LettersThe Radical Imagination

Utopian Realism

I once asked Jean Baudrillard for his impressions of his tour of the colleges of America. “Boring,” he said, “like any realized utopia.” This was a provocation on several levels. In the cold war, realized utopia mean Soviet terror, not American prosperity.

And of course Baudrillard was as aware as Jameson is that utopias have to exclude violence. These days one would say that the North American campus utopia excludes it spatially, by selection and policing, but also temporally, in the form of debt.

However, I think there’s something to be said for this theme of utopian realism. It takes us away for the moment from the classic formula of utopia (and science fiction) as estrangement and cognition, and draws our attention rather to a subsequent moment, cognition and realization, or perhaps cognition and familiarity – and hence boredom.

So my proposition is: all utopias come true. Interesting ones also have something new to say about their conditions of realization: what can it mean that this describes an actual world? Utopia is in this special sense the most realist genre. It can treat in a formal way the questions of what the real not only could be, but what the real actually is.

Perhaps this is a somewhat counter-intuitive way to think about utopias. I want to approach it through a brief tour of some of the utopias that have pre-occupied me over the writing of several books for some ten years now. I shall talk about the utopias that have fascinated me in the historical order of their creation.

So: first, Charles Fourier’s New Amorous World, then Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star, then J. D. Bernal’s The World, The Flesh and the Devil, then Constant Neiwenhuys’ New Babylon, then Raoul Vaneigem’s Voyage to Oarystis, then the computer game Grand Theft Auto, and finally, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. After looking at those, I want to then parallel those works with another series.

I only wrote about Charles Fourier quite recently, in The Spectacle of Disintegration (Verso 2013), but I have been thinking about him for a while. He has variously been the utopian thinker of the labor movement and of a libertarian sexuality. After Roland Barthes it was possible to read his utopia as the product of some quite special writerly techniques, where everything unfolds as classification, in twelves and multiples of twelves.

I was interested in Fourier as read by the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, for whom Fourier is not quite any of the above, but someone to be enacted, in the present, in everyday life. Vaneigem edited and introduced a marvelous little edition of Fourier’s New Amorous World. Someone really should translate this. It is a neglected queer theory classic, among many other things.

Fourier had a shrewd awareness of certain aspects of our species-being. He understood the complexity and interaction of the passions. He understood our need for arbitrary rank and distinction, our pleasure in scheming, or desire for recognition, and above all our boredom. He is a classifier of modern subjectivities. His sexual utopia understands the extremes of the fluidly curious and the narrowly fetishistic. He describes in loving detail a combinatory system for meeting and matching, for glamour, display, and is even the inventor, in all but name, of the mercy fuck.

Fourier’s New Amorous World is an algorithm. On one scale, it deals with populations of bodies and their conjunctures. On another, it describes ritualized codes of conduct for group encounters. In short, this is the utopia of OKCupid, Tinder and Grinder, on the one hand, and of the etiquette of sex clubs and BDSM dungeons, on the other. It is about something not so much literally true as figuratively true. In some ways even a little boring.

To the literal minded, Fourier seems fantastic. To the figuratively minded, New Amorous World is an accurate description of the reality of the passions of the modern subject. Indeed it is a more realistic description, in this sense, than bourgeois realist fiction, which keeps trying to describe the world through those bizarre unrealities of property and narrative. One just has to think writing’s relation to the world in a less mimetic, more figurative way. Utopias describe figures, diagrams, relations that actually exist. They don’t mimetically describe a thing, they figuratively describe a relation.

Or: take a very different kind of utopia: Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star, on which I have a chapter in my forthcoming book, Molecular Red (Verso 2015). Bogdanov has none of Fourier’s mad genius with language systems. His prose is simple and direct. His Martian utopia is also historical, being written in the wake of Darwin and Wells. Indeed, not the least interesting detail is that his Martians had a crisis with climate change. They cut down their forests for energy, for industrialization, and are stuck, at the point the narrative begins, with the search for a new kind of energy.

Bogdanov’s utopia is not about the play of difference and rank. It is about equality and fraternity. It is ‘Jacobin’ in a way Fourier resolutely is not. It lacks his figurative realism of subjectivities. What is of interest is elsewhere. Bogdanov describes something of the modern body and of modern labor. The meshing of body and machine becomes coded, a matter of information rather than physics. Bodies exchange biological substances with each other. In Bogdanov it is literally the exchange of blood, but through this, he understands figuratively that bodies aren’t separate, and aren’t natural. Bogdanov figures how bodies mesh with machines via information.

