EXPLORATORY RESEARCH PROJECTS – PN-II-ID-PCE-2011-3
Contract No. 222/05.10.2011
Antiutopias. Making and Unmaking the Reality – Assessing Possible Worlds
Antiutopiile. A face si a desface realitatea – Testarea lumilor posibile
Dir. Prof. dr. Corin Braga
Since their creation, utopias have been designed as imaginary – in vitro – explorations of alternative worlds and societies. Utopian authors used them in order to make and to unmake the current reality, to propose alternative models for the existing state of the European civilization, to investigate “les possibles latéraux” (F. Chirpaz, Raison et déraison de l’utopie, Paris, 1999) of the history. In recent times, extensive scholarship programs have been dedicated to utopian thought (Cf. the attached Critical Bibliography which supports the theoretical approach of this project). However, fewer studies have tackled the counter-part of utopias, their “dark side”, the anti-utopias, except for the small but representative corpus of modern dystopias (Orwell, Huxley, Zamiatin, Koestler, Zinoviev). The aim of this research is to document the critique of utopian optimism all along the history of the genre, with an original focus on classical, and on postmodern utopias.
As I have shown in a previous work (C. Braga, Du Paradis perdu à l’antiutopie aux XVIe-XVIIIesiècles, Paris, 2010), utopias can be seen as the successor of the medieval topic of the Terrestrial Paradise. If, during the Christian culture of the Middle Ages, the Garden of Eden was presented as a lost paradise, closed by God after the original sin, during the Renaissance, the humanistic optimism led various thinkers and writers, starting with Morus, to the conclusion that men can replace the lost paradise with a city of men. Utopias are human-made ideal places, where people governed by reasonable and moral principles achieve a perfect society. Nevertheless, utopian optimism was soon challenged by several theoretical critiques and institutional attacks, formulated by Counter-Reformation theology, Cartesian rationalism and English empiricism. These ideologies addressed a series of decisive counter-arguments to the hope that mankind could by itself establish a perfect society and a paradise on earth. Starting with Joseph Hall (Mundus alter et idem, 1605) and Artus Thomas (L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, 1605), an important number of authors took on official and public censorship and reshaped their fiction into critiques of utopian visions. Instead of imagining ideal places, they began to conceive counter-utopian societies and terrestrial infernos.
So, the novelty of this research project is the thesis that counter-utopias appeared as a literary genre long before the dystopias of the twentieth century. We aim to draw a map (as comprehensive as possible) of the anti-utopian species, completing the latest achievements in the domain with analyses of classical and then postmodern dystopias (which develop in new and complex ways).The research will cast a new light on the functioning of European and human imaginaries. It will observe some inner processes of the history of ideas and concepts, and it will show how cultural paradigms change. This approach has wider implications, because it shows the mechanisms through which men assess the possible worlds created by fantasy, why they accept and enthusiastically adhere to some social projects, and why they reject and violently abhor other projects.
Historians of the European literature have distinguished between two main species of utopias: classical (16-18th centuries) and modern (19-20th centuries) (cf. M. Leslie, Renaissance Utopias and the Problem of History, Ithaca, 1998). We shall transpose and apply this distinction to the counter-utopian genre also. This will provide the two principal domains which constitute the principal objectives of our team research: classical dystopias and modern dystopias. Each of these domains will be divided in smaller classes of texts, which will constitute the secondary objectives of our research and will be explored by one or several members of the team. The divisions depend mainly on the type of ideologies and criticisms that engendered each subspecies of dystopias.
I.1. Religious dystopias. The utopian genre, molded by More, Bacon, Andreae, Campanella and other thinkers and writers, was soon contested by the Christian establishment. After the Concile in Trent, the hard core of the Roman Church displaced the “Christian humanism” that made possible the apparition of liberal culture. The protestant churches also sought to displace the millenarian and utopian projects of their radical sects. Neither were the theocratic monarchies of the time willing to accept the indirect ironical critique that utopias pointed to the state. The religious censorship targeted the main topics of utopian thinking. Under the menace of entering the Index and being judged for heresy, many utopian writers adopted the view of the Christian dogma and began to criticize the genre by demonstrating its absurdity. A. Thomas, J. Hall, Jean de la Pierre, H. Bowman, J. Swift, B. Raguet or B. de Saint-Pierre are some of the first counter-utopianists which subverted the genre by imagining the infernal consequences of working out a utopian program.
I.2. Rationalist dystopias. The second critique of utopian thinking was perpetrated by rationalist philosophy. The fathers of the “new science”, Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza, Leibniz, considered that imagination is the “mother of all errors” and “la folle du logis”. They downgraded all products of fantasy, myths, ”superstitions”, ”chimeras”, and utopias. The pejorative meaning of the word utopia (”illusory”, ”impossible”, etc.) is the result of the rationalist attacks launched by Thomas Browne, Leibniz, Pierre Bayle or Rousseau against utopian projects. The result of this rational critique was even more devastating than the effects of religious censorship. The same way that Cervantes made of a reader of chivalry romances a madman, many classical authors treated the utopian voyageurs as delusional. R. Brome, J. Swift again, G. F. Coyer or Marivaux replaced the utopian kingdoms with islands of fouls, while authors like B. Mandeville, S. Brunt, l’abbé Prévost, Tiphaigne de la Roche instrumented what R. Trousson calls “le proces de l’utopie au XVIIIe siècle”.
