ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 11, Number 1 (January, 2014)

Remote Control Society: Baudrillard and Inversive Utopia

Sean McQueen
(Doctoral Student, School of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, Monash University, Caulfield East, Victoria , Australia)

Paradise is just paradise. Mournful, monotonous, and superficial though it may be, it is paradise. (Baudrillard 2010: 107)

I. Introduction
Baudrillard’s writing on the subject of utopia is easily mistaken for dystopian. But in this article I want to position him as offering an ironic provocation on the representational and socio-political aspects of utopia - what I call inversive utopia. In this article, I will outline Baudrillard’s theses on utopia, placing him and his contemporaries, Foucault and Deleuze, in the context of contemporary postpolitical liberalism, and then develop an understanding of inversive utopia through a reading of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction classic, Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and Francois Truffaut’s film adaptation (1966).

II. Utopia achieved.
Sylvere Lotringer begins his reflection on the 1980s thus:

The ‘80s began in 1983, with the publication of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations, which propelled a kind of weightless nebula into culture just before a charge of Orwellian paranoia took over: Would 1984 keep its appointment? The answer was no. The society of the spectacle had already become a society of spectators, and Foucault’s panopticon a Mobius strip. Everyone was waiting for George Orwell, but Baudrillard arrived instead. (2003: 194).

But the publication of Simulations was not the first time Baudrillard had anteceded Orwell’s dystopian vision -- in fact he had dismissed it as early as 1971 in an article for the journal, Utopie, “Requiem for the Media” (2006: 70-93). The Orwellian telescreen, omnipotent and surveying, which rendered the masses (the Proles) inactive, was being replaced by television and an increasingly televised voluntary servitude: the masses could watch themselves. Neither Orwell’s Airstrip One, nor Foucault’s Panopticon, both centralised and disciplinary models of social engineering, could account for a society that, for Baudrillard, had already exhausted both models.

This brings us to the more specific concept of the science-fictional dystopia. If Baudrillard can be considered a science-fictional writer as Douglas Kellner suggests (2000: 299 & 1988: 248) then we might ask, to which strand of the genre does his writing belong: utopia or dystopia? None would, I think, claim unreservedly the former, but to consign Baudrillard to the dystopia is inaccurate. There is no clear answer to this question, but he gives us some clues. 1967’s “Dialectical Utopia” (2006: 31-32) is a brief, but curious forerunner to the dialectical utopianism of Fredric Jameson (2007). But Baudrillard would come to dismiss this approach and, in his final writings, saw only a world sworn to extremes. Indeed, it was only a few years later in 1971’s “Utopia deferred..." that he rejected the political dialectic of the impossible and the possible and said that utopia ‘offers no privileges to revolutionary politics’ (2006: 61-2). Why this should be so must remain unclear for now because, as insightful as he is on the topic, Baudrillard’s theorisation of utopia is insufficient for my purposes; thus the concept requires some brief theorisation and proper contextualisation.

Utopia and dystopia exist on the same continuum of the imagining of future possibilities, but are characteristically distinguished along the lines of political ambition and theoretical value. Indeed, Andrew Milner observes ‘something quite close to a distaste for dystopia’ (2012: 115) in science fiction’s most influential critics: Raymond Williams, Carl Freedman, Darko Suvin and Fredic Jameson. In Suvin’s foundational analysis, utopia is ‘the sociopolitical subgenre of science fiction’, while he considers the Orwellian dystopian model ‘fashionabl[y] static’ (1979: 61 & 83). Both Jameson and Tom Moylan make the distinction, however, between anti-utopia and dystopia. For Jameson, the anti-utopia is a reaction to the negative connotation that utopia acquired in the Cold War, and its associations with anti-capitalism (2007: xi) encapsulated in the Orwellian maxim “Freedom is Slavery”. Similarly, for Moylan, the anti-utopia ‘attack[s] and refuse[s] Utopia and all that its authors claim for it’ (Moylan 2000: 122).

