Finding Optimism in Dystopias

image2I teach an English special topics course on utopian and dystopian literature, at a small college in San Jose, Cogswell Polytechnical School. It’s been a pretty popular class, filling up ever since it ran last spring. This isn’t necessarily because I’m a good teacher. Dystopias have, in the past decade plus, experienced a huge increase in popularity, especially among young people.

Post-election, I’ve gotten a lot of comments, which fall into one of two categories: “You’re going to be out of a job soon, huh? Since it’s all coming true?” Or “Should probably open a second section of that class, shouldn’t they?” As much as I’m opposed to the Trump presidency, I think the latter comment is more accurate, which is good news.

In the class we start with the history of utopianism, and move into its more popular opposite. As I point out early on, utopianism has been around since Plato and The Republic, but dystopias didn’t enter the popular imagination until the 20th century. By definition, they require three pillars of modernity: industrial technology, wide-spread secularism, and prominent nationalism. Our primary texts for the class are Nineteen Eighty Four, Brave New World, and The Handmaid’s Tale. We also watch Blade Runner, and read more recent works, including Cory Doctorow’s The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, parts of The Left Hand of Darkness, and listen to Deltron 3030, Sun Ra, and Janelle Monae.

The point of the class isn’t to take in these works and make guesses about how bad the future will be (though that doesn’t stop my students from trying). The class is about analyzing why we use these type of works to make statements about our present. What do dystopias tell us about our own zeitgeist?

They tell us a couple of things. First, creation of, and interest in dystopias, by a society means that it’s still relatively healthy, and concerned about its future. Something is threatening its long-term existence or happiness which needs to be overcome, and dystopias are the rhetorical art object providing the motivation to do so “or else.” Dystopias increase in popularity when a society sees grave threats to its values or survival, but has limited options to deal with them. Utopias become popular when major wars and calamities have passed and new hopeful ideas, new future options for society, arise.[1] You can see right off why utopias have been pretty unpopular during the 20th century, and why they’re not in vogue today.

The cardinal example of how this works is thee dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four. During the Second World War and shortly thereafter, George Orwell and many of the people in his culture (England, but generally the West) didn’t have much faith that democracy would survive. The only way to defend against the monstrosities of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was massive military mobilization, which in turn caused similar ideals of authoritarian to form in said democracies. And very shortly after the book was written, the options for defeating the Soviet Union and other communist states ranged from medium-intensity warfare (Korea, Vietnam, etc) to full on nuclear exchange. Or the West could submit to the terrors of communist domination, “better red than dead” in the words of Bertrand Russell. Bad options indeed. But by the end of the 1970’s the Cold War had changed, and it became apparent to Western culture that though these terrible options could still come to fruition, they’re were no longer quite as dire as before. In the 1970’s Nineteen Eighty-Four fell out of fashion and other dystopias came into popularity concerned with other issues, namely environmentalism, racism, and feminism. As what a society fears changes, so do its dystopias. Inversely, as it grows hopefully (or segments of it do) utopias come to the fore.

Feminist dystopias and utopias are another interesting example of how these trends of optimism and pessimism shift over time. Three major novels, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Female Man (1975) by Joanne Russ, and Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) by Margret Percy were written within a seven-year period. Besides Le Guin’s work, they are now mostly forgotten (indeed, I had not heard of them before building my syllabus). Why? Because they’re utopias about the potential for second-wave feminism to solve society’s problems. They all grew out of the optimism created by feminist accomplishments in the 1960’s and 1970’s. When the U.S. moved towards the right in 1980 with the election of Ronald Regan, and second-wave feminism was additionally confronted with the fact that it was focused almost solely on the problems and hopes of middle-class white women, these utopias fell out of favor and feminist dystopias rose in popularity. The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) won the Booker Prize a year later and brought Atwood to international prominence. It deals intensely with the problem of feminism having major enemies, as well as third-wave feminist issues, in direct response to its utopian precursors.

The point of this is that we’re now in a time when dystopias have reached a fever pitch in popularity: they’re all over TV (Wayward Pines, Black Mirror, Man in the High Castle) video games (Fall Out, Half-life, Bio-Shock) and numerous best-selling books (The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Oryx and Crake) What does that tell us? That we have difficult problems, and our options for dealing with them aren’t good. So what are they?

