Rewriting Dystopia: Ethical Conflicts in Juli Zeh’s ‘The Method’

The tension between state and individual is arguably what defines the most influential or important literary dystopias. Zeh’s novel – The Method (2009)  – is an original modern example of a genre which essentially asks the same questions of human society through different sci-fi tropes – what rights of the individual can be sustained or justified in the face of a government which purports to work for the greater good of society? The closest analogue here is Huxley, but there are shades of other sci-fi stylists to be found. The form, I would argue, is tangibly different, and significantly so for the way we understand its messages about ethical conflict. It is almost aphoristic in places – Nietzsche is ever-present in the protagonist’s brother, Moritz – and the narrative voice contains a lachrymose note, a resignation, as if asking the question itself is problematic, a repetitive structure. It doesn’t have the pride of a self-reflexive post-modernism, but a kind of weary fatigue, a concern about how the answer should be or could be phrased.

In this sense, I’d suggest the form and structure of this conflict narrative is a peculiarly twenty-first century version of the subject and society. We often understand the central question as a conflict between the protagonist and key symbolic, authoritarian characters – John and Mustapha Mond, Winston and O’Brien, D-503 and the Benefactor – but in The Method there are multiple representatives of authority – Sophie, Hutschneider, Kramer, Barker – all of them with their own personal holdings of virtues and vices. There is no singular dystopian figure; throughout the novel these characters become more transparent, more morally complex. They are only in part representative of The Method, that is, the notion that the literal health of society, the eradication of disease and the monitoring of citizen body metrics to maintain collective social vitality, constitutes the ultimate condition of social well-being. In the hands of those characters with access to power, this biological-utilitarianism becomes what every other ethical system becomes – a vehicle to enact authority and manipulate the populace. The ‘Right to Illness’ is in part linked a la Brave New World to humanism and liberal ideas, with the smoking of cigarettes turned into a revolutionary act, but the eventual resistance to the system stems from the uncovering of political corruption and mass concerns over political control, not a sustained challenge to the ethical status of The Method itself.

The generic convention of rebelling against the forces of dystopian oppression is subverted subtly by Zeh, in a way which indicates a wider, less easily identified ideological conflict. Mia Holl asks for “time to herself”, “peace and quiet” and explains “she wouldn’t mind being ill”. This is indicative of a kind of malaise, brought on by mourning, rather than any kind revolutionary zeal. Mia is upset by the political and personal circumstances surrounding her brother’s death. As a scientist, she does not wish to reject the ideals of the method entirely – her concerns are about the institutions which establish it. Her discussions with Moritz recur throughout the novel and demonstrate that she does not work in philosophical absolutes. Zeh allows the conflict between social good and individual freedom to continually run inside Mia. She is also called liminal – a “witch” – and the process through which she is to be punished by the state compounds her ethical status further. She is to be frozen in a form of stasis.

The person who calls her a witch is Zeh’s most intriguing formal creation, the ideal inamorata. This character is somewhere between morality-play-figure, a basic realist foil and a sexual partner. She sometimes resembles a kind of late 19th century aesthete in tone and manner:

Mia is sitting at her desk with her back to the room; from time to time she jots something down on one of the sheets of paper in front of her. Meanwhile, the ideal inamorata is reclining on the couch, clad in her beautiful hair and the light of the afternoon sun. We don’t know if she understands what Mia is saying or even if she can hear her voice because she doesn’t show any sign of listening or understanding. For all we know, the ideal inamorata may live in another dimension that borders on Mia’s world. Her gaze, as she stares into space, resembles the lidless stare of a fish.

The ideal inamorata’s “relationship to matter is tenuous” and this is something which defines her as apart from the world of the novel. Often, this semi-character provides significant insights as to the nature of Mia’s self, or the nature of the conflict at hand.  In a novel that is concerned with the political status of the body, a clarifying voice is given to a character who is disembodied. When Kramer first enters Mia’s apartment the uncertain status of the ideal inamorata is confirmed – “he is untroubled by the look of revulsion on the ideal inamorata’s face – not because he doesn’t care what she thinks, which he probably doesn’t, but because he can’t see her.” Kramer both sees and doesn’t see this character, because she exists within the margins of the form of the narrative. She interacts structurally in conventional ways – she is part of dialogue, she is described spatially in the same way as other characters – but she shifts the form of the narrative. The ideal inamorata ruptures the fabric of the ethical totality of health, as such rupturing the fabric of the dystopian world, . Undermining all of our desires to see the novel as a way choose how to be good, to rebel against oppression, to explain the threat to individual liberties caused by the blind commitment to a moral hegemony, is negation embodied by this particularly unreal piece of formal experimentation. Even when the inamorata calls Mia to “make a decision”, denying the middle ground over whether Moritz’s death was “good or bad”, she immediately follows it with a call to stasis – she calls Mia over to sit on the couch, turns on the TV and the chapter ends.

And it’s this I think that the novel gets right, the notion that ethical conflicts in the current age are tired. It is linked to the language used to define moral concepts, which on both sides appears to lack clarity or conviction. The status of every character in this novel is psychologically and morally messy. Even the end of the novel establishes a kind of stasis – it isn’t Winston or John’s end. (Cf. the ‘not quite endings’ of other twenty-first century novels). Contained within you’ll find clear critiques of Utilitarian desires to define and live by opposing forces of pain and pleasure (Kramer’s first and second category idea) and you’ll feel the same revulsion at the illegitimate powers exercised by a totalitarian authority. But the relationships between characters go beyond any kind of moral clarity provided by traditional moral language, and the fact that the clarifying voice of the inamorata exists outside of the protagonist’s reality, outside of the formal reality of the dystopia itself, serves to confirm this.

