Tuesday, January 8, 2008

the uses of more's utopia

How do we read Thomas More's Utopia? What is it? The progenitor of a new kind of fantasy escapism? A disguised political treatise? A philosophical inquiry into the power of reason to be the guiding force of society a la Plato's Republic? A satire on presumptuous local customs and prejudices in the vein of Swift's Gulliver's Travels? As it is in many ways the first of a quintessentially modern genre, we can understand it to contain in some measure all of the above, an uneasy (and so continually fascinating) hodgepodge of elements.

Early in Archaeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson argues that the first "objective precondition" for utopia to be imagined is a social structure that permits the individual to believe that he or she holds a complete solution to fixing society's ills. In other words, an individual with a wide view of history who is prone to oversimplification: "the miseries and injustices thus visible must seem to shape and organize themselves around one specific ill or wrong" (12). A root of all evil that must be extracted. Jameson goes on to argue that unlike the pastoral or idyll, or in a different register, the liberal political theory of a Locke or Rawls, Utopia is not a positive vision of a happy society, nor does it include a positive set of proposals or criteria to build one. It has instead a negative, "diagnostic" focus, and any laws or policies it might include are only to be implemented after the fundamental source of societal evil is removed.

For More this evil was money and private property, and that focus Jameson argues runs through nearly all utopian literature to follow -- until the point at which money infuses all of social life, and the genre can only persist in its traditional form by imagining unconvincing replacements for money (i.e. labor tickets). In the Tudor England of More's time, money and enclosure, or the privatization of land and resources formerly held in common, had not yet become omnipresent. It coexisted with a waning autocratic feudalism, the mercantilist expansion of Spain and Portugal, pockets of monastic communalism, and more exotically, the newly discovered 'primitive' communalism of the New World, popularized by famed stealer-of-Columbus's thunder Amerigo Vespucci and his Four Voyages.

It was a transitional period, an interregnum before the modern era of revolution and reform for which England would experience the first birthing pangs. It was not yet possible for anyone to think of 'capitalism' as a world-system or even much of a local system. No current political or economic regime had attained obvious global dominance. The promises of religion and the attendant boasts of the various European powers to universality had the form of figural myth, prone to multiple conflicting interpretations. Though a 'total society' of the sort that would later become a popular target for dystopian criticism, less attention is paid to the ways in which Utopia is not completely determined -- there is freedom of religion (with the notable exception of atheism), limited working hours with most time devoted to "freedom and culture of the mind," and a chapter devoted to the crafty games of realpolitik Utopia plays with its less enlightened neighbors (such as using its store of gold to hire mercenaries and assassins). Indeed, Utopian society can be characterized as a basically pragmatic political structure designed to maximize individual pleasure and distribute it throughout a (supposedly) classless society, though with 'pleasure' defined according to a strict moral philosophy with religion at its core: "they seek support for this hedonistic philosophy from their religion, which is serious and strict, indeed, almost stern and forbidding" (54). The meaning of the Utopians' "good and honest pleasure" is fairly liberal, simply "a delight which does not injure others, which does not preclude a greater pleasure, and which is not followed by pain" (56-57). Though reproduction is heavily regulated, this includes bodily pleasure, the ideal form of which is health, or "the calm and harmonious state of the body" (59). When we juxtapose this humanist, moderated hedonism with the strict and thorough regulation the Utopians employ to uphold it -- the illegality of idleness, slavery as punishment for just about every crime -- we can begin to see the insufficiency of simple stereotypes like 'totalitarian,' 'communist,' 'liberal,' 'monastic,' etc. to understanding Utopia.

This is because, as mentioned earlier, More draws on elements from the many traditions he was familiar with (both ancient and contemporary) to construct this fictional society in an act of creative bricolage. Subtracting money and enclosure from the equation still left him with much to work with. We should keep in mind, for example, that More's moneyless, propertyless society was still colonialist. Indeed, as Ellen Meiksins Wood argues in The Origin of Capitalism and Empire of Capital, More was "the first major English writer to revive the ancient Roman concept of colonia to designate the settlement of foreign lands" (EoC 74), and England was the first European nation of the time to have suggested it (OoC 162). The argument is, in the words of More's character Hythloday, "The Utopians say it's perfectly justifiable to make war on people who leave their land idle and waste, yet forbid the use of it to others who, by the law of nature, ought to be supported from it" (More 45). We can perhaps trace this to the Utopians inordinate hatred of waste (wasted resources, wasted time, etc.), another trope used to justify violence and, yes, even enclosure in the capitalist era. Unlike capitalists and Marxists, the Utopians do not emphasize production or productivity, nor is anything like 'surplus' ever mentioned -- the rejection of excess goes both ways. Spiritual growth seems to demand material equilibrium (and this is not so different from the always-out-of-reach 'equilibrium' theorized/promised by economists since Adam Smith, or the often disastrous 'austerity' measures taken by various financial organizations supposedly to insure it). As Robert Adams refers to it, Utopia is "that strange blend of medieval discipline, humanist freedom, and practical bourgeois acquisitiveness."