For Jameson, utopia is the collective expression of an impossible desire – his subtitle to Archaeologies of the Future, The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, indicates as much. But for Susan Sontag, dystopia offer a ‘collective nightmare’ of our own reality where ‘one can participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself’ (1996: 53 & 41). In light of this, the issue is thus better reframed as one of engagement, loosely formulated as a distinction between active (utopia) and passive (dystopia). Jameson’s utopia is a distinctly political project, where the text is an investment in or expression of the broader production of the utopian impulse or desire. It is also a mode of representation: ‘The social totality is always unrepresentable... but it can sometimes be mapped and allow a small-scale model to be constructed on which the fundamental tendencies and the lines of flight can more clearly read’. The utopian text is thus a ‘diagnostic intervention’ (2007: 4 & 12) in a broader project of active engagement and critical thinking. Sontag’s dystopia, albeit a less theoretically rigorous formulation is, at best, cathartic and, at worst, a nihilistic, mode of passive consumption: the politically terminal massification of the dystopian social is accurately reflected in the prevailing mode of engagement.

Having briefly outlined the representational and political dimensions of utopia, dystopia, and anti-utopia, we can return now to Baudrillard. The question of science fiction and utopia was raised again in Simulacra and Simulacra, in which the political ideals of utopia are subsumed and overtaken by the problem of representation -- inasmuch as simulation is opposed to and distinct from representation. ‘Representation’, Baudrillard writes, ‘stems from the principle of the equivalence of the sign and the real (even if this equivalence is utopian, it is a fundamental axiom)’ (1994: 6). Representation, utopia and science fiction become imbricated in the processional logic of simulacra, in which the naturalistic utopian imaginary gives way to second-order science fiction (the third order is the Ballardian type of science fiction, which is no longer science fiction). Utopia, for Baudrillard, requires the cognitive apprehension of a gap or distance between the real and the imaginary (dialectical utopia): to do so would be to identify ‘an ideal or critical projection’. Ironically, the magnitude of this distance is inversely proportional to the ordering of the simulacral procession: the utopian is transcendent, a maximisation of the distance between the real and the imaginary; science fiction reduces the distance, but is nevertheless a projection (rather than transcendental) adding itself to real. In the final stage, the gap between the real and imaginary is not absent but, rather, absorbed, so that it is reality that is transcendent (hyperreality), rather than utopia, going beyond fiction (Ibid: 122).So, Baudrillard here annuls the classical representational coordinates of utopia, rather than its socio-political dimensions. These are another thing altogether:

We can only simulate orgy and liberation now, pretending to continue on in the same direction at greater speeds, but in reality, we are accelerating in empty space, because all of the ends of liberation (of production, progress, revolution) are already behind us... It is the state of accomplished utopia, of every utopia accomplished, but where you have to live paradoxically as if they had not. (2005: 104).

From this we can infer that Baudrillard was not a dystopian, nor did he consider society as dystopian in the sense that it was the opposite to utopia. Rather, his is an ironical utopia achieved, or what I wish to call inversive utopia: a term to describe the “utopian” promise of liberal tolerance that Baudrillard both describes and admonishes1.

What I want to do in this paper, is develop an understanding of the inversive utopia. But where Lotringer saw Baudrillard outbidding the Orwellian dystopia, I want to look back to an equally famous science fiction dystopia, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and Francois Truffaut’s film adaptation (1966), that positions Baudrillard and his contemporaries, Foucault and Deleuze, amongst contemporary liberal “utopianism”, and to supplement their theses with current understandings of liberalism and biopolitics, provided by Slavoj Zizek , and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

III. Discipline or Control?

If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none - Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953, p. 68.

It all goes to show, law enforcement can be fun! - Fahrenheit 451, dir. Francois Truffaut, 1966.

Tolerance is turned from an active into a passive state, from practice to non-practice (Marcuse 1969: 97).

As we have seen, Baudrillard saw in television and mass media the demise of both the Orwellian dystopian model and the Foucauldian disciplinary Panopticon. This is not the place to rehearse Orwell’s well-known novel, suffice to say that the Proles are constantly aware that at any time they could be seen by Big Brother: the telescreen is watched, but it can return the gaze, although the Proles can never know when or where. The visual regimes in Nineteen Eighty-Four are obviously redolent of Foucault’s analysis of Benthamite Panopticonism in Discipline and Punish, where he observes that ‘power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings’; where the subject ‘is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication’ (1995: 197 & 200). Despite being the paradigmatic dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four is unusual in that it differs from the most common architectural distribution of power in science fiction, where the wealthy and influential members of society occupy the highest floors in the highest buildings, whilst the disenfranchised occupy the lower floors and streets: the spatialisation of power and the power of spatialisation. The telescreens, however, flatten out this distribution while increasingly individualising the subjects. There is talk on Airstrip One that Big Brother might not exist, and the Proles can never be sure that they are not being observed. Thus Foucault’s famous formulation is that:

the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power... that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary... [P]ower should be visible and unverifiable. (Ibid: 201)

Despite this architectural and spatial anomaly Nineteen Eighty-Four is, very clearly, a disciplinary society. But for Foucault, power is also a contractual relation:

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjugation (Ibid: 202-203).

The most extreme exercise of power in the novel is torture and execution, but it is possible to see that the Proles’ relation to power fails to recognise Foucault’s injunction, since the Proles monitor each other as much as the telescreens. It is the inability not to be seen that leads to the arrest of the protagonists, Winston and Julia; but this is no longer the case in our society. Now those who absent themselves from fields of vision are no longer regarded with suspicion by governments because these fields have changed in their topographic location and cultural significance. Rather, such people are often regarded with suspicion by civil society. So much was made of the fact that recent mass murderers James Holmes, Anders Behring Breivik, and Adam Lanza lacked Facebook accounts, as though this was a way to rationalise their actions, a vital clue, or determining factor in their psychopathy.

The movement away from a Foucauldian disciplinary society is noted by Deleuze in “Postscript on the Societies of Control” (1992). With Bentham’s Panopticon as their governing metaphor, disciplinary societies are characterised by the double of movement of the spatialistaion of power and of power of spatialisation, and how this acts on the subject in specific institutions (schools, hospitals, prisons, factories). While this is a keen analysis of subjectiviation, this regime also accounts for the masses: ‘The disciplinary societies have two poles’, writes Deleuze, ‘the signature that designates the individual, and the number or administrative numeration that indicates his or her position within a mass’. In this model, the subject and the mass are distinguishable but not incompatible, since ‘power’, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four, ‘individualises and masses together’ (1992: 5). For Deleuze (as for Foucault), the prison and the factory were the governing analogical spaces for disciplinary societies, whereas the corporation emblematises societies of control: access to information and communication, rather than to modes of production, is the societal determinant. This changes the relationship between the subject and the mass: ‘We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become “dividuals,” and masses, samples, data, markets, or “banks”’ (Ibid: 5).The distinction between disciplinary and control societies has been adopted by Hardt and Negri’s biopolitical thesis advanced in Empire (2001) and Multitude (2004). They observe that in societies of control, ‘mechanisms of command become ever more “democratic”’, while there is a simultaneous ‘intensification and generalisation of the normalising apparatuses of disciplinarity that internally animate our common and daily practices’ (2001: 23)2.

Foucault conceived of a contractual relationship of power in the scopic regimes of Panopticonism, but here the relationship mutates into one of non-coercive, repressive participation: a set of socio-political conditions where movements towards liberty and oppression, and the distinction between governmental forces and the social subject, become indistinguishable or, indeed, false distinctions altogether. In an science fictional context, this means the loss of concrete determinations or coordinates that would otherwise be used to distinguish utopia, Jameson’s anti-utopia, and dystopia. This is why Baudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulation and Forget Foucault (1987), wrote of the end of the Panopticon:
a switch from the panoptic mechanism of surveillance […] to a system of deterrence, in which the distinction between the passive and the active is abolished. There is no longer any imperative of submission to model, or to the gaze “YOU are the model!” “YOU are the majority!" Such is the watershed of a hyperreal sociality. (1994: 29)

Baudrillard argues that power has been reduced (or, perhaps at the same time, elevated) to pure representation, and finds its purest form in television. Foucault, he says, ‘does not tell us anything concerning the simulacrum of power itself’(1987: 40). Ours is therefore no longer a disciplinary society:

[The] myth of Big Brother, that of the total policing of visibility, has now been taken over by the public itself, mobilised as both witness and judge. The public has become Big Brother. We are far from the Panopticon, where visibility equals power and control... It is as if the controlling power had become internalised, and human beings, no longer victims of image, were inexorably transformed into images themselves. (Baudrillard 2008b: 39-40)

Inherent in this transition from discipline to control is a change in how the masses are perceived, an inversion of the presumption of their passivity:

The strategy of power has long seemed founded on the apathy of the masses. The more passive they were, the more secure it was. But this logic is only characteristic of the bureaucratic and centralist phase of power [Foucault’s disciplinary society]. And it is this which today turns against it... That is why it seeks to reverse its strategies: from passivity to participation, from silence to speech... Everywhere the masses are encouraged to speak, they are urged to live socially, electorally, organisationally, sexually, in participation, in festival, in free speech. (Baudrillard 1983: 23) [emphasis added]

So, if “governmentality”, as Foucault called it, is so perfectly internalised, where the desire to go unseen is an antisocial one, so that the government need not exist, it is in this sense that the type of power Foucault described in Discipline and Punish, for Baudrillard, no longer exists. Many years later in the posthumous The Agony of Power (2010), Baudrillard makes the distinction between domination and hegemony and, while he does not cite Foucault, it is clear that Foucault’s analysis of contractual power falls into the category of domination, for here there is a clear distinction between dominators and dominated. Hegemony, by contrast, begins with ‘the disappearance of the dual, personal, agonistic domination for the sake of integral reality... where there are no longer dominators or dominated’ (2010: 33). Foucault would later refine his analysis of power into biopolitics (2003 & 2008), gesturing both to the dispersal and effacement of the traditional coordinates of power in liberalism and its internalisation, in fact moving closer to Baudrillard’s assessment in Forget Foucault (see Noys 2012). Within this context of a control society, biopolitics are modes of governance, or governmentality, that normalise and regulate, rather than discipline. They ‘establish an equilibrium, maintain an average, establish a sort of homeostasis, and compensate for variations within [a] general population’ (Foucault 2003: 246). The question is, then, how does the work of the negative function within this amorphous power structure in light of what I have called repressive participation, and what Zizek critiques as the anti-utopian politics of liberalism (2004 & 2010)? Biopolitical thinkers Hardt and Negri advocate desertion, rather than sabotage, a deterritorialising nomadism (clearly inspired by Deleuze) when faced with forces of oppression so dispersed that one cannot even identify a common enemy, so that ‘desertion and exodus are powerful forms of class struggle within and against imperial postmodernity’ (2001: 213).

This is the strategy adopted in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Truffaut’s film adaptation. Here the wall-to-wall circuit functions much like the Orwellian telescreen. But in ways different from Nineteen Eighty-Four, it has become domesticated rather than institutionalised. It is the highest ambition to have all four walls in one’s living room converted into screens: ‘why it’d be just like this room wasn’t ours at all, but all kinds of exotic people’s rooms’ (28). The central narrative of the novel is familiar to the totalitarian topos in which books are outlawed and burned upon discovery3 (often with their possessors) and people as addicted to sleeping pills as to television. As dystopic as this might seem, this society was in fact willed into existence by the public, rather than the product of an hierarchical, disciplinary power structure.

IV. Tolerating Utopia

[C]onsensus as the degree zero of democracy... the New World Order will be both consensual and televisual (Baudrillard 1995: 85).

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has been the subject of various interpretations. The burning of books is obviously redolent of Nazi Germany, but the prevailing opinion is that it is a response to censorship in general, and to McCarthyism in America. In a 2007 interview, Bradbury maintained that the central theme of the book is a waning interest in literature due to television (Johnston 2007). Were we to leave things at that we would have a superficial, nostalgic and bibliophilic understanding, rather than a socio-critical one. Unfortunately, as we shall see, it is hard to fault Bradbury’s self-assessment, given the ending of the novel. There is certainly an inherent critique of censorship, but it is a particularly ironic one that, at the very least, satirises political correctness. However, I will argue for a more contemporary reading that, with reference to biopolitical control societies, takes these two texts as satires of the tolerance characteristic of postpolitical liberalism.