He describes in a way that is figuratively realist and true what labor becomes in what the Situationists called the over-developed world. Where Fourier describes the complex of bodies and passions and information; Bogdanov describes the complex of bodies and labor and information. Their writings are not really about hope or alterity or futures, or even a latent possibility. They are realist descriptions of what was before them: their own desires and labors. Read literally, they seem unreal; read figuratively, they diagram something actual.

One of the key documents of what is now called accelerationism is surely JD Bernal’s The World, The Flesh and the Devil, of 1928. Bernal would go on to a distinguished career in physics, and as one of the inventors of operations research during world war II. Perhaps due to his unswerving loyalty to Soviet Communism he has been erased from history by the cold war falsification of western intellectual history that has yet to be undone. I have been working on Bernal and his contemporaries in the 1930s ‘social relations of science’ movement for an as yet untitled project.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil come from a pre-war moment of optimism about the potentials for scientific advance. The revolution in physics was by then established. Biology was making impressive leaps. Bernal imagines an acceleration, or rather an extrapolation, forward from the speeding-up of that time. What is original in this book is that he imagines the forward momentum of history as necessarily requiring an technical overcoming of the limits of the human.

For Bernal, science not only transforms external environments (the world) but also the body (the flesh), which meshes and merges with tech. Moreover, technique can overcome the psychic limits of the human (the devil). The future rationalization of our species-being is at the same time the production of an inhuman replacement. If the human is to escape the limits of this one planet, it has to become other to itself. It would, I am sure, have amused Bernal that the planet Mars is now entirely inhabited by robots. He might have recognized our current cyborg state of being on this planet as of a piece with the diagram he drew in 1928, too.

I became fascinated by Constant Neiwenhuys’s New Babylon when I was writing The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso, 2011). Constant was expelled from the Situationist International for his alleged utopianism, but in some ways I find New Babylon the most realist utopia of them all. For one thing, it is planetary. There’s no non-utopian other space toward which to expel violence. Constant sets himself the task of figuring out everything.

Viewed in plan, New Babylon looks like a kind of rhizomatic megastructure that would pass across borders and link up the whole world in its maze. Viewed in elevation, the key to it is a spatial segregation of base and superstructure. As a good Marxist, Constant realized that the base was the key. In New Babylon, this is figuratively pictured by proposing a world of automated production that is underneath ground level. Ground level is then for transport, or ‘circulation’, while up above are vast cantilever framed superstructures, like aircraft hangars on stilts.

These zones contain the materials to reconfigure their space into any form whatever. All of this space is temporary, malleable. The New Babylonians, free from work, wander and play in the superstructures, inventing games, exploring, building. Doing whatever they like, free from need and even memory. They do not even have to remember who they are.

What makes this new spatial organization of the planet possible is what Constant, after Norbert Weiner calls the second industrial revolution of cybernetics. Post-broadcast era media and communication makes possible a completely different infrastructure for work and play. In this, Constant was completely correct. New Babylon is a realist figure of the spatial reordering of work and play on a planetary scale that happened around the time he made it – the late sixties and early seventies – and in which we live now.

The world really did become a network of supply chains, strung together by data, spanning the world. There really is a population of New Babylonians, wandering the planet, playing their made-up games of arbitrary prestige. You can meet them at any art fair. Constant is even right in his understanding of how violence will be spatially displaced, only it was not buried by automation, it went to the peripheries of a new spatial distribution of labor-power.

Raoul Vaneigem took over the urbanism brief from Constant after his explusion from the Situationists. Ironically, Vaneigem would later write his own utopia, The Voyage to Oarystis. It is another small book somebody really should translate. It is a more classic utopia, like Bogdanov or Morris, in that we travel with a guide to this other world. Vaneigem stresses the temporary nature of any visit to Oarystis, and the preparations necessary.

There is something timeless and homeostatic about the physical world here, but the people are fluid, changing their names frequently. On the other hand the toilets are permanently sculpted in the shape of the great oppressors, from Robespierre to Mao. All the walls are covered in poetry and art, ever changing. Love is free, but messy, complicated. “No fantasy must be excluded that does not harm to joy.” The young find their own sexuality in the House of Love. Everything is up for public debate. The issue of vegetarianism being a perpetual hot-topic. In the House of the Illuminati, adepts invent delirious systems.