I.3. Empirical dystopias. The third attack against utopianism came from empirical philosophy. The “instauratio magna” proposed by F. Bacon and his successors Hobbes, Locke and Hume, the imposing of the pragmatic, experimental criteria for validating the truth also changed the fictional convention of the novel. The new “pact with the reader” supposed that the writer created the illusion of reality. The marvels of medieval literature, as well as the fantastic and extraordinary utopian voyages, were banned as improbable ”lies” and inventions. In order to preserve the plausibility of the story, utopian writers felt obliged to displace their ideal kingdoms to places more remote. As the ”blanks” of the maps progressively disappeared, the perfect cities began to fade away. Some of them were relocated on invisible, moving or submerged islands (Head, Morelly, Poe, Verne), or into the empty depths of the Earth (Holberg, Collin de Plancy, Casanova, Verne), or into the outer space (Godwin, Cyrano de Bergerac, Cavendish, Defoe, Voltaire, Verne, etc.).
II.1. Scientist dystopias (1870-1914). The early-modern attacks against utopian projects were crowned by the modern ”death of God” and ”disenchantment of the world”. With the eclipse of the sacred, the fantastical and marvelous view of the world disappeared, and the ideal places crumbled down in a kind of ontological collapse. This situation can be sampled with the extraordinary voyages of Jules Verne, where almost every strange and wonderful place visited, be it natural or made by man, is in the end destroyed. In order to replace religious and magic values, modernity brought in its new promethean ideals, positivism, scientism, technology. So began a new era of the utopian thinking, in which human knowledge and technological progress became the mighty ”gods” of the legislators of perfect cities. However, philosophical distrust in man’s capacity of controlling nature and society nourished new forms of criticism also, and of modern counter-utopias. Many an author, starting with S. Butler and H. G. Wells, questioned the direction in which triumphant reason and technology led humanity. They imagined a future in which science and rationality massify and robotize people, and humankind, instead of evolving, is brought to a dead end, on the brink of involution and annihilation.
II.2. Social dystopias. The project aims to follow the methodology of Fredric Jameson (Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture, Social Text, No 1/Winter 1979) according to which modern counter-utopias are cultural features of the industrial hyper-rationalization, functioning as mainly characteristic for capitalism (an idea stated in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism). Following this suggestion, the research will analyze the social and economic determinism of modern dystopian imagination which is marked – as evidenced by classical texts (J. London, The Iron Heel, E. Zamiatin, We, A. Huxley, Brave New World, George Orwell, 1984 orAnimal Farm, etc.) – by authoritarianism, totalitarianism, oppression, social control, dictatorship or bureaucratization. Inevitably, the project will open towards the inherent socio-political reality of totalitarianism in the twentieth century (mainly fascism and socialism), but the focus will fall on settling the intellectual and social-utopian origins of the 19th and 20th centuries counter-utopias, strongly marked by the emergence of homo oeconomicus, which requires an interdisciplinary research of elements belonging to the social imaginary of the economy, following the line that links A. Smith to Marx.
Defined by the Frankfurt School (especially by H. Marcuse) as a fatal finality of the capitalist system, excessive bureaucratization is an inevitable ingredient of modern counter-utopias which are built on the logic of hyper-organized societies, derived from authoritarianism, anti-human and inhuman oppression, respectively hyperbolized social control.Classical counter-utopias of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century (such as The World as It Shall Beby É. Souvestre, When the Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells or J. London’s The Iron Heel) suggest the development of two specific lines of descendence, the utopian socialism, respectively the utopian hyper-rationalization of the eighteenth century.
Given that, as shown by K. Kumar, the purpose of any modern counter-utopia is satirical because it suggests the dysfunction of a society when its organization is taken to extremes (a phenomenon which is analyzed at social-economic level also by H. Marcuse in his One-Dimensional Man), the project aims to investigate both activist utopias of the nineteenth century (nihilism, anti-etatist Russian anarchism, salvation through exacerbation of the existential to the detriment of authority suggested by Nietzsche), as well as the link established between the systemic projections of counter-utopias – “perfect” societies based on eradication of human “error” and of the “intrinsic weaknesses that he embodies” – and the ideological utopias of the twentieth century, Leninism and socialism being, at this point, the most visible extensions. Ultimately, modern counter-utopias and dystopias emphasize the divide between social hyperorganization and human freedom. Consequently, the project aims to examine, eventually, the distinction between “closed societies” and “open societies” (as defined by K. Popper), the hyper-technologization of the counter-utopian dark imaginary and another aspect which must analyzed, namely the mechanical and industrial alienating imaginary of the expressionism (mostly cinematographic).