Primarily, they’re concerned about the American Dream. Most of this dystopian glut is post 9/11, for obvious reasons.[2] The bad news is the majority of these dystopias aren’t simply fearful of international terrorism or endless war. They’re fearful that capitalism and our entire economic system will eventually fail under the pressures of global warming and resource exhaustion. And the post-Obama turn to the right is a direct response to this fear.

This issue comes up repeatedly in class discussions of any dystopia post-9/11. I have my students read a short book, Shaping Things, by the sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling, to help illuminate this problem. In the book, he argues that every culture has a “metahistory” which is its cultural values applied to the future. Sterling describes it as, “a cultural thesis on the subject of time itself . . . A culture’s metahistory helps it determine whether new things are appropriate, whether they fit into the trajectory that is considered the right track.”[3] It’s how we take our view of history and apply it to a future we want. In the U.S., our metahistory is the American Dream, which is primarily that of a liberal Republic with a capitalist system of ever-increasing industrial prosperity.[4] It argues, “sure, we’ve made mistakes (genocide, slavery, the Vietnam war, etc) but we’ll try to not make them again, and correct their aftereffects. And the main way we’ll do this is with a strong economy and a growing share of the pie for everyone. And this system is stable and perfect, and it will exist forever.”

Obviously, these ideal are under attack, and the recent presidential election is part of that. Many people see Donald Trump as a solution to the perceived loss of the American Dream. They seek to sacrifice the first half of the dream (liberalism) to ensure the second half (increasing capitalist prosperity). This is a sign of how scared people are of changes to the second part of the dream, and how badly they want those threats to not exist. Electing a leader who vigorously denies there’s a problem with the system is one symptom of this fear. There is also the ill-founded feeling that perhaps in the past we ignored the first part of the dream, and that was why our economy worked, and we must turn our backs on liberalism for this reason.

Whether we deny it or not, our society is suffering from a growing fear about capitalism, specifically due to global warming and resource exhaustion. Almost every dystopia written in the past ten years deals with this problem. In fact, most of their plots are explicitly about a collapse from this issues (Feed, Elysium, The Road, Ready Player One, Cloud Atlas, The Windup Girl, Blind Faith, etc). And this is because we’re stuck in a strange cultural malaise where our smartest scientist agree there’s a major problem but we’re doing nothing about it, because it would require a fundamental shift in our priorities and economy, probably very akin to the massive changes brought on by the Second World War, though obviously different in scope and goals. The options for dealing with the problem are so bad we don’t want to face them. The writers of dystopias are desperately trying to get our culture’s attention, and failing.

Which isn’t to say they’re absolutely correct. Orwell was (so far) wrong about the popularity of totalitarian states. Sterling (and many others) argue that we’ll overcome issues with capitalism with new technology, specifically, industry that is more productive than ours now, and also has no nasty side-effects like pollution and carbon emissions: “room temperature industrial assembly without toxins . . . [whose] materials and processes are biodegradable [and] auto recycling.” He also argues that a possible philosophical alternative to capitalism is coming, what he calls a “synchronic society” that puts the highest value on economic and political decisions that increase the chances of future human survival. In such a world Sterling says, “our activities as civilized beings [would be] expanding our future options and improving our current situation . . . if we humans were really on top of our game.” [5] But there’s no guarantee that this technology will be invented, and there’s very few signs of society trying to fix the systemic problems of global capitalism. Hence dystopias as a mass-popular genre.

As I explain to my students, until we have a goal-oriented movement to stop global warming, resources exhaustion, and continued human population growth, we won’t see any utopias in popular culture. But even small things, like a sustainable human colony on Mars, reliable nuclear fusion, a U.S. president with a broad plan to deal with global warming, or even the creation of an artificial intelligence that solves our problems with it’s brilliance but doesn’t kill us off, could give us hope as a culture and lead to a renaissance of utopias.

