Tag Archives: critical utopia

necessary but not sufficient; on hope and optimism in solarpunk and cyberpunk

Start with a disclaimer: I do not identify as a solarpunk. However, I do know some folk who do—most notably m’good buddy Jay Springett, who is one of that scene’s ideologues-in-chief, in as much as it has such things.

I also know some folk who study solarpunk from the perspective of the environmental humanities (EH), which is a discipline which overlaps somewhat with whatever the hell it is that counts for my own (un)discipline. For me (and I think for some of the EH people), solarpunk represents a predominantly (though, as Jay would point out, not at all exclusively) literary attempt to construct utopian imaginaries of climate-change adaptation achieved predominantly through the deployment of non-fossil energy generation technologies, plus a grab-bag of sociopolitical approaches which range from the full tech-bro-topia, to something that looks a lot like a form of degrowth as forced by an apocalyptic and out-of-frame climate Event. Heretofore, solarpunk has struggled to establish itself as a successful subgenre in commercial terms—though I am given to understand this is not really the point of it for “movement solarpunks”.

Part of the problem is that the development of literary form has rendered the classical utopian mode archaic and uninteresting to anyone not predisposed to its underlying theory: put more simply, classical utopias just don’t do the things that most readers want and expect a novel to do (which, at the risk of being reductive, is to depict characters struggling against obstacles to achieve goals, often in some derivation of the Hero’s Journey or similar metanarratives). The technological utopian mode, which dominated sf for most of the twentieth century, still has a significant (if dwindling and greying) fanbase, but it’s founded on the notion that all challenges are soluble through predominantly technological means without significant reconfiguration of the dominant socioeconomic and political backdrop; to be reductive again, the technological utopia is about depicting the successful human mastery of nature through the dynamics of capitalist production. As I understand it, solarpunk clings to a technological-utopian ideal—it’s very much about depicting desirable futures enabled by technological means. But its tacit admission that climate change is not only caused by the consequences of technocapitalism, but also cannot be fully “solved” by it, means it can’t “fit” into the expectations of the technological utopian modality—which means it won’t sell to the grey fans of what Clute has called “the ‘old’ [or twentieth-century] sf”, in which “the future is the reward for saying ‘yes'”.

Dystopia, as any glance at the bookstore shelves—or Twitter, for that matter—still sells pretty well. There’s a long-running debate as to the ethics and morality of producing dystopic literatures in response to a challenge such as climate change that I don’t want to get into here, except to say that I’m largely in agreement with Ryan Oakley when he says “what the fuck is the point of writing dystopia if not to try to prevent it?”, and that I find Peter Watts’s wallowing in fatalism to be a great disappointment, coming as it does from someone who is both a brilliant writer and far more scientifically clued up than even the average sf author*. To be clear, I’m not in denial about the scale of the challenge—though there are days I wish that I could be, it’s a hazard of my profession, just as it is for Watts. It’s more that I suspect the climate defeatism is in a way almost as pernicious as climate denialism. With apologies for resorting to cliche: to try is to invite failure, but to not try is to ensure it.

All of which brings me to Nader Elhefnawy’s review of a new solarpunk antho at Strange Horizons. Now, to be clear, I’ve not read the book, nor indeed much solarpunk fiction; my interest here is less with the literature itself, and more the professed ideals of the movement which surround it. What first interested me about Elhefnawy’s piece was that we appear to be in agreement on the defeatism issue—Elhefnawy suggests that it’s a function of the manufacture of consent, which I suspect is at least in part true. (Though the case of Watts suggests there’s something in that particular imaginary that appeals even to those who are very aware of the scope of the climate challenge, to the extent that they will reproduce and spread it.)

