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.
- 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?)
Science fiction was always far too small a box to contain your writing. Hero is far too small a word to contain what you’ve been to me, and will always be to me.
From all of us who are trying to walk away from Omelas: go easy, Starbear. We promise to continue the work.
Present-tense narration is now taken for granted by many fiction readers because everything they read, from internet news to texting, is in the present tense […]. Past-tense narration easily implies previous times and extends into the vast misty reaches of the subjunctive, the conditional, the future; but the pretense of a continuous eyewitness account admits little relativity of times, little connection between events. The present tense is a narrow-beam flashlight in the dark, limiting the view to the next step—now, now, now. No past, no future. The world of the infant, of the animal, perhaps of the immortal.
Ursula Le Guin (p261, Words are my Matter, Small Beer Press)