Blog Post 1: Fahrenheit 451 (banned books)

We’ve discussed the mechanisms of control instituted in the plague ridden society of the late 17th century and the disciplinary society characterized by Bentham’s panopticon that Michel Foucault claims arose from it in the 18th century. Fahrenheit 451’s setting is similar in some ways to the world that Foucault writes about. In what ways might the “disciplinary society” have still been in play when the novel was published in the 1950s? Use the historical and contextual documents in pages 167-212 of Fahrenheit 451 to discuss how the novel’s dystopian society reflects its time period. What do Eller and Bradbury’s accounts tell us about the political, economic and cultural events and tendencies that the novel may have been informed by? Include at least one quote from the reading. If you have space, you can then also discuss any elements of Bradbury’s novel that still ring true today. Post your 200-250 word comment by 11:59 on Sunday 6/1 and come to class prepared to respond to two of your classmates’ comments.

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15 thoughts on “Blog Post 1: Fahrenheit 451 (banned books)

  1. Michel Foucalt writes about three different types of “disciplinary society”, one characterized by the crisis of a plague, one by the leper, and one by the Panopticon. During the time and place Fahrenheit 451 was published, a type of discipline was again being played in society that reflects that portrayed in the novel. This discipline was fear fueled by McCarthyism and events of the Cold War.
    On page 194 Ray Bradbury mentions the fear among Americans caused by Senator McCarthy. The tactics and ideology of Joseph McCarthy was tagged as “McCarthyism” which was stirred by his belief that communists have infiltrated American educational systems, American society, and the American government to plan an attack. McCarthyism caused Americans to be fearful of communists who may be living next door to them. It caused thousands of Americans to be accused of being communists. Many Americans lost employment or lost opportunity of employment, were arrested, or interrogated because of this fear instilled by McCarthyism. The fear of nearby communists or being accused of being communists disciplined and changed the nature of society in America. This scared and disciplined society is exemplified on page 192 in Ray Bradbury’s encounter with a policeman while he was out for a walk. “The policeman interrogated us, thinking that we were up to some terrible criminal activity; the whole logic of the situation was beyond him.” The troubled and disciplined state of America reflects the society in Fahrenheit 451 and probably fueled the creation of the novel.

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  2. Fahrenheit 451 was published during the time that marked the ending of World War II and Cold War era as the historical backdrop. People lived under a blanket of fear that was due to the sustained and rising tension of political powers between the Western and Eastern Blocs. During this time, the equivalent to Foucault’s mechanisms of control: plaque, leper, and panopticon, would be McCarthyism during the Cold War Period. The idea of being watched is the main mechanism for Foucault’s disciplinary society and also in the society of Fahrenheit 451. The idea behind McCarthyism was making accusations of being a communist without substantial evidence. As a result, the society lived in a state of fear and suspicion that their neighbors could be a communist. This idea was portrayed throughout Fahrenheit 451 as the discovery and destruction of books. On page 188, Bradbury explains how throughout the novel, if neighbors suspected someone with the possession of books, they would turn in the alarm and the firemen would come and set the fire. In the novel, there was no indication of finding evidence before the fire was started and this reflects McCarthyism. If people heard or suspected others of being a communist they would be accused and interrogated. On page 189, Bradbury mentions that “so much depends, of course, on what the individual hears….” In the novel, people listened to the Seashell radios and this is reflective of the things that people heard during the era of McCarthyism that further instigated fear and suspicion. This element of the novel in a sense still exists today because society today can easily be stirred with the abundance of information that we have ready access to.

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  3. Bentham’s Panopticon is the idea of a disciplined society where the installed fear of being watched encourages people whom do not fit in to fix and change their behavior in order to be accepted into the status quo. This took and modified ideas from the plague surveillance and the leper rejection to accommodate and accept everyone in society. Another form of a disciplined society was during the 1950’s “… when politics in the United States were going through a very difficult period, when we had Joseph McCarthy, the strange senator, on our hands, who was trying to browbeat is, and trying to scare us” (pg 194) This was when Ray Bradburys Fahrenheit 451 was being written. McCarthyism, or the fear of communism in America, was installed into the American people. This type of social disciplinary affected Americans by causing mass hysteria and paranoia. Neighbors, coworkers, friends, and/or family members could have been or were recklessly accused of being a communist. This parallels to the story where neighbors would suspect each other of having books and sound the alarm where the firemen would then come and set homes on fire, without really inspecting its substantiality beforehand. The unproved assumptions began with people acting out of fear due to not thinking for themselves because “so much depends, of course, on what the individual hears…”(pg 189) and when Bradbury saw the women walking with her husband and dog, oblivious to her surroundings because she was so engrossed in the radio, he knew that his science fiction story wasn’t far off from the future state of our society. His message was and still could be a foretelling warning to always question and think and feel so that we aren’t disciplined into oblivion.

