Tag Archives: utopia

Politics of ruin

Every dystopia is a history of the future. What are the consequences of a literature, even a pulp literature, of political desperation? “It’s a sad commentary on our age that we find dystopias a lot easier to believe in than utopias,” Atwood wrote in the nineteen-eighties. “Utopias we can only imagine; dystopias we’ve already had.” But what was really happening then was that the genre and its readers were sorting themselves out by political preference, following the same path—to the same ideological bunkers—as families, friends, neighborhoods, and the news. In the first year of Obama’s Presidency, Americans bought half a million copies of “Atlas Shrugged.” In the first month of the Administration of Donald (“American carnage”) Trump, during which Kellyanne Conway talked about alternative facts, “1984” jumped to the top of the Amazon best-seller list. (Steve Bannon is a particular fan of a 1973 French novel called “The Camp of the Saints,” in which Europe is overrun by dark-skinned immigrants.) The duel of dystopias is nothing so much as yet another place poisoned by polarized politics, a proxy war of imaginary worlds.

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own. Left or right, the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism. “This isn’t a story about war,” El Akkad writes in “American War.” “It’s about ruin.” A story about ruin can be beautiful. Wreckage is romantic. But a politics of ruin is doomed.

–Jill Lepore, A Golden Age of Dystopian Fiction

Neither savage nor barbarian

Clara broke in here, flushing a little as she spoke: ‘Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living? — a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate — “nature”, as people used to call it — as one thing, and mankind another. It was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make “nature” their slave, since they thought “nature was something outside them.’

‘Surely,’ said Morsom; ‘and they were puzzled as to what to do, till they found the feeling against mechanical life, which had begun before the Great Change amongst people who had leisure to think of such things, was spreading insensibly; till at last under the guise of pleasure that was not supposed to be work, work that was pleasure began to push out the mechanical toil, which they had once hoped at the best to reduce to narrow limits indeed, but never to get rid of, and which, moreover, they found they could not limit as they had hoped to do.’

‘When did this new revolution gather head?’ said I.

‘In the half-century that followed the Great Change,’ said Morsom, ‘it began to be noteworthy; machine after machine wa quietly dropped under the excuse that the machines could not produce works of art, and that works of art were more and more called for. Look here,’ he said, ‘here are some of the works of that time — rought and unskilful in handiwork, but solid and showing some sense of pleasure in the making.’

‘They are very curious,’ said I, taking up a piece of pottery from amongst the specimens which the antiquary was showing us; ‘not a bit like the work of either savages or barbarians, and yet with what would once have been called a hatred of civilization impressed upon them.’

–William Morris, News from Nowhere, or an epoch of rest, being some chapters from a utopian romance. Edited by James Remond, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970, pp. 154-55. (1890)


Real strenuous business

“For fantasy is also a harsh mistress and includes its own ironclad reality principle. You cannot satisfactorily daydream about living forever without first settling the practical matter of how those who do not live forever are going to be handled: fantasy demands a certain realism in order to gain even provisional or ephemeral libidinal an aesthetic credit, and this is indeed the deeper truth-mechanism of narrative itself (and the source of the adage about trusting the tale rather than the teller and his own personal ideology). However a story may originate in private wish fulfillment, it must end up disguising its private subjectivity and repairing all the non-functioning machinery, building a village behind the Potemkin facade, dealing with the sheerly logical contradictions the unconscious has left behind it in its haste — in short, shifting the attention of the aesthetic spectator from the gratification of the wish to its far less appealing preconditions in the Real, and thereby becoming in the process transformed from the expression of an ideology to its implicit critique.

In the case of longevity or immortality, I would not want this critique to be taken in any moralizing sense. I am indeed astonished and appalled at the degree of residual moralism still inherent in this topic. It surely has some relationship to the traditional anti-Utopian motif of ultimate boredom I referred to, although the scarcely veiled motivation of this is political and thereby a little less complicated than the insistence of so many writers on the subject that it would be evil to live forever, that true human existence requires a consent to mortality, if only to make room for our children’s children; that hubris and egotism are to be denounced as prime elements in this particular fantasy about the supreme private property, not merely of having a self but of having it live forever. All that may be so, but I would be very embarrassed to argue it this way, and there is certainly an aroma of ressentiment or sour grapes to be detected in this extraordinary puritanism, which may simply reflect the greater facility accorded to writers by simple religious and ethical paradigms, as opposed to the more strenuous business of imagining the social itself.” — Fredric Jameson, “Longevity as Class Struggle” from Archaeologies of the Future