George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Richard Rorty, “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity”

December 6, 2011 · Leave a Comment

One function of the Party in 1984 is to tell citizens of Oceania to reject obvious truths and realities, and the way Winston responds to this is by reaffirming that 2+2=4. According to Rorty, this affirmation results in a popular interpretation that Orwell defends common sense against intellectuals who insist that there isn’t any truth “out there.” In effect, Orwell is setting up an opposition between contrived appearance and true reality, and that true reality is obscured by propaganda and sloppy language. Rorty does not find this a useful reading because he argues that there are no objective moral facts or truths, so for him, 1984 is not really a matter of stripping away lies and revealing truth. Instead, Rorty argues that Orwell’s work is better thought of as a redescription of the post WWII political situation, which you can only compare with other redescriptions and not with any kind of “truth” or “objective reality.”

Rorty says that Orwell does not tell us how to answer political questions, but rather how not to answer them. He shows us how our old political vocabulary is deceptive, but does not suggest an alternative. In a way, Orwell has done a useful job of sending us back to the drawing board, and Rorty argues that we are still at the drawing board because no one has come up with a framework for relating vague hopes for human equality and freedom to the actual distribution of power in the world. Given this argument, it is tempting to say Rorty thinks Orwell only does negative, deconstructive work. However, Rorty believes Orwell achieved more than this in the last 1/3 of 1984, in which he used the character of O’Brien to sketch an alternative scenario of a terrifying future.

Rorty says the first 2/3 of 1984 are redescriptive, but the last 1/3 is prospective and outlines a potential direction our future could take. Rorty thinks that Orwell’s belief that there is no such thing as a free, autonomous individual entails that there is no common human nature deep inside of us, nothing to people except the way they’ve been socialized. Orwell is not making claims about human nature or taking a philosophical position, but rather trying to answer how intellectuals’ talents might be employed in the future. By presenting the possibility that all intellectual gifts may some day find a home in the Ministry of Truth, Orwell suggests that the people we’re counting on to guide us in the right direction and save us from a 1984-like future (the artists and intellectuals) might one day be the same people who impose it. Orwell had no answer to O’Brien, but was perceptive enough to warn us that he might one day exist.

So now we come to relate O’Brien to cruelty, which is the focus of Rorty’s piece. O’Brien believes that humans can be given a special kind of pain, in which they can be torn down and reconstituted into whatever shape the dominant power wants them to be in. People can be humiliated by the destruction of whatever they have been socialized to be. Torture is about humiliation, not just pain. Part of this humiliation is making a person realize that the story he’s been telling himself about himself no longer makes sense. An example of this would be, “Now that I have believed x, I can never be what I hoped or wanted to be, or thought I was”. We see this when Winston betrays Julia by wishing she got eaten by rats instead of him; being cornered into this disloyalty is his ultimate torture. So from this we see that believing 2+2=5 is about being broken, not about what’s true or not true. O’Brien points out that when you’re designing a gun or an airplane, 2+2 have to equal 4. O’Brien knows 2+2=4, and so does Winston once he is released. The only point of making Winston believe 2+2=5 is to break him. If believing in a truth would break Winston, then making Winston belief that truth would be just as good for O’Brien’s purposes. For example, if Julia had been a secret agent working for O’Brien, then revealing that truth to Winston would reveal their mutual love was a sham and would have the same effect on Winston’s psyche. Rorty also points out that the phrase “torture is torture” evokes thoughts of “art for art’s sake”, “truth for it’s own sake” because in 1984 torture is the only art form available to intellectuals.

Rorty argues that liberals cannot really imagine a good way to get from where we are now to a future in which people are equal and free, and that this is basically just the way things have turned out. Rorty suggests we all know deep inside that philosophical debates about whether human nature is good or evil are pretty harmless and unimportant, a claim I was skeptical of until I realized the truthfulness of his example how, in the Roman era, the idea that it might be immoral to be amused by watching people get eaten by animals in the Coliseum was just as much an implausible historical contingency as O’Brien’s political doctrine. So human nature being meaningless emphasizes that history is contingent, and that it may just happen that the world will wind up being ruled by people with O’Brien’s ideas. O’Brien ends up making an empirical predictions that because there is no human nature, 1984 represents a real possibility of what the future might look like, which Rorty thinks is much more frightening than any broad or general claims about human nature.

Works Cited:

Orwell, George. 1984. New Delhi: Lexicon, 2010. Print.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.

Categories: Richard Rorty on Orwell

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