Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”: Technology’s Totalitarian Tether
Bradbury’s Exploration of Oppression in “Fahrenheit 451”
Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, originally published in 1953, is a dystopian novel that imagines a world in which the prevalence of television and audiovisual media of all kinds has become a means of oppression. The written book has been banned, and with this taboo comes a number of various consequences. In part, the banning of the book helps to reinforce the compulsion to watch television and media prescribed by the government.
Society’s Control by Technology and Governance
In this essay, I will examine how Bradbury depicts in this way a society controlled as much by its technology as by its governing body. The government uses technology to enforce a totalitarian regime on the imagined society, controlling its subjects by gorging them on fast-paced and often meaningless information and indoctrinating people against creativity and intellectualism.
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In order to demonstrate this thesis, I will look at a number of different elements of the text, including the importance of the distinction between natural and unnatural objects in the text, the destruction of the individual, the storage and power of information, the distortion of truth and the indoctrination of the collective. Through each of these themes, it will become clear that this text depicts the totalitarian rule of a culture that is controlled by technology. Furthermore, I will show how Bradbury uses technology to underpin fears of violence with more subtle forms of control through the use of information technology.
Human Disconnection from Nature
The first of these themes to be explored, and possibly the most prominent in the text, is that of the natural. Throughout Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury contrasts natural with unnatural imagery in order to show how humanity prevails despite technology, but also how technology serves to corrupt and even obscure the presence of nature in society. For example, in one of Clarisse’s early interactions with Montag, she says, “Bet I know something else you don’t. There’s dew on the grass in the morning”. Bradbury then writes that Montag’s response to this is that “he suddenly couldn’t remember if he had known this or not, and it made him quite irritable.”
As Montag serves, at the beginning of the text, as a prime example of how this society has corrupted individuals, this total lack of knowledge of the natural world serves to show the extent to which society has become disconnected from nature. This passage also serves the double purpose of demonstrating how this further affects people’s sense of understanding. Not only does Montag probably know nothing of the dew on the grass, but he “couldn’t remember if he had known this.”
Power Dynamics through Information Exchange
This shows that the prescribed necessity of technology has disconnected humans from nature to the extent that not only are people unaware of the world around them, but they no longer have the capacity to be aware of what they are aware of. Information technology has essentially begun to replace even personal memory, allowing the government to take control, through the use of technology, of how these memories are replaced and supplemented by the information being constantly supplied externally. Speaking to the disjunction between the natural and unnatural in Fahrenheit 451, McGivern notes that “Throughout Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury uses the imagery of hands, making them significant reflectors of conscience.” In this way, the emphasis is placed back on bodies and the natural human state in how decisions are made and how people act rather than on the information produced by the government and relayed through machines.
A Clash: Individual vs. Collective Identity
Indeed, it is this very conflict between the natural and the unnatural in Fahrenheit 451 that demonstrates and ignites the conflict between the individual and the collective. Throughout the text, the totalitarian government regime imposes through technology an ideology that effectively seeks to undermine the existence of the free-thinking individual. As Adorno and Horkheimer observe, “Human beings are made identical to one another through isolation within the compulsively controlled collectivity.” This erasure of the individual reflects the erasure of knowledge: just as individuals are made part of a collective system and thereby obscured, knowledge is not eradicated by a lack but rather a superfluence of information.
This ideological erasure of the individual is epitomized by the reasoning of the regime: “We must all be alike. Not everyone is born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone is made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.” In this way, the individual is eradicated by its sameness to every other.
Reevaluating Reality and Truth in a Dystopian Society
Bradbury takes this further by also making the individual responsible for the discipline that takes place in society. This applies both to the presence of informants throughout the text – individuals willing to betray even their closest friends and family for the sake of the regime, as often occurs under totalitarian rule – and also to the willingness of individuals to surrender themselves for transgressions. The most poignant example of this is Faber, the scholar who first helps Montag with learning to engage with books and appreciate their value. Having clearly and irreparably revealed his true loyalties to Montag, Faber makes no attempt to protect himself from the totalitarian sense of discipline but instead makes a kind of understated sacrifice of himself to it. Bradbury writes, “Faber, with a certain trembling, wrote his address on a slip of paper. ‘For your file,’ he said, ‘in case you decide to be angry with me.’”
By offering his address in this way, Faber is making clear the fact that despite literally rebelling against the rules of the regime, he is in no way an archetypal rebel. The fact that it is written information that he offers is also symbolic of the way that information is transactional in the book and, further, how it represents the transference of power. This is emphasized by the fact that “the firemen are rarely necessary. The public stopped reading of its own accord” because “people are having fun.” This self-condemnation shows how information technology is used to distract people from reality and control their understanding of reality, a subject that will be returned later in this essay.
The Role of Cities in Dystopian Narratives
In order to understand how information is used to wield power in Fahrenheit 451, it is worth noting how the text works in the context of the city narrative. Indeed, many – if not most – dystopian fiction take place in heavily populated areas. This is particularly significant for Bradbury’s text, as the extreme sense of interconnectivity, collectivity, and anonymity in a city context combine to highlight and exaggerate the effects of technology. Bradbury himself offers an analogy that may be of use here, as he cites the legend of Hercules and Antaeus, “whose strength was incredible so long as he stood firmly on the earth… when he was held, rootless, in mid-air, by Hercules, he perished easily.” In the same way, as technology creates a sense of rootlessness by removing humans from the natural, so too does the city context suspend the collective “rootless, in mid-air,” as the urban culture removes people from nature.
