anti-anti-utopian rhetoric

Kim Stanley Robinson as this great essay, “Dystopias Now,” which covers a lot of ground, but one of the central topics is his discussion of anti-anti-utopianism. Basically, you have to imagine a Greimas (or semiotic) square. I’ll just borrow the diagram from KSR.

As KSR explains it, dystopias are the “not-concept” of utopias, where things get worse rather than better (and he notes the prevalence of dystopias in contemporary sci-fi). Anti-utopias are more along the lines of a deconstruction of utopia. I.e., utopias rely upon the division of good from evil, etc. The anti-utopia (e.g. Brave New World) marks the impossibility of doing that.

So what’s an anti-anti-utopia? KSR writes:

One way of being anti-anti-utopian is to be utopian. It’s crucial to keep imagining that things could get better, and furthermore to imagine how they might get better. Here no doubt one has to avoid Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” which is perhaps thinking and saying that things will get better without doing the work of imagining how. In avoiding that, it may be best to recall the Romain Rolland quote so often attributed to Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Or maybe we should just give up entirely on optimism or pessimism—we have to do this work no matter how we feel about it. So by force of will or the sheer default of emergency we make ourselves have utopian thoughts and ideas. This is the necessary next step following the dystopian moment, without which dystopia is stuck at a level of political quietism that can make it just another tool of control and of things-as-they-are. The situation is bad, yes, okay, enough of that; we know that already. Dystopia has done its job, it’s old news now, perhaps it’s self-indulgence to stay stuck in that place any more. Next thought: utopia. Realistic or not, and perhaps especially if not.

Besides, it is realistic: things could be better. 

Those are my emphases. OK, so it’s bad and it’s going to get worse, especially in terms of climate change. The trigger was pulled (note passive voice), and we’re watching the bullet fly in slo-mo. The consequences are forthcoming but unalterable.

I would say utopianism is insufficient, that it was always meant as a farcical experiment. Anti-anti-utopianism however recognizes that the dystopian and anti-utopian are also insufficient. No one wants to live there, so we require something else. As KSR suggests, “things could be better.” If understatements could work as political slogans, that would be the one. Not MAGA or “hope” but just better. I suppose that’s my GenX quality coming out.

So what would it look like to make this seemingly simple argument that “things could be better”? It begs the question, better for whom? “Coastal Elites”? the working class? the nation? the world? What about “all” of us, including nonhumans, living and nonliving? Maybe that’s more utopian than anti-anti-utopian. How do we establish “better” anyway? Let alone better for whom.

KSR doesn’t give us much insight here. He suggests that enough resources and energy on the planet/in the solar system exist to make things better, period. Fine, maybe. You do the math.

I can critique this all day, but in the end, I’m on board with this notion of anti-anti-utopianism. I mean, of the four choices, it makes the most sense to me. Basically, utopia cannot be achieved but dystopia and anti-utopia are undesirable. It’s not hard to end up in the remaining spot. (n.b. “none of the above” is not available on this quiz question.) We’re pretty much left with the two simultaneous tasks of making things better and figuring out what better means.

The role of speculative fiction (sci-fi), as well as speculative realism (as a new materialist philosophical enterprise), is to investigate the possibilities of this anti-anti-utopianism.

It’s an interesting possible role for rhetoricians beyond critique and judgment.

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