When thinking about dystopia on a wider scale—how it works as a genre and as a piece of popular culture—I was interested in exploring the how/why behind these depictions. So I did what all good writers should do and I went to someone who had a better grasp on understanding the rhetoric behind ideas and depictions. In this case, my friend Philippe Meister who is a graduate student studying rhetoric and professional communication at Iowa State University. Our discussion became quite long and layered (it took place over the course of more than a month), so what follows are excerpts that particularly emphasize the previously mentioned ideas. A quick heads up: later in the discussion, we talk about the film Get Out and do discuss aspects from the end of the film. If you haven’t seen it, and plan to, avoid this post and come back later.
PHILIPPE MEISTER: Hi Chloe. I can talk about everyday language acts in creating healthy or hurtful local cultures, but I'm curious to hear about the act of writing an extended work. If we examine the act of creating and distributing a dystopic or utopic world, what are some effects that ripple outward from that act? An author produces a dystopic world and communicates it with written, oral, or visual language to others. Others access the language and reproduce the world in their head. Now, I’m wondering—for the creative writing community—what is the effect of an author and others producing and reproducing this world with language? And, what are the techniques with which they take this world from the book and apply it to a shared lived experience?
CHLOE CLARK: Okay, so in a sense you're implying that all creative work creates a kind of simulacrum, because it produces a recreated product inside the head of the reader? In relation to the creation of dystopic visions, they often easily enter common knowledge--even by people who haven't read the works. Think of the way that Big Brother is a common phrase now (sort of genericided away from its Orwellian roots). Also, many dystopic visions come down to language, which is actually an interesting side topic. Do people apply it to a shared lived experience? Besides in a language sense? I would like to think that dystopic visions create a sense of warning for us--like fairy tales for the contemporary world--don't go down this path, don't treat people like this, beware. But, I don't know if they influence our shared experiences beyond that, because they aren't necessarily accessed by everyone.
PM: Yes, I see many people using the term Big Brother when they post on Facebook and Twitter. Oddly, they sometimes post about Big Brother while using the Facebook facial recognition tools, geotagging tools, or live video tools—all of which log data on their characteristics, location, and activities into the Facebook databases. For me, there is a big difference between reading a dystopia novel and understanding the modern technologies with which dystopic situations could arise. It’s actions like these—the everyday actions of logging into social media, submitting information to an algorithm that tracks our facial features, or streaming our lives into the cloud—that make me think that “creative” works struggle to provide readers with strategies for action. I put “creative in quotations because many people argue that all writing is creative. The one who writes a legal document is creating because they are composing language that becomes the reference point from which law officials—lawyers, judges, police officers, citizens—decide how they can act in a society. I, personally, believe that composing practical documents is a creative act because composing documents like the constitution, the declaration of independence, state legislation, city ordinances, and etc. creates documents that are the reference point from which people decide how they can act in a society. The author of a legal document is composing a document that enables or limits certain types of legal action. In this situation, the language and legal action bound with one another. Let’s bring it back to storytellers. If we are facing a world where our “sense of warning” may become an actionable platform to resist a government, does creative dystopic writing step up to the plate and hit a home run? Or, what needs to happen for creative dystopic writing to equip people with the linguistic and conceptual resources to fight an unwanted future?
CC: . I think the Big Brother problem you bring up is one that directly points to the problem of dystopic literature. Because the knowledge gets recreated and re-represented outside of its original bounds, it loses some of its meaning, right? Like people don’t connect the ideas of algorithms and tracking because they're using the term in a more literal sense. Like if we think of dystopias as being literal representations and that’s how we apply them to a world that’s not yet dystopic then it doesn’t work. We need to create a way for people to take the base lessons and apply them to a world that is real. So we might not be living in the world of the Hunger Games, but we should still be able to think about the underlying message about the power of rebellion. And I think on some levels, people do this already: we become more empathetic, we think about heroism in a different light. But when a world is becoming dystopic, its not these grand actions that are the ones you need to keep your eye on, it’s the slow weakening of human rights or the way smaller laws get passed and open the door to bigger ones. I think dystopia has taught to look at the big horror, but it’s the small horrors that we need to notice so that we’re not suddenly facing a big horror. (I don’t know if this is making sense, but it does in my head). So maybe we need smaller dystopias---but then people may not read them because the stakes won’t seem to be there?
