The Utopian Mind: Ideology, Capital, and the Anthropocene

A state of mind is utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs.

—Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia

We are all utopians now. I don’t think there is a person alive who hasn’t at one time or other thought to themselves: the world is fucking insane. Look around you at the world today. Charles Derber tells us that sociopathy is antisocial behavior by an individual or institution that typically advances self-interest, such as making money, while harming others and attacking the fabric of society. In a sociopathic society, sociopathic behavior, both by individuals and institutions, is the outcome of dominant social values and power arrangements. A sociopathic society, paradoxically, creates dominant social norms that are antisocial— that is, norms that assault the well-being and survival of much of the population and undermine the social bonds and sustainable environmental conditions essential to any form of social order.  Like an autoimmune disease, such antisocial societal programming leads to behavior that weakens and can, in the most extreme scenario, kill the society itself.1

Is that what we’re doing? Committing social hari-kari? Suicide? Or, sociopathic genocide against ourselves? Madness reigns. The late great J.G. Ballard in Hello America! chants the post-apocalyptic blues or Fun House carnival at the end of things:

August 28. Topeka, Kansas. Interstate 70

An unhappy day. Things are starting to fall apart, we’re spending almost all our time hunting for water. Everything is arid here, an endless thirstland, I’ve never seen so many drained swimming-pools. Orlowski’s camel died. While Steiner and I were transferring his gear Ricci secretly raided the 6 jerricans I’d painfully collected. I caught him literally red-handed, chin and hands stained with rust. Hiding in the motel bathroom, gangster suit covered with white dust, jerrican clutched to his chest, he looked quite mad. Steiner was ready to gun him down there and then, in Cabin 6 of the Skyline Park Motel, but I let him go. Orlowski is a dead weight, his fever goes and comes again. Anne lies exhausted on her bed, drawn up alongside mine, unwashed face covered with blisters and smudged mascara, staring at the dials of her seismograph and complaining to me about the San Francisco earthquake, as if it was my fault. Sounds like a special kind of twentieth-century marriage. Have we come too far?2

Have we come to far? Yes, indeed, but there’s no stopping it now. No. We had all the time in the world to do something, but as usual we just went with the flow, dipped our heads into the muddy waters of some slime pit of temporal forgetfulness and let the dripping sands of entropy slide on down the piss hole. So here we are wondering what happened.

Maybe we’re all like good old Bob Slocum in Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. A man who had it all, was living the American dream. Had a beautiful wife, three lovely children, a nice house…and all the mistresses he desired. Had it all — all, that is, but happiness. Slocum was discontent. Inevitably, inexorably, his discontent deteriorated into desolation until…something happened. A man whose pessimistic view of the world has brought him to the point he’d rather not have been born at all: “I have exchanged the position of the fetus for the position of the corpse.”

As M.E. Thomas a self-confessed sociopath confesses:

Sometimes it feels like I am in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers and any slipup or indication that I am different will draw suspicion. I mimic the way other people interact with others, not to trick them, but so I can hide among them. I hide because I fear that if I am discovered there will be unpredictable negative consequences as part of being affiliated with a disorder plagued by pejorative connotations. I don’t want to end up fired from my job or kept away from children or institutionalized just because other people can’t understand me. I hide because society has made it almost impossible to do otherwise.3

But one asks: In a society that is already sociopathic to the hilt what can one do but hide? To admit one’s normalcy against the abnormal truth of Western Civilization is to suddenly feel absolutely naked and alone. Are there others like us, do they feel the same way, do they feel at all? If one shows any sign of empath, affect, feeling one is already lost, captured by any number of social and technological apparatuses that are continuously indexing, filtering, analyzing, segmenting, stratifying one’s life into so much data that the moment they capture your real feelings your done for.

