Friday, July 10, 2009

Another Ambiguous Utopia

Most Arrogant Blog reader Abangaku writes here about "social utopias," a term which seems to enter his post by way of an article by Cristoph Tannert and Theo Altenberg entitled "Paul McCartney: Reverses and Other Advances"). I am now going to go off on a completely tangential topic to his post, but it is inspired by it, because I found the conjoining of these two terms ("social" and "utopia") to be kind of thought-provoking. I think it's partially because it almost struck me as redundant - mustn't a utopia be social, in order to be a utopia? How could one have any other kind of utopia? This is where I feel like I'm missing Abangaku's point (and probably Tannert and Alternberg's, as well), but I do want to think about utopias and society.

When I was younger, the first couple of years after I graduated from college, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I suppose you might call a social utopia, in that it was a utopian society. I was thinking about this for entirely individualist reasons, however. My basic premise was that, given that I was stuck in a menial job and wasn't sure where to go with my career, which I needed to have in order to earn money, I should first think about what I would do if I didn't need to have a career in order to earn money and then try to come up with the career that was as close as possible to that. Therefore, I tried envisaging what my life would be like in a sort of utopia where there wasn't any money or obligation for careers. I think my vision of the utopia was somewhat based on Anarres in The Dispossessed - I'm not sure what that means about me.

Ultimately, I came to realize that my imaginations about what kind of life I'd live in this utopia ultimately failed to show me much truth about the life I wanted to live without restrictions - because the social utopia itself functioned as a restriction for me. My ideal life, or at least the one that seems to appeal to me as I am the most, wouldn't be lived in my imagination of the perfect society. Rather, it would be spent flitting from society to society throughout a multiverse of infinite possibilities, always as an outside observer, never as a part. Better than any life I could imagine staying put in one place would be making a life out of traveling from place to place.

But this raises the question: does my concept of the ideal life therefore intrinsically rest upon the denial of social utopia?

Well, in answering that question, it's important to note that my vision of the perfect life is not exactly anti-social. In fact, my perfect daydream doesn't involve traveling from society to society all by myself - I would like to travel as a member of a little mini-society, one that would ideally be extremely small indeed but would nonetheless exist - and we members of this little mini traveling society would not group together out of mere convenience but would actually enhance the experience of our travels by sharing them with each other. In other words, society would be intrinsic to the experience just as much as anti-society would - ours would be a mini-society premised on our exclusion from the larger societies to which we travel but equally premised upon the existence and coherence of our mini-society.

So could you then call our little mini traveling society a utopia, a vision of the perfect society? That would solve my problem neatly - I do in fact have a vision of a social utopia, just not the one I thought I did five years ago. Unfortunately, I don't think I can straightforwardly answer this latest question with a simple "yes" - my mini-society, it seems to me, can be considered a utopia if and only if it does not depend on the existence of other societies that are not utopias. If it does depend on such non-utopian societies, then it can't be a utopia, because I think we all have a natural feeling that a society that intrinsically requires oppression for its existence, even the oppression of people outside that society, is far from perfect, no matter how nice it might be to be one of the oppressors (ESPECIALLY if it's actually the majority that's being oppressed by the minority, as in this case).

So the next question that needs answering is whether or not my mini-society does require oppression in order to exist. The easiest way to answer this in the negative would be to suggest that, even if not everybody in all of the societies could join my mini-society, they could all join some similar mini-society. Obviously, it wouldn't work for everyone to be traveling all the time, because then there would be no societies to which to travel. However, it could be feasible to imagine a situation sort of like Anarres where everyone paid the price of being in a non-traveling society sometime and spent the rest of their time traveling - everyone puts in the work of creating a society, but everyone also gets to reap the rewards of being able to travel from society to society.

