Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hunger Games and the Grammar of Empire

I read the first book to see what all the excitement was about.

Everyone knows the central plot device by now.  In a ruined future North America, the inhabits of the central Capitol region enjoy a life of luxury.  Their wealth comes from the ruthless exploitation of their colonies, the twelve Districts which make up the rest of the habitable land, and of their inhabitants.  Paramilitary police, ironically but all-too-plausibly named Peacekeepers, stand ready to crack down on even the thought of resistance.  And then there are the Games.

The Hunger Games  themselves, an annual multimedia spectacular, serve to slake the desires of the Capitol citizens for extreme entertainment at the same time as they break the wills of the District inhabitants.  Let Katniss Everdeen, the book's central character, explain:

The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins. Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch—this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. "Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you." (Collins, Suzanne (2009). The Hunger Games (Kindle Locations 225-231). Scholastic Books. Kindle Edition.)
Why has this book struck such a chord? I might guess because it taps into a deep anxiety about the kind of society we already are, or are in the process of becoming.  The world of Panem is a zero-sum world: many must suffer so that a few may enjoy luxury.  The hope for endless growth has enabled our society to dodge these trade-offs until now  (though I can't help being reminded of how as I, a rich Westerner, am entertained by new technological toys which inhabitants of outlying "districts" toil in bleak conditions to build).   But that hope is sputtering.  In a non-growing world, is the only alternative to hold on to your share with whatever violence you can muster?

And then there are the Games.  They tap into an old, old myth: sacrifice your children, and you will have prosperity.  (See Genesis 22:1-12, Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5, Deuteronomy 12:31, Judges 11, Second Kings 23:10, Jeremiah 7:31, 32:35 for relevant texts from the Hebrew scriptures.) In the world of Panem, as in these texts, the sacrifice referred to is a literal giving over of children to destruction.  But there is another way of sacrificing the next generation too: by discounting their claims, by believing (and acting on the belief) that my generation's desires for everything that we can grab now trump any rights that future generations have to their own decently prosperous lives.  "What has posterity ever done for me?"   I wonder whether, at some level, this fear that we are starving the future to fatten the present is what is giving the awful image of the Hunger Games such an appeal. If that is the case, perhaps engaging with this image will give some brave people the courage to begin to fashion an alternative.

Further reading:


John Roe said...

A review in Books and Culture, highlighting the media-spectacle aspect of the books (which I did not comment on above):

John Roe said...

OK, bring on the philosophers. Here's Stanley Fish in the NYT:

And here is an active version of the link in the comment above: