The e(U)topian impulse

At the crossroads of utopian, dystopian, and anti-utopian thought we find ourselves with choices that will lead us on a path toward hope or despair. The choices we make are bound to the types of political action or inaction we are committed too. In our time those committed to fighting against the utopian impulse, such as writers like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and Oliver Bennett’s Cultural Pessimism: Narratives of Decline in the Postmodern World see utopian thought as a panacea against the political, social, and environmental degradation in our times. Both maintain that the utopian impulse leads to an illusionary set of values and ideology that offer “unrealistic expectations of what the future may bring“.

On the other hand many cultural critics, as well as sf writers, have brought about a Renaissance in Utopian thought and ideology. Two recent works shed light on this revival, dark Horizons Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination,Utopian Method Vision The Use Value Of Social Dreaming. These “Social Dreams” as Lyman Tower Sargent states it help us understand the “dreams and nightmares that concern the ways in which groups of people arrange their lives.” At the heart of the utopian impulse is the hope of a better life. Yet, as we discover from the cautionary tales of dystopian writers, from the early work of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We to George Orwell’s novel 1984, on too such sf classics as Farenheit 451, The Telling, and the Gold Coast triptych we discover what Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan call the ‘critical dystopia’, which, as a didactic form, teaches us “that choices have consequences, in helping us to see why and how things are as they are, and, perhaps, in showing how we can act to change the conditions around us: not simply to do no harm but utterly to transorm reality in favor of all(p. 241 dary Horizons).”

Geography Professor, David Harvey, in Spaces of Hope offers us a glimpse into the alternatives that utopian thought might take during these bleak times. For him new forms of utopianism must incorporate a dialectical or dialogical vision that refocuses our attention on possible designs for a more equitable world of work and living in cooperation with the natural world and its environmental limits. As he tell us, “Until we insurgent architects know the courage of our minds and are prepared to take an equally speculative plunge into some unknown, we too will continue to be the objects of historical geography (like worker bees) rather than active subjects, consciously pushing human possibilities to their limits” (255).” Recently he has taken up a close reading of Karl Marx’s Capital, on He has been a long time critic of the neo-liberal moment of what some are now calling the ‘Age of Reagan’. Now he sees the utopian struggle as taking place within the spaces of our cities. As he states it in his essay on The Right of the City, the “democratization of the right to the city and the construction of a broad social movement to enforce its will is imperative, if the dispossessed are to take back control of the city from which they have for so long been excluded and if new modes of controlling capital surpluses as they work through urbanization processes are to be instituted. Lefebvre was right to insist that the revolution has to be urban, in the broadest sense of that term, or nothing at all.”

The idea that the ‘City’ is now the contested space within which our dystopian/utopian impulses combine as we enter the 21st Century is neither new nor unchallenged, but that it has now taken on a political and ideological form is a sign of hope. That there is a battle of between the competiting ideologies over this contested space is an understatement. As Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk frame the question in Evil Paradises Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, “Toward what kind of future are we being led by savage capitalism?” or as they frame it another way, “What do contemporary ‘dreamworlds’ of consumption, property, and power tell us about the fate of human solidarity?”

In this fractured realm of global markets they take a look at how the nouveau riche sqaunder their isolated lives within gated, floating, and surreal cities of free trade zones, beyond the reach of most poverty stricken wage slaves of our planetary sphere. We learn that Dubai has becomethe perfect symbol, the perfect dreamworld for these new denizens of the global jetset, which provides what one socialist critic calls, “an entirely separate, Western-based commercial system for its financial district that would do business in dollars, and in English(see Kelly Hilditch).”

As Davis and Monk argue the cost of these neoliberal paradises and false utopias is ‘human catastrophe’, and “share little of Benjamin’s optimism about historical redemption through the “genuine” utopian aspects of such fantasies.” And even harsher, “Let’s not kid ourselves: these studies map terminal, not anticipatory, stages in the history of late modernity… viewed as a ensemble, these idle redoubts stand as testaments to the resignation with which humanity squanders the borrowed time on which it now lives (p. xvi).”

The rich have disowned their responsibility too, and involvement with, the majority of humans on this planet that support their vain enterprises. They have become cynical and withdrawn, moving toward that apathetic stance that J.G. Ballard has catalogued throughout his career. As he says, “people are tearing up the social contract they have with their fellow human beings(p. 203, J.G. Ballard Quotes).” He tells us it is the need for ‘total security’ that is driving these nouveau riche in their desire to create ultra high-tech enclaves that are cut off, isolated, from contact with the rest of the human species, while turning our old urban centers into ‘guerilla battlegrounds’ (p. 201).

Is there a way out of this malaise? Is there any sign of hope for the poverty stricken majority of humans on this planet to take back what is rightfully theirs? Can we, as humans, ever begin to forge new links of cooperation, build new intentional communities of trust and fellowship based upon an equitable allocation of social, economic, health, and political action and agency? I hope to explore over a period of essays some of the new thoughts and ideas surrounding these questions, and hopefully show that there are many who are providing, if not fully developed solutions, then at least the Social Dreams upon which all future hope is based.

– “The discourse of radical democracy is no longer the discourse of the universal; the epistemological niche from which ‘universal’ classes and subjects spoke has been eradicated, and it has been replaced by a polyphony of voices, each of which contructs its own irreducible discursive identity (p. 191, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy).”

