The Traveler of my tale burns sage from Utopia, “a place ahead of its time,” unevenly distributed here in the present. ‘Tis other than 802,701 A.D., the place visited by the protagonist of H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine. Wells’s protagonist arrives to a future 800,000 years hence and makes a fool of himself. He imagines himself lost or damned. He blunders about; he curses, he cries. The only noble thing he does is rescue an Eloi woman from drowning — but he proceeds thereafter to treat her as one would a pet or a child. He imagines himself superior to the Eloi, and responds to the Morlocks with fear and contempt. After flicking matches around and starting a forest fire, he kills some Morlocks, regains control of his Time Machine, and hightails it back to the day on which he first set forth. My favorite touch is his vanishing at story’s end.
Frankie’s down for a nice nap after a morning at the pool. Sarah saw to matters related to the air unit — so I remove my feet from my socks and think. The narrative we write is important, yes? For narrative is the stuff of which cosmologies are made. World-pictures. Cognitive maps. The shape of the world is determined at the quantum level, much like Schrödinger’s Cat, by the struggle to determine the shape of the world-picture. Unless, of course, struggle and determination are not part of that picture. By “shape of the world” I mean the mutable present’s arrangement toward the imaginal realms we call “past” and “future.” Origin and telos. The present’s mode of appearance alters according to the previous night’s dreams, and the previous night’s dreams are shaped by memory and desire. Those who wish to steer the world toward Utopia take these latter as the prima materia of the great work. Kim Stanley Robinson, meanwhile, steers us back to work of a more literal sort. The climate crisis demands reorganization of labor. Certain chapters of Robinson’s 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future are written in the style of “notes,” “minutes” kept by an international working group: the Ministry, the book’s actant or protagonist. Work thus finds its way back even in our hours of leisure, as this is what we read when we read by the pool. The book itself is work; its utopia begins with a disaster, a heat wave that kills several million people in India. From this disaster come a pair of nova: the Ministry itself, of course, but also a direct-action group called the Children of Kali. This latter group intrigues me, given its alignment with the famous Hindu goddess of time, creation, destruction, and power. After the disaster, it is she who speaks to us: “I am a god and I am not a god. Either way, you are my creatures. I keep you alive” (13). Kali is the persona Robinson dons to give voice to Nature. Kali, with her long terrible tongue. Kali, with her necklace of severed heads. Several of the book’s experts prognosticate “civilization kaput” before century’s end (55). It’s all rather bleak: countless species facing extinction in the years ahead. Against the backdrop of that abyss, the book conjures its hyperstitial alternative future of geoengineering and rewilding.
Utopias and dystopias promote and project contrary “affects” or (to use Raymond Williams’s term) “structures of feeling.” Reading Philip K. Dick’s drug dystopia A Scanner Darkly, one feels deflated. One would rather get stoned. Stand around in the yard, share a joint and chat about bats, skunks, porcupines, dogs, and gardens with one’s elders. “Bats are interesting,” says a friend’s mother.
“Against work, for utopia,” announces a podcast I’ve listened to of late. Give it a try: sex worker Conner Habib, the show’s host, interviews Marxist-feminist Kathi Weeks, author of The Problem with Work. Weeks is an investigator of “Antiwork Politics” and “Postwork Imaginaries.” See especially her book’s fifth chapter, “The Future Is Now: Utopian Demands and the Temporalities of Hope,” where Weeks proposes “a utopianism without apology” (175). To defend the latter, Weeks draws upon the ideas of the great German Marxist “philosopher of hope” Ernst Bloch. Her account of Cold War anti-utopianism covers ground I covered in my dissertation: Karl Popper, Francis Fukuyama. All of it now dust in the wind. Let Utopia rise again from the sea of the possible as it did for More.
DC was quite the creature feature yesterday. I’m puzzled, though, as to what to make of it. Laugable LARP or ill omen of things to come? The possibility remains ever-present for yesterday’s farce to become tomorrow’s tragedy (Marx’s equation reversed). But my hope is that history sloughs off past genres and unfolds into something new. Utopia’s atemporal too.
Let us study Lauren’s Earthseed verses. They’re slim, featuring between one and five (occasionally seven) words per line. There are a lot of declarative statements. Also commands, imperatives like “Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed” (196). No questions. Frequent use of second-person — references to “You” the reader. “You with whom I speak.” Meaning all of us. Many of the verses insist on Earthseed’s central claim: “God is Change” (270). Lauren avoids all mention of herself. There is no “I” in these verses, but there is a collective “We” — members of Earthseed communicating with each other across time. Her journal entries narrate the creation of this community. We see a spontaneous, non-coerced collectivity arise in search of land where the group hopes to establish an armed commune, like David Koresh’s in Waco or John Africa’s MOVE community in Philadelphia. Unlike those other groups, though, Earthseed is matriarchal, multicultural, and democratic. Those of you who wish to learn more about MOVE, I recommend the 2013 documentary Let the Fire Burn, about the city of Philadelphia’s bombing of the group’s headquarters in 1985. Filmmaker Jason Osder incorporates an impressive array of found footage: TV news reports, live coverage of the bombing, press conferences, interviews, testimonies before an investigation commission, the works. The movie is heartbreaking, shocking: a story about “failure to resolve ‘conflicting lifestyles’ in a peaceful way,” as Commission Chairman William H. Brown III notes in an opening testimony at the start of the film. It fills one with anger and outrage and sorrow, so be warned. MOVE, after all, was a revolutionary organization. Members lived their lives in revolutionary opposition to the System. For this they were punished by the city’s ruling elites. But MOVE was also more than just a revolutionary organization; it was a religion. Its members lived their lives as part of a cosmic drama — spiritual warfare between the forces of good (or what MOVE members called “The Law of Mama”) and the forces of evil (i.e. “The System”). This is what grants the MOVE narrative its power. It teaches that this is what the Empire does: it prevents the formation of new religions and new religious movements. We see it meting out the same punishment in Butler’s sequel, Parable of the Talents, where a group of Christofascists invade Acorn, the first Earthseed community. Buildings are torched. Several people die; others are enslaved. And a similar story is told in Parable of the Sower — only the characters have switched parts. Reverend Olamina’s Baptist congregation is the religious community, and drug users and the poor are the ones who invade. Somewhere in this is a lesson about discernment. The name to say loudly now is “Breonna Taylor.”
