Fredric Jameson: The Utopic/Dystopic Imagination

A true opposite of utopia would be a society that is either completely unplanned or is planned to be deliberately terrifying and awful. Dystopia, typically invoked, is neither of these things; rather, it is a utopia that has gone wrong, or a utopia that functions only for a particular segment of society.1

Fredric Jameson in a provocative essay Utopia as Method, or the Uses of the Future asks us “How can a place be a method?” Most of the time we think of utopia as a place, or a separate non-place in the sense of a secondary world with its own sociocultural milieu. But what if such a place that is no-place formed the dialectical union of opposites we call utopia/dystopia? What if this non-place were the outcome of the failure of the myth of progress? With the failure of modernity and its supposed utopic teleology and the myth of progress we are now within such a non-place, a place between times, a moment of pure difference in which neither the positive nor negative forces hold sway, but the balance between the forces of life and the forces of death vie for our future. As Jameson notes:

As far as space is concerned, the rich are withdrawing ever more urgently into their gated communities and their fortified enclosures; the middle classes are tirelessly engaged in covering the last vestiges of nature with acres of identical development homes; and the poor, pouring in from the former countryside, swell the makeshift outskirts with a population explosion so irrepressible that in a few years none of the ten largest cities on the globe will include the familiar first-world metropolises any longer. (ibid.)

Mike Smith in Planet of Slums situates the utopic/dystopic conclaves within the superstructure of our Megalopolises. He offers us an advanced state of the late-capitalist hyperworld in 3-D vision, where slums like slime molds infiltrate the fabric of our very lives, and even the elite live lives like truant children who have just escaped from the hinterlands of some Lovecraftian nightmare zone leaving the rest of us to cannibal horrors unimagined by science-fiction or gothic troubadours. The cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay. Indeed, the one billion city-dwellers who inhabit postmodern slums might well look back with envy at the ruins of the sturdy mud homes of Catal Hayuk in Anatolia, erected at the very dawn of city life nine thousand years ago.2

Continue reading

Stanislaw Lem: Liberal Utopics as the Last Commodity – Being Inc., Redivivus

Innumerable stories bear witness to the fact that the desire for precisely such freely given emotions gnaws at mighty rulers and men of wealth; in fairy tales he who is able to buy or use force to obtain anything, having the means for this, abandons his exceptional position so that in disguise— like Harun al Rashid, who went as a beggar— he may find human genuineness, since privilege shuts it out like an impenetrable wall.

– Stanislaw Lem, A Perfect Vacuum

In this latter day of commodity travel one can buy almost anything: swim with whale sharks in Donsal in the Philippines, travel to Germany and become a race car driver (Nuerburgring), run the bulls in Tamil Nadu, India, try Heli-skiiing in the Chugach Mountains in Alaska, tow surfing the jaw break in Peahi, Maui, bike across the Sahara, ice climb in the Canadian Rockies, sandboard in Cerrano Blanco, Peru, or finally, take a private cruise into space, the last frontier of personal experience. Has experience itself become the final commodity?

So, then, the one area that has not yet been turned into a commodity is the unarranged substance of everyday life, intimate as well as official, private as well as public, with the result that each and every one of us is exposed continually to those small reversals, ridiculings, disappointments, animosities, to the snubs that can never be paid back, to the unforeseen; in short, exposed— within the scope of our personal lot— to a state of affairs that is intolerable, in the highest degree deserving a change; and this change for the better will be initiated by the great new industry of life services. (A Perfect Vacuum, Stanislaw Lem)

A society in which one can buy— with an advertising campaign— the post of president, or a herd of albino elephants painted with little flowers, or a bevy of beauties, or youth through hormones, such a society ought to be able to put to rights the human condition. The qualm that immediately surfaces— that such purchased forms of life, being unauthentic, will quickly betray their falseness when placed alongside the surrounding authenticity of events— that qualm is dictated by a naïveté totally lacking in imagination. When all children are conceived in the test tube, when then no sexual act has as its consequence, once natural, procreation, there disappears the difference between the normal and the aberrant in sex, seeing as no physical intimacy serves any purpose but that of pleasure. And where every life finds itself under the solicitous eye of powerful service enterprises, there disappears the difference between authentic events and those secretly arranged. The distinction between natural and synthetic in adventures, successes, failures, ceases to exist when one can no longer tell what is taking place by pure accident, and what by accident paid for in advance.

Continue reading

Rosi Braidotti: Nomadic Ethics and Subjectivity

The notion of the non-human, in-human, or post-human emerges as the defining trait of nomadic ethical subjectivity.

– Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic ethics

Bruno Latour once argued that the modernist distinction between nature and culture never existed.1 He claimed we must rework our thinking about such distinctions as to conceive of a “Parliament of Things” wherein natural phenomena, social phenomena and the discourse about them are not seen as separate objects to be studied by specialists, but as hybrids made and scrutinized by the public interaction of people, things and concepts (ibid. 142-145).

Rosi Braidotti offers us a reading of Deleuze as neo-Vitalist, a neo-Spinozist whose ethics is activated by a specific subjectivity and mode of ontological life (zoe). She defends Deleuze against the post-Hedeggerians (Foucault, Derrida, Agamben, etc.) saying that he espouses the generative force of Zoê and a culture of affirmation rather than negation:

Life is not an a priori that gets individuated in single instances, but it is immanent to and thus coincides with its multiple material actualizations. … Deleuze’s immanence … locates the affirmation in the exteriority, the cruel, messy, outside-ness of Life itself.2 (172)

Braidotti argues that the Liberal Subject is no longer viable, the called for in this post-liberal era are new modes of ethical behavior.  Beyond the liberal universalistic and individual core lies the realm of an ethics of forces, desires, and values that act as “empowering modes of becoming”, rather than the moralistic framework of established protocols and sets of rules and guidelines for behavior (173). That there are certain prerequisites and preconditions for such move is without doubt and Braidtotti situates her stance within a framework that entails a new understanding of subjectivity. She follows Deleuze in affirming Life as central, but this vital force is defined within the older Greek notion of zoe – Zoê (from ancient Greek ζωή, meaning spiritual life, in contrast to Bios, meaning bological life): as a vital force that is non-human, impersonal, generative, trans-individual, post-anthropocentric, and post-finitude dimension of subjectivity (173-174).

Continue reading