[Paleopsych] Boston GLobe: Back to utopia
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Mon Dec 26 02:25:07 UTC 2005
Back to utopia
[Would someone please read these books and tell me what a non-capitalist
society would look like?]
Can the antidote to today's neoliberal triumphalism be found in the pages of
far-out science fiction?
By Joshua Glenn | November 20, 2005
IN 1888, when Massachusetts newspaperman Edward Bellamy published his
science fiction novel ''Looking Backward," set in a Boston of the year
2000, it sold half a million copies. Never mind the futuristic
inventions (electric lighting, credit cards) and visionary city
planning; what readers responded to was the transformation of a Gilded
Age city of labor strikes and social unrest into a socialist utopia
(Bellamy called it ''nationalist") of full employment and material
By 1890 there were 162 reformist Bellamy Clubs around the country,
with a membership that included public figures like the influential
novelist, editor, and critic William Dean Howells; and from 1891-96,
the Bellamy-inspired Nationalist Party helped propel the Populist
Movement. The Bellamyites fervently believed, to paraphrase the slogan
of today's anti-globalization movement, that another world was
But during the Cold War - thanks to Stalinism and the success of such
dystopian fables as Aldous Huxley's ''Brave New World" and George
Orwell's ''Nineteen Eighty-Four" - all radical programs promising
social transformation became suspect. Speaking for his fellow
chastened liberals at a Partisan Review symposium in 1952, for
example, the theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr
dismissed what he called the utopianism of the 1930s as ''an
Niebuhr and other influential anti-utopians of mid-century - Isaiah
Berlin, Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper - had a point. From Plato's
''Republic" to Thomas More's 1517 traveler's tale ''Utopia" (the title
of which became a generic term), to the idealistic communism of
Rousseau and other pre- and post-French Revolution thinkers, to
Bellamy's ''Looking Backward" itself, utopian narratives have often
shared a naive and unseemly eagerness to force square pegs into round
holes via thought control and coercion. By the end of the 20th
century, most utopian projects did look proto-totalitarian.
In recent years, however, certain eminent contrarians - most notably
Fredric Jameson, author of the seminal ''Postmodernism, Or, the
Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" (1991) and Russell Jacoby, author
most recently of ''The End of Utopia" (1999) and ''Picture Imperfect:
Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age" (2005)-have lamented the
wholesale abandonment of such utopian ideas of the left as the
abolition of property, the triumph of solidarity, and the end of
racism and sexism.
The question, for thinkers like these, is how to revive the spirit of
utopia - the current enfeeblement of which, Jameson claims, ''saps our
political options and tends to leave us all in the helpless position
of passive accomplices and impotent handwringers" - without repeating
the errors of what Jacoby has dubbed ''blueprint utopianism," that is,
a tendency to map out utopian society in minute detail. How to avoid,
as Jameson puts it, effectively ''colonizing the future"?
Is the thought of a noncapitalist utopia even possible after
Stalinism, after decades of anticommunist polemic on the part of
brilliant and morally engaged intellectuals? Or are we all convinced,
in a politically paralyzing way, that Margaret Thatcher had it right
when she crowed that ''there is no alternative" to free-market
Borrowing Sartre's slogan, coined after the Soviet invasion of
Hungary, about being neither communist nor anticommunist but
''anti-anticommunist," Jameson suggests we give
''anti-anti-utopianism" a try. In his latest book, ''Archaeologies of
the Future," just published by Verso, he invites us to explore an
overlooked canon of anti-anti-utopian narratives that some, to echo
Niebuhr, might find embarrassingly adolescent: offbeat science fiction
novels of the 1960s and '70s.
Jameson, a professor of comparative literature at Duke, isn't talking
about ''Star Trek" novelizations. Because of the Cold War emphasis on
dystopias, Cold War writers like Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin,
and Samuel R. Delany had to find radical new ways to express their
inexpressible hopes about the future, claims Jameson. At this moment
of neoliberal triumphalism, he suggests, we should take these writers
seriously - even if their ideas are packaged inside lurid paperbacks.
In Dick's uncanny novels, the author demands of us that we decide for
ourselves what's real and what isn't. ''Martian Time-Slip" (1964), for
example, is partly told from the perspective of a 10-year-old
schizophrenic colonist on Mars, where civilization is devolving into
''gubbish." And ''The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" (1965) is a
psychedelic odyssey of hallucinations-within-hallucinations from which
no reader emerges unscathed.
Delany, meanwhile, is best known for ''Trouble on Triton" (1976), a
self-consciously post-structuralist novel that depicts a future where
neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality is the norm. Le Guin, author
of a fantasy series for children, ''The Earthsea Trilogy," explores
Taoist, anarchist, and feminist themes in novels like ''The Left Hand
of Darkness" (1969) and ''The Dispossessed" (1974). Fans of Dick,
Delany, and their ilk warn neophytes not to read too many of their
books too quickly: Doing so, as this reader can attest, tends to
result in pronounced feelings of irreality, paranoia, and angst.
In ''Archaeologies," Jameson characterizes utopian narratives (which
he classifies as a subgenre of science fiction) as being, at the level
of content, less a vision of a truly different world than a
situation-specific response to a concrete historical dilemma: the
immiseration of the working class during the later 19th century, in
Bellamy's case. Such content is ''vacuous," he sniffs, and of interest
primarily to antiquarians.