Where we part ways—and where Elhefnawy, Watts and I perhaps begin to form a triangle of positions, rather than merely a binary—is in the conflation of optimism and hope. This conflation is pretty widespread, as indicated by the backlash and mockery piled upon the notion of hopepunk—which, admittedly, was a terribly corny name (though I suspect it was intended as a deliberately ironic construction, a riff perhaps upon solarpunk itself, which went on to be misparsed in the prevailing cultural vibe of the New Sincerity). But the original hopepunk pitch very clearly abjured optimism. That was the whole point: that optimism is passive (in much the same way that pessimism/defeatism is passive), but that hope is (self-)motivating, an action rather than a position: to hope for a better future is to look for ways in which you might work to bring it into being.

I’m in agreement with Elhefnawy’s insistence that reducing climate change to a singular Event in the distant past of a narrative is counterproductive to solarpunk’s supposed ideals—indeed, it’s a kind of pessimism, as well as a rejection of the fundamentally dynamic notion of ecosystems that does no favours to anyone who really wants to work for that better future. (If you assume that the climate might be “fixed” or returned to some notional idealised earlier state, by technological means or otherwise, then you’re just reproducing the social/natural dichotomy that enables the ongoing externalisation of said climate by propping up the dogma of perpetual growth.)

I also agree that there is a necessity for imaginaries which “[present] the possibility of a positive response to the problem, and acknowledging something of what it calls for—technology, organization, global scale”, as Elhefnawy puts it. But while I see those things as necessary, I do not see them as sufficient—and furthermore, I suspect that those things cannot be achieved without the smaller-scale community reconfigurations which solarpunk stories have heretofore focussed upon. That they haven’t yet done so in a manner that makes for good literature, nor often done so in a manner which recognises the linkage between the local and the global, between the individual and the systemic (which is, of course, the infrastructural metasystem), is a deficiency—but Elhefnawy’s reading suggests that some solarpunk authors are edging in that direction, albeit very gradually.

It seems to me that Elhefnawy is caught in the rubble of “the ‘old’ sf”, the literature of an older technoutopian metaimaginary: he recognises the poisonous legacy of technoutopianism (as seen in his rejection of defeatism as a fossil-sponsored narrative), but is still trapped by the legacy solutionisms of technological change and global governance as the only answer to the problem, and the route toward “the rejection of ‘the inevitability of our doom'”.

In other words, Elhefnawy seems to share at some level that same assumption that the problem can be “fixed”, when in fact the challenge is to adapt to a world in which a significant (but as yet not fully quantified or qualified) amount of environmental change is already a fait accompli. We could turn of every spigot of greenhouse gases today, and we’d still have perhaps a century or more of climate change to come, albeit change of a gradually lessening intensity. And even then, the new state into which the ecosystem settled would no be “how it was before we started with the fossils”—nor indeed would it be “settled”, as this is not how ecosystems work. They are in constant complex motion, even when seemingly in equilibrium as seen from the tiny temporal scale which our mortal monkey brains provide us. To be clear, we can—and should—still work for mitigation, and we should do so through global organisation to whatever extent that is possible. But more pressing for the vast majority of human and non-human beings on this planet is the challenge of adapting to what’s already in the pipe… and on that front, technological solutions (in the commonly-used sense of “novel” “entrepreneurial” “innovations”) and top-down governance aren’t going to do much good.

For regular readers, it will be no surprise that I think that solarpunk has the potential to be a subgenre that operatisonalises the critical-utopian mode—though whether that will necessarily make it commercially viable is another question, and perhaps to some extent beside the point. Elhefnawy’s reading suggests that the authors are not not there yet, but also that the audience isn’t quite ready for it either; while both authors and audience instinctively recognise the necessity of hope, it remains conflated with the legacy of twentieth century sf’s passive and solutionist techno-optimism.

However, I’m starting to think that the precursors of the critical-utopian modality I’m looking for have been hiding in plain sight all along, disguised by a misparsing of anything that isn’t necessarily (techno)utopian as being therefore dystopian. It’s not a fashionable thing to say in this day and age, but the better writers and writings of cyberpunk seem to me to have been grappling with the challenges of adaptation to neoliberal capitalism run amok all along (rather than celebrating it, as seems to be the prevalent critical position, at least in the more fannish ends of the critical junket); that those challenges were not always exclusively ecological-environmental is, if anything, a prop to my assumption. Think of stories like Sterling’s “Green Days in Brunei” or “Bicycle Repairman”: I’d say they’re clearly solarpunk, albeit very much avant le lettre. Or at least I see them as being what solarpunk claims it wants to be… and what it might become when it sheds the techno-optimistic legacy and sees more clearly what the challenges really are.

