Pure Conceptual Imagination I: Is Sci-Fi Philosophy? Research Time, 11/08/2015

While I was on vacation, I switched gears again in what I picked up to read for my Utopias project research. Filippo Marinetti’s work is a perfect storm of the beauty, transformative potential, visionary drive, uplift, and terrifying danger of utopian dreaming. 

I’ve written here before of how uncomfortable Marinetti’s writing can make me. One minute, I’m cheering alongside his angry calls to turf cronyist career parliamentarians and bloodless technocrats out of government. By the end of the same paragraph, he’s calling for a government of radically militarized trade unions run by stormtrooper regiment veterans and dreaming of paving every forest in Italy to build countless smoke-belching factories.

Literature is the imagination of a new world, built so we
can learn from that imaginary world. Maybe it's wonderful,
maybe it's horrifying. From Amazon Prime's The Man in
the High Castle
, based on Philip K. Dick's masterpiece.
That’s Gervaisian levels of awkwardness.

After turning the old Italian over and over in my thoughts, I started reading a book with a much more benign imagination, Archaeologies of the Future by Frederic Jameson. The book is an exploration of how science-fiction as a genre has tended to understand the human impulse to build utopias in life and thought, the concepts underlying utopian politics, and the content of utopian visions. 

Jameson is primarily a literary theorist, though his knowledge of philosophy’s tradition is expert as well. He weaves descriptions and storylines from fiction works into a philosophical examination of what utopia is, and how its meaning shifts from era to era. 

His training in literary theory weds him a little too closely to the fine details of the idea’s history than I’d like to take in my own work. One long chapter of Archaeologies examines Thomas More’s Utopia, as if the book that brought the word into being had some special insight over and above everyone else who’s thought this way, whether or not they’ve ever used the word.

Writing the history of literature, or the history of philosophy, you need to focus on the origins this way. But we shouldn’t mistake how to do the history for how to do philosophy itself. Philosophy – and literature too – is fundamentally creative. What matters is where you take an idea in the present, to help build the future.

I've always considered the best philosophy to draw as
many of its ideas from literature as from the ostensible
philosophical canon. Frederic Jameson.
Utopia is an interesting concept because it’s more often been developed in literature than in philosophy, even though philosophy is the tradition of creating concepts. And the concept of utopia has primarily been developed in science-fiction literature. It’s the gleaming space palace, the narrative of progress, the voyage to seek out new life and go where no one has gone before. 

As of last October, I became a published science-fiction writer. As of later this month, I’ll become a published philosophical writer. When you look at them as genres of creative writing, they depend on similar imaginative abilities. Think about how I developed the utopian (and more often dystopian) ideas in my novel, Under the Trees, Eaten.

The Digger aliens of the novel offer a new way of life to humanity, taking on their nature and their morality, the morality of intelligent ants. They’re an advanced species of physical individuals with no self-conception of their own individuality. It’s a way of life that offers humanity a way out of the everyday violence of individuals jockeying for power. That’s the utopian element. 

But I developed the end of the book by following through on one of the real-world implications of their natural communism. As for what that is, I don’t spoil the kickers of my own stories. So the Diggers’ supposedly higher morality comes with its own cold brutality, which you could say is the dystopian.

Jameson describes utopian thinking as a product of the imagination. A utopian draws an elaborate diagram, his vision of the world if he could correct with absolute power the essential social and political conflict of his era. 

From Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky's adaptation of
Roadside Picnic.
The real-world content of what a utopia could be in all its gritty, material detail is only plausible as a wish. Jameson talks about the end of one of my favourite novels, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, where the protagonist encounters a literal alien wish granting machine. In the throes of ecstasy and fear, he can wish only for total happiness and abundance for everyone. No more specific than that. Only a wish.

The utopian impulse is the wish that the world could be better. Utopian imagination is to describe that better world. Dystopian imagination sees all the new problems that better world would create. It’s the diagnosis required for the next utopia.

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