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  4. The panopticon allows a society to conform together after being constantly surveyed. No one should be different and if they are, then they must change. This disciplinary society is seen in Fahrenheit 451. Their society is taught to be equal and not be different from each other. No one should be smarter than the other which is why books are banned. The book was written during a time of fear. During the Cold War, Americans lived in fear of nuclear warfare. Joseph McCarthy played a major role in enforcing fear throughout the country. On page 180 Eller writes, “Then in July 1953, the Soviet Union unexpectedly exploded its first hydrogen bomb, an ominous indicator that the West was no longer ahead of the Eastern Bloc superpower in terms of destructive potential.” Also on page 194 Bradbury writes, “Joseph McCarthy, the strange senator, on our hands, who was trying to browbeat us…” These two passages indicate the tough and fearful times that the country was in. In the real world, people lived in fear of people who were communist or soviet spies because they had the potential to destroy the world that they lived in. This is a similar theme in the book, as people feared those who read or had books, for their knowledge could destroy and change their world. In Foucault’s, Eller’s, and Bradbury’s story, being different was not acceptable. All three wanted a society of similarity, and difference and changed brought fear amongst themselves.

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  5. Bradbury writes this out of anger as he says on page 194. He was in a similar environment at the time so the book represents it well. He also mentions how he is a preventer of futures and since he was living in a scary time for him, he wanted to educate people so it does not happen. Bradbury was being proactive about the system and making sure that (even though it is a ridiculous story) never gets to that point. Being impulsive with his writing makes it more emotional. He seems to write on impulse a lot and because of that, he emphasizes the points that are threatening to him at moments at a time.

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  6. Ray Bradbury’s early renditions of his book “Fahrenheit 451” as “The Fireman” came at a time where technological advances in the US assumed supremacy. A motif Bradbury uses in Fahrenheit 451 is through his allusion of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” which ends with “Where ignorant armies clash by night.” This was seemingly so during the cold war era shortly after the conclusion of the second world war. In response to the United State’s development and test of a hydrogen bomb, the USSR demonstrated thermonuclear capabilities less than a year later. Even in his works in California, Senator McCarthy’s fear tactics played upon Foucault’s main points illustrated by the Panopticon. McCarthy’s warnings of the danger of communism and its infection in human society aimed to seed uncertainty and a sense of obedient fear in the people similar to the uncertainty of the Panopticon. In the rush of technology and narrow-minded and private agendas, Bradbury wanted to keep an objective and holistic analysis on the progress of humanity and is eerily accurate in doing so. Bradbury recalls that like in his “Fahrenheit 451”, he encounter a couple where the female had a ‘seashell’ of sorts in her ear that occupied her with broadcasted messages. The most striking point of this is the seeming obliviousness of the female with regards to her male companion and his dog, a theme that Bradbury warns us against in his book. Bradbury, through his intimate development with books early in his life (many of which is described through works such as Bentham’s Panopticon), saw patterns and human tendencies which he accurately saw fit to warn against especially in a time of great relevance (Post WWII and the Cold War) through his book “Fahrenheit 451.”

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  7. During Bradbury’s transformation of “The Fireman” into Fahrenheit 451 the U.S. announced the successful test of a hydrogen bomb. This bomb was far more destructive then the atomic bomb used during WWII. A year later the Soviet Union successfully exploded its own hydrogen bomb. The rising tensions of the Cold War caused a spreading paranoia of a communist invasion. Countless Americans were accused, and became the subject of aggression and investigation. One critical similarity in both societies is the lack of individual freedom. It is more apparent in the society of Fahrenheit 451 but still very present in the 1950’s.

