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November 2, 2018 9:29 AM   Subscribe

“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.” Dystopias Now, Kim Stanley Robinson (Commune Magazine)
posted by The Whelk (29 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
A child psychologist had twin boys — one was an optimist; the other, a pessimist. Just to see what would happen, on Christmas Day he loaded the pessimist’s room with toys and games. In the optimist’s room, he dumped a pile of horse droppings.

That night, the father found the pessimist surrounded by his gifts, crying.

“What’s wrong?” the father asked.

“I have a ton of game manuals to read … I need batteries … and my toys will all eventually get broken!” sobbed the pessimist.

Passing the optimist’s room, the father found him dancing for joy around the pile of droppings. “Why are you so happy?” he asked.

The optimist shouted, “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:42 AM on November 2, 2018 [22 favorites]

I love Kim Stanley Robinson. But I hate discussing the future in terms of Utopias. Because the original Utopia by Sir Thomas More was pretty damned dystopian, at least by current standards. We need a new term for organizations of civilization that don't suck.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:52 AM on November 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

"Fully automated luxury gay space condominiums"
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:09 AM on November 2, 2018 [20 favorites]

I personally believe we all need to become better observers of the world in our creative crafts.

I think utopias tend to reduce the number of variables to something that an individual can understand, which in turn cheapens the world they build.

I LOVED New York 2140, but I had to really grimace through some obvious sexism in the book in order to love it.

So like, what I'm getting at is that our operational model in our heads where we imagine a future world as having a certain kind of quality, then we go about trying to fill in all the details with a plot and a story, and in turn what we are doing is objectifying the world we are creating and we are objectifying the reality we draw in to the work, and in that objectification we overly simplify our utopias and dystopias, which is a kind of autocratic way of thinking and being.

I believe that the way we conceptualize has been colonized and the books we write suffer from that colonization and writers are unwittingly reifying the same colonization in the books we write because we have yet to decolonize our minds.
posted by nikaspark at 10:43 AM on November 2, 2018 [8 favorites]

Some interesting points, I kind of liked this take:
A realistic portrayal of a future that might really happen isn’t really part of the project—that lens of the science fiction machinery is missing. The Hunger Games trilogy is a good example of this; its depicted future is not plausible, not even logistically possible. That’s not what it’s trying to do. What it does very well is to portray the feeling of the present for young people today, heightened by exaggeration to a kind of dream or nightmare. To the extent this is typical, dystopias can be thought of as a kind of surrealism.
I read Hunger Games during peak Sochi Olympics hype when Russia and big multinational capitalism were making people homeless for a bread-and-circuses spectacle while democracy started shredding, and instantly saw where it was going as a critique of 21st century spectacle and consumerism. And now that the dirt on US gymnastics is out, I find it more on-point.

I'll also leave behind this roundtable on indigenous futurism which makes the case that if the apocalypse already happened to your culture, imagining any form of continuity (or for that matter, even present) can be a radical act. Probably the best argument for SFF diversity is that dystopia/utopia looks pretty damn different if you're not an apex predator of Colonialism.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 10:44 AM on November 2, 2018 [26 favorites]

Another comment and I'll let it rest. I see a lot of thinkpieces about why {fill in the blank} SFF genre has failed. Almost always these articles focus on bestsellers and whatever eurocentric U.S. cinema adaptations are available on Netflix. Gee, do you think that maybe Hollywood might have a bias that explains why we get Altered Carbon, a Blade Runner sequel, and three Marvel movies a year, but not "Hello, Moto" or Infomocracy?
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 10:53 AM on November 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

The optimist thinks we live in the best possible world. The pessimist is afraid that the optimist is right.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:00 AM on November 2, 2018 [13 favorites]

There's no use being pessimistic. It won't work anyway.
posted by chavenet at 11:21 AM on November 2, 2018 [8 favorites]

The semiotic square bit seems confused, or at least I am, and doesn’t really add anything to the piece. Unless we’re in cubic and wisest territory, anti-anti-utopia/utopia can’t be the fourth corner (anti-dystopia). But these diagrams are invariably dumb anyway.
posted by rodlymight at 11:33 AM on November 2, 2018

But we did get Arrival.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:38 AM on November 2, 2018

So I really wanted to post this article but couldn't because my nephew Shyam is the editor of Commune Magazine. I'm very proud and impressed.
posted by octothorpe at 11:42 AM on November 2, 2018 [18 favorites]

Things don't have to be utopian to be better. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:26 PM on November 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was kind of surprised after the start that I really like this piece. It gets into some of the main arguments and discussions I'm always having with contacts and potential coms.

The trick wherein some people believe that others are ideologues and themselves rational and free of ideology has to be one of the biggest ever pulled. We're all ideologues, just varyingly dogmatic.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 12:30 PM on November 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

I've been thinking about KSR a lot and wishing he would weigh in. Thanks for this.

At the end of this piece he's pretty much segueing into George Monbiot's vision of "private sufficiency, public luxury" (20m video).
posted by Baeria at 1:12 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Dystopia is no longer a valid descriptor, we now call that current events.
posted by nofundy at 1:22 PM on November 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

I really like Kim Stanley Robinson's books (the ones I've read, anyway, which is about half of them) (plus my brain likes to attribute The Diamond Age to him, instead of Neal Stephenson, because I can totally imagine Stephenson's magic book in Robinson's worlds) - and I love his willingness to imagine better futures.

This post reminded me of a quote I cannot find, which frustrates me no end; it was a black woman talking about the struggle for civil rights, and she was talking about the importance of faith: something about how optimism was believing things were going to get better and working toward that, but faith was knowing things probably were not going to get better, and working toward a better future anyway.

