When times look dim in our contemporary world due to environmental crisis, food crisis, and financial crisis – compelling is the thought or rather fantasy, then, of utopia. The concept first appeared as the title of Sir Thomas More’s book Utopia from 1516, which described a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean in which everything was imbued by delightful perfection. This concept then turned into some kind of binary signifier, after having its counterpart coined in the guise of dystopia – a most prominent theme of George Orwell’s famous masterpiece 1984, as well as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which is oddly enough not as famous as Orwell’s. It may be the case that it is just too much of a resemblence of our contemporary society to be appreciated as dystopian.
My intention is not to dwell too long on the mundane perception of these abstract concepts. I would rather like to propose the crazy idea that utopia and dystopia effectively works the completely opposite way of how we spontaneously use them in the process of thinking.
In some sense, when fantasmatically portraying some possible future as utopian, I think we rather simply castrate it, making it impotent as a principle of organizing society. The opposite goes for dystopian, where we rather castrate our own sense of political agency before some traumatic complexity of future events. I will now use theories derived from psychoanalysis to elaborate in simplified sense why this is the case.
First of all, it is an essential claim within psychoanalysis that the phenomenon of fantasy exists only at the imaginary level of reality. If you realize a fantasy, you also effectively annihilate it in the form of fantasy. These thoughts have extensive roots within human thinking. You find a version of it even in the Tanakh. More precisely in the male heterosexist discourse on “women” in the two different guises of Lilith and Eve, imaginary and real. However, this myth is most explicitly common within Jewish tradition and is more or less censored in Christian scriptures. Nevertheless, Lilith was actually the first wife of Adam, and in contrast to Eve was not created from part of him but from the same earth, on equal basis, so to say. However, she was apparently “too hot” for Adam to handle, and since she also refused to become subservient, she was eventually replaced by the submissive Eve. Lilith took the form of the imaginary female occupying the masturbatorical fantasies of Adam, while Eve was turned into the real and “flawed” female.
Every fantasy is in this sense an excess of the real. Once realized and the excess lost, the fantasy is lost, too. This is why all the junk magazines occupying most of the literary space in our grocery stores never reach closure on the close-to-God-like topic of happiness. Miles of column-inches of text elaborate on how to really become happy, and still, no whatsoever attention has been directed to recent science on the field of happiness. Happiness seems to be the holy cow of our society and occupy the top of our cultural utilitarian pedestal. But I am afraid that the time has come for me to slay it.
All you have ever read on the topic of happiness Hollywood-style is unfortunately a total deception. There does not exist a condition of happiness for us to reach. It is true that we can achieve well-being, as a durable condition. But when it comes to happiness, it is in fact only an episodic experience evoked when we satisfy pent-up needs. Poets and authors can elaborate on happiness as much as they want, in the quest to solve the mystery of achieving it. But according to what I have heard from recent developments within neuropsychology, our brain does not even allow for happiness to be anything else than short-lived and episodical. And as such, you cannot achieve happiness in the popular junk-magazine Hollywood-style sense of the term.
Regrettably, all popular bullshit about fulfilling or realizing your fantasies and dreams is in the end turned into its radical opposite. Once you fulfill them, they move out of the realm of imaginary desire and becomes part of your boring reality. No wonder that rockstars turn into drug junkies.
And to my point, this of course also hold for the realization of utopia. Once you enact utopia into your reality of daily political life, you lose it at the same time. Think, for example, of the spiral of terror following the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Once the eschatology of early 20th century Marxism was realized in a potent form (similar to how Adam’s intercourse with Lilith inevitably resulted in “domestic violence”), it ate itself from within until it turned the connotation of the entire idea of Communism into a durable state of impotence.
Unsurprisingly, also liberals failed to appreciate when their utopia was turned into world religion during the 1990s hysterical ejaculation in celebration of the end of history. Even though now the entire world has endured through its steel baths, Liberalism still expresses the loudest complaints. This is a rather interesting phenomenon, indeed.
But there is one more side to this, which is the fact that exclaiming something as a utopia is also an effective way of disqualifying it as a reasonable project. On the unconscious level, we all know the thing I just mentioned about fantasy. As such, I would like to propose the idea that we do not really conceive of utopia as something we would actually like to implement onto our reality. The opposite goes for the case of dystopia, where we consciously think (at the level of known knowns) that we will end up in catastrophe. And there is nothing we can really do about it. At the unconscious level of unknown knowns however, we always know how to prevent it, but in order to protect our psyches from the everyday boredom of “Eve”, we act as if we do not know which way we are heading. We always carry this obscure desire for the “evil guys” to win.
In this sense, the imaginary dystopia is there to hide the real dystopia. We rather tend to fantasize about worse problems than those very contemporary material problems that we perceive too immediate and traumatic to deal with. And hardships seems so much easier to carry when we carry them collectively. To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, the best thing to tell a dying person is that everyone else is dying at the same time.
Therefore, utopia and dystopia as instruments of thoughts work exactly the opposite way of how we spontaneously use them. To call an idea utopian makes it totally useless, unattainable, something with which we justify our contemporary state of affairs. For example, would it not be a utopia to imagine a society where nobody slept under the bridges at night?
I think not. Think about it for a while; does it not, as the philosopher Rick Roderick (the giant of Texas) once said, sound rather pathological with our contemporary technological standard borne in mind:
No, it’s not utopian to demand that [human requirements are met] in a world with this kind of technology, that is a moral demand; a society feeds, houses, and clothes its people. A society that doesn’t do it, with the kind of technology and the wealth we have, is beneath contempt and makes a mockery of all the previous histories of civilisation.
And, as he later concludes which I would finally like to emphasize: “[…]neither has or deserves a very long existence.”
Thereof, a truly revolutionary demand would not be grandious and utopian. A truly revolutionary demand would be to demand a “simple”, “normal”, “functioning” society, where kindergardens, schools, and hospitals are not perceived as out of our reach to manage without trouble, and where people don’t sleep under the bridges at night. We can fly to Mars, but this simple thing, we cannot solve.
Text: Dennis Halvordsson