It is, in short, an exactly description of a North American college.

Nothing could be farther removed from Vaneigem’s beautiful little book than a video game like Grand Theft Auto, where within moments of starting the game your character can have the dubious pleasure of murdering a prostitute with a screwdriver. In Gamer Theory (Harvard 2007), I argued that the computer game is in a strange way a kind of utopia, or perhaps atopia, in the sense of being a non-place rather than a no-where.

The game is atopia realized, the atopia of the ‘neo-liberal’ subject. It cannily embraces what Fourier knew of our desires for arbitrary distinctions of rank, only embodied in a winner-take-all world, in which to be second place is to be annihilated. But the strange thing about the game is that it is not less than the world it describes, it is more than it. Games are the too-real ideal or form of a less-than-real world. In games, the playing field really is a level playing field. In a game, the one with the best strategy wins.

Games are the critique of actually existing neo-liberalism in the light of their imperfection, their unreality, their failure to be their own form. We all know that the playing field really isn’t level, that the spoils actually don’t go to the best player. The critical work of the game as utopia (or atopia) is to show the world to be not as real as it claims to be.

It is a commonplace that the futures of science fiction are really our own times disguised: estrangement and then cognition, utopia as plausible alterity. I want to conclude with the case of Kim Stanley Robinson, with whom I also conclude my book Molecular Red. I want to think his work rather as familiarity and cognition, or as a kind of realism. In Molecular Red I write about the Mars Trilogy; here I just want to add a few remarks about the sequel, what I think is his finest book to date: 2312.

In 2312, Robinson’s key characters are transgender. He rather plausibly suggests that one might simply live longer without an excess of too much of one gender or the other, and that in a long life one might be alternately more one gender then more the other. This is of course a realistic description of contemporary bourgeois North American culture.

Jean Baudrillard once said that all our futures have already happened, over and over, and are thus exhausted in advance. This seems to me to fit admirably well with Robinson’s wonderful description in 2312 of a future New York City, in which its streets and avenues are waterways, teeming with Bangkok-style river boats and floating markets. It’s a future of endurance and adaptation.

Is Kim Stanley Robinson the first Californian to imagine the future of New York, my adopted home city, the place that I love, and not wanted to destroy it? That is not the least achievement of this book. In all of Robinson’s books, there’s a note of adaptation, flexibility and cooperation in the face of disaster. Of course even in his most utopian books it does not always prevail. But I find there’s a realistic description in all his books of what that kind of subjectivity might be like.

Robinson’s novels are also a kind of meta-utopia. In Blue Mars, we traverse the surface of Mars as if it were an anthology of utopias, Bellamy and Fourier are literally places on a map. The utopian constitution Robinson actually wrote, and which is included in The Martians, is not a synthesis but a negotiation between different utopias, all of which remain separate and specific. As meta-utopia his work is also a kind of meta-realism, a literary form for constituting a relation between forms of utopian realist subgenre.

So finally, I want to just tease out a little bit this notion of a kind of figurative realism. Utopias are not literally true. If one reads them literally, they seem fantastic. One can value that fantastic quality, of course. It might be a talisman that things can be otherwise. But I think its possible to read in quite another way. Utopias, read figuratively, are absolutely realistic. They describe modes of being that exist. They figure, diagram or map actually existing relations. Utopias describe what is real outside the unreality of the commodity form. In a world that really is falsified, the utopian is the false figure of the true.

Utopias are more rather than less realist, than supposedly realist fiction. These, to the contrary, seem to me to a kind of fantasy literature, which always call for a suspension of disbelief. One has to believe in the bourgeois subject as real. One has to believe in private property as not just real but as an ontological given. One has to believe in narrative as a structuring finality. One has to believe in the interiority of a character that could express itself in a private language, which, as Wittgenstein shows, could never in fact be an interior.

And so the best descriptions of the world are utopian. Their realism is the standard against which to diagnose the fantasies and delusions of realist narrative fictions, whether in literature or art. This is the case even with something like the neoliberal atopia of computer games. Utopia is not a moment of hope against the tyranny of the real; utopia is a moment of the real against the unreality of hope, in an era when hope has been privatized.

That which is utopian is real, everyday, tangible, perhaps even a bit boring. The real is described in utopian fiction and art, but in a figurative rather than a literal way, in the form of diagrams of relations rather than reflections of things. The formal properties of utopian works are a mesh which captures a certain form of the world.