    Senator Joseph McCarthy used his position of power to accuse and intimidate various people of not only communism but also of homosexuality. Anti-communist groups were formed which made him powerful enough that people were afraid to speak against him. One tactic that McCarthy used was accusing people of being sympathizers if they did not give a name. Because of this false names were given and innocent people were accused and investigated. On page 183 Eller writes, “As Faber observes, it’s now up to Montag to decide for himself ‘which way to jump, or fall.’ This was all new text… to raise the intensity to match the rising political tensions of the time.” In the society of Fahrenheit 451 everyone had the same mentality. They did not question the burning of books or people. This is similar to the McCarthy era where people were too afraid to speak against authority even when they believed that the authority was unjust. Also the anti-communist propaganda that spread throughout the U.S. meant that every U.S. citizen had to be anti-communist. They did not have the freedom to agree with any communist political views in fear of being investigated.

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  8. In the dangerous, paranoid era of the late 1940’s and 1950’s, aggressive and wary ideologies were prevalent. With political theories such as McCarthyism, and the advent of nuclear proliferation, the national mindset was understandably precarious. Similar to the atmosphere of Fahrenheit 451, were books and knowledge are the main enemies to authority, the environment of middle twentieth century America was hostile to a number of threats, real or imaginary. Communism, the domino theory, and the ever present threat of thermonuclear detonation, proved to be quite enough to put the people on edge. Eller states on page 180 that “In fact, world events seemed to form a grim backdrop for Bradbury’s revisions.” This is alluding to recent successful testing of Ivy Mike, the first thermonuclear weapon to be tested. The “Disciplinary Society” that Focault talks about was still very present in the world at the time Fahrenheits publishing; if not in the U.S. then certainly in the Soviet Union. At the core, Bradbury’s novel is a depressing look at what he felt his culture was headed towards, and if he were to witness where it is at today, its likely he would be appalled at the similarities between his imagined world and the reality our the present.

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  9. Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 fearing not only power-hungry dictators but also the rising popularity of televisions and new media. Fahrenheit was published in 1951 and Televisions were becoming popular during that time although they were not common in every household till the 1960’s. If one considers how Bradbury was writing Fahrenheit just after WW2 and during the Cold War (battles in which book burning was a common practice) and in an era in which the incredibly scary technology of Television was coming into play, it is easy to see Bradbury’s connection between the two. When Bradbury was writing Fahrenheit 451, books were being burnt and new media was starting to replace the ones that weren’t. Much like the panopticon, the propaganda easily spewed through media regarding communist spies and terrorists was used as a fearful weapon to keep citizens in check. Bradbury also feared new media as he believed it would dumb down people reflected by when he saw a woman “oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleepwalking” (189). Bradbury’s fear of new media and the censorship/mind controlling opportunities it brings with it were not unwarranted; most of today’s news is essentially a giant advertisement for people with power.

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  10. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 during the cold war. During this time people were afraid of what the future held for them. You weren’t sure if your peaceful life could suddenly be interrupted by a nuclear war. This is definitely the case after the Russians successfully tested their own hydrogen bomb. This caused many people to act out in fear and accuse people of being communist. People were afraid that spies were infiltrating the US. Even the president was afraid according to Bradbury on page 194 where he says, “…we were still in the midst of the scare period in our political history; even President Truman was running scared at the time.” This is where the idea of the panopticon comes in. Those who were different, people who were the minority had to change and fit in with social norms or be at risk of being accused a communist. In a panopticon, you are always being watched, and likewise in society no matter where you go people are constantly viewing you. Bradbury even had his own encounter with a police office. “The policeman interrogated us, thinking that we were up to some terrible criminal activity; the whole logic of the situation was beyond him.”(Pg. 192) Because of incidents like that and given the current condition of the population at the time, Bradbury writes about a society where people who think differently from the dangerous majority are driven out.

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  11. The “disciplinary society” might have still been in play when the novel was published because although there was no extreme force used against the people themselves, the individuals of the society on the other hand, generally unknowingly, conformed to the norms of the society. Specifically to the fear, just like the people in the 1950s who feared communism because it had the potential to change the ‘American Way of Life’ the people in Fahrenheit 451 feared books because they believed that the books would make them unhappy. Communism is a great example of how an idea can become very powerful and harming. Books in this story are portrayed to be harming by society and they also communicate various ideas, therefore, both are interrelated. Also, because economic growth was flourishing during that period in the U.S. there were many advancement in technology, just one being the television. During this time the television became increasingly popular and it affected the people that watched it. Bradbury emphasized the dependence on the television in his novel and as Orvill Prescott comments about his work: “Some of his imaginative tricks are startling and ingenious. But his basic message is a plea for direct, personal experience rather than perpetual, synthetic entertainment, for individual thought, action and responsibility, for the great tradition of independent thinking and artistic achievement symbolized in books (217). I agree that Bradbury wanted to inspire the audience to read more and think for themselves instead of being dependent on entertainment, which can influence a person and even be used to discipline a society.