I don't think, however, that this would be feasible, for the simple reason that I fear that too much traveling would ultimately destroy the coherence necessary to make all the societies the mini-societies travel to into societies in the first place. This isn't to deny that one can travel and still be very much a part of one's society. I'm clearly an American despite the fact that I spend some of my time touring other countries and have even lived in Scotland and China. But I also don't spend nearly enough of my time traveling to make it seem like an integral part of my life in the way I imagine it, and, for that matter, I already am more distant from my society than many other people who live in it. This suggests to me that either the traveling would be rather superficial and not a key part of people's lives, or else it takes up enough time and mental thought that it would lead to the blurring of societies in a way that would ultimately turn into precisely the kind of social utopia in which I wouldn't be able to achieve my personal dream. Thus, even if everyone from every society is free to travel some of the time, to take short vacations throughout the multiverse, we must still envision a division between mini-societies like mine, which spend the majority of our time in such traveling and try to do our best to minimize the influence of any one larger society and preserve our outsider status, and everyone else, who remains a solid part of their own societies, making them cohere as societies - although I should probably point out here that I don't envision some kind of bizarre stasis wherein societies never combine or diverge. I just don't want all the societies to completely cohere so that everything becomes bland and boring - change is not in and of itself undesirable, as long as it doesn't lead to a complete erasure of all distinctions everywhere.

This does not, however, intrinsically mean that I'm positing a non-utopian situation. After all, it's entirely possible that not everyone wants or needs to travel the way that I do. It's also entirely possible that there are actually an infinite variety of potentially utopian societies, especially if we posit that people are free to choose which society they live in such that utopias can thrive to encompass a variety of different ideas about what societies should be. If this were the case, it would mean that no repression would be necessary, and there would be no invidious distinctions between people. People who wanted to spend their whole life traveling could go off and form mini-societies like the one I imagine, and the people who preferred not to travel quite as much could go and form their own manifold utopias for us to travel between. This would seem to solve my problem quite nicely - no repression would be necessary, and I would still be able to fully realize my dream.

And yet I still can't help but wonder if it's really that easy, if the manifold utopias would really fulfill my dream. The reason why I wonder is, of course, because I draw on a number of different sources in coming up with my own vision of the ideal life. Part of it is because I love traveling, especially traveling in good company, in the real world, of course. But that's not all it is. I'm also drawing on all sorts of models in the fiction that impressed me as a child, whether it be The Lives of Christopher Chant or Hyperion or even The Myth Adventures of Aahz and Skeeve. But I'm also drawing on the very nature of reading fiction itself, the feeling of exploring all sorts of other societies (whether that's in speculative fiction, historical fiction, global fiction, or whatever) from a very personal standpoint. I have to admit that I love the kind of book that Farah Mendlesohn describes as immersive fantasy, where part of the pleasure of reading comes from the sense of figuring out the puzzle of where you actually are. But I also love the way that you get stakes in the fictional world through following the struggles of a character. And then I'm also drawing on the pleasurable experience of the imagination at its best - of creating new worlds - which, again, so often involves pain for the characters you create. And the experience of dreams, where often you're involved in a new society that you at once have and haven't created. And where, once again, conflict and suffering are involved.

In other words, ultimately, I'm not sure that traveling from perfect society to perfect society is really enough to fulfill my dream. I mean that sometimes, sure, all I want is the tourist experience where learning about the customs of a new place and the perhaps violent history that has been transcended now is satisfying. But I'm not sure that's all I want. I'd also like to briefly drop in and get involved in the politics of a new world (and maybe I can't believe in a utopia with politics). I'd like to see the mythical stories I read about in books or made up myself come to life. I'd like to see all kinds of events and situations that simply wouldn't happen in a utopia. My wishes ultimately seem to involve at least occasionally being a tourist, a slummer, in the problems and sufferings of others. And so I go right back again to wondering if maybe my vision is intrinsically anti-utopian.