Adam Kotsko even admits we may need to make a pact with the sociopathic tendencies in society, saying: “If relating to social norms as tools is the mark of a sociopath, then perhaps we could all benefit from being more sociopathic. It may not be a matter of choosing between cynically manipulating social norms and faith-fully following them, but of choosing the goals toward which we cynically manipulate them— meaning first of all that we need to abandon the path of manipulating them toward self-undermining ends. Indeed, the problem with fantasy sociopaths may be that they are not sociopathic enough, that their end goals wind up serving the system they have supposedly transcended and mastered.”4

Talking of what constitutes ideology Slavoj Zizek, one of those dialecticians you hate to love, but do it anyway because of the sheer insanity of his energetic rush of words, thoughts, ideas spoke of John Carpenter’s They live (1988), “one of the neglected masterpieces of the Hollywood Left” in his book The Plague of Fantasies:

The film tells the story of John Nada (Spanish for ‘Nothing’!), a homeless labourer who finds work on a Los Angeles construction site. One of the other workers, Frank Armitage, takes him to spend the night in a local shantytown. While being shown around that night, he notices some odd behaviour at a small church across the street Investigating it the next day, he accidentally stumbles on several boxes, hidden in a secret compartment in a wall, full of sunglasses. When he later puts on a pair for the first time, he notices that a publicity billboard now simply displays the word ‘OBEY’, while another urges the viewer to ‘MARRY AND REPRODUCE’. He also sees that paper money now bears the words ‘THIS IS YOUR GOD’. He soon discovers that many people in the city are actually aliens and then, once they realize he can see them for what they are, the police arrive. Nada escapes and returns to the construction site to talk over his discoveries with Armitage, who is initially uninterested in his story. The two fight as Nada attempts to convince him, and then to force him, to put on the sunglasses. When he finally does so, Armitage joins together with Nada and they get in contact with the group from the church, who are organizing the resistance. At the group’s meeting they learn that the aliens’ primary method of control is a signal sent out over television that ensures that the general public cannot see them for what they are. In the final battle, after destroying the aliens’ broadcasting antenna, Nada is mortally wounded; as his last dying act, he gives the aliens the finger. With the signal now turned off, people are startled to find the aliens in their midst.4

In our own time we may be surprised more to find out that instead of all those others being aliens, we discover something even more hideous as we put on the sunglasses and look into the mirror: it is not them, but us who are the monstrous creatures from the dark and indifferent realms of “cosmic alienage” (Lovecraft).

Adam Curtis in his film Living in an Unreal World describes our sociopathic society and its ideology of hypernormalization:

In Adam’s world we are already living in the matrix, a machine for the capture and distribution of desire and profit, a upward mobile distribution system that feeds the oligarchs while leaving us starving on the flow of endless images. In such a world one understands what Ballard means when he says: “Because consumerism makes inherent demands, it has inherent needs, which can only be satisfied by pressing the accelerator down a little harder, moving a little faster, upping all the antes. In order to keep spending and keep believing, we need to move into the area of the psychopathic. That’s the fear.”6

It’s this sense of desperation that pervades the capitalist utopia, a sense that we not only need to “Keep up with the Jone’s,”  but rather we need to surpass them, hit the pedal to the metal, accelerate the process till we hit that ultimate time barrier. In Ballard’s Millennium People one of the characters admits that what drives our society now is absolute psychopathy:

‘It isn’t only the psychopath who can grasp the idea of absolute nothing. Even a meaningless universe has meaning. Accept that and everything makes a new kind of sense.’

‘Difficult to do, without dragging in your own obsessions.’ I tossed the cup into the cluttered sink. ‘We all carry baggage. The psychopath is unique in not being afraid of himself. Unconsciously, he already believes in nothing.’7

This sense that we’re all nihilists now, that in a post-truth world where humans have lost their minds, their bodies, their belief systems, their politics, religion, and most of all their trust in themselves that we’ve entered the last stages of civilization. A stage in which something needs to happen, something needs to give, we need a sense of change… and, yet, we all feel that it’s not going to come, that we’re all trapped in some mythic world of eternal return, a realm of pure violence and aggression.