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The Techno-Ethical: On Dave Eggers and The Circle

There’s a certain critical hype which surrounds novels that arrive at just the right moment. Dave Eggers’ The Circle managed to become the novel of the moment in 2013, a timely satire on a Google/Apple-like company and a young girl who begins working for them, Mae. It was just the thing to puncture selfie culture, to rebuild the wall between public and private, a “chilling dystopia”, as important as “Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World“. While I agree with a lot of this judgement, the really significant theme of the novel for me is the nature of the ethical questions addressed by it. Eggers presents  a scenario of how the pursuit of technological enhancement leads to ethical totality, where privacy of any kind is made at odds with the aims of a progressive society. The driving force of the novel is not the technological structures themselves, but rather the insecurity these structures help to foster in society – the way interaction is structured.

Central to Eggers’ satire is the status of knowledge in the modern world, and how it contributes to decisions around what to do and how it should be done. The ethics of the world Eggers imagines develops into a form of techno-utilitarianism, whereby incredible-yet-familiar hardware combines with algorithmic advances to nullify threats to the social fabric. Crime, murder, abduction of children – all are brought under control through the constant surveillance of the SeeChange system of ultra-portable, ultra-powerful cameras. Many of these ills are understood in utilitarian terms, such as not incurring the costs of incarceration by stopping crime through major surveillance, or the better quality of life provided to another by allowing someone them to access a video stream of your holiday experience.

Mae becomes enveloped in the world of The Circle when she gets a low-level job there. Eventually, the advances she is made part of, often through large company presentations and cult-like audience events, lead to questions around whether a human being has the right to any form of privacy, outside of parameters which society – or, rather, the company – set. One of the ‘Three Wise Men’ who run The Circle, Bailey, is at his most evangelical when decrying the loss of “any knowledge”, whether “human, emotional, scientific”. Mae herself comes up with the neo-Ingsoc slogan “Privacy Is Theft” after being confronted by Bailey on the ethics of secrecy, sharing and privacy and how it might lead, in tandem with a neo-liberal focus on market growth and the monetisation of experience, to a better society.

The real debate comes down to the rights of the self in relation to the Other – but in this case, the ‘Other’ is online society as a mass, individuated by their online profiles specifically, but deindividualised by the form of those profiles. Everyone is a set of information searchable by algorithm, which means that the Other turns into a tool, an object. The final images of the novel, where Mae posits that we should, and could, have access to the human mind itself, to make open all of human thought in the interests of safety and security – to know no evil lurked within – is the ultimate manifestation of the desire to objectify the Other, the natural extension of social ethical system which has lost the time-lag needed to recalibrate its moral understanding in the face of technological advances.

The idea of getting into consciousness, of wanting to know the Other, and of that being the ultimate goal of human interaction, put me in mind of an older metaphor for the self or social identity – that of the ‘cage’. It is an image that recurs in the novels of Henry James and communicates the inability of the human being to be able to enter into the consciousness of another – we’re all in cages, looking out at others, attempting to communicate whilst trapped within. The Circle transforms the desire to know, to break into the cage, the desire to be less lonely, into a parable about the loss of humanity. We’re in these cages for a reason, it says, and whatever is contained within, whether it has the potential to mend or destroy lives must stay there. Ty, the head of The Circle and the man who created the entire system, states they must regain “balance” towards the end of the novel, between the systems of surveillance and the ability to keep secret information which will hurt others. This balance is central to how we understand the ethics of technological interaction, and it is one that Eggers shows is disrupted by a futurist ideological drive, the drive for progress. The problem is that our cages are no longer fixed in position, they constantly shift and alter with the social environment, and we can reach so much further past the bars than we used to be able to.

Although Eggers’ satire is a powerful one, he does acknowledge the deeply human desires this kind of technological interaction might satisfy. Mae, at one point, when she can’t get in touch with anyone she knows, feels lonely and despairs. She quickly seeks human contact. The hollowness, the black “tear” she feels rip inside at points is allayed by different forms of human interaction, even the technological. The problematic ethical concerns of the novel are exposed and augmented by technological forms and structures, but they are not created by those structures. These are problems that were already there. The technological structures used to explore them allow us new ways of understanding them – and new ways of being scared of them.

In this sense, The Circle follows Brave New World in that it is a dystopia that becomes, from a canted angle, a utopia. The end is reminiscent of Huxley, but Mae chooses to stay as part of this world, where she is an influential member of the new wave of understanding and democracy. She continues to pursue, with the other two wise men, Bailey and Stenton – the “info-Communist” and the “ruthless Capitalist” – a utopian totalising of the world brought about by the control of knowledge. The political implications of this are dangerous, but one utopia is only ever challenged with another idealised notion. The counter arguments about going off grid and isolating themselves from Mercer or Ty are not convincingly put. The novel essentially dismisses the nebulous ethical statements of these two male characters. Do we have to completely disregard the narrative of success for a young woman who has risen to the top? Who sees a “perpetual light” in the future of civilisation? The Circle is disturbing in the tradition of the very best dystopian fiction, but our ways of reading dystopian fiction need to develop to encompass the networked world. It is easy to say “What a disturbing picture! Isn’t technology awful!”. The harder and more important task is to consider carefully how to explain and define what we mean by the “messiness of humanity”, those “uncertainties” of the world which will always remain. We might now be reconditioned by technologised world, but we’re still asking how to be good, how to learn about what it means to live in connection to Other human beings.