell Grigg, W. W. Norton & Co., 2007.
—. Seminar XX – Encore: On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Translated by Bruce Fink, W. W. Norton & Co., 1999.
Mathis-Lilley, Ben. “Golden Statues and Mother Bread: The Bizarre Legacy of Turkmenistan’s Former Dictator.” Slate, Feb. 2014. Slate, http://www.slate.com/blogs/atlas_obscura/2014/02/06/saparmurat_niyazov_former_president_of_turkmenistan_has_left_quite_the_legacy.html.
Orwell, George. 1984. U of Adelaide Library, 2016.
[i] “China banned all mention of Kim Jong Un while he was in Beijing — so people called him ‘fatty on the train’ instead” http://www.businessinsider.com/china-internet-kim-jong-un-fatty-on-the-train-to-avoid-censors-2018-3.
[ii] “List of Programming Languages” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_programming_languages.
[iii] “In a Huge Breakthrough, Google’s AI Beats a Top Player at the Game of Go” https://www.wired.com/2016/01/in-a-huge-breakthrough-googles-ai-beats-a-top-player-at-the-game-of-go/.
[iv] “Watson Proving Better Than Doctors at Diagnosing Cancer” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_programming_languages.