Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Utopic Space

In the study of semiotics, utopic space is strictly defined as a space of transformation. For Gremias, in his example of making vegetable soup, the pot is the utopic space, the space where the transformation from raw to cooked occurs. Or, to pull a definition directly from Key Terms in Semiotics:

The term utopic space designates the space in which the decisive test takes place and where performances are realized. Utopic space is contrasted with paratopic space. In Zola’s Germinal, the mine Le Voreux where the miners fight their principal battle for survival constitutes the utopic space. In Cinderella, the ballroom where Cinderella encounters the prince constitutes the utopic space.

Artist Paul Laffoley—and his cult of internet followers—highlight the mystical side of this transformational space. In a press release for a 2001 exhibit, Laffoley describes utopic space as a “felt and lived sensibility” with a “generic religious base” stemming from its origination in the mind of the fervent devotee, Thomas More. He defines utopic space as a “multiplenum of an octave of spatiality and temporality in the form of total continuity”—basically, oneness. In this space, the possibility of “complete merger of content without any loss of noetic integrity” exists. Taking his cue from the futurists—a title he also bestows on himself in reference to his own corpus—Laffoley explains how utopic space results from the (eventual) congealing of all knowledge in what can be imagined as a state of pure transdisciplinarity. This has resonances with Pierre Tielhard de Chardin’s conception of the Noosphere (a concept that proves particularly fruitful for Laffoley’s work) as:

the sphere of human consciousness or mental activity that grows out of the biosphere of the various species of creatures that exist on the surface of the earth, especially in relation to the force of evolution.

The noosphere becomes the convergence of all mental space. For Laffoley and his followers at work on the various internet spirituality forums, once utopic space is reached, once true transdisciplinarity is achieved, “we will all experience the end of the future.”

These types of ruminations are interesting for multiple reasons. As they appear rather symptomatically in web-based millenarism, they remind us how the project of utopia remains bound up (even in 2008) with the mystical; the pursuit of utopia is a kind of spiritual quest—perhaps the only spiritual quest—left to inhabitants of the secularized West. But more importantly, these speculations also direct us back to the question of transformation vis-à-vis utopia that came up in our recent conversation with FRJ; namely, must the human being be transformed before utopia can be actualized? And what type(s) of transformations must occur? Obviously, in the case of utopic space, we are well beyond a simple shift in the mode of production and have entered instead into some kind of freaky a-dimensionality (take that, Marx).

Another articulation of utopic space that is, perhaps, more useful (unless you really feel like going down the rabbit hole) is that it is the space of signification. In an essay on Auster’s The New York Trilogy, Steven E. Alford suggests, in a reading comparable to our thoughts on textual utopia, that “the space of signification is what we have traditionally called utopia, which is not a ‘nowhere’ but a ‘neither-here-no-there’.” In comparing the two utopias of More and Thoreau, Alford takes the Thoreauvian utopia to be the clue to utopic space:

The utopia of Walden clearly differs from those of More, and of Dark in City of Glass. In both Utopia and The New Babel, the quest is to build an external structure, that of an island or a huge building, and by reordering citizens' external relationship to space and property, destroy historical time and its attendant injustices through mandating an ultimately static space. Walden, by contrast, believes in the transformative inner power of the imagination—a change in our inner space will [a]ffect external space. Like Wordsworth's "Spots of Time" (themselves an interesting spatialization of temporality), the events narrated in Walden record the power of nature to transform the seer morally through affecting his/her imagination. The language of Walden becomes a second-order phenomenon that in turn affects the poet's readers.

Here, again, utopic space clearly emerges as a space of transformation, which, for Walden and Alford alike, does not exist in structuring built space but rather in the continual transformation of a space that remains forever flexible: the mind. It links us up again with Jameson’s take on textual utopia—that it is a continual production of mental space that acts as “enclave” within a system—and, to quote Louis Marin from Utopiques, jeux d’espace, the “no-place” of utopia emerges in the act of signification:

Utopia is thus the neutral moment of a difference, the space outside of place; it is a gap impossible either to inscribe on a geographic map or to assign to history. Its reality thus belongs to the order of the text; more precisely, it is the figurative representation that the text inscribes beneath its discourse, and by it (57).