This is the fundamental departure from the disciplinary dystopia advanced in Nineteen Eighty-Four: in Fahrenheit 451, ‘the culprit... is not the state -- it’s the people. Unlike Orwell’s 1984, in which the government uses television screens to indoctrinate citizens’ (Johnston 2007), this is not so in the society Bradbury depicts. Rather, it was in the pursuit of democracy, equality, and tolerance that the need to burn books arose: ‘It didn’t come from the government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time’ (65). On the one hand, Bradbury’s bibliophilia is alleviated by a satirising of liberal humanism: ‘We must all be alike’, says Beatty, ‘Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy’ (65). Each individual must have the symbolic recognition and specificity of their own identity, each a political category in its own right, so much so that it becomes vulnerable at the level of representation: ‘Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it’ (66). The point is put more forcefully by the Captain of the Firemen (Cyril Cusack) in Truffaut’s adaptation:

Robinson Crusoe, the negros didn’t like that because of his Man Friday; and Nietzsche, ah, Nietzsche, the Jews didn’t like Nietzsche. Here’s a book about lung cancer: all the cigarette smokers got into a panic, so for everyone’s peace of mind we burn it... It’s no good, Montag. We’ve all got to be alike. They only way for everyone to be happy is for everyone to be made equal, so we must burn the books, Montag, all the books [he holds up a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf].

But does Fahrenheit 451 offer us a view of the masses, and how are they understood in a post-disciplinary control society? Each individual is raised to the highest power, so much so that there is an ironic reversion into social massification. And this was Baudrillard’s crucial insight: ‘It feels so good to disappear among the masses! ...A dream opportunity for the individual to disappear and yet still be able to lament his alienation and his lost subjectivity. Isn’t that just what the masses were invented for? Because we did invent them’ (2003: 57). These are not Raymond Williams’s masses, who famously said that ‘there are in fact no masses, there are only ways of seeing people as masses’ (1963: 289). ‘It needs to be said’, he wrote of Orwell, ‘however bitterly, that if the tyranny of 1984 ever finally comes, one of the major elements of the ideological preparation will have been just this way of seeing “the masses”’ (1984/2010: 61). Rather, the masses afford the individual symbolic alienation, a method of retreating into the social whilst simultaneously preserving and affirming one’s individuality.

Hardt and Negri’s counter-concept to the masses is the multitude, an ambiguous concept (although no less than the masses) grounded in the rhetoric of Foucauldian biopolitics and Deleuzian micro-politics: ‘The multitude is a multiplicity of all... singular differences’ (2004: xiv). In order to critique it, Hardt and Negri retain the classic socio-critical conception of the masses as sublimated and homogenised by alienation: ‘one should not say that different social subjects make up the masses. The essence of the masses is indifference: all differences are submerged and drowned in the masses’ (2004: xv). The multitude, however, as it finds itself within the control society, is able to harness the power of the diversification of subjectivity and social mobility that a control society both promotes and relies -- an affirmation of the micro-politics of Deleuze and Gauttari’s Anti-Oedipus (2009). ‘Insofar as the multitude in neither an identity (like the people) nor uniform (like that masses)’, Hardt and Negri write, ‘the integral differences of the multitude must discover the common that allows them to communicate and act together’ (Hardt & Negri 2004: xv). In short, because the multitude is required to participate more and more in society (as opposed to being disciplined or sublimated), they are afforded an agency unavailable to the masses4. But it is clear in Fahrenheit 451 that the multitude has had its moment with the establishment of an equitable society united by tolerance; a ‘democratic nihilism’ and ‘virtual glory of everyone in terms of the absence of merit itself’, Baudrillard writes of reality TV in Telemorphosis, which is apt here: ‘On one hand, it is the end of democracy, by the extinction of any qualification or merit whatsoever, but on the other hand, it is the result of an even more radical democracy on the basis of the beatification of the man without qualities’ (2011: 26).