And yet, there's a very simple answer to this particular anxiety, contained in the way I described the problem itself. Because, after all, if my model is books and video games and tv shows, dreams and the creative process - well, books and video games and tv shows and dreams and the creative process can't be anti-utopian, can they, because they're not real? If Witch Week or the Word quartets or Xenogears do a good enough job of fooling me into thinking they've created a new society, then surely I don't actually need real new societies to be traveling to? All I need is something that seems convincing enough to do the job for me as an outsider. If I never really want to be a part of any society, just to look at it from the outside, then this hardly seems to require real pain, real suffering, real non-utopians. Fake societies, fiction, ought to do the job.

But I have to admit that it still makes me nervous - that my pleasure should depend on pain, even fake pain. There's this guy, Rich Puchalsky, who is a frequent commentator on The Valve. Back when I used to read The Valve a lot, I used to find him extremely irritating, although this was now long enough ago, and I have purposefully blanked out enough of those memories, that I don't exactly remember why. He also was a frequent commentator on Hitherby, where he was much less annoying and actually usually fascinating. Anyway, Rich Puchalsky made many comments (for all I know, he's still making them) about a theory of the author as demiurge (here's an example). The theory always bothered me. A real demiurge, if such a beast exists, would be responsible for a heck of a lot of pain and suffering. But authors aren't - there's a difference between my suffering or your suffering and the suffering of characters in books. So authors must be intrinsically better than demiurges and have no reason to think of themselves as demiurges, given that demiurges are such exquisitely terrible things to be. And yet I still find myself haunted by Rich Puchalsky's theory, on a level I can't fully explain.

I don't think that I think that fictional characters are real, after all. There seems to be a big difference between what it means to be me and what it means to be Charles Morgan or Kadie or Fei Fong Wong. Surely they don't have consciousness. This seems to be even more true of the characters I make up - in an odd sort of way, the very way they "come to life" in my brain, the way I have to check the actions I posit for them against the actions I can actually accept them performing, the way I don't even have to make up the plots for their stories because they make them up themselves, seems to underline their lack of independent existence from me - I think it's the way they exist so fully within the confines of my brain. They can't possibly have independent consciousnesses of their own - they don't need them! Real people can surprise me - the characters in my brain never can, because I only ever can expect them to do exactly what they would do. That must mean they don't have minds outside of mine. And since I don't suffer when they suffer - in fact, I often take quite a lot of pleasure in it when they suffer - surely there's no mind where any suffering can be occurring? The problem seems even less in dreams. One of my best dreams ever kind of epitomizes for me the perfect dream experience. On the one hand, I was the girl who had to run away from her father and was trying desperately to escape in the secret basement and was in a panic as she listened to find out whether or not her father was chasing her. And on the other hand, I was also the writer of the story about the girl running away from her father who was carefully analyzing whether I was putting the right clues in the narrative and chuckling about the way that I had made aspects of the story that the girl herself might not have noticed potentially guessable to the reader. I was both at the same time - and so there was clearly no real suffering going on. The suffering that the girl - I - was feeling, the anxiety, was really just a tactic for heightening my experience of suspense, and an extremely effective tactic, at that. I woke up from that dream with a sense of pure pleasure.

So I'm not sure what it is about Rich Puchalsky's theory of fictional worlds as Gnostic maya that so bothers me, what it is that makes me feel awkward about my proposed solution to the problem of how to combine my vision of a dream life with my vision of utopia. Maybe it's just the psychology of it - that my happiness as a person should seem to depend on the pleasure I take in suffering, even if that suffering isn't real. I mean, I think - I hope - I enjoy the suffering, am able to enjoy the suffering, because I know it isn't real, because it's a narrative device - and yet for all that I can't get away from the psychological truth that I enjoy the suffering, that I want my worlds to suffer through problems, that "human struggles" really do equate to "narrative," to "story" after all.