The late Mark Fisher discussing Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), describes this eerie feeling one gets that everything one is doing and has done has always been done: “The providential intervention is thus revealed as a time loop, in which future humans act on the past to produce the conditions for their own survival.”8 He goes on to say,

By the end of the film, we learn that “They” are not aliens as such; rather, they are future humans who have evolved to access a “fifth dimension” which allows them to step outside the fourth dimension, time. But the alterity of “They” is not compromised by the revelation that they are future humans, because the nature of these humans is not disclosed. Inevitably, they must be vastly different from us — the future is an alien country. We apprehend this future species only by some of its traces — the construction of the wormhole and of the mysterious five-dimensional “Tesseract”, in which time is laid out as if it were space…  (pp. 117-118).

It’s this sense of being cut off in time and space, isolated, repeating our lives over and over again till we get it right or not. A sense of utter futility in which we realize we’re not living our lives for ourselves, but for some other world – a future world to which we have always been drawn, even dreamed of, felt a premonition and need to enter, a utopian desire for its paradisial existence. But then we wake up and eerily realize that the world we hoped for, the world we dreamed of is not a paradise but an absolute hell, and we are being lured into a temporal sink hole to help these future selves to survive.

At the heart of all subversive fantasies is the uncertainty that the world we’re living in is not the real world, but an unreal realm that we’ve been suckered into, forced to live in by some unknown and impossible power. Suddenly the edges of our world come unglued, we begin to see ghosts, shadows, vampires, werewolves, doubles, partial selves, reflections, enclosures, monsters, beasts, cannibals. We begin to feel unnatural and transgressive impulses towards incest, necrophilia, androgyny, cannibalism, recidivism, narcissism, abnormal psychological states conventionally categorized as hallucinations, dream, insanity, paranoia, and the slinking suspicion that we are not what we thought we are. Uncertainty and impossibility inscribe themselves across every aspect of our daily lives, we begin to mistrust ourselves, our loved ones, our bosses, our leaders, and feel like the world is fraying at the edges. In such a state we cannot tell the real from the unreal and begin to second guess ourselves, wondering if its just our own insanity or whether the world truly is insane.

Maybe it’s just an afternoon picnic at one’s favorite park. Something like Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock,

They see the walls of the gymnasium fading into an exquisite transparency, the ceiling opening up like a flower into the brilliant sky above Hanging Rock. The shadow of the Rock is flowing, luminous as water, across the shimmering plains and they are at the picnic, sitting on the warm dry grass under the gum trees…

As one is sitting there watching the children play, or one’s wife or husband tossing a ball to the dog, there comes a moment when one by one they all seem to vanish from the scene, as if a wall in time or space had opened up and swallowed them. One sits there wondering what is happening, fearful that the world is not the world. Then one realizes that the only thing keeping one bound to this realm is one’s thoughts, one’s hopes and dreams, the illusive need to believe… or, as Mark Fisher speaking of the film suggests, everyone one has ever loved has “disappeared, and their disappearances will leave haunting gaps, eerie intimations of the outside” (128)

 


  1. Derber, Charles. Sociopathic Society: A People’s Sociology of the United States (Kindle Locations 297-303). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
  2. Ballard, J. G.. Hello America: A Novel (pp. 100-101). Liveright. Kindle Edition.
  3. M.E. Thomas. Confessions of a Sociopath (Kindle Locations 289-293). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  4. Kotsko, Adam. Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television (pp. 15-16). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.
  5. Zizek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. (Verso, 1997)
  6. Ballard, J.G; Sellars, Simon; O’Hara, Dan. Extreme Metaphors (Kindle Locations 7131-7133). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
  7. Ballard, J. G.. Millennium People: A Novel (pp. 135-136). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  8. Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie (p. 117). Watkins Media. Kindle Edition.

 

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