Dystopia Revisited (Blogging Unblocked)

[Note: I imagined a weeklong gap between posts, but the work of chairing a department and writing a book got in the way. Sorry. Now that the academic year is over, I’m back at it. To get unblocked and back to blogging, I had to remind myself that I didn’t want these to be a series of articles, but more like a set of quick thoughts/unpolished first drafts. Also, I had originally planned a two-part blog-post about the persistence of utopia, but I was struck by responses to the last entry that challenged the idea that we would want to move beyond contemporary capitalism. So, I want to tarry in dystopian-darkness before returning to utopia.]

Photo Credit Robert Hruzek

A preview:

Where the last post left it: we seemed to be caught in the coils of a particular repetition compulsion — constantly (re)imagining the end of the world, but unable to imagine a possible future that doesn’t include capitalism. (PART I- Post-Apocalyptic Capitalism is here: it asked “Is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?”).

 

My main objective in this series of posts is to overturn this line of argumentation by uncovering seeds of utopia and tracing alternatives to modern capitalism. But first I want to go in the opposite direction by painting a pessimistic picture of the contemporary capitalist world order. If you are already up on the case against global corporate capitalism you can wait a month or two for a later utopian post. But if you want to understand the contemporary allure of dystopia then read on.

Before settling down to business I want to mention the standard critiques of capitalism – corporate neo-feudalism and increasing wealth inequality; never-ending cutthroat competition; the violence of economic imperialism and oppression; capital’s ability to subvert democracy; money’s role in mediating and cheapening our most personal relationships; the alienation resulting from a life of repetitive specialized labor; the inherent psychological instability resulting from the inevitable boom and bust cycles of the marketplace; and so on. As descriptions of the current-world system these are all fair, but they won’t really connect for many readers and will instead appear to be nothing more than empty abstractions. In the posts that follow, I want to see if the horrors of the current capitalist world-system can be distilled into apprehensible images – like a world reflected in a dewdrop. Restated, I’m looking for concrete symbols by which we can begin to grasp the dystopian inherent in the totality of the current-world system.

Over the next three posts (which starting June 16 I hope to post every other week on Mondays or Tuesdays )—I’ll confront the Janus face of contemporary global capitalism (including both corporate dystopia and the dreams of anti-capitalist utopia frozen in capitalist structures), I’ll explore technological junkyards, I’ll ask what Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can tell us about Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, and I’ll excavate Post-Fordist nightmares about flexible labor, automation, unemployment, and the loss of sleep. Then I’ll return to the deferred issue of contemporary utopia.

The Stubborn Persistence of Post-Capitalist Utopia: Introduction- Post-Apocalyptic Capitalism

One reoccurring charge against postmodernism and poststructuralism alike is that they are unable to think utopia.

At first Capitalist Realismpass, this certainly seems plausible, after all postmodernism in Lyotard’s famous formulation was defined as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” For another example, in all of Derrida’s work on deconstruction, did he not (perhaps admirably) refuse to offer an alternative to logocentrism? To be sure, he privileged writing over speech and praised grammatology. But by and large Derrida resisted utopia’s allure. Plus, aren’t classic postmodern works like Naked Lunch, The Crying of Lot 49, or Blade Runner deeply pessimistic?

Indeed it is easy to paint that entire period of philosophy and art as the culmination of skepticism or cynical reason—or in other words as the withering of modernist utopianism or perhaps as nothing less than pure crystalized dystopia. As one of the characters in Woody Allen’s 1997 Deconstructing Harry, charged the protagonist

You have no values. Your whole life, it’s nihilism, it’s cynicism, it’s sarcasm and orgasm.” To which he replied: “You know in France, I could run on that slogan and win.”

But of course, even in France he couldn’t. As it would seem at least a hundred political theorist have observed—it is hard to organize a politics around cynicism and nihilism, people need something to believe in and work toward, and hence the inability to think utopia is supposed to be precisely why postmodern and poststructuralist theory have failed to transform into easily recognizable political projects. As Žižek has argued, totalitarian regimes maintain their hold by encouraging cynicism. All they need to forestall revolution is to convince the masses that every politician is a bastard and all politic is corrupt. The people think why bother? and they continue supporting, with ironic distance, the mechanisms of a state in which they no longer believe. The promotion of postmodern skepticism would therefore seem to disable politics and prevent its ability to mobilize against the exploitations of global capitalism.

This critique of utopias absence has be sharpened recently by the British philosopher and blogger Mark Fisher. Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? (2009) was inspired by the insight (attributed to Slavoj Žižek and Frederic Jameson) that

it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”

This too certainly seems plausible and if you’ll follow me over the fold, I’ll layout both Fisher’s case AND in the next blog-post I’ll argue against this thesis by looking at a few seeds of anti-capitalist utopia

Continue reading