Kim Stanley Robinson: "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."

... which reminds me of another quote I can't find, but at least I know it was the poet Liz Lochhead - she said something like "Feminism is like the hoovering - you just have to keep getting on with it."

Like anyone, I want to be effective, and I want to know I'm not wasting my time, and I want to put my efforts into whatever's most likely to bring change. But it frustrates me so much that it's so easy for that attitude - "I'll try this and see what works" - to turn into despair - "I tried this and it didn't immediately end all the world's problems!" It robs us of the opportunity to say, "it didn't work as fully as we hoped - but it did have an impact," or "it didn't work YET, but it may help shape things in the future." The Women's March didn't end sexual harassment or get a sexual predator out of office; but to say it had no effect would be wrong.

"Whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it." - Mahatma Gandhi

From the article: "Besides, it is realistic: things could be better." They could indeed; and there are millions of people working in small ways every day to make the world better - to help feed another person (their own child, or a stranger in another country), to prevent a disease, to be a friend, to implement policies that make life easier. Things like the Future Crunch newsletter remind me of these people, and remind me that the disaster in front of me is not the only story in the world.

I've tried to shift my thinking about politics, and my conversations about politics, to focus on the question: what kind of world do you want to live in? Not instinctual reactions to the latest headline, but: what would you like this to look like? You think people are too uncivil to each other? I know what you mean. What would you LIKE that to look like? How do we get there? You're worried the next tax hike is going to really hurt you? I understand. What kind of a world would you like to live in? How might we get there?

We need people who can imagine better worlds. Kim Stanley Robinson is really good at that. I'm glad he's talking about the importance of choosing to do that.

"So, granting the complications and difficulties, the task at hand is to imagine ways forward to that better place."

Thank you for this, The Whelk!
posted by kristi at 2:59 PM on November 2, 2018 [10 favorites]

Oh, and:

While I was trying to find those elusive quotes, I found these:

Revolutionary Optimism in Despicable Times ("This post is part of our online forum, “Black October,” on the Russian Revolution and the African Diaspora")

John Lewis: Love in Action (Congressman Lewis is a huge inspiration to me, in no small part because he's seen defeats. He's put his life on the line and seen changes for the better and changes for the worse. He knows what it's like - and shows what it's like - to keep working for good, whether it looks like it's working or not.)
posted by kristi at 3:06 PM on November 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

Amusingly, the dystopia you see is the dystopia you generate. Get it?
posted by RoseyD at 10:20 PM on November 2, 2018

For kristi’s statement, three women who come to mind are Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler (her Parable books, and Kindred)
posted by childofTethys at 5:29 AM on November 3, 2018

my nephew Shyam is the editor of Commune Magazine

Speaking of whom, he just did an AMA on r/socialism
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 5:33 AM on November 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

I've kinda been thinking lately that we're in a Dystopia already and started working on this list :
Signs That We Live in a Dystopia
-Lots of people aren't very funny
- I've had several Cobb Salads that were short on critical ingredients
-Occcasionally I'll hear stupid people whine about business workshops
- It's difficult to learn other languages
- There are probably more ways to kill people than there are sexual positions
-How did I get so fat
-Most behaviors can be related to some kind of consumer-capitalist model
- Humanity has wiped out 60 percent of animals since 1970
posted by PHINC at 6:30 AM on November 3, 2018 [7 favorites]

Hell, at this point in time, being a pessimist is optimistic.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:25 PM on November 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Democrats Must Become The Party Of Freedom - "Guarantee the public provisioning of truly universal goods."
posted by kliuless at 10:10 PM on November 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

Eddie Yuen talks about the politics of non-apex predator dystopianism (‘the apocalypse already came and went’) in his anthology, 'Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth.

"Catastrophism explores the politics of apocalypse—on the left and right, in the environmental movement—and examines why the lens of catastrophe can distort our understanding of the dynamics at the heart of these numerous disasters—and fatally impede our ability to transform the world. Lilley, McNally, Yuen, and Davis probe the reasons why catastrophic thinking is so prevalent, and challenge the belief that it is only out of the ashes that a better society may be born. The authors argue that those who care about social justice and the environment should jettison doomsaying—even as it relates to indisputably apocalyptic climate change. Far from calling people to arms, they suggest, catastrophic fear often results in passivity and paralysis—and, at worst, reactionary politics.
posted by artof.mulata at 12:24 AM on November 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

I must admit that reading "we have to do this work no matter how we feel about it" my first thought was of Rev. Barber's description of social justice as an essential and unending struggle of the human condition. Mainstream science fiction seems highly invested in engineer's disease where everything is essentially an engineering problem with either solutions or failure conditions, and the hero is typically the exceptionally clever person who cuts through some aspect of the problem (or tragically fails to do so with many dystopias.)

When reading survivance lit, the protagonist isn't the clever person who crashes the system, rather the protagonist claims a space for some form of continuity of values or community in spite of cultural genocide or diaspora.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 12:11 PM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

The FPP’s essay by Kim Stanley Robinson is fascinating. Got my doctor, the x-ray tech, and the nurse to ask for the weblink so they can check it out. Been discussing the need for anti-anti-utopianist thought all day!
posted by artof.mulata at 9:19 PM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

'We Are as Gods and Might as Well Get Good at It'
posted by kliuless at 9:14 PM on November 9, 2018

Commune kind of blew out their Kickstarter and now will have a free giveaway of the first issue
posted by The Whelk at 2:54 AM on November 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

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