Tag Archives: dystopia

“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?)

Ballard (1962), The Drowned World

I thought I’d read this before, many years ago, and perhaps I did – the handful of dog-eared pages in my paperback copy suggest someone read it, though perhaps I acquired it second-hand. Or perhaps I buried my memories of reading it, whether deliberately or unintentionally? That would certainly be a Ballardian response to a Ballardian text. But usually when I reread a book I first read long before, chunks of it will produce a sense of deja vu-esque familiarity, and I got none of that from The Drowned World – which is surprising given how often I’ve read critical or theoretical work which references it. Selah.

The story is less about Kerans and his self-thwarted urges to head south than it is about the attempts by Riggs (representing Continuity Civilisation’s last attempt to shore up its militaristic and hierarchical order in its Arctic redoubt and somehow BAU itself into a future which has now been foreclosed upon) to keep control of any viable space and/or knowledge left free of the encroaching waters, and the attempts by Strangman to roll back the clock just far enough to reclaim the ruins as a playground in which to re-enact the barbarisms that Continuity Civilisation had long suppressed. I’m by no means a scholar of Freud, but I wonder if one might see Riggs as the superego and Strangman as the id, leaving Kerans to stand for the ego retreating into a state of redundancy and collapse… eh, probably not. Indeed, trying to map any particular theory onto this book is probably a mistake, as it’s as much a map of Ballard’s own theory (and his own unconscious) as anything else, by the author’s own admission.

But then again, that may be too easy an escape route – for how unconscious was it really? Ballard’s obsession with the themes of the reversion to barbarism, solitude, and solipsism amid the collapse of a previously rigid hierarchy is perhaps too consistent and well-established (not to mention clearly signposted time and time again outwith the texts in question by the author himself) to be as unconscious as he claimed them to be. That’s not to negate the power of their insight, to be clear; rather, it serves to highlight the fascination and loathing that the spectacle and experience of social collapse held for Ballard, manifest as a longing to escape into a solitary and self-sufficient annihilation while the world wound itself down around him… a longing perhaps less held in abeyance by the act of writing than it was manifested through it.

It’s a feeling I recognise quite clearly – not just the supposed (and, realistically, false) liberation of running away into the lawless and abandoned ruins, but the longing for the contextual excuses for doing so, for the moment at which one can give up on the perpetual struggle between order and chaos that is human affairs and eke out your last days in the punctuated quietude of the interstices, knowing yourself to have been fooled or seduced by neither side in the struggle, dependent on no one but yourself. Of course, I may very well just be projecting myself into an equally fictional authorial-intention-space, here, over-identifying with the author because I’m too cynical and trained at over-reading to identify with the text itself… but then again, maybe not? Ballard’s endless and relentless return to those formative images and experiences may preclude his own claims of their unconscious origins, but it in now way precludes their being the engine of his art. And while my own experiences were never so drastic or violent as his, I have in common with Ballard the experience of an “expatriate” childhood, the gradual dethroning of parental authority, competence and power, and an exposure to the arbitrary and contradictory whims of hierarchical authority. We both saw just how thin the veneer of civilisation really is, and the hypocrisies which prop it up; perhaps then it’s no surprise that we share the urge to leave it all behind, to enact a refusal of both stasis and entropy, despite the knowledge that our knowing is a function of the privileges afforded us by the very system that so revolts and fascinates us.

(And perhaps that urge to walk away is more widespread than we would like to admit, too, even if the moderating awareness of privilege is not. As has been remarked many times before now, there’s something deeply Ballardian about Brexit in general, and in particular the almost rabid fixation on the no-deal exit option that currently reigns among its most fervent disciples… perhaps to them the EU is Riggs and the Arctic settlements struggling to manage their own decline, and Strangman the depredations of a more nimble and rapacious form of capitalism that doesn’t square with the old (“noble”, imperial/paternal) form? Perhaps then walking southward into the floodlands beneath the blazing sun, cognizant and fully accepting of one’s inevitable doom, is the only dignified way to refuse either option… there’s something very Captain Oates about it, and indeed about this whole sorry shit-show of imperial nostalgia. As such it worries me that I identify with that solipsist-annihilation urge in Ballard’s characters, because they are more often than not distillations of anxieties that, while not particular to the British middle classes, are nonetheless endemic to them; I was raised in Brexitland, and despite all my conscious efforts, that deep architecture may never be fully expunged.)

The Drowned World doesn’t so much reach a climax as it finally permits the possibility of the ending that’s signposted clearly from the very start, and then repeatedly deferred. (Another Brexit parallel, amirite?) The obstacles that prevent Kerans from following through on the urge to head south into the sun are not external so much as they’re his internalisations of the external: he’s clinging to a vestigial sense of the appropriate, and perhaps to the last shreds of fear that prevent him from embracing a fate that is finally made concrete when he discovers the necrotic Hardman on his journey southward. The implication is that he will continue southward, in the hope (if not the expectation) that other may follow, as indicated by his scratching out a message with his pistol-butt. This is traditionally read as being a pessimistic and dystopian conclusion, but does it have to be? Perhaps we can imagine the inevitable Hollywood coda wherein Kerans limps into some enclave of sun-baked refuseniks eking out an existence on berries and iguana meat, reproducing just fast enough to beat the mortality rates and allow the inevitable mutations to ensure that some of the next generation make it through to repopulate the new, hot, wet world… but that’s not just scientifically unfeasible, it’s also a betrayal of Ballard’s entire literary project, I think. His refusenik characters are proxies for himself, to some extent, but they’re also necessities of narrative mechanics: the irrationalities of both “civilisation” and “barbarism” can only be exposed as such from the alienated perspective of the outsider, the character given the privilege of choosing either side who nonetheless chooses neither.

