As we celebrate World Philosophy Day (18th November), we take an observatory beginner’s look into what is touted as “the greatest science-fiction novel of all time” - Dune, exploring several themes and concepts of a reality that seems beyond our time, but yet remains contemporarily relevant to civilization even 50 years after it was incepted.
As traditional and digital media transforms and shapeshifts ever so fervently, films have always been a central medium for ideology and creative thinking - made even more relevant in a time where people account for more screen time than much else. In a discussion with Vienna-based philosopher Frank Hartmann, he recognizes that there are new premises in our culture that have been made possible by new technologies, and that matters to philosophy. In short, the study of philosophy cannot retreat into nor rely on classic texts and ignore the mediasphere as its main bridge for disperse.
According to the United Nations, Philosophy is the study of nature, reality and existence, of what is not only in our current realm of understanding but beyond it as well, and the comprehension between right and wrong. Deeply webbed within religion, politics and worldly cultures, philosophy is the unseen thread in which societies and realities are built around.
For those who did not watch the movies or read the books - in short, literary summary: Dune is a political novel set in a far, dystopian future that examines influential individuals and organizations who wield power by maintaining control of people and events. There are many types of powers prevalent in Dune, including control over politics, environments, resources, genetics, and military strength. Furthermore, this power is consistently linked to acts of corruption and revenge.
Even as the books hold a reputation for not being the easiest read (even amongst serious readers), Dune is a 1965 classic that won the Hugo and Nebula awards. Many also wouldn’t know that Dune was in fact the inspiration behind several worldwide pop-culture favourites including Lord Of The Rings, Game Of Thrones and most significantly, the creation of George Lucas’ decades-long Star Wars saga.
Applying learned knowledge into fiction, Herbert created the world of Dune based on his time spent researching ecology and environmentalism while also including questions pertaining to power struggle and religion-based beliefs in a digestible, layman manner. These themes are not intrinsically new to us 21st-century civilizations, as societies grow to be even more divided into two facets: religion as taking the centerpiece of the very nature of humankind and the ideology that religion is a constructed, human concept built to maintain control of power.
As art imitates life, religion has been an instrument of liberation and coercion altogether for centuries. From the British era of colonization to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the messianic theme underlying Dune is evidently drawn from two of the fastest-growing religions in the world - Islam, and Christianity. For centuries, rulers (as well as dictators) have also maintained having “divine right” to the throne or being specifically selected by a higher power to lead. Think everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to the dynasty of North Korea’s Kim family.
While the film and its novels are celebrated worldwide, there has also been an ongoing debate questioning Dune’s “white saviour complex”, as the novels focus on messianic convulsions (led by a Western man) which periodically inflict themselves on human societies. The lack of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) representation in its actor lineup has also been critiqued, despite the book’s explicit usage of MENA terminology, ideology, and culture.
Another interesting critique lies within feminism (which in itself, is another form of philosophy) - focusing on Dune’s indispensable group of pseudo-religious women who have a political upper hand in governing matters but don’t quite hold positions that deem themselves as the most important. In short, they are powerful - but somehow not powerful enough, thus only holding sideline characters.
Bustle’s culture editor notes that the women of Dune are “complicated and compromised, brilliant and terrible women. Women who have sacrificed true liberation in their lust for power over others. Women who will go toe-to-toe with the best of them to protect their own and further their designs. Women who have cozied up to rulers who will never truly trust them, never see them as equals.”
Because we are progressing towards an increasingly digitized world, thematic questions are important especially as written prose is translated into cinematic universes on a global scale. Cultural relevance and literary accuracy combined, films evidently hold the power to educate and inform, evoking thought and discussion altogether.
There is no inherent right or wrong - in fact, what’s important to note is that philosophy involves the questioning of what’s around us, the act of being aware of one’s thoughts and the systems/ fabrics that already exist in our individual and societal realities. The very act of questioning a film that already questions several philosophical themes relating to governance, politics, and religion should be a more fervent practice, because after all - discussion and conversation are the basis of philosophy.
In a time where information consumption is accelerated by the constancy and steadfastness of digital, we challenge viewers and filmgoers this World Philosophy Day to take a pause and reflect, to form dialogue and discourse about what they consume and how they consume, and to also challenge one’s own perspective with how they view the world around them and the realities that they live in.