And so I return to my image of narrative as "a makeshift bandage on a giant seeping wound." The reason why narrative works as a bandage for the wound is precisely because narrative and the wound are both made possible by the same fundamental fact of individual consciousness. Without individual consciousness, there is no need for narrative. But, of course, without individual consciousness, there is no need for utopia, either. Because utopias are social. Utopias are about how to better improve experience through developing societies. And "A society is a body of individuals of a species, generally seen as a community or group, that is outlined by the bounds of functional interdependence, comprising also possible characters or conditions such as cultural identity, social solidarity, or eusociality." But, as practicing Jews like to remind themselves, this is irrelevant to transcendence because God is One.

And so. . . well, I always think of myself as being on the side of those who imagine utopias, because I feel like thinking that all utopias are dystopias must be a sign of despair. Because I believe that we are far from the perfect society and that improvement is possible. Because I have an odd tendency to read societies intended as dystopias as better than our own [umm, brief completely irrelevant sidenote. . . not only is Alex Proyas directing The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag but he is also directing The Tripods trilogy?!?!?!]. Because I do believe that societies have huge effects on individual lives and that societies can change for the better and that this is an effort worth making.

But I'm still an agnostic Gnostic utopian. And that means that I need to remember that utopia, too, can only ever be a makeshift bandage on the giant seeping wound. I'd like it to be a good bandage, as good as we can make it. But there is no perfection achievable in this world.


Anonymous said...

wow!!!! well thpught out!!

Grace Mulligan said...

Thank you!

Lonin said...

Hey -- I keep meaning to post on this, especially considering you're talking about *me* and all, but, wait a minute -- wow, it's been over a year. But hmm, now that I'm looking at this blog after months of absence -- maybe now I can post without having so much to say that I just won't say it any more?

Because I do want to say why I don't think "social utopia", the way I (who am Abangaku, for anyone who stumbles across this year-old post and is confused) was using it in my post at least, is a redundancy. Because, I do think I'm using "social" in a different way from how you're using it -- actually, I'm not sure how you're using it, but when I talk about "social", I mean, on the level of socializing, and I'm not sure if you're saying that a utopia has to be social because there obviously couldn't be any such thing as an antisocial utopia, or because dealing with social features has to be something that's programmed in to the design of a utopia in order for it to be a utopia worth its snuff. But neither of these is what I'm talking about.

I think I'm actually even using a different kind of adjective-noun relationship here -- maybe, with your background in linguistics, you can tell me what it's called. I mean a society that's utopian as far as its social aspect goes, the way that, say, "perfect couple" refers to two people who are perfect in so far as they're a couple, but it doesn't imply that the people, taken in their own rights, are perfect. And, again, I'm using the word "social" to refer to the sphere of socialization. So -- I guess I basically mean a society in which people socialize in "the best of all possible" ways.

What I guess is interesting about this particular specification I'm making here about what "social utopia" means, is the consequence that no society can be set up as a social utopia; a social utopia cannot be legislated into existence. A social utopia exists on the level of habits and social mores, not on the level of laws, which don't have any jurisdiction here. It's the same gap between law and custom that means I can believe that certain forms of speech (hate speech, e.g.) should be socially censured, while still believing in their First Amendment rights to not be legally censored. I can even believe in a society that's otherwise utopian -- economically, politically, artistically and so on -- but that still isn't utopian socially -- in their day-to-day interaction, away from the grand protections given to them by being part of the society at large, people still exclude each other, patronize each other, hurt each other's feelings unnecessarily, and so on.

Maybe that seems like a small price to pay for a society that's otherwise utopian; but, I feel like the ideal of a social utopia is still important, because in practice I'm a lot closer to making the world around me a *social* utopia than any other kind. Changing the world begins with yourself, or however that old Buddhist slogan goes.

Lonin said...

