Monday, January 7, 2008

Week 0: Space, More's Utopia, and Time

Recent blogospheric polemicists have argued against a politics predicated on Utopia on the grounds (if I may summarize) that it is Utopia's very impossibility that is actually its most salient and essential characteristic:

Utopia: perfect, not meant to be found, impossible, hidden, veiled. It is perfect because it is the place where veils are unnecessary. No place for deception when everything is truth. And this is why it must always be displaced — the term ‘non-place’ suggests the absence of something that is always and essentially present to the speaker, the very conditions of speaking. Utopia as double negation, the (necessary) absence of an (impossible) absence.
I think this is largely right, but it elides somewhat the reason why: what has happened to Utopia since More published is that Utopia has shifted from a spatial concern—an actual place impossible to reach—to a temporal one—a possible future you won't live to see.

It's not simply that More, playfully insisting in the prefatory material it's all really true, locates his Utopia in the New World, a distant location well outside the horizon of experience for nearly everyone alive in his time; nor that someone coughs at the moment Raphael Hythloday reveals the island's exact location (as recounted in Busleyden's letter); nor that the sea is so unnavigable and dangerous around the island that "it seldom chances that any stranger, unless he be guided by a Utopian, can come into this haven" (first page of book 2). It is the inescapable nature of a spatial Utopia like More's, an Atlantis or a Shangri-La, to be actual and yet essentially unreachable—really, to be a kind of a parallel universe in an age when there was still room enough for them to exist on Earth itself.

Following More, however, Utopia has been relocated from a location in space to a moment in time—the future—and accordingly we have exchanged Utopia as a signifying noun for the Utopian, a metaphorizing adjective. Now Utopia is no longer actual—it doesn't yet exist—but it is reachable, at least in some theoretical sense;it is realizable through the actions of those individuals for whom it is still yet a dream. This potential reachability draws its logic not from the travelogue, as did More's Utopia, but instead from the religious promise of Christian eschatology of the Kingdom of Heaven (usually the substitution is as easy as replacing the Christian savior for a new one).

At the risk of splitting my hairs too finely, I'm speaking here of the difference between the alternative and the potential.

The move from a perfect place to a perfect time necessarily interjects the impossible questions of planning and transition that are objected to in the linked post. To get from England to Utopia (or from Earth-1 to Earth-2), you only have to know in which direction to sail; but to get from the present to ecotopia or the Singularity you have to plan—you have to build. Any Utopian project becomes quickly and hopelessly overrun with logistical impossibility, and accordingly the relevant imagined timeline becomes more and more prolonged:it's not going to be easy; it's a long hard slog; it's the struggle of a generation; it's a generational struggle; I may not get there with you, but I believe...

This is where the longing for apocalypse originates, in the desire for a radical break that does all the work for us at once.

But there's a dialectical countermovement to this longing for apocalypse. As change and progress become so slow as to resemble stasis, the long arm of the future and the impossibility of ever reaching it has a second and even more pernicious effect on the imagination of Utopia: in addition to voiding the Utopian of its political power and reducing it instead to the failed dreams of the naive for a "perfect world," it also respatializes Utopia, reinscribing it back inside the present. Our teleological view of history makes this happen. If the Utopian dream of tomorrow can be built out of the present moment, the future and the present begin to telescope, narratively, into a single, indistinguishable motion. If the warm-up pitch begets the pitch begets the swing begets the hit begets the arc of the ball over the infield begets the home run that is the end of history, then in a narrative sense they're all Utopia. To be anywhere along the path to Utopia is to already be as close to paradise on Earth as one could possibly be. Insofar as Utopia is impossible, the present is all we have, and insofar as it is inevitable, the present is still all we have. This is how Utopia becomes respatialized not as parallel world or impossible alternative but the nation as it currently exists—no longer over there but here, now, with ever-more empty and vague gestures towards progress or a better tomorrow. This, I think, is the genesis of American exceptionalism: the temporal potentiality of the city on the hill becomes confused with the nation's spatial actuality, and suddenly the possibility that we might be moving towards Utopia becomes proof we already live in it.