Of the famous dystopian literatures of the 20th century Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 offers perhaps one of the more interesting suggestions to the historic causality of censorship. While subtle hints of ignorance is power for a tyrannical government is mentioned by some characters ala 1984, most of the text instead suggests that in the dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451 that censorship is not so much intentional as it is a side-effect of a postmodern predilection toward, as Frederic Jameson notes, a cultural waning of affect and a world of signs without signifiers, a pastiche of histories without meaning (Jameson, 2001).
The books being censored then, in Fahrenheit 451’s dystopian America, then have less of an impact on the society than the drama and entertainment created from their discovery and destruction and that more than the censorship therein this blissful ignorance is the dystopian element in Bradbury’s novel.
Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopia for the intellectual. Within the story is presented an (assumed) United States where people live reasonably happy lives. From everything we see in the novel they are well fed, live in wonderful fireproof houses, have jobs, families and plenty of entertainment. Yet, as main character Guy Montag dwells on, people kill themselves still and a constant threat of war seems to loom in the background of the novel.
Yet there is never any discussion of why, and no matter how many “picture walls” or radios are turned on throughout the course of the book no more information is ever truly recovered as to how or why the country finds them in this mess. Yet no one outside Montag and a handful of outsiders seem to think there is any problem with this.
People in Montag’s world seem encouraged to live a life of leisure. Montag’s boss, Beatty, talks endlessly about sports and his coworkers play hand after hand of poker.
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Montag’s wife, Mildred, is addicted to the “picture wall”, or television, and is constantly begging for a fourth and final wall to be installed. Violence as entertainment, even, seems to in some way be supported generally by society as Mildred seems to take pleasure at one point from hitting small animals with her automobile.
Yet there also seems to be an urge and encouragement of sameness, as echoes in many other works of dystopian speculative fiction. Montag notes of his colleagues, “These men were all mirror images of himself! Were all firemen picked then for their looks as well as their proclivities?” (Bradbury, 1991) His friend early in the story, Clarisse, falls victim to this sameness as she seems pushed out of public school because she doesn’t “mix.” (22) Mildred, although a seemingly perfect member of society also seems to suffer from the strain of sameness as Montag notices a body strained by dieting.
When we think of censorship, especially in the context of dystopian narratives, we often think of an oppression of knowledge by the government in order to control the proletariat. Yet in several sections of the novel Bradbury makes allusions that the government didn’t censor the book initially, but rather the public abandoned the book and the government got rid of it as an after thought. In his history lesson on the fireman, Beatty explains:
The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! […] Authors, full of evil thoughts, luck up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. […] But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three dimensional sex magazines of course. […] 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! (47)
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Beatty explains that a globalized consumer market and an increasing demand to be entertained with bigger and better products is what killed the book and the government made firemen “custodians of our peace of mind” (48) to prevent unhappiness. Jean Baudrillard discusses homogeneity in consumer society as “where everything is taken over and superseded in the ease and translucidity of an abstract ‘happiness,’ defined solely by the resolution of tensions.” (Baudrillard 2004)
This seems to fit well with the construction of media and hyperconsumerism in Montag’s world, as all things in his world seem to exist for the purpose of happiness and entertainment. Baudrillard’s description of the consumer experience could easily come from any number of facets of Montag’s life:
Work, leisure, nature and culture: all these things which were once dispersed, which once generated anxiety and complexity in real life […] these activities which were more or less irreducible one to another, are now at last mixed and blended, climatized and homogenized in the same sweeping vista of perpetual shopping. (30)
The sadness and dystopia of Montag’s reality is not that the books are banned, but rather, as Montag’s ally Faber notes, “the public itself stopped reading of its own accord.” Montag’s society believes books are boring, difficult and bring only confusion and unhappiness and are so blindly obsessed with the consumption of happiness that even if books were available they would probably be ignored.
If we think of a dystopia as a world where people have no interest in educating themselves or learning about things that may potentially make them unhappy, a world where image and a pastiche of history are all that are important, then we may very well have to worry that our own society is becoming a kind of dystopia. Of course books are still readily available, but studies show that Americans are taking less time to read and that reading comprehension skills are greatly suffering. (Brown, 2008) As Beatty describes we too are
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craving faster, more flashy and more dramatic entertainment. Internet phenomena like Twitter, where users are limited to messages of no more than 140 characters, and Youtube, where the average video is 5 minutes, are outstanding examples of our ever shortening attention spans. As a society we are looking ever conspicuous consumers, as Frederic Jameson says, on an unending quest for bigger, faster, better. (Jameson 2001)
Unfortunately in a post-Bush America there’s a lot to be said that we have entered a dystopia. We are a country possessed by fear and worry, where children who, like Clarisse, “don’t mix” are being pushed out as safety risks. Our activities and interests are being more carefully monitored by authorities than they have ever been.
In the UK, fears of future terrorist activities have caused authorities to create advertisements encouraging neighbors and family to report suspicious activity, in very similar ways to that of Fahrenheit 451. (Doctorow, 2009) If we think pessimistically on such events it is very easy to think we are in a doomed and dire situation like in the book and, as Faber says, “the whole skeleton needs reshaping.”
Bradbury obviously wrote Fahrenheit 451 out of a growing concern that the world he lived in was being overtaken by a world of people who chose pleasure over the burden knowledge can bring. He wrote it hoping that things could be turned around. I suppose he might be horrified at many of the new ways people are wasting their time, the new distractions that keep us from educational entertainment. However, the pursuit of knowledge continues on, albeit in sometimes altered ways.
The book may be going out of style but knowledge continues on in forms on the internet, is discussed on the radio and (sometimes) television. While there are dystopian elements to our world there is still hope for intellectualism and literacy. Bradbury’s book stands as a warning to heed to prevent ignorance and cultural destruction.
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Baudrillard, Jean (2004). The consumer society: Myths and Structures.
London, England: Sage Publications.
Bradbury, Ray (1991). Fahrenheit 451. New York, New York: Ballantine Books.
Brown, Joseph (2008).”As the constitution says”: Distinguishing documents in Ray
Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Explicator. 67, 55-58.
Doctorow, Cory (Mrch 24, 2009). Boing Boing. Retrieved April 15, 2009, from London cops
reach new heights of anti-terror poster stupidity Web site: http://www.boingboing.net/2009/03/24/london-cops-reach-ne.html
Jameson, Frederic (2001). Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism.
Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.