[ * I also find it a bit jarring that someone so very certain that the climate is hosed will still fly around the world to consultancy events to deliver his doomer prophecy… though I guess if you think there’s no chance of changing anything, then you might as well carbon-party like it’s 1999. It’s a shame; he’d be a great ally to the cause of hope, if he could bring himself to have some. ]

The future is not a static thing

Le Guin’s work is distinctive not only because it is imaginative, or because it is political, but because she thought so deeply about the work of building a future worth living. She did not just believe that a society free of consumerism and incarceration, like Shevek’s homeworld, could exist; she explored how that society could be built and understood the process would be hard work, and probably on some level disappointing. The future is not a static thing; to its architects, it is always in motion, always mid-creation, never realized.

Sarah Jones at Dissent Magazine.

an appropriately unheroic spirit

Nice chewy essay by John Farrell at LARB, on the long-running philosophical ding-dong between utopianism and what he calls the “literary-heroic worldview”.

… the transition to modernity, with its focus on economic rationality, has only changed the terms upon which status is distributed without assuaging the basic competitive drive that animated the literary culture of the heroic. The humanitarian program of the Enlightenment moderated but could not extinguish that drive, and tellingly, in the mid-20th century, the breakdown of capitalism brought back the protagonists of the ancient quarrel in nightmarishly magnified forms: Soviet communism and its imitators — the disastrous implementation of the classic utopian scheme — and fascism — the delusional resurgence of its heroic enemy.

[…]

The abundance of our current world has by no means deprived literature of its dystopian ingredients, only given them more scope. Ideal world-making, the original utopian flourish, has now been absorbed almost entirely by its dystopian rival. In the terrain of the imagination, dystopia has swallowed utopia whole, and Americans seek refuge from their comfortable lives in spectacles of primitive violence like The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones. The heroic mode has even shed some of its masculine bias, producing female action heroes like Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence. Nothing in the direction of our current politics casts the outlook for dystopia as anything less than promising.

[…]

The heroic-aristocratic literary mode, along with its economically driven successor, indulges the need for distinction to excess and distributes distinction unfairly, while the rational utopian mode seeks to eliminate this need altogether. One is chronically inhumane while the other verges on the inhuman. Both are still with us.

I have a lot of thoughts in response to this piece, but I lack the time to develop them fully at the moment. The main thing is that Farrell’s take here seems to confirm, or at least support, my own ongoing argument that the classic (and/or technological) modes of utopian thinking are as much a trap as the heroic/hierarchical worldview to which they set themselves in opposition; therefore a path to futurity must be found between those two points, a path that refuses to relinquish the possibility of societal betterment while also refusing to believe that perfection is achievable, while further acknowledging the inevitable failure of any such project without taking that as an excuse not to try. Those of you following along at home will recognise that formulation as my own reading of the critical utopian mode, building from Moylan and Levitas and others.

Also interesting is his observation that dystopia has “swallowed utopia whole”, which, following the implicit mapping of utopianism as a leftist (or at least leftish?) project and the literary-heroic as rightist, approaches the ongoing muddling of political valences from an interesting new angle: as Levitas has observed, while the right ostensibly scorns utopianism, it is in fact engaged in utopian speculation all the time; meanwhile the left struggles to find a utopia it can bring itself to believe in, and increasingly resorts to borrowing the tropes of the technological utopia to patch the holes (cf: Fully Automated Luxury Asteroid-Mining, solarpunk &c — all well-intended and admirable, yet all completely dependent on one or more unexamined externalisations and/or sf-nal moments of pure handwavium). The problem in both cases is the assumption that utopia is a blueprint — a destination, rather than a direction of travel. A noun, rather than a verb.

