Sunday, July 10, 2005


Language and culture in a dystopian society

In Oryx and Crake, Atwood's warnings to the dangers of science and technology getting out of control are made very clear to the reader. Communities being controlled by high-tech companies and kept in compounds as if they were rats in a lab. "Skin-related biotechnologies," genetic-engineering, and the growing of human organs for transplants are all part of the world Atwood describes. These are warnings we have heard before and must certainly heed but the warning that hits home for me is the heads-up on our lose of language and culture.

Once Jimmy/Snowman finds himself in a wasteland left after a fast-acting super-virus consumes humanity in just a few weeks, he has plenty of time to contemplate on the lose of language and reading. His passion for language began when he was in college where he starts compiling lists of words no longer used: "He'd developed a strangely tender feeling toward such words, as if they were children abandoned in the woods and it was his duty to rescue them." He wants to "Hang on to the words, . . .the odd words, the old words, the rare ones. Valance. Norn. Serendipity. Pibroch. Lubricious." Snowman knows how easy they words can disappear, "When they're gone out of his head, these words, they'll be gone, everywhere, forever. As if they had never been." The words, like the people from Snowman's earlier life, will be lost forever if he does not hold on to them. He holds onto these words as if they were his very soul. He even thinks of keeping a journal but who would be able to read it, ""Any reader he can possibly imagine is in the past."

Snowman bemoans the separation of body, mind, and soul:

"When did the body first set out on its own adventures? . . .after having ditched its old traveling companions, the mind and the soul, for whom it had once been considered a mere corrupt vessel or else a puppet acting out their dramas for them, or else bad company, leading the other two astray. It must have got tired of the soul's constant nagging and whining and the anxiety-driven intellectual web-spinning of the mind, distracting it whenever it was getting its teeth into something juicy or its fingers into something good. It had dumped the other two back there somewhere, leaving them stranded in some damp sanctuary or stuffy lecture hall while it made a beeline for the topless bars, and it had dumped culture along with them: music and painting and poetry and plays. Sublimation, all of it; nothing but sublimation, according to the body. Why not cut to the chase?"

The "chase" being instant gratification through sexual exploitation and violence perhaps? It seems Snowman and Crake spent all their leisure time satisfying their bodily urges and ignoring their souls and minds. They strive to create a culture of their own by taking pieces from the past (using words such as "bogus" and "awesome") but are unable to truly create a culture that satisfies body, mind and soul. Similar to Vic in A Boy and His Dog, Snowman and Crake have embraced a body culture: "But the body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its romance."

Can technology lead to a loss of individuality and culture and create humans that are so ruled by their bodily urges? Will our obsession with technology lead to the lose of own language or will it create a new one? In George Orwell's, 1984, some believed "the destruction of language [was] a beautiful thing," when in reality the destruction of language represents a loss of our ability to communicate, and a loss of our humanity.

Some would argue that language is always in flux, always in a process of "loosing" and "gaining." Think of the rich English Shakespeare wrote, and compare it with later English. Yet surely people were equally human, and perhaps even more humane, in the 18th and 19th centuries? That is not to say that we don't experience such change as loss, because of course we do. But really, if each generation were declining as much as the previous generation maintained, humanity would have gone back into the trees awhile ago.
I agree "that language is always in flux" and each generation brings its own lexicon. Whether it is the prose of Shakespeare or the rhyme of a rapper, language is only the basis for our communication. It is when we are unable to communicate with each other that we see a loss of humanity.
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