Episode 65 – “The Obsolete Man”

“The Obsolete Man” shows us a possible future way in which society is organized, and people are governed. Where people attempt to live together, and, as Hume noted, there are limited but not dire resources, we may enact rules which constrain behavior, and thus  we confront questions of rights and justice.

We don’t know the details of the circumstances of human existence  in the episode, or even  what day-to-day life is like in the society envisioned in “The Obsolete Man.” Wordsworth is charged with his crime in an austere court room, and then later we see him in his abode, which, overflowing with books and hand-made furniture, is clearly is unlike that of the average citizen. But Wordsworth is not found guilty of hoarding material possessions, or of depriving others of resources that are due them. Rather, he is judged “obsolete.” This isn’t about distributive justice. It is about adherence to the values of the state.

Wordsworth is obsolete because he is a librarian, in a society that has eliminated books. Wordsworth is also judged obsolete because he believes in God, and “the State has proved that there is no God.” No back story is provided to account for how this state arose, perhaps because no history or set of conditions could justify it. We are just front and center to a brutal form of government, one in which a great deal of human freedom has been eliminated, and conformity the the values of the state is required.  Wordsworth is not free to hold or express beliefs about religion, and he is not free to identify with the profession of his choice. It’s not just that there is no work for librarians. Identifying oneself as a librarian is punishable by death.

Serling introduces the episode as depicting “not a new world, but just an extension of what began in the old one.” He claims that in it technological advances provide “a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom” than that of its historical antecedents. It’s not clear what those advances are in the episode, in comparison to those used, for example, in Nazi Germany. Perhaps it is the highly individualized attention given to the manner of Wordsworth’s execution. Perhaps these “advances” are also the State’s Achilles Heel, as Wordsworth turns it against his accuser. It’s unclear, however, whether the final outcome represents the start of a revolution, or just a lone cry for justice.

[Add stuff on Thomas, re the distinction between compliance and good will. Compliance isn’t enough.

Further Reading:

Thomas, L., 1996, “Becoming an Evil Society: The Self and Strangers,” Political Theory, 24 (2): 271–294.

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