Thursday, February 20, 2014

W. H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen" -- a Critical Analysis

The Unknown Citizen[1]
(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)
He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint[3],
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint[4],
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired[5],
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.[6]
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues[7],
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)[8]
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.[9]
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day[10]
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.[11]
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man[12],
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.[13]
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year[14];
When there was peace, he was for peace:  when there was war, he went.[15]
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.[16]
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy?[17] The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.[18]

[1] The title itself takes liberties with the idea of “the tomb of the unknown soldier,” within which is interred the arbitrarily chosen remains of an unidentified World War One casualty. This single unknown soldier symbolizes all who have fought and died anonymously for the United States. So this poem appears to be satirizing the idea of serving and giving one’s life to one’s country by applying this honor to the mere citizen, a not-wholly-outrageous idea, in fact, until you read the details of the poem.

[2] The unknown citizen didn’t die on any battlefield and the poet – who we will soon find sounds like little more than a dispassionate bureaucrat – seems to know a lot of details of his life; so it’s reasonable to question why he remains anonymous at the end of his life. This seems an oblique foreshadowing – whether conscious or not, deliberate or not – of themes developed by Jacques Ellul in The Presence of the Kingdom (1949), The Technological Society (1964), and Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (1965): the relationship of the individual to the mass, the primacy of the mass, the loss of identity in technological society, etc.
[3] Praise is replaced by an official accounting; praise is replaced by the absence of criticism.
[4] The “modern sense of an old-fashioned word” – saint – has very little to do with sanctity and much to do with conformity to technical standards.

[5] There’s an odd juxtaposition here that could easily be missed: the poet/bureaucrat is saying “except for the war” – which is a cataclysmic, life changing event that leaves no one unaffected – he led a rather mundane life as a factory worker. But how do we skip so blithely over this anonymous individual’s wartime experiences? The “unknown citizen” has no voice of his own in this poem – indeed, we suspect he had no voice of his own during the entire course of his life – and it would be tempting to hear what he has to say about his experiences in the war, as a worker, as a citizen, as a family member, etc. And, once again, to note that he “never got fired” is as close as we get to praise in this line; the absence of criticism in lieu of actual praise.

[6] Again, faint praise: he “satisfied” his employer. Did he only do the minimum? Or is “satisfaction” the best any unknown citizen can expect as a consequence of a life’s labors?

[7] The unknown citizen was a conformist in every possible way. Not only was he a dutiful employee (who “satisfied” his employers), he was a dutiful member of his class, the laboring class, a dues-paying union member.

[8] Again the bureaucrat steps in to assure us that even the labor union – potentially an agent of radical change in industrial society – was conformist and “acceptable” to society.

[9] Ellul, in “Propaganda,” talks about “human techniques,” that is to say the various fields of psychological research and practice concerned the full integration of the human person into an environment that is fundamentally unnatural. Clearly, the unknown citizen was fully assimilated in his meaningless existence, socializing comfortably with his “mates” and taking “a drink” – but not to the point that his drinking behavior becomes disruptive to his social roles.

[10] This is a page ripped from Ellul’s “Propaganda.” Let me say right now that I am completely aware that Auden composed this poem before either Ellul’s “Technological Society” or “Propaganda,” and this is a testament to his critical vision. Ellul tells us that the mass media of social control must be concerned that their constant efforts are fruitful. Furthermore, to be effective propaganda must be continuous and continual, affording the citizen no opportunities to find and take recourse in points of reference outside the dominant system of propaganda. So there is another “human technique” at work here; in our post-modern world it is the ratings service (a la Neilsen), the socio-economic institution that assures us that messages are hitting their intended audiences.

[11] The technological society is far more concerned with product than with process. It doesn’t really matter what malady the unknown citizen suffered from; what is important is that the technological system worked to rid him of it.

[12] The technological society no longer recognizes human ends; the means, in the technological society, become the ends. We don’t produce to satisfy a need; we produce only in order to produce, and use our “human techniques” (e.g., “marketing” and “advertising”) to create artificial needs. The ability to respond to these messages of artificial needs (i.e., “advertisements”) is a critically important characteristic for an individual in the technological society. It proves he has assimilated fully from individual to constituent of the mass.

[13] I’m convinced there’s some significance to the fact that Auden referred to this particular technology by a brand name (Frigidaire) rather than by its technological name (refrigerator). I just haven’t figured out yet what the significance is…

[14] Ellul, in “Propaganda,” emphasizes the centrality of public opinion research to the processes of propaganda. For one thing, he notes that people in a highly technologically developed society feel entitled to be a part of the political system. Paradoxically, however, he notes that governments cannot follow public opinion when forming, enacting, and carrying out policy: public opinion is inherently volatile and changing; government policy cannot follow public opinion, so public opinion must be made to follow government policy.

[15] Passively, without dissent, to be sure. How could it be any other way?

[16] Planning is most certainly a central characteristic of the technological society.

[17] Freedom and happiness are central themes in all of Jacques Ellul’s works. The highest form of human freedon, to Ellul, is individual thought; the ability to think critically about the world and one’s place in it. Critical thinking – and therefore freedom – is short-circuited by the various techniques of the technological society, including (and, in fact, primarily) propaganda. To be most fully free is to be able to question one’s culture and make moral judgments about it, about its values, about its goals, about its direction, etc. Happiness, then, is a natural consequence of freedom. One cannot truly be said to be happy if one’s life is determined by one’s environment.

[18] The bureaucrat brings the poem around full circle. The “unknown citizen’s” life is planned, measured, and evaluated in real time. Judgments are made not on the basis of achievements, but on the ability to adhere to the plan – on both the individual basis but also on the basis of the plan’s effects on the level of the mass. Notations are made only of deviations from the expected norm of the mass, not on the basis of objective achievements of the individual. So the fact that we (the bureaucratic class) are not aware of any “problems” (deviations from the mass norm) is all the sign we need to make the final judgment: not whether the “unknown citizen” was either free or happy (words which have no meaning in this technological context), but whether he was in conformity with the expectations of social planners. A perverse sort of utopia if ever there was one.


Anonymous said...

Excellent critical analysis, thank you!

Peter K Fallon, Ph.D. said...

My pleasure. Thanks for the compliment.

HARITH Mageed said...

Many thanks Dr