The breakup of the Platonist view of reality and discourse that has, as Wittgenstein suggested, held us ‘captive’ within a Cartesian/Lockean picture that seeks both an objective essence and a cohesive, coherent, self has been replaced in our time by a “Darwinian account of human beings as animals doing their best to cope with the environment – doing their best to develop tools which will enable them to enjoy more pleasure and less pain (p. xxiii, Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope).” Among those tools is language, words, which are no longer seen as ‘representations’ of an objective truth/reality, but as tools by which the human animal negotiates the complex horizon of social relations. Rorty sees this break with the idea that reality can be ‘represented’ as abandoning the correspondence ‘theory of truth’, which means that we no longer need to insist that truth, like reality is one and seamless. As he states it: “If a true belief is simply the sort of belief which surpasses the competition as a rule for sucessful future action, then there may be no need to reconcile all one’s beliefs with all one’s other beliefs – no need to attempt to see reality steadily and as a whole (totality, totalist vision) (p. 270).”

Rorty argues, since Plato, philosophers have understood our primary relationship with the world as one of representation. We attempt to represent the world as accurately as we can; the pursuit of truth is based on the hope that we might represent the World As It Really Is, the world in- and of-itself, the world free of the taint of human perspective and fallibility. Representation, Rorty claimed in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, is a worn-out metaphor, a philosophical position that leads to endless squabbles: if we believe we have represented the world accurately, we fall victim to a blinkered and arrogant dogmatism; the other extreme, the fear that we may never overcome the gap between our subjective minds and the objective world, leads us to epistemological skepticism—the idea that we can never really know anything. Rorty suggests that we replace the idea of representations of the world with the idea of descriptions of the world designed to help us achieve particular, finite purposes. Rather than ask if we are in touch with the way the world really is, Rorty asks if our descriptions and our vocabularies help us complete our projects.

This brings us to what Laclau and Mouffe term the discourse of radical democracy which is “…a polyphony of voices, each of which contructs its own irreducible discursive identity(see above).” In Cessation 1994, the poet, Seamus Heaney, remembered the moment when ‘diversity’ was beginning to be recognized. He remembered “what things felt like in those early days of political ferment in the late sixties. How we all were brought beyond our highly developed caution to believe that the effort to create new movement and language in the Northern context was a viable project(p. 48, Finders Keepers).” With the cessation of violence in Northern Ireland he felt there was once again “an opportunity to open a space – and not just in the political arena but in the first level of each person’s consciousness – a space where hope can grow. And I mean hope in the sense that Vaclav Haval has defined it… Hope, according to Havel, is different from optimism. It is a state of the soul rather than a response to the evidence. It is not the expectation that things will turn out successully but the conviction that something is worth working for, however it turns out. Its deepest roots are in the transcendental, beyond the horizon. The self-evident truth of this is surely something upon which a peace process might reasonably be grounded(p. 50).”

The idea of utopian hope for peace being ‘grounded’ in ‘the transcendental, beyond the horizon’ may satisfy this great master of the poetic, but for us pragmatists of the secular it smells of just another false dream of the ancient Platonic search for certainty and truth that has guided our political and social discourse into the bogs of despair that haunt most of our dystopian nightmares. Along with Seamus Heaney’s poetry, I agree with his analysis and turn toward a more pragmatic vision of discourse that relies not on some transcendental hope but upon the ‘polyphony of voices’ of the multitudes of which according to Antonio Negri, The multitude and the metropolisis a vision of a ‘physical community’. As he states it: “When we think of the metropolis we conceive of it as the physical community that is wealth and production of cultural community. Nothing better than the metropolis indicates the design of a sustainable development, a synthesis of ecology and production in the biopolitical framework.”

Negri goes on to state: “The project is not one of collectivation but of recognition and organisation of the common. A common made of a great wealth of life styles, of collective means of communication and life reproduction, and above all of the exceeding of common expression of life in metropolitan spaces. We enjoy a second generation of metropolitan life, creator of cooperation and exceeding in immaterial relational linguistic values: it is a productive generation. Here is the metropolis of the singular and collective multitude. ”

This moves us toward the ‘polyphony of voices’ that is the utopian impulse. Utopia is a dangerous impulse which under the worst of circumstances can lead to the tyranny of fascist or communist collectives; yet, if we see it as an unfinished, and never to be finished, open ended, project that enables further openings, further movement, so that its ‘mobilization of desires’ and needs for a better world will always exceed any utopian visions that arise from that very process, and see it not as a totalizing, universal, discourse of what might be, then the voices of activists, artists, and scholars – as well as everday citizens – might begin to share in an apprehension of the limitations, both internal and external, of what a utopian alternative might offer us in the way of hope.

In the future I will focus on some of the Classic texts and sf literature that have provided us with prospective utopian/dystopian visions. The dystopian turn is a critical look at our present society and how the ‘polyphony of voices’ from within it might carve out their own alternative ‘spaces of hope’, while the utopian impulse moves us toward that social dreaming that both amplifies and enables, facilitating alternative visions of desire and hope for a better future. Lyman Tower Sargeant tells us that utopias “are repositories of our hopes and fears, both individual and collective(p.312 Utopian Method Vision The Use Value Of Social Dreaming).” For me as for many others our hope in a utopian hope lies in the construction of a utopic space in which as Rorty says, “the moral identity of every human being is constituted in large part, though not obviously, not exclusively, by his or her sense of participation in a democratic society(p. 238, Philosophy and Social Hope).”

1 thought on “The e(U)topian impulse

  1. Pingback: Impossible Object(s) & Other Speculations from Dark Ecologies | Senselogi©

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