Other ambiguities abound. Much effort is taken to portray Utopia not as static and unreachable, but as a living society capable of dialogue and cultural exchange with More's, especially (as one might expect) in its adoption of Christianity from foreign visitors. With a bit of conspiratorial service from his friends, much of More's audience was convinced his story was literally true at the time of the book's publication. Then there is the island of Utopia's crescent moon shape, and the fact that the fifty-four cities of Utopia match the fifty-four boroughs of London, suggesting that Utopia is simply an inversion of England. This tactic of representing Othered, foreign space as an imaginary double of England, culturally and physically set off from its surroundings as the British Isles are set off from the Continent, would become a common trope among English writers well beyond More's immediate imitators, examples including the Happy Valley of Samuel Johnson's Rasselas (1759), and the kingdom of Ijaveo in Eliza Haywood's less well-known Adventures of Eovaai (1741). These pseudo-Oriental tales knowingly used foreign space to imaginatively work through (and conceal from censors) moral and political critiques of English society. Imaginary distance was a tool of critical distance, foreclosing absolute Otherness (all places must be legible to the educated English reader) through the cleverly chosen parallelisms that give the critique its bite.

Part of Utopia's lasting appeal is that it is impossible to tell what More 'really' believed or how 'serious' he was in writing this tale. Of the more recent interpreters, Karl Kautsky (1888) held that More was a proto-socialist, his 'communism' "modern in most of its tendencies, and unmodern in most of its expedients." For R.W. Chambers (1953), More presented a rationally ideal pagan society to encourage his Christian readers to reach their even higher spiritual ideal. Robert Elliott, in The Shape of Utopia (1963) writes the following:

"Two standards can be derived from within Utopia itself. The first is on the level of reform within existing institutions: laws to enforce the rebuilding of devastated farms and towns, the restriction of monopoly, provision of work for the idle, limitations on the power of the rich and the wealth of the king, etc. The second and higher standard is the ideal of the work itself, so to speak: Utopia, the model commonwealth, the only one worthy of the name. But if we go outside Utopia to think of Thomas More's ideal, we must think of one far higher yet. Father Surtz cites the appropriate passage. For More, the ultimate ideal would be 'the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God' (Revelation XXI, 2)."
Jameson also adopts, and furthers, this dialectical view of Utopia. There is creativity and ingenuity in the blueprint, the carefully thought-out details of the Utopian society, but every moment carries with it the force of the initial negation that makes the various laws and regulations possible: the negation of money and enclosure and the power they grant to sinful Pride, or as Jameson puts it, the three-part complex of Gold, Hierarchy, and Pride. For Jameson the the space of Utopia is "an imaginary enclave within real social space...a pocket of stasis within the ferment and rushing forces of social change" (AotF 15). It is a kind of laboratory emerging within times of uncertainty (the recent Utopian revival of which this series of posts is a part suggests the same of our time) where previously impossible connections, now 'allowed' because of the imaginary removal of some real obstruction (or is it real abstraction?), can be made and tested. The problem Jameson's analysis is formulated to solve is: how to imagine a world after or beyond capitalism at the moment of its apparent omnipresence?

This is the view of utopia that we will be wrestling with over the course of our postings here.
But I now wonder if the space of utopia, the space of an imaginative critique/experimental overcoming of the present, can itself be thought of as a positive goal or desire, the real 'content' of the utopian wish -- and whether or not the creation and preservation of this ideologically ambiguous space, from the diegetic plane of the text to the mind of its reader, is precisely what More means when he says "freedom and culture of the mind," stopping short of considering anything, good or ill, that might arise from it, or changing anything, good or ill, that might be going on outside it.

Which humanity has this form of freedom as its dream? What is necessary for its realization?