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  12. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is heavily influenced by various political, economical, and cultural events. To me, what seemed the biggest was the burning of the Ancient library in Alexandria. Clearly, this has a connection to the book because in the novel, a government agency is burning books. Eller writes “to burn the books is to burn the author, and to burn the author is to deny our own humanity.” This also connects to an underlying theme of the Fahrenheit 451 as most of the populations live in such a way to deny their own humanity. Their lives deny a large part of their humanity as it lacks love and joy as well as tries to deny pain and sadness in their lives. More influences include political and social events such as the effects of Stalin’s regime and the “intellectual Holocaust” which inspired Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, of which Bradbury is quoted calling that work “ the father, mother, and lunatic brother to my Fahrenheit 451.” During the 1950s and the time before, during WWII, people were forced to “conform” as organization was necessary for advancement and organization for war. If people strayed from this type of mindset, they were often looked at as different by society. This influence can be seen in the novel. These are just a few of the social, political, and economic influences of Fahrenheit 451.

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  13. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 displays parallels to both the 1950s in which it was written as well as Foucault’s claims regarding the panopticon through three main venues. Foucault discusses the concept of three different disciplinary societies, that of the plague, in which individuals are isolated regardless of background in order to minimize spread and exposure, the leper, in which individuals are labeled and grouped together based on leprosy, and the Panopticon, a culmination of the two others in which individuals are still separated like the plagued society but still grouped together like that of the society with leprosy. These different societies reflected themselves in the 1950’s through the outbreak of the cold war as well as the practices performed by John McCarthy. The strain placed on the United States could be seen through actions like “… the Soviet Union unexpectedly explode(ing) its first hydrogen bomb, an ominous indicator that the west was no longer ahead of the East …” (Bradbury 180), which would instill fear into the hearts of countless American’s alongside McCarthy’s practice of instilling fear through the talk of spies and infiltration. Between the schism created by the cold war, similar to that of the schism between the Leper’s and the rest of society, and the lack of trust and segregation caused by McCarthy, similar to that of the plague, Foucault’s concepts were clearly present in 1950’s America as well as Bradbury’s novel through concepts like Alarms being sent to firemen by anyone thus creating mistrust within the Bradbury’s community.

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  14. Bradbury’s premise was to warn of the questionable future he foresaw during these tumultuous times in America based upon various socio-political factors, and this is reflected in the plot of Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s work paralleled these thoughts during a time where constant and incessant fears of the Cold War and McCarthyism plagued the minds of United States citizens. On page 194, Bradbury states, “…we were still in the midst of the scare period in our political history; even President Truman was running scared at the time.” America was facing a doubtlessly uncertain future in dangerous times, as evidenced on page 180 by “… the Soviet Union unexpectedly explode its first hydrogen bomb, an ominous indicator that the west was no longer ahead of the East …” As the United States of America, we were united but under fear of McCarthyism, the Soviet Union’s prowess, and the ever-looming and ominous threat of communism. It isn’t hard to see why these themes loom so largely in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

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  15. In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury managed to predict the future with surprising accuracy. From Seashell radios to wall-sized TVs, his science fiction approximated the inventions of the future as if he’d glimpsed it himself. Our current world resembles, in some ways, the world of the Cold War era, ensuring that this novel remains relevant now – perhaps more relevant than ever. Pedestrians are at risk even in America, the land of supposed freedom, and especially in the world at large. I have always loved this book from the time that I first read it as a girl in elementary school, largely because I could see the future that it had warned against rising all around me.

    Bradbury appended one version of his novel with a statement protesting the censorship of Fahrenheit 451 and decrying the attempts of the minorities to level his books down to something less offensive. While I do not believe in censorship, I must disagree with Bradbury. Minorities have the right – the obligation – to cry out in protest where they see fit. Perhaps their actions are two sides of the same coin – to tear away at the books, as Captain Beatty says (and Ray Bradbury seems to say through him), or to enrich the creations of the world with other opinions and ideas. The majority, ultimately, is where the dystopian future of totalitarianism stems from. As Faber says, “… remember that the Captain belongs to the most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority.” I’m afraid, however, that I must agree with Harold Bloom, who wrote an introduction to Fahrenheit 451 once upon a time. “…I forgive the novel its stereotypes and simplifications because of its prophetic hope that memory (and memorization!) is the answer.”

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