Friday, January 25, 2008

transition, violence, and dystopia; or, utopia's struggle with realism

At least since More, the imagination of an ideal society in Western literature has traditionally invoked an ideal state to regulate it. As this imagination underwent a decisive shift from the spatial to the temporal (utopia as a possible future rather than a far-off land) from the late 18th century onward and became more practically oriented, it became more and more tightly bound to socialism, a marriage that with few exceptions (for the most part either millenarian or Rousseauian primitive communalism) went without competition from the middle 19th century until after WWI. Outside of this period, and especially since the dismantling of the New Deal, Americans have tended to be the least keen on the idea; within it they were among the keenest. Still, suspicion of statist fantasies has existed from the beginning, and today it remains at an all-time high. For between the present and any ideal future is a space of uncertainty on which the possibility and the very identity of the coming state depends, and not even the most glimmering, comprehensive vision of perfection can assimilate it without bearing its marks.

The most prominent American socialist utopian novel of the 19th century is Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888). From our present perspective, it might as well have been written in an alternate universe. It depicts a world of allied super-states, each network of production and distribution centralized under the control of a technocratic Industrial Army of labor. This allows for a radically simplified, moneyless/classless economy able to provide absolute security and even comfort to everyone, all without systemic violence or exploitation. In our post-communist, post-1984 environment such a fiction would probably be dismissed as naive by most people, and appear unintelligible to most Americans. At the time, however, it quickly became massively influential in a number of areas, spawning hundreds of imitators (some critical, others merely derivative) as well as leading to the formation of 'Bellamy Clubs' and even political parties all over the world. It inspired such prominent socialists as Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) founder and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs and Socialist Labor Party founder Daniel DeLeon. And in a slightly different vein, it was the key touchstone for British urban planner Ebenezer Howard's Garden city movement, which in turn influenced the faux-towns of New Urbanism -- though bits and pieces of it also found their way (in distorted form) into the antithetical design 'philosophy' of American suburbia.

Letchworth Garden City, England

Bellamy's vision is indeed packaged as a bourgeois lifestyle for the masses, and it's probably no coincidence that his utopia sometimes reads like a giant Wal-Mart -- with the end of private ownership, all wares are sold at huge district department stores, all fed by even larger centralized warehouses (as in Wal-Mart, the aggressive salesmanship of what we might call 'customer service' is absent, along with all pretense of expertise: "Courtesy and accuracy in taking orders are all that are required of him"). Art and other types of intellectual work are the only economic sectors based on open meritocracy, but one that contrary to free market advocates is enabled rather than restricted by the social 'safety net.'

But Bellamy's utopia is structurally incapable of absolute closure. Something is opened up by the utopia's position in time -- the future, not an island of the imagination but a specific date: the year 2000. We have moved from simple proposition to extrapolation from existing trends. The question 'how do we get here' thus demands an answer. For the 19th-century gentleman narrator Julian West, it's the riddle of the devouring Sphinx, the question of labor. The answer, like all this society's answers, is simple and direct: "The solution came as the result of a process of industrial evolution which could not have terminated otherwise. All that society had to do was to recognize and cooperate with that evolution, when its tendency had become unmistakable." Utopia is not merely an end, but a projected stage in an evolutionary process. Contrary to that other evolutionary socialist, Karl Marx, no revolutionary struggle is required to move things along, just widespread knowledge of the facts. The eminently reasonable next stage, remarks one of West's guides, is for all the world's nations to merge into a single global nation.

Among the many criticisms of Bellamy's utopia embodied in William Morris's socialist-pastoral News from Nowhere (1890) -- its statism, its antiseptic environment, its cultural uniformity -- what may be the most fundamental is that his state utopia dishonestly glosses over the struggle and pain of social change, which always risks being much worse than the adverse conditions that initiate it. There's an incongruous moment toward the end of LB where the good Reverend Mr. Barton confesses a wish to exchange his present happiness for a taste of "that stormy epoch of transition," which is elsewhere explained again and again as entirely pedestrian and nigh-instantaneous. In Morris's 'epoch of rest' the wish to forget the 19th century (common to the people of both scenarios) is extended also to the horrific period of revolution and revolt that birthed the new society. This brilliant chapter from the middle of NfN describes in detail the terrible, and contingent series of revolts, repressions, and mishaps that led to the present peace. "It was war from beginning to end: bitter war, till hope and pleasure put an end to it."

