The Mechanization of Mankind in Huxley’s Dystopia 

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One of the unavoidable questions faced when interpreting Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is whether the novel represents a dystopian or utopian vision of the future. The World State’s conditioning of its citizens has two direct effects: firstly, it forms the basis of a perfectly engineered society where every person is perfectly content with their social position; and secondly, it eradicates the foundations of human liberty and spontaneity. Utopia is achieved by reducing man to machine. But freedom implies incompleteness, the frustration and loss of unlived unchosen opportunities: that is, freedom implies unhappiness, and unconditional happiness implies unfreedom.

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In such a world John the Savage’s narrative of protest signifies how radical subversive action must begin in the most private and intimate spheres: the realm of effect, of responses to art, of feeling–in short, the will to embody the unhappy consciousness.

Both Aldous Huxley and Herbert Marcuse were deeply interested in the totalitarian impulses underlying the socio-political development of Western liberal democracies, especially the USA. Huxley warned of a “…a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism” where “men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.” Marcuse perceived the same development of a “…a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests,” something that he named “technological rationality.” Ultimately, it will be shown how the novel pits humanist values against the anti-humanist values of the World State: subservience is predicated on human debasement, but the possibility of exercising freedom, of engaging in the humanist quest of self-actualization, demonstrates that the potential for political revolution exists within the individual psyche, within the conscious refusal to be happy.

In the words of the Director of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center, individuality “ threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself. Yes, at Society itself” (128-129). The hyperbolic repetition of the director’s last phrase cannot be discounted: within the environs of the “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom” of the World State, the autonomous humanist agent is a direct threat to social stability; the social order rests on the willingness of each subject to accept their place in the pre-assigned hierarchy managed by the world leaders. A true individual demand freedom; however, freedom is contrary to the placid contentment that the social hierarchy provides. The novel’s appeal to the idea of mass production, inherent within the notion of ‘Fordism,’ shows that World state does not see man in the humanist sense as an autonomous moral being, but as a component within the larger machine of the social whole. People are submitted to the power of the Fordist state like parts in an assembly line. This process is epitomized in the state’s ideology underlying the cloning procedure: it is the “…the principle of mass production at last applied to biology” (5). Mustapha Mond comments how the “wheels” of society “must turn steadily” by men who are “as steady as the wheels upon their axles…obedient men, stable in contentment” (36). The association of the “men” with the “wheel” shows how Mond perceives of men as instrumental parts. Subjects have value only to the extent that they fulfill their social function: to be happy, and consume. Even the bodies of the dead are efficiently recycled to extract valuable minerals for industrial use–a sardonic parody of the Fordist notion of economic efficiency.

The world controllers utilize the anti-humanist insight that human nature is a function of epistemological discourses in which he is placed, that “…human needs, beyond the biologic level, have always been preconditioned” by socio-cultural factors. In light of this truth, the Brave New Worlders are manufactured to love their state of servitude: they are happy and have no reason to resist the status quo. Social power is exercised through a wide variety of methods ranging from biotechnological (cloning), pharmacological (soma) and behavioral-psychological technologies (hypnopaedia), but most significantly they produce a conditioned subjectivity that regulates itself. Marcuse names this state as the “happy consciousness”–a mode of perception where the individual accepts the status quo, even if it is rational or morally questionable, because it satisfies his deepest needs. It is a state of freedom that disguises an oppressive apparatus.

If the World State’s social power depends on subjects that regulate themselves through an oppressive happiness, then freedom can be achieved by rejecting happiness. Whereas the conditioned happy consciousness accepts social reality as acceptable, the “unhappy consciousness” can conceive of alternate states of social being; such a psyche possesses subversive potential. An example of this is when Bernard Marx’s desire for solitude, an experience he achieves when he observes the “…pale face of the moon, so haggard and distracted amongst the hastening clouds” (78). There is a sense of beauty associated with isolation, and a sense of self-awareness, of individuality, that resounds with the nature of the autonomous humanist subject. John the Savage, an avid reader of Shakespeare and natural born, is an easy symbol for such a person. In a heated debate with Mustapha Mond John demands: “…I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin,” to which the former replies, “In fact…you’re claiming the right to be unhappy” (211-212). Here the text pits the values of humanism–God, freedom, morality–against those of the anti-humanist, arguably subhuman, World State. John refuses the happy consciousness; he is capable of sublimation–he does not give in to his sexual desire for Lenina. His moment of revelation in the Pueblo Indian reserve as a young man is one of the most poignant and resonant passages in the text. John finds himself “All alone, outside the pueblo, on the bare plain of the mesa…He held out his right hand in the moonlight. From the cut on his wrist the blood was still oozing. Every few seconds a drop fell, dark, almost colourless in the dead light. Drop, drop, drop. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…He had discovered Time and Death and God” (118).

The repetition of the “drop” of the Savage’s blood succeeded by the repetition of “tomorrow” evokes a hypnotic pattern of sound and imagery wherein the twin concepts of mortality, represented by the “blood” of the human being, and time, evoked by the word “tomorrow,” coalesce, signifying the spiritual beauty of the fact of mortality. The passage draws the reader’s sympathy towards John, for he too shares their humanity. John’s unhappy consciousness, then, leads him to knowledge of human nature, mortality, beauty and God–a sense of self-awareness and individuality prerequisite for the desire for freedom. Unhappiness, then, contains a subversive potential because it signifies freedom; it forms part of the ideological battle within the text between the proponents of humanism and the those of the anti-humanist World State: as Mustapha Mond asserts, “universal happiness keeps the world turning; truth and beauty can’t” (201).

The subversive potential of the unhappy consciousness, however, is portrayed as limited. Bernard, Helmholtz Watson, the Savage and even Lenina, possess an unhappy consciousness. Their behavior incites a degree of social disruption: Bernard brings the Savage back to the World State to spite the Director of Hatcheries; John assists the Savage in his soma-riot outside the Park Lane hotel; and Lenina mistake at work leads to the death of an Alpha Minus. But Bernard and Helmholtz are shipped off to Iceland, and John commits suicide. Both the beginning and end of the novel evoke images of death that exacerbate the emotional tone of hopelessness against inhuman authority. In the opening chapter the CLHCC lobby is described as sterile and lifeless: “Wintriness responded to wintriness. The overalls of the workers were white, their hands gloved with a pale corpse-coloured rubber. The light was frozen, dead, a ghost.” (1) The “wintriness” of the “white” rooms is inhumanly clinical, an emotional tone strengthened by image of the “corpse-coloured rubber” of the workers’ gloves. The final scene of the novel repeats this sense of a sinister, placid, lifelessness: the reader is given a glimpse of John’s feet that, “…like two unhurried compass needles” (229), turn clockwise until a full revolution of a circle, and then proceed in the opposite direction. The slow and steady movement of the feet in an endless cycle evokes a sense of eternality: all attempts at subversion have failed, and the World State continues to function like clockwork.

Brave New World presents a posthuman future where individuality is sacrificed in order to achieve perfect social stability. The leaders of the World State utilize the anti-humanist insight that man is function of the cultural contexts within which he finds himself to condition individuals into passive acquiescence. Social power is exercised through self-regulation. Individuals within the World State are conditioned to love their state of servitude; their liberty, such as sexual liberalness, disguises an oppressive apparatus. Happiness is represented as a form of oppression, and consciousness of unhappiness as a subversive potential. This subversive unhappiness stems from the humanist impulse for freedom and individuality. The potential of the unhappy consciousness, however, is limited and ultimately futile–it succumbs to the social force of technological-rationality.

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The Mechanization of Mankind in Huxley’s Dystopia . (2022, Feb 08). Retrieved from