Tag Archives: critical utopia

“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?)

Justifications for critical utopianism

A strident argument for critical utopian discourse  (and against  technotopian solutionism) from David F Ruccio at Real-World Economics Review [via SyntheticZero]:

[This] doesn’t mean utopia is irrelevant to the problem of climate change. On the contrary. The dystopian consequences of current trends clearly invite a utopian response. But it needs to be of a different nature from the various forms of technological utopianism that are currently circulating.

It starts with a critique of the discourses, activities, and institutions that together, within the Capitalocene, have led to concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that have reached (and, by some accounts, will soon surpass) the ceiling with regards to acceptable climate risk. What I’m referring to are theories that have normalized and naturalized the current set of economic and social structures based on private property, individual decision-making in markets, and class appropriation and distribution of the surplus; activities that have accelerated changes in the Earth system, such as greenhouse gas levels, ocean acidification, deforestation, and biodiversity deterioration; and institutions, such as private corporations and commercial control over land and water sources, that have had the effect of increasing surface ocean acidity, expanding fertilizer production and application, and converted forests, wetlands, and other vegetation types into agricultural land.

Such a ruthless criticism brings together ideas and activists focused on the consequences of a specific way of organizing economic and social life with respect to the global climate as well as the situations of the vast majority of people who are forced to have the freedom to try to eke out a living and maintain themselves and their communities under present circumstances.

Broadening participation in that critique, instead of directing hope toward a technological miracle, serves to create both a shared understanding of the problem and the political basis for real solution: a radically transformed economic and social landscape.

And that is why, after five years of feeling like I was beating my head against a brick wall, I’m nonetheless bandaging my metaphorical head and carrying on. For the most part, infrastructural research in the UK academy has been thoroughly colonised by solutionist paradigms, to the extent that it feels like being caught in an warped loop of the Marge vs. the Monorail! episode of The Simpsons that never reaches the denouement. It’s frustrating — and has frequently felt futile — to do battle with the unholy alliance of perverse economic incentives and semantically ambiguous suitcase words… but as the old cliche goes: to try is to invite failure, but to give up is to ensure it.

The critical utopia vs. the consumptive picaresque

Three things make a post, as we used to say. Here’s Yuval Noah Harari — whose book(s) I really need to make the time to read in full — being roundtabled at Teh Graun:

The key issue is that because our power depends on collective fictions, we are not good in distinguishing between fiction and reality. Humans find it very difficult to know what is real and what is just a fictional story in their own minds, and this causes a lot of disasters, wars and problems.

The best test to know whether an entity is real or fictional is the test of suffering. A nation cannot suffer, it cannot feel pain, it cannot feel fear, it has no consciousness. Even if it loses a war, the soldier suffers, the civilians suffer, but the nation cannot suffer. Similarly, a corporation cannot suffer, the pound sterling, when it loses its value, it doesn’t suffer. All these things, they’re fictions. If people bear in mind this distinction, it could improve the way we treat one another and the other animals. It’s not such a good idea to cause suffering to real entities in the service of fictional stories.

Meanwhile, Kim Stanley Robinson has a new book out, and is saying things on the promo circuit along the lines of [via MeFi]:

The space of stories we can imagine constrains the space of political solutions we’re willing to include in the Overton window. Vivid, engrossing tales about the best natures of humans overcoming the worst are a weapon against despair and cynicism — and may be the necessary precondition for the survival of our species.

I believe this, too. Indeed, there’s a sense in which I must believe it; it’s my life-raft, and it’s my star to steer by. It’s something I can do.

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But it’s hard to keep the faith when you know that there’s an entire industry based on understanding how to push people’s narratological buttons, and that when it’s not working to put a gloss on whatever half-baked policy clusterfuck is playing out this week, that industry is profitably engaged in such activities as working out how to squeeze the maximum profit out of a junk food addict by using their own body’s instinctive responses to nutritional imagery against them. That we can consider this a regrettable yet nonetheless unavoidable feature of our ethical landscape is about as clear a sign of the moral vacuum that passes for the heart of capitalism as one could ask for; a misinformed and manipulated choice is not choice, but charlatanry. (Cf: Brexit, etc etc.)

Given I’ve gone and linked that depressing piece already, here’s a bonus nugget of narratological theory from the world of food marketing:

Food imagery is most visually appealing when the viewer’s brain finds it easy to simulate the act of eating, for example, when the food is seen from a first-person perspective. This is rated more highly than viewing food from a third-person view…

We wring our hands over “fake news”, and so we should—but what “fake news” harbingers is the fact that the ubiquity and intensity of marketing and advertising have so successfully normalised a narrative tradition based on bare-faced pandering, deceit and seduction that we’re becoming unable to tolerate exposure to any story that doesn’t flatter us, the sovereign individual, protagonist of our own first-person picaresque of consumption.

And that goes for me as well as for you, and for the left as well as the right—for me and you and left and right are also only stories, after all.

No one is to blame; everyone is complicit.