Literature as a Social Tool: Education and Cohesion or Class Domination?

By Millicent A. Weber
2012, Vol. 4 No. 01 | pg. 1/1
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English literature is all-encompassing: it ranges from societal utilitarianism of the didactic through to the celebration of individualism embodied in post-modern work. Literature, as part of a larger cultural body, is both instructive and entertaining, and has the power to facilitate personal understanding and encourage social cohesion. The society depicted in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is disillusioned with literature: the populace has forgotten its potential to educate and entertain, and has become sceptical of the intellectual elitism it is seen to represent. People are now captivated by the possibilities of non-discriminatory media such as and popular music. The focus of and recreation has shifted away from the intellectual and towards the instant gratification of physical stimulation. Initially this is seen as a solution to short-term societal problems, and as a means of promoting the happiness of the greatest number of people. However, in the long term, the removal of literature from society distances people from each other, stunts communication, and eventually effects mass isolation, dehumanisation and the collapse of all societal structure. Although this may seem unrealistically dystopian, there are elements in our society that have been developing since before Bradbury started writing – television, and radio – that may have the potential to instigate the social collapse Bradbury foretells. Indeed, Adorno and Horkheimer, writing in the forties, argued that this potential had already been realised in the mass-production of film, and feared that television would further degrade society until the individual ceased to be defined without the general ‘society’ of which it was an element. The parallels between this view and Bradbury’s are significant. Most importantly, these commentators share the notion that truly artistic, intellectual is essential to society. Figures like Matthew Arnold, Victorian poet and spokesperson for education reform, have been prominent in shaping this understanding of culture. Arnold’s notions of cultural education as promoting the best aspects of society and discouraging the worst illuminate the groundwork behind Bradbury’s own fears about the loss of culture in society.

Literature, as a strong and relatively explicit tool for the dissemination of facts and ideas, can, however, be abused; literary theorists such as Terry Eagleton would argue that Arnold’s views represent the interests of the upper classes without regarding other echelons of the class structure. This essay seeks to evaluate Fahrenheit 451 in conjunction with non-fictional texts from each of Eagleton, Arnold, and Adorno and Horkheimer, with the aim of illuminating the function that each saw for literature in society, in terms of promoting social cohesion, determining social structure, and defining individuality within a larger society.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, was written in the 1950s in the aftermath of the Second World War. The people of Bradbury’s futuristic dystopia see books as objects of disgust and treat them as an illegal commodity. Fahrenheit 451 was constructed in the shadow of the cultural purges and propaganda of Nazi , but also in the massive post-war production of (particularly American) popular culture. With Hollywood at the height of its first popularity, and the recent invention of the television, ‘culture’ was becoming a consumer commodity in a way it had never been before. Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 both as a response to the direction he saw society taking, and also as a caution of the evils of neglecting intellectual and humanising pursuits in favour of what was simply entertaining. The society in Fahrenheit 451 has done exactly that. It has ceased to regard literature, which was seen as too controversial and liable to cause offence to the minorities it represented, and now favours homogenised television programs as the major form of entertainment. The tendency away from intellectually stimulating pursuits, toward the more artificially entertaining mass-produced media, discourages thinking, questioning, and analysing, and instead promotes uniformity, unquestioning acceptance and obedience. The people who make up Bradbury’s society become less observant and individual, and are generic to the point that they only exist as part of the general collective ‘society’. Everything that they think of or do must be physical and concrete; their ability to abstract, philosophise or even think creatively is completely erased. Without a sense of identity, or the capacity to individually construct a ‘self’ through thought or observation, the interaction between members of society becomes stunted and trivial. This in turn triggers isolation and depression, as people gradually drift away from each other.