It bears noting at this point that Ballard’s portrayals of Strangman’s piratical crew are seriously racist, using hackneyed stereotypes of blackness and mixedness as a shorthand for a form of barbarism characterised by the ease with which it might be directed by a more “civilised” captain. (While it provides no excuse whatsoever, it’s interesting to note that Strangman is portrayed as an avatar of extreme whiteness not merely in contrast to his crew, but also to Riggs, Kerans and the others, albeit to a lesser degree.) This aside, the consistent othering of blackness all through the book makes it very hard to like or praise, even as I can recognise its historical importance and influence… indeed, its largely unquestioned position as a foundational element in the proto-canon of “cli-fi” probably needs a sustained and critical examination on that basis alone. Many have made comparisons between The Drowned World and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but that comparison cuts two ways: much like Conrad’s novel, this one is badly tainted by the institutionalised viewpoints of its author.

Distort some central part of the present condition

Some wisdom from Uncle Warren:

TCJ: I talked to a sci-fi editor at Tor in late 2016 about dystopias and their popularity in eras fraught with political disaster, and he said something that stuck out to me: “I think one of the underrated reasons that people read science fiction in particular is that it’s a great tool for figuring out what you think about how the world works.” Do you think that’s true? And if you do, what, after all these years, have you figured out?

WE: I do think that is largely true. Speculative fiction is an early warning station for heavy weather, that tests what might happen if lightning strikes at a certain place. In that operation, it exposes systems, from different angles, and asks you what you might think about them.

I could refer to [my] previous answer. I learned from fiction and from personal experience that systems are always more complex and more fragile than you think they are.

The thing about dystopias […] is that they also make more engaging stories than utopia. A utopia, by its nature, is absent conflict, and conflict, as everybody who ever wrote a book about screenwriting will tell you, generates drama. One thing about Transmetropolitan that I never got was that people called it a dystopia, whereas I just considered it the present day writ large, with joys and pains.

The important part of that quote of yours is that [speculative fiction is] a tool. Not the truth. Dystopias distort some central parts of the present condition so that we can see them better, and what they might swell into. But they’re still a distortion. You need to learn, for yourself, how to use the tool and avoid parallax error.

His comment re: Transmet is illuminating: I suspect that the ambivalence of that series is exactly what has made it such an enduring favourite, for me and for others. It’s neither threat nor promise — and that’s a difficult line to walk, in writing as in thinking.

The Greimas square-dance

More KSR on anti-anti-utopianism, this time at Commune Magazine:

Clearly we enter here the realm of the ideological; but we’ve been there all along. Althusser’s definition of ideology, which defines it as the imaginary relationship to our real conditions of existence, is very useful here, as everywhere. We all have ideologies, they are a necessary part of cognition, we would be disabled without them. So the question becomes, which ideology? People choose, even if they do not choose under conditions of their own making. Here, remembering that science too is an ideology, I would suggest that science is the strongest ideology for estimating what’s physically possible to do or not do. Science is AI, so to speak, in that the vast artificial intelligence that is science knows more than any individual can know—Marx called this distributed knowing “the general intellect”—and it continually reiterates and refines what it asserts, in an ongoing recursive project of self-improvement.

That’s the dovetail I didn’t know I was looking for  that connects to this recent NYT longread on Oncle Latour:

Crowded into the little concrete room, we were seeing gravity as Latour had always seen it — not as the thing in itself, nor as a mental representation, but as scientific technology allowed us to see it. This, in Latour’s view, was the only way it could be seen. Gravity, he has argued time and again, was created and made visible by the labor and expertise of scientists, the government funding that paid for their education, the electricity that powered up the sluggish computer, the truck that transported the gravimeter to the mountaintop, the geophysicists who translated its readings into calculations and legible diagrams, and so on. Without this network, the invisible waves would remain lost to our senses.

A certain hermetically sealed quality

Like nightmares, dystopias have a certain hermetically sealed quality. By their nature, they are inescapable—a dystopia you can escape from is not a dystopia, it is the third hour of Love, Actually. The circumstances that create any brave, new world simultaneously cauterize its edges and destroy memories of the world before. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, as near as Winston can recall, “He had first heard mention of Big Brother… at some time in the sixties, but it was impossible to be certain. In the Party histories, Big Brother figured as the leader and guardian of the Revolution since its very earliest days. His exploits had been gradually pushed backwards in time until already they extended into the fabulous world of the forties and the thirties, when the capitalists in their strange cylindrical hats still rode through the streets of London… ” To an extent, this is also how history works, as unlikely ephemera like Donald Trump fluke their way into awful existence and, in doing so, retroactively annihilate our former, lingering sense of other possibilities. For instance: remember when it seemed inevitable we’d have our first female president? Remember when public racism resulted in an exile from public life? Remember when we still had a functioning EPA? Disasters are amnesiac in nature.


… the best, maybe only, way of resisting dystopias, is to keep in mind that it was not always thus.  What has happened is an aberration, and the world worked a different way for a very long time.  Dystopias—fictional and real—are perhaps unavoidable, but not irreversible.  The cliché goes that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Maybe it would be truer simply to say that those who forget the past are doomed.

Adam O’Fallon Price at The Paris Review. Not entirely sure he isn’t himself somehow relocating an uncritical liberal utopia to the past in this piece — in fact, I’m fairly sure he is doing so, though perhaps unwittingly, and that’s just as big a mistake as dytopianism — but the point about the amnesia of disasters is solid, and says something quietly profound (and profoundly disturbing) about our experience of temporality. Guy Debord might implicate the Spectacle in this phenomenon, and I’d be very willing to back him up on it.