That’s the bad news, because we may not see any of those for a long time, and we may not see them at all: collapse could be around the corner. [6]

But there is another piece of good news concerning the election: real-world dystopias don’t allow dystopias. This is my retort to every student who’s argued “I think we’re living in a dystopia right now” while they sit in a heated classroom, with snacks, reading books, allowed to say whatever they want.[7] A famous example, Nineteen Eighty-Four was banned in the Soviet Union from it’s publication in 1949 until 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev allowed its publication as part of Glastnost. [8] A U.S. example, not only was Uncle Tom’s Cabin heavily censored in the pre-antebellum south, but slaves were generally forbidden to read.[9] A dystopia to the nth level, in that the art-object of dissent is not only forbidden, but the so are the tools to access it.

Similarly, people living under actual dystopias don’t write art-object metaphors for their situation, for two reasons. One, the political life is generally already so bad, there is no increasing it in a fictional way for dramatic effect. The purpose of dystopias are to warn people. Once a real-world dystopia has arrived it no longer has a purpose. And writing it them also tends to moves into the realm of farce. Take the Soviet Union in the 1930’s at the height of the gulag, purges, and starvation due to collectivization. Political life doesn’t get much worse than that. Ukrainian peasants are starving, the NVKD is sending millions to the gulags, there’s a massive personality cult around Stalin, and now he’s outlawed hats? Or take Nazi Germany in 1944-1945. The Germans are losing a global war which has killed millions (which they started) but any dissent to it is met by torture and death, they’ve enslaved most of Europe, and there are massive death camps running for Jews and other undesirables. What could top that? A plague breaking out? Hitler bans beer?

Second, any fictional critique of a real-world dystopia is not tolerated. And that’s the optimistic part of our situation. Saturday Night Live is still running. Lots of people are writing scathing reviews of Trump’s policies. I have not had any students, or anyone else, threaten me for teaching my class.

So right up until the point when I’m order by some federal agent (or more likely, the local milita/deathsquad/Trump biker gang) to stop teaching my class or be beaten and/or shot, things are not that bad. But that could change overtime, if the U.S. were confronted by a large enough disaster or terrorist attack (which is a topic for a whole other essay). But otherwise, dystopias will keep nagging us to change, to confront our problems, no matter how bad they may be.

At the end of each semester, I ask my students what dystopias they see coming in the next five to ten years. This year, most of them pointed to the election and argued we’d be seeing more dystopias about the persecution of everyone but straight white males. I think that’s accurate. My handful of conservative students argued that they’re be dystopias about liberalism attempting to censor things outsides its values: non-politically correct speech, hate speech, war hawkishness, anti-environmentalism and pro-business sentiment. I think that’s accurate too. I ended the class this year by saying that whichever side you sympathize with, as long as we’re still reading and thinking about dystopias, there’s hope that our future won’t become one.

[1] Utopias (outside of a few genre exceptions) haven’t been popular in the U.S. and the West since around 1890-1910. Some of these include much of H.G. Well’s work (especially A Modern Utopia and The Shape of Things to Come) William Morris’ News From Nowhere, as well as various texts on the wonderful potential of socialism by Robert Owens and Charles Fourier. Additionally, many people of the time formed communes in America, generally based on socialist principles. As the U.S. had not been at war for a generation, and Western Europe for longer, nor had the horrors of totalitarian occurred, utopias fit in with the optimistic mood of the time.

[2] The amount of dystopias published in the last fifteen years is nearly equal to all that’s been written in the rest of the 20th century. See, which isn’t a exact or exhaustive list, but gives one the general idea.

[3] Sterling, Bruce. Shaping Things. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 2007, page 37.

[4] My students sometimes debate this is our metahistory. However, for most of us, wherever we are on the political spectrum (baring the fringes) we’re all looking for an America where everyone can work a job they tolerate, support a family, and live a life of love and happiness. Look any advertisement and you’ll notice this is what most their selling points are based around.

[5] Sterling, Bruce. Shaping Things. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 2007, page 144.

[6] For a detailed analysis, see Thomas Homer-Dixon. The Upside of Down. Islands Press, 2008

[7] And oblivious to their privilege, a trait among a lot of my straight, white, male college students. Which I would guess stems from never experiencing any actual dystopian-like events: police harassment, homophobia, sexual harassment, etc.



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