Monday, October 8, 2007

reification and dystopia in mass culture

The politcal efficacy of the imagination of dystopia—historical or fictional—has an inverse relationship to representational realism. Through the power of narrative identification, any dystopia that is realist is quickly, hopelessly reified—and becomes reduced to a kind of "cautionary tale" that in fact fails to caution us at all. As long as we can avoid the surface appearance of Nazi Germany, we think we avoid fascism; as long as people can still speak their minds, we avoid Ingsoc; as long as the robots haven't taken over yet, our relationship with technology is on track. Realist dystopias calcify; they lose all symbolic flexibility and are able to stand in only for themselves.

Worse still, over time these dystopias transmogrify into a kind of wish-fulfillment, a survivalist Imaginary with a perfect enemy to revolt against, a playground where raised world-historical stakes and Manichean binarism provide an opportunity for heroism and sacrifice of the sort we feel unable to locate in real life—which is to say that through reification dystopia most improbably becomes a kind of Utopia.

Whether reification calcifies or transmogrifies, we lose our grip on what was really at stake all along: the dystopian character of the now.

If dystopia is to function as an imaginary for cultural and political critique, then it can only do so by resisting reification and thereby by resisting realism itself—which is why Terry Gilliam's Brazil is easily the most powerful American dystopia of the twentieth century. From its cartoonish retrofuturism and its periodic bursts of slapstick comedy to its absurd dream sequences and deliberately schizophrenic soundtrack, Brazil's surreality functions as a prophylactic against reification and preserves the horror of the film's terrible modernity even twenty-two years later. The world of Brazil is never real and so it always is.