Monday, June 26, 2017

A Utopia for a Dystopian Age

The term “utopia” was coined 500 years ago. By conjoining the Greek adverb “ou” (“not”) and the noun “topos” (“place”) the English humanist and politician Thomas More conceived of a place that is not — literally a “nowhere” or “noplace.” More’s learned readers would also have recognized another pun. The pronunciation of “utopia” can just as well be associated with “eu-topia,” which in Greek means “happy place.” Happiness, More might have suggested, is something we can only imagine. And yet imagining it, as philosophers, artists and politicians have done ever since, is far from pointless.

More was no doubt a joker. “Utopia,” his fictional travelogue about an island of plenty and equality, is told by a character whose name, Hythloday, yet another playful conjoining of Greek words, signifies something like “nonsense peddler.” Although More comes across as being quite fond of his noplace, he occasionally interrupts the narrative by warning against the islanders’ rejection of private property. Living under the reign of the autocratic Henry VIII, and being a prominent social figure, More might not have wanted to rock the boat too much.

Precisely that — rocking the boat — has, however, been the underlying aim of the great utopias that have shaped Western culture. It has animated and informed progressive thinking, providing direction and a sense of purpose to struggles for social change and emancipation. From the vantage point of the utopian imagination, history — that gushing river of seemingly contingent micro-events — has taken on meaning, becoming a steadfast movement toward the sought-for condition supposedly able to justify all previous striving and suffering.

Utopianism can be dreamy in a John Lennon “Imagine”-esque way. Yet it has also been ready to intervene and bring about concrete transformation.

Utopias come in different forms. Utopias of desire, as in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” focus on happiness, tying it to the satisfaction of needs. Such utopias, demanding the complete alleviation of pain and sometimes glorious spaces of enjoyment and pleasure, tend, at least in modern times, to rely on technology. The utopias of technology see social, bodily and environmental ills as requiring technological solutions. We know such solutions all too well: ambitious city-planning schemes and robotics as well as dreams of cosmic expansion and immortality. (...)

Today, the utopian impulse seems almost extinguished. The utopias of desire make little sense in a world overrun by cheap entertainment, unbridled consumerism and narcissistic behavior. The utopias of technology are less impressive than ever now that — after Hiroshima and Chernobyl — we are fully aware of the destructive potential of technology. Even the internet, perhaps the most recent candidate for technological optimism, turns out to have a number of potentially disastrous consequences, among them a widespread disregard for truth and objectivity, as well as an immense increase in the capacity for surveillance. The utopias of justice seem largely to have been eviscerated by 20th-century totalitarianism. After the Gulag Archipelago, the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields and the Cultural Revolution, these utopias seem both philosophically and politically dead.

The great irony of all forms of utopianism can hardly escape us. They say one thing, but when we attempt to realize them they seem to imply something entirely different. Their demand for perfection in all things human is often pitched at such a high level that they come across as aggressive and ultimately destructive. Their rejection of the past, and of established practice, is subject to its own logic of brutality.

And not only has the utopian imagination been stung by its own failures, it has also had to face up to the two fundamental dystopias of our time: those of ecological collapse and thermonuclear warfare. The utopian imagination thrives on challenges. Yet these are not challenges but chillingly realistic scenarios of utter destruction and the eventual elimination of the human species. Add to that the profoundly anti-utopian nature of the right-wing movements that have sprung up in the United States and Europe and the prospects for any kind of meaningful utopianism may seem bleak indeed. In matters social and political, we seem doomed if not to cynicism, then at least to a certain coolheadedness.

Anti-utopianism may, as in much recent liberalism, call for controlled, incremental change. The main task of government, Barack Obama ended up saying, is to avoid doing stupid stuff. However, anti-utopianism may also become atavistic and beckon us to return, regardless of any cost, to an idealized past. In such cases, the utopian narrative gets replaced by myth. And while the utopian narrative is universalistic and future-oriented, myth is particularistic and backward-looking. Myths purport to tell the story of us, our origin and of what it is that truly matters for us. Exclusion is part of their nature.

Can utopianism be rescued? Should it be? To many people the answer to both questions is a resounding no.

There are reasons, however, to think that a fully modern society cannot do without a utopian consciousness. To be modern is to be oriented toward the future. It is to be open to change even radical change, when called for. With its willingness to ride roughshod over all established certainties and ways of life, classical utopianism was too grandiose, too rationalist and ultimately too cold. We need the ability to look beyond the present. But we also need More’s insistence on playfulness. Once utopias are embodied in ideologies, they become dangerous and even deadly.

by Espen Hammer, NY Times | Read more:
Image: Hieronymus Bosch