In George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984, “the memory hole” is one of the ways the rulers of his dystopia maintain control of people’s memories. In our own time, the dystopia we are living through now, the memory holes are many and varied; they range from the steady closing of public libraries to the routine pruning of inconvenient images and facts from the internet, and the steady drumbeat of 1% perspectives offered as “news.” Remarks by Noam Chomsky during a BBC interview broadcast later did not include his explicit endorsement of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn–an example especially useful since the BBC has been noticeably consistent in not showing comments and news favoring election of Mr. Corbyn.
Specifically avoided and–wherever possible–suppressed, are stories and exposes that show the often-bloody hands of those who rule; this is why whistleblowers such as Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are relentlessly targeted by the apparatus of increasingly totalitarian National Security states–including those laughably calling themselves “democratic.” That’s here, now, in the “Land of the Free,” the United States–where truthtellers are in exile, under arrest, or languishing in a variety of prisons.
The importance of print media–especially books–thus becomes ever more important in a virtual repository of memories. While no form of record is eternal, we have written records of great significance going back to the earliest cultures of human civilization; even if we survive the current climate catastrophe now upon us, it seems highly unlikely that online records are likely to prove a more reliable and durable transcript of human memory than are books. It is worth adding that books obtained via a precious, vanishing resource–the small, independent local bookstore–are intrinsically more valuable than those obtained via an online warehouse. Also, used books and former library books can be obtained very inexpensively online, without ever being a customer to the online behemoth that has done great damage to the publishing industry, as well as being the death knell to small bookstores.
Closing The Universe of Discourse
Beyond censorship and straightforward suppression of truthtellers, is the closing of the universe of discourse, where certain ideas are not used and accordingly fall away like fruit not picked from a branch. Over time, the disappearance of ideas and even specific words from public conversation can have effects similar to the “disappearances” of people inconvenient to those who rule. Perhaps the mark of America’s much-touted “democracy” is that it is ideas and viewpoints that are submerged and disappeared, rather than persons…though the US government often supports rulers of nations where corpses of dissidents and union organizers are frequently found dumped by roads or in the countryside. Ideas not useful to those who control the media–typically, powerful corporations and wealthy individuals–cease to have currency.
Martin Heidegger pointed to increasing equation of calculative thinking to thinking itself, meditative thinking vanishing from a culture entirely focused on operational problems. As with the closing of discourse mentioned in the foregoing, the critical dimension here is that of framing: where ideas that speak outside the frame are never aired or heard, the frame itself becomes invisible, thus transformed to simply “the way things are,” which includes what is possible. We can recall the rhetorical puzzlement of corporate mass media when Occupy did not present them with a list of demands comprehensible to media mavens. “What do they want?” they wondered. Literally inconceivable to them was the single demand that rule of/by/for the 1% be ended, that democracy actually be practiced–which is what Occupy attempted, prior to being suppressed on order of the Democratic White House.
The erosion of academic offerings and modest enrollment by students majoring in the humanities, is yet another sign of how cultural memory and its historical inheritance are being lost down the memory hole. Given the crushing debt typically shouldered by students attending college, it should surprise no one that the guiding star for most attendees is less personal enrichment and exploration of ideas than it is getting a job that will pay well.
None of this is the inevitable working of some inexorable law, but it is a systematic outcome of the drive for ever-greater profit in all dimensions of human activity. Ideas are the expression of human intentions, and ideas with the force of wealth, media, and law behind them are more visible, normalized, and widely disseminated than are ideas without corresponding force.
Finally, and very significantly, is the locutional corset foisted on us in the guise of “social media”–specifically, Twitter. Orwell presciently foresaw the assault upon language and expression itself, quite distinct from censorship; in 1984, the language promoted by the ruling Party is called “newspeak.” Its salient achievement, reflected in each newly published dictionary, is the elimination of words. Today, we have twitterspeak–like the Orwellian version, a deliberate truncating and resultant dumbing-down of expression and, accordingly, of thought itself. It is perfect lingo for advertising, the province of slogans and jingles. Coupled with the restriction, pruning, and disappearance of information, the promulgation of atrophied communication not allowing for subtlety, nuance, and logical argument, produces the outcomes about which Marcuse, Heidegger, and many others have raised alarms.
Given the foregoing, we face a situation where to go forward means reclaiming and remembering older, common forms of communication. Rather than staring into screens and being dependent on the latest gadget, it is urgently necessary that we resume meeting, talking, and establishing low-tech and no-tech methods of networking. The old-style telephone tree was one such form, and printed bulletins can replace or supplement online announcements. There should be no need to motivate us to move beyond Facebook, which has repeatedly shown itself both dishonest and a direct servant of corporate and governmental appropriation of our most personal information.
For us to think and express ourselves in freedom and also with some measure of privacy, it is necessary to revert to former, more directly sociable, means of communication. Informal circles of comrades and friends can achieve not only useful work and clarity via informal venues, but also reestablish a measure of humanity to the increasingly abstracted and distracted relations offered to us by corporate “social media.” This is part of the task and opportunity we create in the shared project of seizing back our world from its despoilers and creating more humane relationships among people.