I’m reminded also of Rebecca Solnit and Donna Haraway’s channeling of Le Guin’s quiet, determined insistence on the rejection of the heroic narrative, which we erroneously assume to be a sort of gold standard in storytelling primarily because a powerful and influential man once told us it was.

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(I would note that I reject any suggestion that the critical utopia is a centrist compromise. Centrism is the doctrine of doubling down on the status quo, doing nothing which has not already been done. In this sense it’s the mildest form of the conservative utopia, which is distinguished by locating its “good place” in the past rather than in the future: centrism locates its utopia last Tuesday, just after lunch. The critical utopia, by contrast, locates utopia as being perpetually beyond the temporal horizon — it will not, cannot be reached. But it can be approached, one step at a time. It can be oriented and re-oriented toward.)

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Finally, and only in passing as a note-to-self: as part of a small reading group, I’m about 3/5ths through Spinoza’s Ethics, and this passage in Farrell’s piece has allowed me to situate that work in the larger philosophical schema.

The philosophical critique of the heroic worldview, in the thinking of Plato and the various Hellenistic schools (Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics), depended essentially upon a rational reassessment of human needs and values which rejected the notion that fame and the violent struggle against other human beings can be the chief source of happiness or the purpose of life. Living according to nature, not to be better than others or to survive as a fantasy in the minds of others, is the keynote of Greek philosophical ethics. Wisdom is seeking tranquility instead of glory, leisure instead of wealth, personal well-being instead of familial status. Social and political ambition are to be replaced by the contemplation of truth, the pleasure of discussion with friends, or the peaceful detachment that comes from accepting the limits of our knowledge. Philosophy’s goal is to overcome the turbulence of the body, with its carnal and competitive urges, and to preserve the health and balance of the psyche. Wisdom looks to the joy of the present, not the glory of past and future. In all of these ways, philosophy offered a pointed alternative to the heroic mode.

Spinoza was, whether he realised it or not, rehabilitating a Hellenic ethics for the early Enlightenment. (This may well be an extremely banal observation to anyone with a formal education in philosophy, but to this bootstrapper, it’s something of a lightbulb moment.)

“This opposition imagination”: Moylan (1980), Beyond Negation

  • Moylan, T. (1980). Beyond Negation: The Critical Utopias of Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany. Extrapolation, 21(3), 236-253.

This is the canonical paper defining the notion of the “critical utopia” in sf; Moylan went on to elaborate the idea in numerous articles and books further down the line, and I hope to get to those eventually. But when it comes to concepts on which I lean heavily in my own work, I like to go back to the earliest sources — not least because conceptual drift can occur as things get picked up and reused, in an intellectual version of the telephone game. To be clear, that’s a totally legitimate process, too, and hell knows I myself have been known to twist things when I pick them up and use them – but I like to think that I’m honest about the ways in which I do so, and I also like to know what the original shape was before I got to warping it.

So, yes, the critical utopia — no big surprises here, as sf scholarship is a fairly small and sedate scene, and its ideas don’t often get picked up and mutated by folk from outside of it. But as is often the case, there’s some interesting (and useful) nuance and detail to be had from the primary source.

Moylan’s basic argument here is that 1970s sf was ‘the source of a renewal of utopian writing [which] used and transcended both the optimistic utopia of the late nineteenth century (for example, Bellamy, Morris) and the pessimistic dystopia of this century (for example, Huxley, Orwell) […] these new utopias possess a duality both in content and form which allows consideration of the repressive reality as well as the utopian dream.’ (p. 236)