The Overwhelming Effects of Technology on Society
The similarities between the effects of the city and the effects of technology are also seen in the intense relay of information offered by both. Simmel noted that “the mental life of city dwellers features an intensification of nervous stimulation, denied the beauty of nature or such minimal human consolations as simple politeness and neighborliness.” Both aspects of this can be seen to be exacerbated under the totalitarian regime of Fahrenheit 451. The “intensification of nervous stimulation,” in particular, is a prevalent feature of the technology used to control society in the text. Technology pervades every aspect of personal and public life, with streams of information even being used as a way of boring oneself to sleep. The implication of this is that nervous stimulation is being overused to the extent at which it begins to numb, rather than stimulate, the senses.
This kind of attitude to overstimulation can be seen in the superfluous culture described throughout the book. For example, this is shown in the passage, “More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and super organize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience. Highways are full of crowds going somewhere, somewhere, nowhere, nowhere.” This epitomizes the effect of technology on the human psyche. The first sentence itself encapsulates this experience.
The superfluous, unspecified “more” shows the hungry consumer culture that demands overstimulation, while the emphasis on “group spirit” describes the process of becoming a collective rather than individual culture. Furthermore, the word “fun” is ironically used as it denotes distraction rather than freedom. The phrase “and you don’t have to think” is self-explanatory, as technology provides so much information that the mind is proven to be redundant, but the ensuing “eh?” is particularly poignant as it demands agreement more than opinion. The phrase “you don’t have to think, eh?” implies a passive response, providing ‘fact’ and assuming that the information will be understood and absorbed.
Information Control: Power, Creativity, and Memory in “Fahrenheit 451”
In this way, the transference of information acts as a symbol of the transference of power throughout the novel. Not only does technology serve to eradicate free-thinking, as explained above, but the elimination of books removes creative and intellectual power. Book burning has been described as “the control of ideas by the destruction of knowledge,” showing how the burning of books, as such a central theme of Fahrenheit 451, is representative of the controlling nature of the regime. Furthermore, it is not only a question of the existence of knowledge but of its storage.
While technological storage of information is permitted, books are not. This restricts the sense of creativity in the novel and removes much of the intellectual aspect of reading and writing, as it appears that informational transactions become more a means for immediate communication than storage. The idea of stored information in books also implies the opportunity to dwell and ruminate upon what lies inside, while the overstimulation of technology does not allow for this.
Perception of Truth: Books vs. Technology in “Fahrenheit 451”
Wherever the transaction of knowledge or information is involved, it is important to ask who controls this information and, further, what their power then becomes over reality. Throughout Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury repeatedly comes back to the idea of truth and reality, interrogating instances of supposed reality and confronting his characters with different possibilities of truth. For example, it is worth noting that one of the major arguments for the banning of books in this society is that they are deemed untrue. Mildred says, “The books say nothing! Nothing you can teach or believe. They’re about non-existent people, figments of imagination if they’re fiction. And if they’re no-fiction, it’s worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another’s gullet. You come away lost.”
This critique of books is clearly one that has been planted in the minds of collective society by the government and offers only one possible truth. The troubling nature of the ban is not essentially this argument behind it – that books are either untrue or combative – but the fact that this argument is used to restrict the ability of individuals to disagree. By banning works of fiction, creativity is restricted, while the ability to argue or hold an opinion of one’s own is hindered by the elimination of non-fiction.
What is also troubling, then, is how the function of books in society is replaced by prescriptive technology. Again, arguing why books are misleading – and indeed, immoral – objects, it is argued that “You can shut them, say, ‘Hold on a moment’… But who has ever torn himself from the claw that encloses you when you drop a seed in a TV parlor? It grows you any shape it wishes! It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is the truth. Books can be beaten down by reason.”
Reality’s Distortion: Books, Technology, and Agency in “Fahrenheit 451”
In this way, Bradbury supposes that books, which are obviously and acceptably non-reality, are being supplanted by technology, which can approximate reality. While the indoctrinated argument here is clearly saying that detaching oneself from a book and reasoning with it is not beneficial, it should rather be noted that the exercise of reason is crucial to developing individuality and interrogating opinions for bias. Instead, Fahrenheit 451 offers a passive solution in which one is melded to a non-reality to the extent that it becomes a reality, blurring the lines between truth and fiction far more than a book ever could. Rather than being more true, this is arguably only more dangerous, as people lack the capacity to reason with technology such as this.
This danger is exemplified by the moment in which Montag, while on the run, experiences his own escape as though it is both real and unreal, as it is televised, and he experiences it through the medium of technology as well as with his own natural senses. Bradbury writes, “With an effort, Montag reminded himself again that this was no fictional episode to be watched on his run to the river. It was in actuality his own chess game he was witnessing, move by move.” Ironically, even upon this reminder that this is Montag’s own experience, Montag still describes his flight in terms of a “game” that he is “witnessing,” implying both distraction and a total lack of agency in this experience, due directly to overexposure to realistic fabrications of reality.
In reading Fahrenheit 451 in the current era, it is worth also briefly noting the importance of the resurgence of dystopian fiction. In what has been described as a “post-factual” world (Rodden), the relevance of technology to provide information – real or otherwise – is once again at the fore of society. The detachment between the natural and unnatural, the individual and collective, and the real and unreal all serve to provide a fractured image of society in which creative and intellectual thought has been abandoned. It is made clear throughout the text that this serves the purpose of a totalitarian government using overexposure to information to numb and collectivize its subjects in much the same way as other totalitarian regimes have used violence and fear.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. Ballantine Books, 1953.