Now -- this is probably not at all what Tannert and Altenberg (the article is actually officially by Tannert alone, by the way, but Tannert decided to fill the part I quoted so fast and thick with quotes from Altenberg that I decided to give Altenberg co-credit in *my* quote of Tannert) mean by "social utopia". What my guess is as to what *they* mean is a society, probably a very temporary society judging by their idealized-rave-party context, that's uncategorically utopian, but, the way in which it's utopian, the way it even got to *be* utopian, is exactly through the dominance of the "social", in my sense of being of-or-relating-to-socialization. Like, I think they're saying that a great dance party can be utopian exactly *because* everything that's not social is, finally, blocked out. So, to sum up, one of their "social utopias" is certainly going to be a "social utopia" by my definition; but, also, I suspect that their concept of social utopia is far narrower than mine.

I guess that also leads to the question, intriguing also in the context of *your* post at large: is it possible for a utopia to still be a utopia if one of the conditions for its utopianness is that it be temporary? I feel like I hear all the time about one of the glories of rock music being the fact that it's so of-the-moment, so "dispensable" as the phrase goes (I am not a fan of this word). I wonder if the same could be true of something that could really pass muster as a *society*.

I'm sure there's more to say about this post, or about the earlier post of yours that this links to; but, most importantly, having just looked through this whole thing again: I'm in awe of the sheer *sweep* of the thing. Starting out with fantasies of escape from a menial job and end up with "this is irrelevant to transcendence because God is One" -- this is sheer awesomeness.

Expect more from me soon...!

Grace Mulligan said...

Responding to your first comment first, yes, I think we are having different concepts of social, here. For me, when I saw social, I read it as meaning "having to do with society" (as defined, perhaps, on Wikipedia, as mentioned in my post). Therefore, by "social" I meant something far broader than "socializing" but rather everything that makes up the boundaries of society. Since we speak of "utopian societies," to me this felt redundant - you can't have a "utopian individual" - it makes no sense as a concept - so in order for a thing to be utopian, it must be a society. In other words, the unit that we talk about when we talk about utopias is always already the society.

But socializing is obviously not equivalent to society, and is also a perfectly valid referent for the ambiguous adjective "social." So I think I have a better grasp of your meaning now.

In response to your contention that "a social utopia cannot be legislated into existence," I have some confused thoughts. I think there is a sense in which this is obviously true, which I come across when I read "people still exclude each other, patronize each other, hurt each other's feelings unnecessarily, and so on." Obviously there is no way to legislate a society in which these things are not true into existence. On the other hand, I'm somewhat skeptical as to whether it's possible to have individual people without these things occurring, so your sense of "social utopia" may fade into my sense of transcendence - in other words, I can't really imagine people who are still people having the kind of existence you're discussing here, so the only kind of social utopia I can imagine is one in which society is destroyed entirely through a process of transcendence. OTOH, I can also imagine socializing being better than it is now (without being perfect), which I might be willing to call a "social utopia" (or perhaps a "socializing utopia"?) - but then I'm less certain that it's obvious that you can't legislate it into existence - surely law plays at least some role in defining people's spectrum of possibility? That doesn't mean I disagree with you; it just means I'm not absolutely certain I agree.

Oh - and as for the society that is utopian except for the flaws in its socializing - I think I follow you there, except when you list the social flaws as a "price to pay." Since we already have these flaws in our own, non-utopian society, it doesn't seem to me as though the flaws are a price that needs to be paid in order to have the qualified utopia? After all, if these flaws were the price, then how come we haven't already paid and gotten our otherwise perfect utopia?

Grace Mulligan said...

I think that any society that is a society and is also uncategorically utopian is in fact a utopia, so I'm okay with that.

I don't know if I can accept the use of the term "utopia" to describe something temporary, though. If it's really utopia, then it shouldn't hold the seeds of its own destruction. I mean, okay, I'm not the boss of English, and I don't get to decide what words mean. But, for me, at least, I wouldn't want to use the word "utopia" for that kind of situation. Otherwise, I feel like you're broadening the meaning too much, losing the use of the term.

In addition, thank you for your kind words!