The Failure of Dystopian Vision

One of the things one is stricken by when reading so-called dystopian fiction is the eerie plausibility of it all.  From Huxley’s cultural void to Orwell’s cultural beartrap to Gibson’s technological vulgar Darwinism to Golding’s Hobbesian children, and so on, etc, the bite is always intended in the idea of just how similar this all is to the everyday world, how near at hand it seems to be (indeed, it is already present in the metastasizing long apocalypse of global capitalism).  But this is precisely how dystopian fiction reveals its antithetical nature to the Utopia.  The Utopia is always a plan, a vision, the impossible dream of order.  The Utopia is always an awful place for real beings, to the point where we reach the absurdity of Gilman’s Herland and its project of obliterating the kindness of dogs.  Need we even speak of Plato, More, Sade?  We can list endlessly the flaws of Utopian vision, not in terms of formal structure but in terms of its incompatibility with lived experience; a slight familiarity with Poe should be enough to dispel our enthusiasm on reading Marcuse.  And so lived experience finds its expression in the dystopia; the dystopia is a world that shows the stresses of subjectivity in the grime of cyberspace, the mandatory cleanliness of meatspace, the absurdity that only something as shitty as the endless tedium of an office job could keep the subjects of the Wachowskis’ Matrix satisfied.  The Utopian vision that always disrupts the dystopia (although almost always crushed by the narrative) is already impossible, otherwise we would be reading a different book.

And yet this only gives us half the picture: what is forever absent is the Dystopian vision, and the corresponding utopia of everyday life.  Even the Dystopian vision of Christian Hell is insufficient, or else we would not always feel the need to be affirming that we are already in hell.  Somehow Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights always seems to present a hell that, for all its chimeric absurdism, feels more comfortably familiar than the smooth, happy bodies of paradise, so much so that one must wonder if all along one was asking the wrong question.  The right question escapes me, but perhaps it is enough to point out the dilemma–that utopian reality seems infinitely distant as long as Dystopian vision is still unalienable.


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