What’s particularly interesting (and poignant, particularly for someone who is as not quite but very nearly as old as the very books that Moylan is talking about) is that so much of Moylan’s claim for the cultural relevance and response that these novels represent could so easily be applied to the present moment — which, if nothing else, goes a long way to explain why utopia more generally is back on the agenda. (On this point see also Levitas, 2013, which I should be posting notes about fairly soon after this piece.) By way of illustration, Moylan argues that the critical utopia suggests a new direction in sf and ‘a possible shift in the imaginative direction of United States culture: a shift from simple negation to a negation with alternatives’ (pp. 236-7); while they are in the utopian tradition, these works ‘do not imitate that form; rather, [they] have transformed (aufgehoben) the traditional utopia in the triple sense of that term: that is they have negated, preserved and transformed it.’ (p. 237) The new utopian narrative is a response to ‘[the] contradictions in postwar capitalist existence as well as the many forms of resistance and alternatives to it have stimulated moves beyond the cynicism and fear — not to mention anti-communism — that inhibited the artistic and social imagination after World War II’ (ibid.); so far, so Twentyteens, amirite? Point being: ‘the critical utopia is both an artifact of contemporary capitalism and an artistic action against it.’ (p. 238)

[Casual readers and anyone stumbling across this post from search may wish to know that most of my notes here are concerned specifically and instrumentally with identifying the rhetorics and functions that define the critical utopian mode, though in some cases I will just be pulling out quotes that I like or think may be generally useful at a later date. Or, more succinctly: the following should not be taken to be a full, complete or impartial summary of Moylan’s paper!]

Moylan’s first source text is Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which (as its readers will know) ‘identifies itself as an ambiguous utopia’ (p. 238).

Through the symbolism and actual function of the wall around its spaceport, ‘the society of Annares is not presented in “utopian” isolation but rather in conflict with its place of origin: the good place is seenm by the reader in the context of its relationship with the bad place.’ (p. 238)

‘In [its] centralised administration, however, lies one of the counter-revolutionary dangers facing Anarres; for at such a center privilege, prerogative, and decision-making accrues to a few within the administrative bureaucracy that remains and, in effect, rules throughout the changes of representation.’

(p. 240; something something impartial technocratic civil service something)

‘The complexity of The Dispossessed that preserves, negates and transforms the utopian mode arises not only out of this context but also out of Le Guin’s narratiuve strategy of revealing both the dystopian elements within the utopia and the problems inherent in the conflict between the concrete utopia of Anarres and the world of Urras’; by structuring the book around two alternating threads of chapters — a ‘double plot’ — ‘Le Guin constructs a narrative that goes beyond dystopian and utopian exposition’. In the chapters set on Urras, ‘the reader does not encounter the utopian narrative but rather the narrative of speculation and criticism common to science fiction: that is, aspects of present-day society are extrapolated, and the resulting social vision providers a critical perspective on the present historical situation’ (p. 242) – again, another way of pointing out that sf is not about the time in which its narrative is ostensibly set, but rather about the time in which it is written. By contrast, the Anarres chapters are in the utopian mode, but ‘contrary to the typical Bildungsroman, Shevek does not simply adjust to his world; rather, both he and his world undergo radical change.’ (pp. 242-3)

‘By means of the device of alternating chapters, Le Guin combines the science-fiction mode, the quest plot, and images of Urras as contemporary society with the utopian mode, the development plot and the alternative images of Anarres. Hence, she taps the richness of two genres – science fiction and the bourgeois novel – to renovate a third, the utopia. […] But The Dispossessed as a critical utopia does not negate or transform the utopian mode as much as it preserves or revitalises it.’

(p. 243)

Second source text is Samuel Delany’s Triton, which (per Moylan) by comparison to Le Guin’s ‘utopia of the intellect’ is a distinctly urban ‘utopia of the streets’ in which ‘the gap between utopian and non-utopian is less evident, the borders less defined’ (p. 243). Riffing on Le Guin’s subtitle, Delany tagged Triton as an “ambiguous heterotopia”, deploying a (now) well-known Foucauldian term that Moylan glosses thusly: ‘Utopia affords consolation, but the heterotopia is disturbing and challenging. The heterotopia breaks up, deconstructs, speech and myth in order to open our perception of reality to perspectives and dimensions beyond the common, the apparent, the lyrical.’ (p. 244; it’s been a long time since I read Triton, and I don’t recall that I read Delany’s afterword when I did, but this understanding of the heterotopia jars somewhat with the notion of it I picked up from Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces” article of 1986; Moylan points out that Delany refers to The Order of Things, which I have yet to read.) Anyway, ‘Triton does not express utopia directly as in the traditional works or negatively as in the dystopia; rather it expresses the utopia in the interconnections within the social system from which it is developed and with which it is still in conflict.’ (ibid.)

