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.
(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.)
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.)