The protagonist of Fahrenheit 451, Montag, starts to become more aware of the society around him when he meets a girl who differs from the rest of society, in that her creativity and her ability to observe and ask questions have been preserved by the high level of social interaction and storytelling in her immediate family circle. Soon after this meeting, Montag’s wife tries to commit suicide; the operators of the stomach pump that is brought in to save her note that “we get these cases nine or ten a night” (Bradbury, 1976, p. 14). Shocked by such a blasé attitude, Montag speculates that “[t]here are billions of us and that’s too many. Nobody knows anyone” (Bradbury, 1976, p. 14). It is not however until, as a ‘fireman’, he is called to burn a collection of books, and the offending owner chooses to have herself burnt along with them, that Montag connects the wrongs in society with the banned literature. He attempts to reconnect with literature, is discovered by the other firemen and flees the city. The novel, however, ends on a reasonably optimistic note: society has been almost completely destroyed in a war, and still Montag, and other ostracised believers in the powers of literature, are determined to attempt to rebuild a society that encourages reading and other intellectual pursuits. Thus Bradbury’s novel is a warning against the loss of intellectual stimulation amidst a love of and entertainment. The preservation of the individual, through sustained intellectual pursuits, enables society to preserve quality of life, love and social interaction.

Terry Eagleton in The Rise of English shares Bradbury’s views to an extent: he considers literature a useful social tool that affords both entertainment and instruction. For Eagleton, however, the main purpose of literature is not altruistic: it emerged as a tool for the subjugation of the lower classes by a capitalist society determined to preserve its own interests. Eagleton writes from the comfortable position of a late 20th-century literary theorist, looking back over the past 200 years of literary developments. He admits that at the outset of the industrial age, it is natural that the romantics should emerge, with literature being ‘one of the few enclaves in which the creative values expunged from the face of English society by industrial can be celebrated and affirmed’ (Eagleton, 1983, p. 19). Eagleton comments, however, that the nature of the society was such that the romantics were inevitably doomed by the nature of their chosen medium. Early capitalism did not highly regard romantic writing, deeming it useless for the production of goods or money and therefore serving no viable purpose, and so the romantics were marginalised, and their attempts to transform their society into one less monetarily obsessed failed to initiate social change.

As the political influence of romantic writing declined, literature began to take on a different task. With its ability to resolve dialectics such as ‘motion and stillness, turbulent content and organic form, mind and world’ (Eagleton, 1983, p. 22), literature was a medium through which the opposing philosophies of the capitalist powers and the downtrodden lower classes might be reconciled. The ability of to forestall the uprising of the masses was declining, and the unitary nature of the literary symbol became an ostensible replacement. That literature was educative and entertaining was undebatable, as was its capacity to compose harmony from opposing viewpoints. Evidently, it was the obvious choice for an unscrupulous aristocracy accustomed to see the value of a commodity in terms of personal gain. Literary truths seemed indissoluble; all aspects ‘worked spontaneously together for the common good, each in its subordinate place’ (Eagleton, 1983, p. 22). Thus literature became not only a vehicle for the promotion of societal order, but also a model, in its own right, of the ‘ideal’ society it was being used to produce, with each individual working towards the common good rather than that of their own person.

It is in this purpose which Eagleton ascribes to literature that we can see the greatest discrepancy between his and Bradbury’s agendas emerging. Eagleton sees literature primarily as a means of controlling the lower classes, and as the tool of domination taken up in the early Victorian period. He looks to the past to find a culture where all that was pure and worthwhile about literature existed only to be exploited by the upper classes of an increasingly capitalist, pragmatic society. The means by which this control was effected, however, meant the emergence of a better educated, if ideologically controlled, working class. This is the direct opposite of Bradbury’s dystopia, whereby the denial of literature was propagated as a means of pacifying – again, in order to control – the growing number of minorities, but thereby, seemingly accidentally denying them also the means to expand their minds and better cope with life. Both Bradbury and Eagleton agree, however, that literature broadens the mind to incorporate other world views, informs people of other truths, and in being ‘an essentially solitary, contemplative activity’ (Eagleton, 1983, p. 25) promotes thought, creativity and analysis.

