I’ve been thinking about this all the more as I have been looking at Brave New World, lately. In fact, the review I just did of Comfortably Numb, a book that does a nice job of muckraking in the druggy ventricles of the Prozac Nation, begins with a Brave New World quote about soma.
Flipping through Brave New World again, it is funny how certain things startle the innocent, 2008 reader. For instance, this marvelous prediction of our computer game culture:
“The Director and his students stood for a short time watching a game of Centrifugal Bumble-puppy. Twenty children were grouped in a circle round a chrome steel tower. A ball thrown up so as to land on the platform at the top of the tower rolled down into the interior, fell on a rapidly revolving disk, was hurled through one or other of the numerous apertures pierced in the cylindrical casing, and had to be caught
"Strange," mused the Director, as they turned away [from some children playing a game], "strange to think that even in Our Ford's day most games were played without more apparatus than a ball or two and a few sticks and perhaps a bit of netting. imagine the folly of allowing people to play elaborate games which do nothing whatever to increase consumption. It's madness. Nowadays the Controllers won't approve of any new game unless it can be shown that it requires at least as much apparatus as the most complicated of existing games."
And, of course, there is the hypnopaedia, the sentences that are infinitely repeated by the inhabitants of the World Society that have taken the place of truth – which is pretty much the way elections are now conducted. It is a hypnopaedic orgy, with the winner condemned to smilingly utter hypnopaedia until the moment comes when they haul him – or, perhaps, this time, her – away to the Presidential library.
Happiness as a social criteria is naturally utopic. What Maurice Halbwachs wrote, in the Working Class and the Level of Life (1912), about class consciousness points to why, on each class level of the capitalist societies that arose in the nineteenth century, there was a corresponding utopic moment:
… by definition, there are classes only in a society that is hierarchized to some degree, and under whatever form that takes. To be conscious of itself, for a class, means to recognize at what social level it finds itself, and consequently to represent itself by relation to what kind of privileges, what rights, what advantages are measured out to these levels and that hierarchy is determined. Every representation of class implies a double judgment of value: the estimation of the most important good or goods and the most appreciated in the society considered – the estimation of the degree to which it is permitted to the members of the class to satisfy the needs that relate to them….
Now lets seek what are common to all these references [to different supreme goods in different societies], and if it is possible to express that whole set of judgment on the value of diverse activities and goods by means of one general formula. Whatever the type of society that we consider, the ideal, the supreme good, is without doubt a specific form of social life, but it is, at the same time, the most intense social life that one can imagine (se représenter). »
Halbwachs, here, is still operating in what Lukacs would call the bourgeois domain of sociology – that is, he assumes that all classes throughout history, no matter what the forms of production, have an equal chance of being conscious. There’s a strong Marxist tendency to claim that pre-capitalist societies were, for the most part, sunk in apathy – the idiocy of rural life. After all, this is why capitalism has a double aspect – both as a system of exploitation and as a system of emancipation.
However, the most intense social life that one can imagine is certainly the portal to utopian dreams and dystopian nightmares, depending of course on how you turn in the dream.