When You’re Part of an Artwork Without Consent, Research Time, 26/08/2015

When humanity has dreamt of its perfect society, we tend to use art to do it. It might be through fictional stories of a visitor from our culture who tours Utopia, like Thomas More’s original Utopia text (which Frederic Jameson gives an extended treatment early in Archaeologies of the Future) or Samuel Butler’s Erewhon.*

* It was so early in long-form written literature as an art form that a trick as transparent as spelling “Nowhere” backwards counted as clever wordplay. 

Clooney plays a man who discovers utopia on a
planet-wide intelligent ocean.
Over the last hundred or so years, utopian fiction has become more sophisticated. A utopia is a place where a story happens, as in Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, about a man who’s grown up on an egalitarian communist bureaucracy planet visits a capitalist world filled with wealth disparities and violent uprisings. 

Or else, utopia appears before a traveller from our world, in an unstable, strange form, like a living hallucination. Jameson’s key example of this more fleeting utopia, with its shakier foundations, is the oceanic life form in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. The cool part about this discussion was that he compared Lem’s original story to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet film to Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation starring George Clooney. They were all weird.

You should expect that art would be a primary focus in probing utopia. Even though philosophy writers have sometimes touched on the subject, that style always has an eye on the real world that art doesn’t always. 

A philosopher will probe what the perfect society could be as a series of arguments, often about things of real material import: moral principles, political and economic institutions, the human relationship with nature. 

You won’t always end up with a list of things that must be done to change this shitty world into that better one. But a philosophical argument is always rooted in the real world. An artwork can fly free of constraint.

The most radical utopian visions have to be imaginary, because when we put them into action in the real world, they rapidly become nightmarish. This is why so much real-world opposition to politics inspired by utopian thinking exists.

Designing a perfect society, says Jameson, is a form of art. Normally, it happens in a literary artwork, so nobody gets hurt when the statue of the body politic needs some rough sanding. But utopian politics has been real. And lots of people get hurt. 

Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris makes you feel how weird
such a utopia would be. He was quite likely killed by
the KGB, I think by surreptitious isotope dose, when
he was planning to defect to Italy in the 1980s.
Josef Stalin often painted himself in Soviet propaganda as the artist whose masterwork was Soviet society itself. Discussing this, Jameson calls back to the philosophical tradition’s best known utopian work, Plato’s Republic, and its ban on artists. Socrates, as the architect of the perfect society, is the only artist allowed.

Artists are people who produce creative works, obviously. But when the society itself is a single, massive creative work, other artworks are little competing visions of what the world could be – whether those other imagined worlds are utopian, dystopian, or just different. The utopia is one, and only one, such vision. 

That’s why autocratic and totalitarian politics follow from the real-world victory of utopian political movements. If utopia is achieved, then society is perfect. If society is genuinely perfect, then no one can legitimately think something would need to change. Anyone who wants to change the perfect society is a danger to everyone around him. He must be taken care of.

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