Kellner writes that ‘[d]efenders... see television as promoting a democratic, egalitarian, populist culture; critics argue that it is creating a vast cultural wasteland... as promoting ideological domination and manipulation of the masses by dominant social groups and forces (1990: 2). But in a control society such as Fahrenheit 451, this becomes a false distinction, since both are simultaneously true. Does this make both the novel and film anti-utopias rather than dystopias? On the one hand, they satirise the fundamental utopian impulses -- equality, tolerance, freedom from persecutiom -- by taking them to ludic extremes, so that the result is an inversive utopia rather than dystopia. Politics becomes so sanitised and accommodating that the result is a totalitarian democracy that satirises the individualistic, liberal politics of tolerance that strives for utopian ideals at the expense of the real (for Baudrillard and Zizek) and for the social totality (for Jameson):

We should abandon the democratic illusion of imagination or intelligence in power... The naive utopias of the 1960s must be revised: “Imagination in Power!” -- “Take your dreams for reality!” -- “No limits to pleasure!” All of these slogans were realised (or hyperrealised) in the development of the system. (Baudrillard 2010: 46-47)

Zizek and Baudrillard make similar points here. In a tolerant, liberal society, Zizek observes that ‘[e]verything is permitted, you can enjoy everything, but deprived of the substance that makes it dangerous’; a ‘revolution without revolution’ (2004: 507) that accurately summarises the ending to Fahrenheit 451.

In this sense, utopia, anti-utopia and dystopia exist on a Mobius strip, where to achieve utopia is to exhaust it so much so that it implodes into one of opposites. The unavoidable conclusion is that it is not a critique of censorship, despite this being a common interpretation, and the obvious parallel between the book burning as a general leitmotif for totalitarianism is thoroughly misleading. Rather, Fahrenheit 451 is a critique of pure tolerance: the Firemen burn books to maintain a social and political equilibrium founded upon the upholding of social and racial differences, and anti-intellectualism in the guise of a progressive social program. It is, in fact, what Marcuse called “repressive tolerance":

the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood. This pure toleration of sense and nonsense is justified by the democratic argument that nobody, neither group nor individual, is in possession of the truth and capable of defining what is right and wrong, good and bad (1969: 108).

As in Orwell, this too is a story about the impoverishment of language and interpersonal communication, but its topography is that of the suburb. The death of the protagonist, Montag, is faked in a live telescreen broadcast, and the novel concludes with him adopting a pastoral fantasy with other societal drop-out bibliophiles, each abandoning their name for the title of a book and committing it to memory for future posterity. It is a mawkish and coddling note on which to end what is, with this exception, a critique of contemporary repressive participation and internalised surveillance that renders superfluous Big Brother who, after all, might not exist even in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Unfortunately, Truffaut retained this ending in his film adaptation, with its maudlin musical score and nomadic bibliophiles -- the very same ‘mindless good taste’ said to be in the outlawed books5. There is some irony in a film adaptation of Bradbury’s hostile critique of technology, since it is one that is also critical of the process of adaptation. Captain Beatty describes (in an almost Baudrillardian fashion) the enthusiastic dumbing down of art and politics:

Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending [...] Classics cut to fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column [...] Do you see? Out of the nursery into college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more [...] Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! (61-62)

Form is as important as content here. Bradbury’s novel is both a negative critique of technology, and a justification of the ennobling qualities of literature. While the conclusion is politically unsatisfying, the broad claim is for the posterity of thought itself, and it suggests that mass visual media are frequently incompatible with this ambition -- hence, a similitude between the claim the novel makes and its form. Truffaut brought a New-Wave aesthetic to the film, and the various jump cuts and superimpositions have a Brechtian alienation effect. While formally self-aware, the film is in fact much more concerned, at least initially, with television. This is signalled in the opening shots: still photographs of television antennae atop suburban homes, the camera cutting tighter each time so that they dominate the screen. Indeed, effacement and proximity -- the truth being obscured by looking too closely -- is one of the overriding themes, as bibliophiles stash their forbidden books behind hollowed out television sets, and Montag’s (Oskar Werner) “death” is, as in the novel, a live televisual event.