II.3. Postmodern dystopias. With postmodern relativism and “irrealism” (Searle, Goodman, Putnam, Maturana), not only human capacity of constructing ideal societies and perfect cities, but the concept itself of reality was questioned and deconstructed. The possible worlds became as real as the current reality, at least at the level of literature, arts and cinematic fiction. These parallel worlds are either superior to the one we are living in (which is a terrifying place, like in The Matrix,Dark City, etc.), or inferior, describing a nightmarish world we are heading to. Many dystopian (science-)fiction works imagine a future in which a disaster has already affected humanity. In the paper ”A World Neither Brave Nor New: Reading Dystopian Fiction after 9/11” (Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, Volume 4, Number 1, January 2006), Efraim Sicher and NataliaSkaradol investigate the impact that September 11 had upon the conscience of the american public. In this tragic terrorist event, reality became a reiteration, an acting-out of a series of catastrophic movies made in Hollywood (the headquarters of the hyperreal, as Baudrillard put it).
Literary and cinematic experiences undergo a “pictorial turn”, to use Jacques Rancière’s term, as images are no longer qualified in terms of lack of consistency or excessive consistency. The term hints at a real historical turning point, a mutation in the mode of the presence of images themselves. Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998) marks and announces the end of cinema, of a cinema conceived in terms of its utopic identity and function as a world where images (claim to) reflect the real. The new cinema rethinks and redistributes the relation between the image and the real, between lucid rejection and seduction of utopia. Alexander Sokurov, Gus Van Sant, Bela Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, Jean-Luc Godard and the French cinema between 2007 and 2009 outline such positions. By analogy we will speak in similar terms of the visual artistic experiment of James Benning, Wang Bing, Philip Parenno, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, etc. All this against the background of a partage du sensible, within the context of an altered status of image and text as extensively analysed and illustrated by studies and books of the last decade belonging to such writers as Jacques Rancière, Jean Luc Nancy, the latest Derrida, Georges Didi-Huberman, Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, etc. The micro-politics of the image crosses the epic in search of its own status between the real and the (counter-)utopia.
After this historical panorama of the evolution of dystopias from the classical to the modern age (17th- 21st centuries), the final objective of our research work is to establish a typology and taxonomy of the utopian and anti-utopian genre. We shall be able to make categorical and functional distinctions between utopias – eutopias – dystopias – anti-utopias. These four terms describe four types of “possible worlds”. These alternative societies diverge from the “real world” (what Darko Suvin in La science-fiction entre l’utopie et l’antiutopie, 1987 calls “zero world”, and we call mundus) by a selection of its good (eu-) respectively bad (dys-) features (procedure called “utopian extrapolation” by Julien Freund, Utopie et violence, 1998), and by progressive degrees of probability, possibility and impossibility. Although a rich literature has been dedicated to this issue, our proposition aims at introducing a new systematization, an original synopsis, with logical and functional criteria, in the subspecies of the utopian/anti-utopian genre.
2 senior researchers
- Corin Braga, Prof. Babes-Bolyai University
- Ştefan Borbély, Prof. Babes-Bolyai University
5 young researchers
- Andrei Simut, postdoc, Babes-Bolyai University
- Aura Ţeudan, PhD student, Babes-Bolyai University
- Radu Toderici, PhD student, Babes-Bolyai University
- Marius Conkan, MA student, Babes-Bolyai University
- Olga Ştefan, MA student, Babes-Bolyai University
- Marius Podean PhD., Babes-Bolyai University (economist).
The research project starts from a previous PhD research of the team director, focused on the apparition of dystopias in early-modernity, and develops it to the whole period of time covered by the (anti-)utopian genre, up to the 21st century. The members of the team are called to amplify the core hypothesis and to complement with their specific competences the areas of research. The two senior researchers will assume the 2 major objectives and domains, and the young researchers will develop specific topics (secondary objectives) from the main domains.
The distribution of objectives and tasks is as follows:
A. Classical dystopias:
A1. Religious dystopias. Objective already tackled in Corin Braga, Du paradis perdu à l’antiutopie aux XVIe-XVIIIe siècles, Paris, 2010.
A2. Rationalist dystopias. Prof. Corin Braga &
A3. Empirical dystopias. PhD Radu Toderici
B. Modern dystopias:
B1. Scientist dystopias Postdoc Andrei Simuţ & PhD Simina Raţiu
B2. Social dystopias Prof. Ştefan Borbély
B3. Postmodern dystopias MA Radu Conkan
MA Olga Ştefan
PhD Aura Ţeudan
C. Synthesis and taxonomy: Prof. Corin Braga
All domains and subdomains of research will be tackled simultaneously by the respective senior or young researchers. The collaboration between the researchers, the exchanges of information, bibliographies, books, etc., will ensure the coherence of the teamwork. The final synthesis will sum up the theoretical results and case analyses from each field and will combine the diachronic, historical approach with a paradigmatic, morphological approach.