The Word-Pocalypse: Joss Whedon's Dollhouse and Dystopian Language
Joss Whedon's television series Dollhouse was an innovative and problematic example of what can be achieved on network television when no one seems to be watching. Dollhouse received mixed critical reviews and a fairly low number of viewers, but it is reasonable to argue that there has never been anything quite comparable to it before. Dollhouse combined elements of dystopian science fiction, fast paced action, and dreamy fairy tales while telling stories that were ostensibly about the sex trade industry or at least the buying and selling of bodies. This thesis is not going to debate the relative merits of Dollhouse, but rather examine the relationship the series has with language. Dollhouse is set in an alternate or speculative future and as a result has an alternate language, resembling our own but for a few key differences. Dollhouse aired for two seasons, from 2009-2010. The majority of the paper deals with textual analysis of the dialogue of those two seasons. My analysis of Dollhouse is based on linguistic theory and secondary sources pulled from a variety of modern work on linguistics. The earliest work I will be referencing is Sapir's essay “The Status of Linguistics as a Science” written in 1929. My selection of secondary works is limited, as it would be impossible to account for all strains of linguistic theory in one paper. I have selected works for their relevance to an analysis using speculative linguistics to deconstruct language in science fiction.
In my linguistic analysis of Dollhouse I will begin by examining four words Attic, Echo, Active, and Doll, selected for their frequent usage in the series and for their exemplification of the way in which new meanings are associated with words that already have preexisting meanings. Using Hayakawa's definitions of the two categories of word meaning, denotative and connotative, I will deconstruct the preexisting meanings of the selected words and address their relationship to new denotations and connotations associated through context. Literal denotative meanings and associative connotative meanings serve different purposes and Dollhouse uses both categories of meaning to build the speculative world of the series. The invented technology and other speculative ideas of Dollhouse create a context that then associates new ideas and new meanings with preexisting words. In some cases preexisting connotations are used as a device to set up expectations that control the perceptions of the viewer. Words with the same denotation and different connotations give different lenses through which to analyze the same events and characters, and a group of words with the same denotative meaning and different connotations can be ordered by the positivity or negativity of their connotations in a ladder of connotation. As reality is reordered by language, the use of words with negative connotations has the power to shape perceptions of characters and viewers and to some degree shape the reality of Dollhouse.
My second route of inquiry is an analysis of one of the linguistic devices used frequently in Dollhouse; repetition of key phrases. Two structures of repeated phrases, call-and-response sequences and “Doll phrases,” become opposing forces in the subjugation of the Dollhouse Actives. Call-and-response phrases “Did I fall asleep?” and “Do you trust me?” represent a frequently repeated form of controlling language, which manipulates the minds of the Actives. Through conflation with technology, the call-and-response language becomes performative, taking on the role of technology by actively producing changes in the Actives mental state, compelling trust and limiting intelligence. Initially used in collaboration with aspects of the state and the public, the controlling language created by the Dollhouse evolves into a private weapon used to gain power and suppress enemies by the Rossum. The control that issues from the call-and-response language renders the Actives vulnerable and puts them in a position from which they may be abused.
A further examination of the call-and-response sequences reveals how they are also used to program the viewer, using hegemonic social constructions rather than technology. As with denotation and connotation, expectations are set for the viewer based on preexisting information, in this case culturally accepted assumptions, which are then frustrated, rather than fulfilled, in order to provoke a response in the viewer. The repetition of these sequences serves to reinforce social ideals and then deconstruct them, revealing how much the viewer has been programmed by his or her cultural environment.
A counter measure to the controlling language of the call-and-response phrases are what I term Doll phrases, language imprinted in the Doll-state that gives the Actives a structure in which to express individual beliefs and opinions. An examination of Doll phrases and when and how they are used reveals that the Actives maintain a modicum of autonomy in their language that implies a capacity for individual thought. Deviations in the form and content of these short phrases maintain a recognizable shared structure of the phrase but demonstrate individuation among the Actives. I propose that these deviations in the structure of the Doll phrases stem from some essential aspect of the Active using the phrase; an “identity” that exists underlying an Active's original, imprinted, and Doll-state personas and that cannot be wiped away by the imprinting process.
The third line of inquiry I will pursue is an examination of identity language and how it is affected as Dollhouse descends into dystopia. Identity language encompasses all language that serves to indicate identity, including pronouns, gender indicators, and “identity phrases.” In addition to the call-and-response and Doll phrases, identity phrases represent another form of repeated language used to identify imprints. In the face of the Dollhouse's imprinting technology, identity language begins to break down. Pronouns are no longer able to adequately describe the identities of the Actives, and the line between humans and technology blurs as personalities are stored in computer hard drives. The imprinting technology effectively divorces gender from sex, and gender becomes located solely in the mental imprint. An imprint can only be distinguished through language, as it has no stable physical body. Identity phrases, gender indicators, and gendered language that indicate identity through dialogue are relied upon to determine who an imprint is. Without the physical body and with the constant imprinting and removal of imprints the notion of a set identity becomes unstable and unsupportable. Attempts to counter unstable identity are made by claiming the physical body through language, striving to tie it to a mental imprint. The destabilization of identity is directly related to the destabilization of identity language. When identity language can no longer accurately describe an identity, identity itself begins to fall apart.
These elements of language manipulation lead towards I have termed the “word-pocalypse” an apocalyptic event through which the language capacity of the world's population is widely destroyed, leaving a dystopian world behind. The massive language loss seen in the “word-pocalypse” represents a fear of linguists like Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, who theorize that thought is produced by language (Sapir 209), or David Harrison, who believes that when languages die, some untranslatable form of information dies as well (206). Dollhouse also features dystopian monsters, dumb shows and butchers, as extreme versions of the suppression enacted on the Actives through the callandresponse language. Unstable identity language leads to imprints being forced upon civilians. Like the changing of word meanings in section two everything familiar has been made strange through a language centric event. The characters of Dollhouse combat their dystopian world and protect themselves through the mastery of language, which enables them to maintain their identities and resist controlling language.
Dollhouse is a contemporary example of dystopian science fiction, set in an alternate world where characters are subjugated through technology and controlling language leading to an apocalyptic event. As the series progresses the story leads towards a dystopian future glimpsed in both the final episode of season one and the final episode of season two. This dystopia is brought on by rapidly advancing technology controlled by the executives of the Rossum Corporation who use the unchecked power this technology grants them to manipulate the world to their liking. As Dollhouse descends into dystopia the language of the series becomes dystopic as well becoming more unstable and manipulative. Dystopian language is both a result and cause of Dollhouse's dystopian future, representing the relationship between language and the creation or distortion of reality in science fiction.
Speculative Linguistics in Science Fiction and Dystopia
“Aren't you big brother?” - (Vows 2.10)
Using speculative linguistics as a lens through which to examine and understand science fiction texts, this essay will analyze the language of Dollhouse. Samuel Delaney's essay “About 5,750 Words” will be used to distinguish the language of science fiction and dystopia from other forms of fiction. Discussion of linguist-writers demonstrates how science fictions create speculative languages in conjunction with speculative futures. Science fiction proves optimal for study with linguistics because of the freedom in science fiction to create new words and new languages, a freedom that remains based on the writers’ conscious and unconscious internalization of linguistic rules. The dystopian sub-genre of science fiction uses the linguistic creation of science fiction as a method of control. Dystopian language can be used to control and manipulate the masses, but language also remains one of the few ways individuals can combat a dystopic power. Because language is valued so highly in a dystopia mastery over language can create and maintain a dystopic world or be the only way to fight dystopian control.Continued on Next Page »
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