Moylan is at pains to distinguish between the Le Guinean and Delanean critical utopia, arguing that the latter ‘approaches utopia from the underside, from urban streets rather than university towers, and treats the apparently negative elements as possible dysfunctions or, at times, creative aberrations in the society rather than as dystopian negations of it’ (p. 247) — this is reflective of a more individualist / libertarian perspective on the social as held by Delany, Moylan implies. There are similarities, of course: ‘Like Le Guin, [Delany] opposes utopia and home world […] he takes care to reveal the dystopian and dysfunctional aspects of the utopian society itself.’ (p. 248) But in contrast to Le Guin’s orderly double thread set-up, at the level of structure Delany kinda throws all the elements together into something of a hodge-podge which echoes the theme, ‘effectively highlighting the ambiguity and struggle inherent in any “actual utopia”’ (ibid.) — and, as I recall it, making for a much more challenging read, which I suppose is part of the point Moylan is making here.

But the result produces a different generic discourse, also: ‘Delany’s heterotopia negates and transforms the generic utopia – producing a form which has its roots in the utopia, the science-fiction narrative, and the psychological novel [but which] emphasises the total image of a complex alternate society (utopian but with all its historical ambiguities and problems) more centrally than previous narratives have.’ (ibid.)

In summary, then: ‘The negation of the traditional utopia — rather than the simple reversal or opposition that leads to dystopia — and the transformation of utopian narrative by means of the complex blending of utopian and critical modes; the emphasis on iconic presentation of a social vision; and the refusal to idealise, console or present neat “utopian” conflicts, result in the qualitatively different form of the heterotopia’ (pp. 248-9); ‘Delany prefers urban streets where the interface between ideas and material being is more immediate and complex [and] makes the experience of utopian life available to the reader in style and structure as well as content.’ (p. 249; whether that stylistic and structural rhetoric would have much utility for readers without a great level of narrative sophistication is an open question, at least in literature, but this is a nice defence of totality-of-theme from a political perspective nonetheless.)

Closing up, Moylan turns to the broader category of critical utopias, (including e.g. Russ, Piercy, Callenbach) which have ‘in common their critical utopian strategy of dealing with the home worlds as well as the utopian and dystopian elements of the alternative society [and] an opposition to the present state of advanced capitalist society: each of these works negates that present and offers emancipating visions of a better existence.’ (p. 250) Here Moylan riffs on Marcuse, and makes an interesting point that echoes more recent comments by Dobraszczyk regarding the radical resistance of the imagination:

‘The mental forces opposed to the current reality (performance) principle are located chiefly in the unconscious. Fantasy (imagination), however, is the exception, located as it is in consciousness and able to operate with a high degree of freedom from the reality principle – although contained within the realm of art […] Of course, it is in the interest of the dominant culture to deny the utopian visions of fantasy any connection with a possible future for humankind and to relegate those visions to the status of sublimated desires of an unrealisable Golden Age.’

(p. 250; another passage that could easily be transplanted into a paper written today)

Finally, then, the critical utopias are (or rather were) ‘a part of this opposition imagination, this negative/transcendent force’ (p. 251) – a cluster of counter-imaginaries, then? ‘Where Le Guin emphasises the economic and the social, Delany emphasises the sexual and personal […] Both attempt to work with the social totality; both see that totality as fundamentally political.’ (ibid., my emphasis; and that’s why we need to take up critical utopian tools to defeat hegemonising and hyperquantitative techno-utopian narratives such as that of the “smart city”, innit?)