The irony is that these formal devices are absorbed by their representation of television. The public participate in live teleplays, are given lines to read and deliver to the telescreen in a real-time ‘kitchen family fix’. But, unlike in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the public here are informed that what they see and take part in is illusory. The presenter tells them, ‘Naturally, in what you are about to see, any similarity with the truth or with real life, would be purely coincidental. Do bear that in mind’. But Linda (Julie Christie), happily ignores this in favour of social inclusion. The bilateralism of the telescreen (unlike that of Nineteen Eighty-Four) renders useless any distinction between scopic domination (the seen and the unseen) and between lived social relations and the illusory televisual representations: ‘the authoritarian repressive apparatus... wore itself out by forcefully diminishing the contradiction between the reality principle and the pleasure principle’ (Baudrillard 2006: 44). Linda gets a line in a play. She sits before the telescreen, script in hand (as do 200,000 other Lindas, Montag quips). The play freezes and a flashing light gives her cue, she hesitates and misses her chance, so the teleplay assumes the consent her line was intended to provide, and continues without her. It is a type of Pavlovian visual conditioning, and she gets it right the next time, and the teleplay rewards her: ‘Linda, you’re absolutely fantastic’. ‘I gave all the right answers!’, she beams. But the more individualism increases, the more it disappears into the virtual and social opulence of the masses. But how best to explain this phenomenon?

Voluntary servitude is a paradoxical statement because servitude is not experienced passively, but actively – after all, it is willed. And anything that is willed could be unwilled. People rather desire their own oppression. Obviously, the must get something in return: identity, privilege, security, even pleasure, however perverse (Lotringer 2010: 28)6.

While camaraderie had to be enforced by the Ministry of Love in Orwell’s dystopia, and the Proles are addressed and address each other as “brother” and “sister", in Truffaut’s film, the telescreen addresses its public as “cousins”. Linda says that ‘when you have your second wall screen it’s like having your family grow out all around you’. To maintain the social equilibrium Linda eventually betrays her book-reading husband to the Firemen in favour of her virtual television family.

The utopian principles of tolerance and equality here intersect with what Zizek calls our current ‘postpolitical liberal-permissive society’, in which the ‘celebration of “minorities” and “marginal” is the predominant majority position’ (2010: 49), and one that masks new forms of biopolitical domination: ‘There are two topics that determine today’s liberal tolerant attitude toward Others: the respect of Otherness, openness towards it, and the obsessive fear of harassment – in short, the Other is okay insofar as its presence is not intrusive... This is emerging as the central “human right” ...the right not to be harassed, to be kept at a safe distance from others’ (Zizek 2004: 508). Fahrenheit 451 calls into question the dialectic between identity and otherness, and ultimately satirises it, for what one gains from this dialectic is, ultimately, freedom from and protection against politics. Everyone must be free from persecution, free from harassment and criticism, so that all that remains are sanitised, ultimately narcissistic, individuals, indistinguishable from one another. Tolerance is actively policed , enforced even, and perceived intolerance is expunged. The teleplays and parlour families are the end point of this willed social engineering, not descended from a despotic, disciplinary regime, but arising from the masses themselves, always a stronger force than the media itself. Here the anti-drama of identity and difference is played out for all to see and take part.

And this is what makes the dystopian model advanced in Nineteen Eighty-Four the most enduring: as outside observers, domination is more bearable and piteous than complicity, for those who are complicit are bereft of alienation, and everyone is an accomplice. This again was Baudrillard’s reformulation of the masses as an implosive phenomenon, not a projection as they were for Williams, but a refuge. While Williams was charitable in his objections, Baudrillard’s observation mirror the very ambivalence of the masses: those who actually prefer media to messages: ‘you cannot say the masses are dupes, because there is no manipulation, no objective exploitation. It is more of a fundamental in the sense that everyone is to be finally integrated into the circuit’ (2005: 68).