William Morris and Philip Webb's "Red House"

In terms of the ideal society itself, Morris's dream functions in a more traditional vein than Bellamy's -- where the latter describes in detail the economic and political structure of his world, Morris only describes their pleasant lifestyle. His people are naturally communal in a state of anarchy, requiring only the pleasure of cooperation and unalienated manual and handicraft labor to 'regulate' them. It is a world not quite outside of time, but outside the time of development and property, the most basic logics of capitalism. It's difficult to call it naive considering the grasp of human motive Morris displays throughout the novel, and the fact that unlike Bellamy he was a practicing socialist, but one can wonder if it really deserves the title 'utopia.' It serves more as a vision of human happiness than a plan for the future, what humans could collectively desire if they really had the opportunity to choose. All the same, Morris's ideas along with those of the Arts and Crafts movement had at least an equivalent effect on modern architecture as Bellamy's via their influence on the Bauhaus school, even if in terms of politics his fiction left little to work with.

In the now-competitive world of utopian literature, Morris's attention to the gory details of utopia's actual realization made the subject impossible for serious writers to ignore. Equality (1897), Bellamy's sequel to LB, addressed Morris's critique by providing a more detailed analysis of the transition (here), though still refusing the idea that violence is necessary to make it happen. H.G. Wells, in Anticipations (1901), argues that evolution rather than simple teleology is the necessary form for 20th century utopian imaginings, and that large-scale violence (especially against other races, which are mostly absent from both Bellamy and Morris) may well be necessary for the establishment of a World State. Perhaps the apotheosis of attempts to realistically consider the transition to utopia can be found in Jack London's Iron Heel (1908), in which socialist utopia is relegated entirely to the footnotes, as a framing device -- the narrative itself, in the form of a revolutionary's incomplete journal, is an episode within the (extremely) violent, centuries-long transition into this merely hinted-at future. Though its premise of protracted class war is predated by U.S. Congressman and Atlanticist Ignatius Donnelly's little-known Caesar's Column (1890), that novel at least takes a few stabs at utopian speculation. London's (much better written) entry is an aggressive blend of narrative action and didactic criticism; its 'scholarly' footnotes, like of the fictional footnotes more common to 18th-century literature, serve as a mere justification and ironic distancing device. In IH we are being trained to read a 'new'* genre. Welcome to the dystopian imagination.

What can we say about dystopian fiction at this point? Certainly that it is not simply the obverse of utopia. It comes from a strain of utopian fiction that has become extrapolative, its speculations devoted as much to what will be as what should be. While it's easy to regard something like More's Utopia as 'really' a dystopia (what should not be), it's hard to imagine More himself writing it that way. Even a paradise of torment like Dante's Inferno shows something that, however complex our reaction might be to it, is ultimately subordinated to the good -- the punishment of the wicked by a (the) moral being. Swift's Gulliver's Travels is basically a satirical fantasy, designed to achieve piecemeal, non-systemic critique through fanciful caricature and exaggeration. Second, though dystopian fiction is more interested in describing a corrupt society (as the hidden potential or underlying truth of the writer's own) than individual psychology, its protagonist is not just an observer but a dramatic actor, bringing the genre formally much closer to realism. The most obvious difference between IH and traditional utopian fiction is that London's novel actually has a plot. A drama with active characters. This may seem like a strange comparison for those used to contemporary 'domestic' realism, but a good dystopia is not so different from a Balzac or Dickens, where exciting plots and documentary-style social detail combine in more or less equal measure. And of course, many of the great realist classics take place during periods of social upheaval, where the individual is pitted against the forces of social oppression.

Back to IH: the utopian perspective given by the footnotes make it more of a transition to dystopia than dystopia proper, but we can already begin to see shades of 1984 in the uneasy dissonance between the detached, self-satisfied scholar and the passion, moral drama, and intrigue of his material. Like all extrapolative fiction it treats the present as the past, but unlike most later dystopias (and like the realist novel) it shows historical changes happening in a world that is immediately familiar to us. The consequences of a realism that tries to show historical change taking place, in either the past or present, tend to be a) that the story must be full of conflict and excitement and b) though it can excoriate, it must not make positive recommendations, and in spite of public pressure (no longer much of an issue), should ideally avoid absolute moral judgment. It is thus capable of indirect criticism, but never proposals, no matter how ironic they may be. One cannot apparently write a realist utopia. So the principal differences between dystopia and 19th-century realism may well be the relative frequency of direct criticism and speculative content, meaning that we now come up against a very late-20th-century question about realism: why is it that made-up stories directly about political events tend to be excluded from the genre, restricted to 'all the rest': fantasy, popular fiction (i.e. mystery, thriller), journalism, travelogue, and speculation?

*new insofar as it is among the first in a slew of socialist and anti-socialist dystopias -- American dystopian fiction in general goes back further, prior to the Civil War.