Matthew Arnold in fact represents the upper classes that Eagleton disdains. He was a staunch believer in the importance of education, particularly literary and cultural education. His non-fictional piece, Culture and Anarchy, is strongly in favour of the power of culture to facilitate societal improvement. Arnold defines culture as ‘an endeavour to come at reason and the will of God by means of reading, observing, and thinking’ (Arnold, 1882, ch. 2.23); that is, the pursuit of intellectual and societal perfection through contemplation of media such as art or literature. He notes that towards the later part of the 19th century, ‘the iron force of adhesion to the old routine, – social, political, religious, – has wonderfully yielded’ (Arnold, 1882, ch. 1.5). People have begun to enjoy more freedom in their choice of religion and political persuasion; similarly, the of a social conscience has become a private matter. In this context, culture becomes a means of ensuring that people do not ‘allow some novelty or other to pass for these [reason and the will of God] too easily, or else that they should underrate the importance of them altogether, and think it enough to follow action for its own sake, without troubling themselves to make reason and the will of God prevail therein’ (Arnold, 1882, ch. 1.5). Without the earlier societal constraints, people need a means by which they can counteract a tendency towards the mechanical and external, and restrain the materialist habits that inevitably are linked with capitalism. Arnold distinguishes the task of culture as the facilitation of the contemplation of the eternal and the philosophical aspects of life that may otherwise be overcome by the mundane.

Arnold, like Bradbury, perceives literature as the means by which society is stabilised, people are humanised, their identity and notion of ‘self’ created, and their lives validated. Without Arnold’s ‘culture’, in essence what literature is to Bradbury, society has nothing to check its tendencies towards capitalist greed, progress for progress’ sake, and general ignorance and coarseness. Bradbury depicts a society in which many of Arnold’s fears are given substance. Although Arnold’s essay is in essence concerned with the humanising qualities of culture (and consequentially literature), it is important to note that he sees the method by which it disseminates truths as, in some ways, just as controlling as Eagleton perceives. ‘[C]ulture indefatigably tries, not to make what each raw person may like, the rule by which he fashions himself; but to draw ever nearer to a sense of what is indeed beautiful, graceful, and becoming, and to get the raw person to like that’ (Arnold, 1882, ch. 1.11). The main difference between Arnold and Eagleton, however, is that for Arnold, culture puts this pressure on the people of its own volition, merely by showing them what is right and beautiful, whereas for Eagleton literature has been explicitly used by the upper echelons of capitalist society to pacify and contain the working classes.

The writings of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer are possibly the most relevant to Fahrenheit 451. Adorno and Horkheimer were Bradbury’s contemporaries, and were similarly dismayed by the trends towards consumerism and mass-produced culture. Emigrating from Germany as refugees from the Nazi regime, they were shocked by the bland, formulaic nature of the ‘culture’ being greedily consumed in America. They spurn what they term the ‘culture industry’, whereby work such as film or music is produced by large corporations according to generic formula and public demand. They argue that when culture is mass-produced by corporations, individuals lose their creative outlets. This leads to the marginalisation of real individuality, and a general homogenisation of society: ‘The striking unity of microcosm and macrocosm presents men with a model of their culture: the false identity of the general and the particular’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947, in During, 1993, p. 30). The production of ‘culture’ solely by corporations necessarily presents only a very limited perspective; with the opinion of the individual lost in favour of that of the industry. Thus the broadcasting of relatively few productions, all of which are very similar, leads to a conformity of output of opinions and perspectives. ‘[Radio] is democratic: it turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them to broadcast programmes which are all exactly the same.’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947, in During, 1993, p. 31). As these coinciding views are repeatedly fed to the consumer, they increasingly identify with what is presented, and society becomes narrower and less open to individualism. With the nascence of television, Adorno and Horkheimer predict society becoming so stunted that the then-current pretence of cultural integrity will be neither possible, nor necessary for the continued success of the ‘culture industry’: ‘[Television’s] consequences will be quite enormous and promise to intensify the impoverishment of aesthetic matter so drastically, that by tomorrow the thinly veiled identity of all industrial culture products can come triumphantly out into the open’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947, in During, 1993, p. 33).