It is this quality of utopias which gives them leverage, which makes them a standard with which to find lacking supposedly realist genres of representation. The utopian in the expression of that which representation fails. Utopias are even more true now that commodification has falsified the entire world, and made it over in its image.

I think there is another series of writers one could look at here, not all of whom are usually thought of as utopian. Alongside Fourier, Flora Tristan; alongside Bogdanov, Alexandra Kollontai. The former wrote about the worker’s international before Marx, and was a friend of Fourier’s. The latter thought about what the Russian revolution should mean for women and was a dissident Bolshevik comrade alongside Bogdanov.

They did not write systematic utopias, but nor am I interested in them as offering shards of utopian hope, in the manner of Ernst Bloch. Rather, I think there are figures of actually existing everyday life that appear in their writing. They are part of a counter-canon of the actual, outside of property and propriety, and the forms that describe such fictions, such as the novel.

Alongside Constant and Vaneigem, I want to put Michèle Bernstein and Jacqueline De Jong, who occupy important points in the story I was trying to tell in The Beach Beneath the Street. Bernstein’s two novels, which in English are called All the King’s Horses (Semiotexte) and The Night (BookWorks), describe life and love in the Situationist International. Thinly veiled versions of Bernstein and Guy Debord confront each other in a game of love and sex.

The Debord character has taken a new lover, which by the rules of their game is allowed. But it is getting serious, and that is against the rules. The Bernstein character has to respond in a way which makes no claims on her partner as her property. After hooking up with the rather silly Bernard fails to make any impact, she forms a liaison instead with glamorous Helene, at which point the Debord character has to admit defeat. It is, in short, a utopia of the everyday, lived for a moment outside of property, but with all the feints and boredom of the actual everyday.

Jacqueline De Jong’s Situationist Times is, among other things, a compendium of diagrams for situations, for forms of life. One issue was devoted to knots, another to labyrinths. It is what gave me the idea of utopia as diagram of actually-existing forms of life outside of spectacle and commodity. In this version, utopia is not futuristic at all, but rather connects to traditional forms of pattern-making. It is a question of rediscovering how the everyday has been written or pictured as it actually is, and building a new life on variations or extrapolations from those patterns.

It is rather strange that the work of Kim Stanley Robinson does not quite connect with that of Donna Haraway. They are both from Northern California, and have remarkably parallel interests. This was why I brought them together in the second half of Molecular Red. Haraway’s ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs’ might seem at first like more of a dystopian text, but what I think endures in it is a kind of diagram of relations between flesh, tech and information that might still function, that might be a form of deployment other than a militarized and commodified one. The text itself embodies with other mode of being.

In Béatriz Préciado’s Testo Junkie this diagram of flesh, tech and information has added to it a new layer of pharmacological body-modification. She describes her project in that book as one of being a body that is outside that which pornography describes. It is a body that can only be in the gaps between the spectacular, commodified, policed forms of the body, but it is all the same a diagram of an actually existing form of life.

In short: I take the utopian to be a diagram, in pictorial or textual form, of a way of life that has actually been experienced, and which may be a fragment out of which to extrapolate a social form on a larger or deeper scale. This would be to think utopia in terms of what’s present in both the text and the world it figures, rather than what is absent.

In other words: is there a way to think the utopian outside of Platonism? The classic utopias, from Plato’s Republic and The Laws to Thomas More, seem to me to look toward an ideal form. Modern utopias became a sort of via negativa of the Platonist idea, where the utopia is a kind of negative or critical potential, not actually realizable any more, but which sheds a transcendent ray of hope on the present. But this is still a kind of weak Platonism.

But I wonder if there might be a third form, where utopia is a figure of what is actual. One might say an immanent utopia, but even that lends itself too much to a kind of imaginary status. Is there a utopia not of the ideal but of the swerve, a kind of Lucretian utopia whose aim is actually to shed the residues of the ideal, unreal form.

This might appear at first glance to come close to bourgeois liberalism, which insists that utopia leads to terror, and that one had best simply stick to what is. Where we differ from that point of view is in questioning the reality of what liberalism claims to be the actual. In a world falsified by the spectacular extension of the commodity form into an entire totality, the shards and hints of a diagram for actual social forms and relations might then be what constitutes the utopian.

McKenzie Wark

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