At three and a half months, the baby is all smiles, dressed in a jumper with bright yellow sneakers, chatty with a speech of sounds, sighs, efforts toward words. Sarah plays her “Bulletproof” by La Roux. I scoot next door and dip into Design for Utopia: Selected Writings of Charles Fourier. In his 1971 Foreword, Frank E. Manuel says Fourier’s ideal “calls to mind the ‘synergic’ society originated by Ruth Benedict and expounded by Abraham H. Maslow, who found it consonant with his own doctrine of self-actualization. In synergy, as Maslow defined it, the individual acting in his own behalf at the same time furthers social ends, fulfilling simultaneously and harmoniously his obligations to himself and his responsibilities to society” (4-5). Manuel maintains an attitude of bemused skepticism, maybe even a haughty distance, with regard to all such doctrines and ideals, his imagination far too stingy and conservative for my taste.
Time to welcome Spuren into the discourse, a concept central to the writings of Western Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. The essential scheme of these writings is as follows: Bloch finds in the world evidence of “the imperceptible tending of all things toward Utopia” (121). Spuren is his name for this evidence. Fredric Jameson translates the term as “traces, spoor, marks, and signs, ‘signatures of all things I am here to read'” (Marxism and Form, p. 121). The trace isn’t just an external object; it happens, it is a noetic experience, an alteration of consciousness. We pause in astonishment, Jameson says, before these Spuren, “these glowing emblems in which some urgent yet utterly personal secret seems to be concealed” (122). Real philosophizing begins with this lived experience of astonishment. An astonishment born in Bloch’s view from an encounter with “the concrete new in its unimaginable plenitude” (127). The Spuren intervenes, disrupts the ideological slumber, wakes the sleeper from a state of forgetfulness, causing not just remembrance or anxiety but hope. For these reasons, we might liken Spuren to those events Jungians call synchronicities. Spuren are meaningful coincidences, only instead of just realizing psyche in cosmos, they hint prophetically of happier states ahead. One becomes possessed or pulled inwardly by the urging not of the Freudian unconscious, but by a Blochian not-yet consciousness, a beneficent spirit that wishes well. One is driven, steered by unconscious forces, Jameson says, into “the not-yet-existent, rather than back into the endless repetition of childhood fixations” (130). Bloch regards the utopia as a form that reveals this movement of reality toward the future. They educate us to our heart’s desire. “The meaning of Being…comes into being, if at all,” Jameson writes, “only at the moment when the world passes over into Utopia, and when that final Utopian destination returns upon the past to confer a sense of direction upon it” (Marxism and Form, p. 131). I step outside to birds everywhere, the world alive with song. Anxiety can be transformed into positive anticipation — a lifting of the world with hope.
Back to Aldous Huxley’s Island, with its Pacific island utopia, the society of Pala, intact despite the “conspiracy” narrative that weaves through it like Muchalinda, the King of Snakes, whose tree the Buddha is said to have sat under. The lesson, we might say, is that “People who aren’t frightened of snakes, people who don’t approach them with the fixed belief that the only good snake is a dead snake, hardly ever get bitten” (239). For Muchalinda cares for the Buddha, shelters the Tathagatha “from the wind and the rain” (238) for the duration of his sitting. Huxley offers the story as a eupsychian alternative to the West’s Eden narrative. Each of us is an island and a world — like Turtle Island — and our time here can be blissful, saved by the Third Noble Truth if we so allow that there is a cure. The prescription for this easing of suffering is laid out in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Each of us has within our grasp the power to live as do the Palanese — because each of us is the Shipwrecked Westerner washed up on Pala’s shores like Island‘s protagonist Will Farnaby. If Will can be educated and changed by his encounter with Pala, then so can we. So can all of us. Microcosmic resistance can have observable macrocosmic effects. Millennials outnumber boomers. Go, Bernie, go! Let us put our educations to practice and change the world. “War is over, if you want it,” as John and Yoko sang, with backing vocals by the Harlem Community Choir. No more war on Natives, migrants, women, children, workers, planet. No more war on ourselves.
Huxley is a prophet, and with his final novel Island, he offers us a vision of redemption. Each of us is the island of Pala. Let us work together as allies. Youth for Bernie! There it is: let’s do this! “Uncover honey / where maggots are,” as Charles Olson prompted at the end of his poem “The Kingfishers.” We determine with the genres we teach different kinds of subjects. By assigning utopias rather than dystopias, we arrange for students to confront within themselves stirrings of hope rather than fear.