You Can Only Achieve Universal Revolution, Research Time, 19/08/2015

Last week, I talked a little about a favourite book of mine, Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. They were two brothers who wrote beautiful science-fiction novels in the late 20th century, and Roadside Picnic came out in 1971. It’s their most famous novel, and it was adapted into a very weird film and a video game series, both called Stalker.

The video games take place in a
wasteland after Chernobyl, which is a
very different setting and set of
implications than the Strugatskys'
novel. But the image is pretty cool.
There’s a curious device that appears in the novel, an alien machine that grants wishes. The problem is that it will only grant your wish if you survive its gauntlet of deadly razor wire that flies absurdly fast at you from all directions, and slices your body into tiny pieces. The alien technology, strewn haphazardly around the site of their three-day landing several years before the action of the story, is all about that hazardous.

Frederic Jameson discusses this novel’s climactic moment to explore an aspect of our concept of the utopia. He starts from an interpretation of the scene in which the protagonist’s wish is actually what saves him.* That wish is a genuine desire for universal human happiness, that no one need ever go without and that everyone is happy.

* Talking about this interpretation isn’t really a spoiler for the book, because the actual ending is incredibly ambiguous. Its ambiguity is part of the point, of course.

He’s wishing for utopia, the perfect society. The best wish you could possibly make if you had the opportunity for a wish to come true. But why is utopia such a perfect desire?

At first impression, this idea sounded like an appeal to a moral truth. The Stalker’s wish for universal happiness was a wish made without selfishness. It wasn’t a self-sacrificing wish, but simply with the happiness of all being just as important in his mind as his own happiness.

But as I read on, I realized that Jameson wasn’t being quite so simplistic. It’s much too easy simply to presume that there’s a moral universal that exists somewhere in reality transcendent to ourselves, determining what’s right and wrong. It’s no different than believing there’s a magic man in the sky who, if we do something he doesn’t like during our lives, will set us on fire for eternity after we die. 

And I’m not making fun of religion here either. Religious ideas and ethics can help a person’s life gain a profound meaning, and make someone a more ethical person. But those fruitful ideas go far beyond the simple moralisms of pedantic religious belief.

Instead, Jameson has a more material cause for why a selfish wish is met with death in this story. Only a wish for universal happiness can work at all. Imagine your greatest selfish desires were granted. For a wish to come true, it has to stay true. 

The Canadian sci-fi film Cube featured a more sedate
version of how I imagined the Strugatskys' death
But we live in society, so everyone else has to be okay with your wish being granted. Otherwise, they’ll de-grant it very quickly. So, says Jameson, you should at least be able to fit with the wishes of everyone else.

But my selfish desires are incompatible with the selfish desires of everyone else. Our most selfish desires usually involve other people suffering. Either we desire it directly, or it’s a side-effect of one of the things we want. So everyone’s selfish desires resist each other. My desire to be happy at your (possible) expense slams into your desire to be happy at my (possible) expense. They can’t both come true at once.

A wish for universal happiness builds this mutual compatibility into one person’s desire. So utopia is the only wish that can even work for a society.

Folks who know the history of philosophy might pipe up and say that this sounds quite a lot like Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. You know what’s good if the desire still makes sense when it’s the desire of everybody all at once.

This is how it tends to be learned in a lot of undergraduate classes where you explore this idea (to which Kant dedicated one of his most complex and dense books, The Critique of Practical Reason). But it isn’t quite the same as Jameson’s. 

Kant’s universalization is literally about testing whether it makes sense. His own most famous example was adultery: if everyone cheated on their marriages, then the promises of fidelity wouldn’t have any actual meaning. So an imperative telling you to cheat on your spouse wouldn’t even make sense: if everyone cheats, there would be no spouses. Cheating as a moral proposition contradicts itself. It’s a matter of logic.

Jameson’s idea is purely practical. There’s nothing about a person’s selfish wish making itself logically incoherent if everyone lives it out. The selfish wish of one person quite often simply meets the fist of another. 

Good enough reason for me not to pursue a desire.

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