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March 15, 2013 9:22 AM   Subscribe

It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth. All I’m trying to do is figure out how to put a pig on the tracks. — Ursula K. Le Guin, "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be"
posted by theodolite (13 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite

 
In The Shape of Utopia, speaking of our modern distrust of utopia, he said,

If the word is to be redeemed, it will have to be by someone who has followed utopia into the abyss which yawns behind the Grand Inquisitor’s vision, and who then has clambered out on the other side.[1]


Okay, I'm hooked.
posted by philip-random at 9:55 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


... because I've certainly stumbled into more than one utopian abyss.
posted by philip-random at 9:55 AM on March 15, 2013


"One of our finest methods of organized forgetting is called discovery."

Le Guin bringing the heat as always.

This would be a good read along with Always Coming Home.
posted by selfnoise at 9:57 AM on March 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


I love this woman and her brain and her wisdom.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 10:20 AM on March 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


Her's is a wonderful and provocative essay, pocked by beautiful and insightful selections.

Le Guin rejects the rational pursuit of a "hot" utopia, but instead of showing us a path to an alternative, she rejects the very idea of path. She attacks the notion of history as an obsession with the past which can only be self-destructive. We can't ignore the past or the present we have created by clinging to that past.
In a world that we have so formed by structure and strategy, where our debates on utopia are framed by the Grand Inquisitor because his are the options we have allowed ourselves within that Euclidean system, how is it conceivable that we can opt out?

As she puts it: "...it is a route reserved to the major poets and composers. The rest of us must stay down here on the ground, walking in circles..."

She creates a utopia here that is unobtainable, because even the idea "to obtain" is so integral a part of the great folly. The coyote gets its hands dirty then steps out, never trapped or truly engaged, able to walk off grinning in dumb amusement. Our hands our dirty, but this is our life and we are trapped. How do we find the non-path? Does Le Guin see it as possible?
posted by KingoftheWhales at 10:48 AM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


KingoftheWhales, I think you meant "Our hands are dirty" but I like "Our hands, our dirty" so I'm going to read it that way and use the phrase liberally in other contexts. Yayy for homophonic polymorphism!
posted by smuna at 11:44 AM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


someone who has followed utopia into the abyss which yawns behind the Grand Inquisitor’s vision

Ooh, ooh, I know this one!
posted by No Robots at 3:21 PM on March 15, 2013


Selfnoise, it is certainly related to Always Coming Home, and the line about societies "maintaining low fertility, with a politics based on consent" was the exacts phrase she used to describe Hain in at least one short story.
posted by emjaybee at 5:10 PM on March 15, 2013


societies "maintaining low fertility, with a politics based on consent"

Sounds like the Culture.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:55 PM on March 15, 2013


It was a pleasure to find both The Dispossessed and The Day Before The Revolution are online in their entirety at the Anarchist Library.
posted by y2karl at 2:27 AM on March 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


Beautiful, beautiful. I see more than a hint of Christopher Alexander's philosophy in here, in which life is an emergent property that cannot be planned for and can only be cultivated, little by little, over time.

Where Le Guin sees no promise in technology, I see the promise of a universalized culture, in which anyone at any point can opt into a cultural center of their choosing. See: MetaFilter. That culture will be full of potholes and ugliness, but in big and grand ways that can be recognized and approached – not fixed, but bridged, so that people in ugly and ignorant modes of thinking can be offered a way to someplace else, as happens with anybody learning new things but writ larger than could ever be possible otherwise. It would be lovely if said culture could have developed without any prejudice or bias or extermination of existing cultures, but that's putting too much undeserved faith in the nature of our species. Once everything is together in one place, culture can at least develop as a whole, without some hotheaded outsider left who can trample in and ruin everything. Barring asshole aliens anyway.

That said, technology is extraordinarily risky, dangerous even, in how it outright perverts the human scale which is all we are capable of physically perceiving. The larger machines we make, the clumsier they become, and the more damage results in the process of trying to achieve something great. As a detached observer of civilization, I appreciate the large strokes cut into the world by such great machines, and as a participant of it I fear for what that technology will do to myself and my loved ones; my true feelings lie ambivalently in the middle, which I think is well and good because this is not an either-or situation.

Anyway, this is a truly fine essay, which strikes some parallels with the artwork I've been studying for the past couple years. In it, a protagonist searches for a cure for an epidemic, sheltered at first by a wealthy family obsessed with utopia and the notion of a perfect world. Yet he realizes too late that the wealthy family not only caused the epidemic, but sees the solution to it as extermination of the lower classes, so that a new and perfect society can emerge from their well-reasoned plans. Ultimately, the piece suggests that a utopia might be possible, but only by abandoning grandiosity and searching for an empathy and connection with other people, building a society piece by piece that is truly composed of individuals caring for one another, with systems that emerge between their interactions first and foremost. In other words, a society uncannily close to the one Le Guin suggests here. Funny how so many wonderful thinkers converge on the same thing.
posted by Rory Marinich at 3:42 AM on March 16, 2013


That said, technology is extraordinarily risky, dangerous even, in how it outright perverts the human scale which is all we are capable of physically perceiving. The larger machines we make, the clumsier they become, and the more damage results in the process of trying to achieve something great.

And the smaller machines we make, the more insidious they become to human interaction. I go to Roy Street Coffee and everyone is staring at a laptop or tablet. Compared to the coffeehouses of my youth, it might as well be a library reading room. Oh, it's great to wired in. Except for the part where we all become windowless monads, windowless save for the screen at hand. Often when I speak to people under 30, they try to read and send texts on the sly while paying half a mind to the conversation at hand. Everywhere I go people stare at what is in their hands. At the bus stop, on the street. I was waiting for a bus at 11 PM a few weeks ago and some jackanape strode by typing with one hand on the open laptop he was holding in the other. People walk by at night and, as if painted by George Tooker from beyond the grave, their silent faces are lit up by the blue glow of their phones. Oh brave new world indeed.
posted by y2karl at 5:26 AM on March 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Willy said it best:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies;

posted by infini at 8:00 AM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


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