PM: It seems to me that the most popular dystopic stories and the most enduring sci-fi stories are the ones that contain more technically accurate representations. For example, the stories that work with an accurate internet infrastructure are more technically accurate and therefore more true and more powerful. The stories that work without an accurate technical infrastructure are less technically accurate, and therefore less true and less powerful. Maybe what I’m doing is agreeing that more realistic dystopias let people can take the story and apply it to their own life. (maybe this isn’t the job of creative fiction).
Now that we’ve set some groundwork for our discussion and the issues, we were thinking about, I’m jumping ahead to when we applied these ideas to something more concrete. The film Get Out (which I reviewed here is one that the director Jordan Peele labels as “social thriller.” We looked at it from this lens as well as a depiction of dystopia. Shortly before where I’ll pick up, we were discussing the rhetoric of violence and its depictions in dystopia (and popular culture mediums, as a whole). We talked about institutionalized violence and racism and its depiction in the film.
CC: I guess my overriding question here is whether dystopia requires acts of physical violence (on screen or on the page)? And how that fits in to what we've been discussing about the responsibility of dystopic creators? Could Peele have made a successful depiction of a racial dystopia without ever having shown or even implying physical violence?
PM: Somebody might be able to convince some cerebrally-oriented people that violence can be non-physical, or that a depiction of violence can be non-physical, but I’m not sure how violence that has no physical manifestations would be experienced by a person. It seems that most experiences have physical manifestations, whether they are neurons firing or skin tearing. Isn't it funny that violence in movies hits us so hard even though we know it is fake and that nobody is in danger? It’s all a production of neurons in our brain that gives us bodily sensations of nervousness, disgust, or anger, and can have lasting effects on us so that we experience future situations radically differently. Now, I think a dystopia might be able to be created without physical violence, but non-physical violence will manifest on the body in some way through expressions, vocalizations, or actions.
So, in the sense that depictions of violence do influence the viewer subconsciously or consciously, I think the representation of violence is political, and I think what "counts" as violence is an interesting topic. There are many institutions that have are or have become violent that some people talk about as violence but some don't see as violent. Is an insult violence? Are the psychological effects of systematic policing violence? If we recognize something as violent, then we can name the act, and maybe correct the act.
I think that there could have been a story told about a black man going to a white family's party and having awkward conversations. I don't think that many viewers would understand it as a horror, and I think that is a matter of definition and depiction. And, I think that these types of stories are told all the time, like when a movie made for one audience falls flat on another audience. The other audience doesn’t have the experience to recognize and produce the meaning that the target audience can readily produce. What do you think?
CC: I think that’s also something that people have a hard time understanding, because it’s so ingrained in us that violence=physical pain. Maybe, dystopias need to show physical representations of pain/violence, because that’s the way to connect most empathetically with the widest amount of audience. One of the elements that most fascinated me about Get Out was how it fit into the spectrum of horror. I think it can be argued that its Gothic horror in a way--young innocent goes to secluded mansion with an alluring/seductive figure, every sensation is heightened to create a tone of the uncanny, and then shit goes down in the last act. Peele uses the uncanny extremely well in the film--the feeling of everything just being off or heightened slightly (from situations that people do go through every day—these subtle—and not so subtle— manifestations of racism). So I think the film needed to have a violent/horror climax to fit into these genre molds. I do think that the first two-thirds play as horror, but maybe only because we know that eventually things will get even more horrific.
Moving from violence and its depiction in the film (as well as the film’s genre of horror), we then turned to the film as an example of dystopia. In this case not science-fiction of fantastic dystopic, but dystopia through the lens of horror and social commentary.