The ability of utopian narratives in particular, and science fiction
in general, to break the paralyzing spell of the quotidian has less to
do with its content than with its form, he argues persuasively. (Buck
Rogers-type science fiction in the mode of ''extrapolation and mere
anticipation of all kinds of technological marvels," as Jameson puts
it, is far less effective at doing so.) It requires a tremendous
effort to imagine a daily life that is politically, economically,
socially, and psychologically truly different from our own. And this
effort, Jameson writes, warps the structure of science fiction. As a
result, he claims, even Dick's amphetamine-fuelled potboilers are as
productively alienating as the plays of Brecht and Beckett.
But isn't it perverse to describe novels quite so alienating as
utopian? The title character of Dick's ''Palmer Eldritch," for
example, is an industrialist-turned-evil demiurge who brings to
mankind a ''negative trinity" of ''alienation, blurred reality, and
despair" in the form of Chew-Z, a drug that inducts users into a
hallucinatory semireality from which they can never finally escape. Le
Guin's ''The Dispossessed," meanwhile, was written as a pointed
critique of typical utopian narratives: It's set on Annares, a planet
whose hippie-like inhabitants value voluntary cooperation, local
control, and mutual tolerance - but who have preserved their
grooviness through dogmatic conformism and an entrenched bureaucracy
that stifles innovation. Le Guin's protagonist abandons Annares for a
nearby world, one that is superior in important respects because its
inhabitants value the free market; later editions of the book are
subtitled ''An Ambiguous Utopia."
Delany, finally, gave ''Triton" (set on a Neptunian colony where no
one goes hungry and everyone is sexually confused) the subtitle ''An
Ambiguous Heterotopia," to signal his own critique not only of utopian
narratives but of Le Guin's vestigial nostalgia for pastoral communes.
Asked in a recent interview why the science fiction novels that he
calls utopian portray future societies not even remotely like the
cloud-cuckoo-land the term suggests, Jameson explained that the
problem confronting Cold War science fiction writers was how to
describe utopia ''negatively," in terms of what it won't be like.
''There is, in effect, a ban on graven images, meaning you can't
represent the future in a realistic way," he said. Anti-anti-utopian
writing ''has to be about freeing the imagination from the present,"
Jameson continued, ''rather than trying to offer impoverished pictures
of what life in the future's going to be."
Dystopias aren't the only example of ''negative" utopianism, Jameson
points out in ''Archaeologies." The rise to popularity in the
mid-1960s and early '70s of disaster novels - about atomic warfare,
meteors hitting the Earth, environmental collapse, and so forth -
ought to be interpreted as evidence of a collective desire to start
over from scratch, he writes. He points to books like Dick's ''Dr.
Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb" (1965), a pastoral set
in a post-apocalyptic Berkeley; Le Guin's ''The Lathe of Heaven"
(1971), about an overpopulated Portland, Ore., made livable by a
plague; and John Brunner's ''The Sheep Look Up" (1972), about an Earth
whose air is unbreathable.
These books are more utopian, in a way, than Bellamy-style idylls,
Jameson claims, because the latter offer false hope that ameliorative
reforms might transform society. ''What utopian thought wants to make
us aware of is the need for complete systemic change, change in the
totality of social relations, and not just an improvement in bourgeois
culture," he said. ''If we want a [bourgeois idyll], we can go to
If discussing a future society that can't be represented realistically
is complicated and off-putting, that's because ''it's a new form of
thinking," Jameson insisted. ''It's a new dimension of the exercise of
Jameson, who's been writing about Dick, Le Guin, Delany, Brunner, and
others in the pages of scholarly journals like Science Fiction Studies
for 30 years, is reticent when it comes to the question of what makes
a great anti-anti-utopian narrative. ''The talent or the greatness of
science fiction writers," he said, ''lies in what individual solutions
they have for a formal problem - the ban on graven images - that
cannot be resolved. There's no universal recipe." But when it comes to
the power of science fiction to spring us from what he claims is our
current state of political paralysis, Jameson is enthusiastic. ''It's
only when people come to realize that there is no alternative," he
said, ''that they react against it, at least in their imaginations,
and try to think of alternatives."
Can reading science fiction, I asked, help us decide between various
utopian alternatives - urban vs. pastoral, statist vs. anarchistic?
No, replied Jameson, insisting there are ''utopian elements" in each
of these. What science fiction does afford us, he said, ''is not a
synthesis of these elements but a process where the imagination begins
to question itself, to move back and forth among the possibilities."
What contemporary science fiction author most inspires this ideal
process? In ''Archaeologies," Jameson suggests it might be a former
doctoral student of his, Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote his
dissertation on Philip K. Dick and whose popular trilogy, ''Red Mars"
(1992), ''Green Mars" (1993), and ''Blue Mars" (1995), explores the
political, economic, and ecological crises that ensue when
21st-century colonists from Earth begin terraforming Mars. Instead of
asking the reader to decide on any one of the colonists' competing
utopian ideologies, Jameson said, Robinson ''goes back and forth
between these various visions, [allowing us to see] it's not a matter
of choosing between them but of using them to destabilize our own
existence, our own social life at present."
In the final analysis, Jameson writes in ''Archaeologies," the
demanding exercise of holding incompatible visions in mind is what
''gives utopia its savor and its bitter freshness, when the thought of
utopias is still possible."
Joshua Glenn writes the Examined Life column for Ideas. E-mail
jglenn at globe.com.
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