The Utopiyin Imagination: Moving Forward Toward a Better World with Ursula Le Guin
By Joseph Orosco (July 12, 2017)
Espen Hammer argues in the New York Times that we need to revive the utopian imagination in this era, fascinated by dystopian themes:
“There are reasons, however, to think that a fully modern society cannot do without a utopian consciousness. To be modern is to be oriented toward the future. It is to be open to change even radical change, when called for. With its willingness to ride roughshod over all established certainties and ways of life, classical utopianism was too grandiose, too rationalist and ultimately too cold. We need the ability to look beyond the present. But we also need More’s insistence on playfulness. Once utopias are embodied in ideologies, they become dangerous and even deadly. So why not think of them as thought experiments? They point us in a certain direction. They may even provide some kind of purpose to our strivings as citizens and political beings”.
Hammer offers some categories of utopia as a way to understand how this kind of imagination has operated in the past and what is no longer a viable way to envision alternative futures.
The first is the Utopia of Desire (a world in which all needs and desires are fulfilled). Hammer thinks that in our world of endless consumer consumption this kind of vision is not particularly motivating. The next is the Utopia of Technology ( a world in which technology provides the means to solve all of humanity’s pressing problems). This kind of utopia is not inspiring any longer in a world that recognizes the dangers of technological innovation, such as nuclear destruction. Finally, there is the Utopia of Justice (a world in which all social injustice is removed). Hammer thinks that no one can be convinced of this kind of vision in the aftermath of a totalitarian 20th century.
In the end, Hammer argues that the only kind of utopian vision that can really capture our imagination and move us to act is a Utopia of Nature:
“In my view, only one candidate is today left standing. That candidate is nature and the relation we have to it. More’s island was an earthly paradise of plenty. No amount of human intervention would ever exhaust its resources. We know better. As the climate is rapidly changing and the species extinction rate reaches unprecedented levels, we desperately need to conceive of alternative ways of inhabiting the planet.”
(Kim Stanley Robinson’s most recent novels that envision how humanity might flourish in a world forever changed by climate change seem to be along the lines of what Hammer might be calling for.)
But there is something especially fatalistic in Hammer’s discussion about the dimensions of the utopian imagination today. No doubt we have to think about alternative ways of living with nature. But Hammer accepts the myth of scarcity—we have to learn how to do things differently now because there is just not enough to go around. At least from a social ecologist standpoint, this is a flawed assumption. It’s not that nature is limited, it’s that some have more than is fair because of an economic system, global capitalism, that privileges hierarchy and domination. An ecological society can only be built, Murray Bookchin reminds us, by re-imagining political and economic structures:
“Social ecology is based on the conviction that nearly all of our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems. It follows, from this view, that these ecological problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without a careful understanding of our existing society and the irrationalities that dominate it. To make this point more concrete: economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today—apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes”
In other words, what we still need (and perhaps more than ever) are Utopias of Justice that involve deep and nuanced conceptions of justice. But how can we resuscitate this tradition of utopian thinking?
Here, it might be more useful to think along the with Ursula Le Guin in terms of Utopiyin and Utopiyang. The Yin-Yang dynamic is something that has influenced her work for years. She understands it this way: “Yang is male, bright, dry, hard, active, penetrating. Yin is female, dark, wet, easy, receptive, containing. Yang is control, yin acceptance. They are great and equal powers; neither can exist alone, and each is always in process of becoming the other.”
Le Guin thinks our dystopian era has focused mostly on picturing Yang worlds in which Yin is severely restricted or even eliminated: she has Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty Four in mind. Yin dystopias are represented our fascination with the zombie apocalypse or Octavia Butler’s Parable trilogy: “popular visions of social breakdown, total loss of control—chaos and old night”.
Thus, what Hammer seems to object to in rejecting the Utopia of Justice and Technology are actually Yang tinged visions that emphasize control over institutions and machinery eventually seeping into political control of some over the many.
Le Guin seems to tell us that what we need is a radical utopian imagination that provokes us to think of a just world in Yin terms—a Utopiyin:
“My guess is that the kind of thinking we are, at last, beginning to do about how to change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and long term survival is a shift from yang to yin, and so involves acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth”.
Any suggestions of works that operate in a Utopiyin imagination?