It is only possible to bring up utopia non-critically within two cultures: the academic humanities and the ‘singularitarians.’ Science and philosophy; the two great guardians of mankind.
Utopia is polyamorous, it has many lovers. Most do not know with whom they are in love until the moment of betrayal. When utopia ceases to be a realizable goal and migrates further toward fantasy it becomes polysemous, coming to mean not only a paradise on earth (whether as a past golden age or a future destiny) but a dream, the act of dreaming, the ethical act, the truth of art, the mere possibility of imagining a changed world. This moment of separation is also when the thought of utopia finds its proper name, and when its continued pursuit veers into farce.
Utopia – non-place, perfect place — Apocalypse – revelation, the lifting of the veil.
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.
Apocalypse: the irruption of absolute, immanent truth into the present. The untimely arrival of the future, or the unexpected return of the past. And the erasure of both. The collapse of representation, of the difference between sign and referent. In the apocalypse, truth no longer refers to anything, since everything is present, nothing is hidden, the onset of hyperreality or pure (im)mediacy. The moment of trauma extended. In speaking of a coming apocalypse, we are within the discourse of utopia.
So the impossibility of utopia (and apocalypse) must be preserved if it is to continue to exert influence as a dream (or a nightmare), if it is to persist in meaning. Without it there is nothing before which to tremble. And trembling is its principle effect. While indiscreet in most circles to name utopia for reasons already stated, the effects of the utopian/apocalyptic imaginary are still politically useful. There are difficulties, relating mostly to the consequences of capitalist and imperialist expansion. Because there is no longer any hidden (unexploited) space on which to project utopian fantasies, new spaces of ‘indeterminacy’ have to be created. Science fiction and its related genres — contemporary advertising, tech industry forecasts, architecture, futurology, urban planning, etc. — only works on those who are already ‘on the right track,’ or acclimated to modern progress and technocapitalist development. For everyone else, the future, along with the physical, social, and economic environment, has to be remade. Local apocalypse can be produced through special effects, clearing a space for the pursuit of utopia, which of course can never be permanently occupied. ‘Shock and awe,’ then ‘rebuilding.’ Bulldozing, then development. Mass layoffs, then corporate restructuring. Environmental ruin, then ‘green business.’ Economic ‘shock therapy.’ This is how the script goes: hell is inflicted, and only afterward, by a kind of dumb reflex, comes hope.
Perhaps what differentiates these utopian-themed productions from the old 18th-century rationalist utopias is that the planning is largely private, internal, secret. Why did the U.S. attack Iraq? Is it going to attack Iran? Why did I get fired? Why can’t I get health care? Most of us only experience effects, and do not have adequate knowledge of the system in which they make sense. The very idea of ‘us’ engaging in long-term planning is ludicrous. We can’t afford it in our day-to-day lives, the rhetoric goes, how could ‘we’ hope to do it for our communities, nations, etc.? As if it needed to be said, this sort of confusion births superstitions of all kinds, including the belief that planning and systematic thought itself is superstitious, paranoid if about ‘them’ or ‘utopian’ in the derisive sense if about ‘us.’ But planning happens all the time, despite the world’s complexity and despite the freedom of markets. It is just out of ‘our’ hands, outsourced into ‘theirs.’
At any rate, the essence of utopia has nothing to do with planning. It is a perfect place which for that reason exists nowhere. It is therefore, if we take ‘meaning’ to imply some degree of concrete specificity, not a meaningful concept; it is a useful concept. But useful for whom?
It was argued a couple comment threads ago that today’s prophecies of capitalism’s end are no more valid than those of the ’70s and ’80s. But they trace back to the same environmental threats — global warming and peak oil, which have only been getting worse (if you’re confused by all the links, start with this one). If for the moment we limit the definition of ‘hope’ to an improbable longing, a type of desire for utopia, than in light of the facts it is difficult to see who can really benefit from this hope aside from those who work to bring the world closer to hell. What is there to hope for? New fuel-saving technologies? Socialist revolution? A truly free global market? Consumer society for all? Every one of these dreams rests on the perpetuation of the very system that has produced them as our necessary salvation. Every one rests on deus ex machina, on some force external to our lives swooping in and saving us all at the last minute. Hope is an emotion of the powerless, directed at gods.
At the beginning of the year, one corner of the humanities blogosphere threw a pity party for the end of the world. As one might expect, their musings primarily took place within the empyrean realm of the aesthetic. Endings, more so than beginnings in this secular age, are perhaps the privileged objects of contemplation; the idea that one can behold the truth of a thing’s existence at the moment of its extinction. And afterward the numb, nauseating junkie shiver that comes from total immersion in the spectacle of one’s extended demise. In endings inheres both the melancholia of loss and the playful irony of the thought experiment, the many pleasures available to our detached observer completed in an apotheosis of delicious (delirious?) languor.
But a pretense of relevance demands the abandonment of all other pretenses. If some sort of grand catastrophe is coming, it will only be beautiful for a very select few. For most it will be ugly, violent, and humiliating. As the world is now. The suffering of billions is an awfully high price to pay for renewed hope. And the now-widespread assurance that something is coming did not itself come from any sort of original insight, any ‘thinking beyond the possible,’ but from a gradual, difficult spread and internalization of accumulated knowledge. ‘Our’ pitifully limited definition of the possible was expanded without any exercise of genius or creativity. If a ‘better world’ is ever built it will be out of necessity, not idealism. This necessity, of course, first has to be recognized.
So give up utopia, give up hope. Give up the gods, finally. What then? I submit the following declaration, appropriately vulgar:
We Are Fucked.
Fucked: there will not be flying cars and foie gras for everyone. Fucked: the revolution will always take place somewhere else. Fucked: even self-righteous victimhood is incoherent, because there is always someone more fucked than you, and your pet suffering innocents. Fucked: death is unavoidable, and you are not going to heaven for ‘saving’ future generations. They too are fucked. The ‘we,’ used without reservation, without respect to race, age, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation, unites us all.
Fucked: a nice word, panicky and reassuring at the same time; post-pornographic, in the sense that the shock of revelation is past, no urgent reason to dwell on it now just prepare for the next one. Fucked, always and forever. Passive and past tense, so that there is no opportunity for heroism, which we’ve had more than enough of, no reaching for the stars when there is life to be lived on Earth (it’s also rigorously material), no special value given to brilliant deeds and pivotal events, so perhaps a little less credulity when they happen anyway. No gods, who can only materially exist on the backs of a mob whose faces are ground into the dirt. No worship of human genius means no hatred of it either, so that we are never so proud as to give up its fruits when we don’t need to. In every circumstance, the world demands sobriety first, ingenuity second. Only for gods is the order reversed. Why should it be so controversial to say that survival is every human’s first concern, followed (maybe) by peace? It’s like we haven’t even learned how to walk yet.
Is this vision of abject humility too spiritual? Utopian, even? But there is no reason to wait, nowhere to go, all the hard work — and all the play — comes afterward. We can all be fucked right now.