Tom Whalen praises the film’s ending, and writes that ‘Linda wishes only to belong, not to be alone, and the only way to belong is to conform... How much of her vacuousness is she responsible for?’ (2007: 183). The public increasingly trade reality for social inclusion (dissenters are easily identified because their houses are free of television antennae) and the ambivalence of repressive participation by means of television is reflected in changes made in the adaptation: in the novel, Montag’s wife, Mildred, is addicted to sedatives, but in the film, Linda overdoses on a mixture of stimulants and sedatives, much like the telecreen which both vitalises and decerebrates, and Montag must read his stolen books by the light of the telescreen.

The question remains: how best to locate Fahrenheit 451 within the dystopian topoi? After all, for Deleuze and Guattari, utopia is ‘absolute deterritorialisation’ (1994: 100), and in both the novel and the film, the nomadic book people anticipate a time when their knowledge will once again be called on. For Jameson, utopias inevitably fail, indeed they fail by necessity,7 but he nevertheless insists that it is a mapping of a totalising principle. Lauren Hayhurst reaches a different conclusion: ‘Utopia cannot be considered to exist only on a large scale; indeed, it can be argued that on a large scale it can never exist. Utopia, is only possible on a local level. Large-scale utopia requires the use of dystopian methods because utopia is different for everyone’ (2010: 61). But does this concession not resign utopia to a micro-politics that mirrors the liberal “utopia” Zizek criticises? Moreover, it is hard to reconcile bibliophilia with the ultimately dissatisfying flight from power. Thus, it might be more worthwhile to disregard the ending, and focus on the inversive utopia; not because it satirises the utopian impulse per se, for this is, for Moylan, one of the more injurious effects of dystopian narrative, ‘all too easily been recruited into the ideological attack of authentic utopian expression: ...a sign of the very failure of utopia and consequently urge uneasy readers to settle for what is and cease their frustrating dreams of a better life’ (1986: 9). But the inversive utopia signals not entirely the foreclosure of the utopian impulse, but rather, by way of Baudrillardian provocation, and by testing the limitations of liberal tolerance, highlights the coopting of the utopian impulse that exists on a continuum between utopia and dystopia.

Sean McQueen is a PhD candidate in the School of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Monash University, Australia. His work is published in Science Fiction Film and Television, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Colloquy: text theory critique, and an article in Science Fiction Studies is forthcoming in 2014.



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1. I use the term inversive in the sense that Baudrillard uses it to describe the ‘more social than social’ masses: ‘a social that has absorbed all the inverse energies of the antisocial, of inertia, resistance and silence’ (2008a: 29).

2. Control societies are characterised by this ambivalence, so that Malane Busk writes: ‘Of course, this marks a liberation from the disciplinary repression and the claustrophobia of successive closures, but at the same time it takes away the possibilities of the small undisciplined (and somewhat subversive) “free spaces” in between two institutional compartments or in the breaking out from them... Today one can hardly leave anymore, only fall through the net’ (2001: 105).

3. Denis Hollier wrties that ‘Bradbury encapsulates Nazi cultural politics in a single image: book burnings’ (1996).

4. It is the simultaneously nomadic and socially integrated properties of Hardt and Negri’s multitude that Zizek criticises: ‘The fashionable notion of “multitude” is insufficient precisely insofar as it cuts across this divide [of included and excluded]: there is a multitude within the system and the multitude of those excluded, and to simply encompass them within the scope of the same notion amounts to the same obscenity as equating starvation with dieting’ (2004: 514).

5. Nicholas Harrison, by contrast, considers the book people’s ‘radical dissent’ politically courageous, because they are ‘beyond the bounds of society, through the very act of reading’ (2001: 56-57).

6. Deleuze and Guattari framed this question differently in terms of desire: ‘Why does desire its own repression, how can it desire its own repression? The masses certainly do not passively submit to power; nor do they “want” to be repressed, in a kind of masochistic hysteria; nor are they tricked by an ideological lure’ (2004: 236-237).

7. Jameson considers this the more general nature of science fiction: that it
‘succeed[s] by failure’ by ‘bring[ing] home, in local and determinate ways and the a fullness of concrete detail, our constitutional inability to imagine Utopia itself: and this is, not owing to any individual failure of imagination but as the result of the systemic, cultural and ideological closure of which we are in all one way or another prisoners’ (2007: 289).