The impending collapse of culture, and therefore all aspects of society that depend upon it, is thus intrinsically linked with the emergence of television. In this prediction Adorno and Horkheimer foreshadow Bradbury’s ‘television walls’, and their ability to replace real human interaction with mindless pseudo-culture, until nothing other than the artificial ‘family’ one has in the television matters. The potential for television to replace real life in this manner is a fear openly discussed: ‘Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947, in During, 1993, p. 34). This would lead to a decline in relationships and intimacy, to the point that one would become ‘a modern city-dweller who can now only imagine friendship as a ‘social contact’: that is, as being in social contact with others with whom he has no inward contact’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947, in During, 1993, p. 42). Evidently, this fear is shared by Bradbury, whose notion of a life lived solely in contact with the television is distressing in its ability to degrade even marital relationships to the point at which one’s spouse is a stranger:

"Well, wasn’t there a wall between him and Mildred when you came down to it? Literally not just one wall but, so far, three ... No matter when he came in, the walls were always talking to Mildred." (Bradbury, 1976, p. 41).

Montag, recently made aware of the degradations of the society that he is living in, is struck by the lack of real, intimate contact between himself and his wife. For the majority of people in the society of Fahrenheit 451, however, such an idea would never register, television having superseded personal relationships to the point that the notion of what we would today consider intimacy barely exists.

Without social interaction or intellectual stimulation, there is no impediment to the promotion of conformity and similarity as perpetuated by the nature of the ‘culture industry’, as discussed above. Indeed, the individual, as a person with a clear sense of self, ceases to exist altogether. The pursuit of perfection that Arnold aligned with the propagation of culture is lost; the constraints of what is beautiful and what is right also disappear. With the removal of general societal purpose, the role of the individual is obscured: without abstract knowledge or even basic social skills, the ability to construct a self or purpose is practically lost. ‘[T]echnology has changed human beings from children into persons. However, every advance in individuation of this kind took place at the expense of the individuality in whose name it occurred, so that nothing was left but the resolve to pursue one’s own particular purpose’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947, in During, 1993, p. 42). This final degradation of the individual results, in Fahrenheit 451, in massive rates of suicide and depression, in a society that simply doesn’t bother to do anything about it.

The final thing to note, in a comparison between Adorno and Horkheimer, and Fahrenheit 451, is the idea of culpability. In Fahrenheit 451, literature was slowly removed from society, and the reader is told that this was due to the minorities that make up the general public putting increasing pressure on the authorities to remove anything potentially offensive from the public domain. Simultaneously, television was promoted as a form of media both neutral and inoffensive, again in response to minority pressure. However, Adorno and Horkheimer (1947, in During, 1993, p. 33) point out that ‘the attitude of the public, which ostensibly and actually favours the system of the culture industry, is a part of the system and not an excuse for it.’ In other words, the claims that culture was debased in response to public demand are void, because it was in fact the mass-producers of culture who shaped the attitudes of the public to begin with.

Drawing together these sources we can make a number of observations. Foremost we have the consensus that literature, as a form of intellectual culture, has the potential to entertain and educate us, and thereby facilitate social cohesion. Already we must observe, however, that literature is integral to society only as it represents culture as a larger entity: the problem for Bradbury, as for Adorno and Horkheimer, is not the removal of literature from society that causes the problems; rather, it is the promotion of non-intellectualised, culturally devoid recreational matter – in this case represented as television – to the point that all intellectual or ‘cultural’ recreational pursuits are neglected. Matthew Arnold, in his promotion of culture, and specifically of literary education, also seeks a happier society, composed of individuals whose quest for purpose and identity is capable of fulfilment. Eagleton might oppose this; for him, Arnold was ‘preternaturally sensitive to the needs of his social class, and engagingly candid about being so’ (Eagleton, 1983, p. 24). Whether or not class domination was actually Arnold’s motive for promoting literary education among the lower classes, however, it is the warnings of Bradbury, alongside the dismayed outcries of Adorno and Horkheimer, that are more relevant to our society today. Television and film remain central to our culture, and computer games are beginning to introduce a false reality to our lives, in some cases to the extent that Bradbury foresaw. ‘Social networking sites’, too, are beginning to offer the possibility of replacing personal interactions. Yet, despite the temptations to lead a life entirely artificially constructed, our society today still maintains a regard for art, culture and intellectual achievement.


References

Arnold, M. (1882). Culture and Anarchy. New York: MacMillan and Co. Retrieved May 6, 2011, from UTEL: http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/nonfiction_u/arnoldm_ca/ca_ch0.html

Bradbury, R. (1976). Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books.

During, S. (Ed.). (1993). The Cultural Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Eagleton, T. (1983). Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

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