CC: I think it’s really amazing how well this film is playing across the spectrum of movie-fans--like I’ve talked to a few students who don’t like horror at all-at all and they really liked this one. I was just listening to a podcast interview with Peele in which he discusses some alternate endings he had for the film, which included all bleaker endings (including that cop car not being Chris’s friend and Chris being immediately shot by cops--an echoing of Night of the Living Dead). This quote particular stuck out to me about why he changed the ending: "It was very clear that the ending needed to transform into something that gives us a hero, that gives us an escape, gives us a positive feeling when we end this movie […] there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the audience go crazy when Rod shows up.” If we're thinking about this film as racial dystopia, does this ending fit into that or does it change the nature of how we perceive the dystopia?
PM: I think the ending gives some good guidance as to how people can act in the future. In my mind, it's sort of a 'think global act local' type ending. The cops who wouldn't listen to Rob were not white, right? So the movie isn't telling the audience to align themselves with a color, the movie is telling the audience to look out for the people they know. I think this does change the dystopia in how we sense the source of the dystopia. That there might not be an evil genius or a malicious plot, but it could be that a culture of people who have generated practices around a brutal activity and whose practices live in in more subtle forms are creating dystopia conditions. The enactors of the dystopia are ourselves. What do you think?
CC: I agree and I think that’s a more valuable (or maybe I mean realistic) way of looking at dystopia, actually. Not that there's some evil people who just happen to gain the power and cause dystopia, but rather that there are these systems in place that are supported (often even unconsciously by people) and which create these manifestations of dystopia. I think in some ways dystopia is a hopeful form of science-fiction, because it's saying: look at this path you're taking, but there's still time to change. And I think that's even more important to think about when, as you noted, we are the agents of this dystopia. Do you think filmic depictions of racial dystopia can change people's minds? Do you think that the rhetoric behind these depictions has to be done in a certain way in order to do so?
PM: Of course. This type of influence is where I get my initial dissatisfaction for dystopias. I feel that they too often lead people to blame something other as the problem or creator of the dystopia and don't encourage people to see themselves as agents in contributing to or working against the cultural conditions. I think the rhetoric of Get Out is very useful. I think, as I claimed before, that the sources of dystopic conditions should be represented accurately. The rhetoric should work to engender in the audience a better understanding of the causes, support a community who understands these causes, create ways of communicating about the causes for the community, and then provide ways toward revision or provoke people in the community to explore ways to revise themselves. This is taking for granted that the media creator wants to do these things. A media creator might just want to scare people or they may even want to spread their own biases or fears throughout the culture. To use trendy terms, I might be proposing the functions of a 'socially conscious' dystopia creation. What do you think?
We then discussed different films that have tried similar ways of capturing dystopia in more of a cultural way. Finally, we thought about what we had overall considered in terms of this conversation and how we think about dystopia.
CC: I think for me the take-aways are thinking more deeply about the construction of dystopia in popular media--whether it can or should be used as medium for social consciousness. I think also importantly the discussion of violence and how it’s depicted has made me think a lot. What about for you?
PM: For me, I think the biggest take away is that there is real value in doing analysis of how the page or screen encourages communities of people to enact their lives. Media influences how people re-create or re-vise cultural practice. Writers who want to engage in these depictions might think more about creative writing to communicate cultural practice, which means engaging in a writing, distribution, and feedback process that is designed to show the audience how they can act For me, it is about activity, and identifying the textual and social actions that create culture.
I’m curious to open this discussion more to readers of NOAF who are also engaged in thinking about dystopia, Get Out, and the way that dystopias are represented. Please feel free to comment here or to discuss via Twitter (@PintsNCupcakes and @nerds_feather). A big thank you to Philippe for humoring me and engaging so deeply with the topic at hand.
Philippe is a graduate student in the Rhetoric and Professional Communication program at Iowa State University who has interests in humans, technologies, and human-technology cultures. He receives written communication at firstname.lastname@example.org