5 Matching Annotations
  1. Nov 2018
    1. Immediately many people will object that this is too hard, too implausible, contradictory to human nature, politically impossible, uneconomical, and so on. Yeah yeah. Here we see the shift from cruel optimism to stupid pessimism, or call it fashionable pessimism, or simply cynicism. It’s very easy to object to the utopian turn by invoking some poorly-defined but seemingly omnipresent reality principle. Well-off people do this all the time.
    2. One way of being anti-anti-utopian is to be utopian. It’s crucial to keep imagining that things could get better, and furthermore to imagine how they might get better. Here no doubt one has to avoid Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” which is perhaps thinking and saying that things will get better without doing the work of imagining how. In avoiding that, it may be best to recall the Romain Rolland quote so often attributed to Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Or maybe we should just give up entirely on optimism or pessimism—we have to do this work no matter how we feel about it. So by force of will or the sheer default of emergency we make ourselves have utopian thoughts and ideas.
    3. It’s important to remember that utopia and dystopia aren’t the only terms here. You need to use the Greimas rectangle and see that utopia has an opposite, dystopia, and also a contrary, the anti-utopia. For every concept there is both a not-concept and an anti-concept. So utopia is the idea that the political order could be run better. Dystopia is the not, being the idea that the political order could get worse. Anti-utopias are the anti, saying that the idea of utopia itself is wrong and bad, and that any attempt to try to make things better is sure to wind up making things worse, creating an intended or unintended totalitarian state, or some other such political disaster. 1984 and Brave New World are frequently cited examples of these positions. In 1984 the government is actively trying to make citizens miserable; in Brave New World, the government was first trying to make its citizens happy, but this backfired. As Jameson points out, it is important to oppose political attacks on the idea of utopia, as these are usually reactionary statements on the behalf of the currently powerful, those who enjoy a poorly-hidden utopia-for-the-few alongside a dystopia-for-the-many. This observation provides the fourth term of the Greimas rectangle, often mysterious, but in this case perfectly clear: one must be anti-anti-utopian.
    4. For a while now I’ve been saying that science fiction works by a kind of double action, like the glasses people wear when watching 3D movies. One lens of science fiction’s aesthetic machinery portrays some future that might actually come to pass; it’s a kind of proleptic realism. The other lens presents a metaphorical vision of our current moment, like a symbol in a poem. Together the two views combine and pop into a vision of History, extending magically into the future. By that definition, dystopias today seem mostly like the metaphorical lens of the science-fictional double action. They exist to express how this moment feels, focusing on fear as a cultural dominant. A realistic portrayal of a future that might really happen isn’t really part of the project—that lens of the science fiction machinery is missing. The Hunger Games trilogy is a good example of this; its depicted future is not plausible, not even logistically possible. That’s not what it’s trying to do. What it does very well is to portray the feeling of the present for young people today, heightened by exaggeration to a kind of dream or nightmare. To the extent this is typical, dystopias can be thought of as a kind of surrealism.
    5. These days I tend to think of dystopias as being fashionable, perhaps lazy, maybe even complacent, because one pleasure of reading them is cozying into the feeling that however bad our present moment is, it’s nowhere near as bad as the ones these poor characters are suffering through. Vicarious thrill of comfort as we witness/imagine/experience the heroic struggles of our afflicted protagonists—rinse and repeat. Is this catharsis? Possibly more like indulgence, and creation of a sense of comparative safety. A kind of late-capitalist, advanced-nation schadenfreude about those unfortunate fictional citizens whose lives have been trashed by our own political inaction. If this is right, dystopia is part of our all-encompassing hopelessness. On the other hand, there is a real feeling being expressed in them, a real sense of fear. Some speak of a “crisis of representation” in the world today, having to do with governments—that no one anywhere feels properly represented by their government, no matter which style of government it is. Dystopia is surely one expression of that feeling of detachment and helplessness. Since nothing seems to work now, why not blow things up and start over? This would imply that dystopia is some kind of call for revolutionary change. There may be something to that. At the least dystopia is saying, even if repetitiously and unimaginatively, and perhaps salaciously, Something’s wrong. Things are bad.