Telling the Acrobats which way to Jump: Irrigation Gaming and Utopian Thinking

Maurits W. Ertsen

“I mean I can book the acts, but I can’t tell the acrobats which way to jump!”

James George Hacker (portrayed by Paul Eddington)—Yes Minister, Series 2, Episode 2: ‘Official Secrets

Utopia and Irrigation

This is an article about The Irrigation Management Game (IMG), reflecting on my own use of the game in educational settings, and drawing some links with utopian and dystopian thought. The relationship between water and human wellbeing has been extensively studied and debated. Perhaps the most famous overarching theory is that of Karl Wittfogel. Wittfogel argued that certain climates imply certain forms of irrigation, which in turn imply certain political and social institutions.[1] In particular, Wittfogel thought that ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Hellenistic Greece, Imperial Rome, the Abbasid Caliphate, Imperial China, the Moghul Empire, and Incan Peru, were all ‘hydraulic societies,’ whose despotic character arose from the need to manage complex irrigation infrastructures. Although Wittfogel’s environmental determinism has since been discredited, his work remains a great reminder that water management is seldom simply a set of technical problems. Instead, water management is intimately linked with power, labor, knowledge, discipline, control, and utopian and dystopian possibilities. Anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—or is a fan of Michel Foucault—will surely recognize such themes.[2] Irrigation is one of many domains where governments have attempted to improve collective welfare without undue interference in individual freedoms.

Irrigation was on many development agendas, in states as diverse as the Neo-Assyrian empire[3], colonial states in the 19th and 20th centuries[4] and modern settings[5]. In these developmental settings, irrigation—including its aspects of control—was often associated with utopian futures, at least within state propaganda and planning discourse. In colonial Africa, for example, European powers imposed irrigation regimes on communities they treated as ‘historyless’, while perceiving themselves as creating an ideal, rational order.[6] After the Second World War, with many colonized countries gaining independence, irrigation systems that had been constructed and/or planned became part of post-colonial international development.[7] Former colonial experts became international experts, and new experts were trained within irrigation approaches developed in colonial times.

In the first decades of post-WWII development, the main focus was on building new and rehabilitating existing irrigation infrastructure. From the 1970s onwards, more attention was paid to issues of managing these infrastructures—including relationships between managers, farmers, and other water users. These discussions intensified in the 1980s, if only because results lagged behind the expectations (sometimes too optimistic—utopian!—expectations) of governments and engineers. New methods of design and management began to emerge, and slowly began to adopt more participatory processes, to accommodate stakeholders’ knowledge and wishes. The main topic of this article, the Irrigation Management Game (IMG), is a result of these intensified efforts.

The IMG was initially developed to support discussions among irrigation managers on farmer strategies and water delivery problems, especially in the larger systems in South and South-East Asia.[8] After positioning the IMG within a gaming context, I will examine how the game reflects the realities that I study—both in practical and theoretical terms. I will conclude by suggesting that the IMG allows us to explore how utopia and dystopia are in the making, and not fixed in advance by a given environmental setting and management system. Especially in irrigation, I will suggest, the margin between utopia and dystopia can be thin.

Continue reading “Telling the Acrobats which way to Jump: Irrigation Gaming and Utopian Thinking”

The Rules of Utopia: The Procedural Rhetoric of The Book of Cairn

By Tyler Brunette

In ‘Back to the Future: Wells, Sociology, Utopia, and Method,’ Ruth Levitas argues:

[…] we would be better served both as sociologists and as citizens by a more utopian method, one which embraces the Imaginary Reconstruction of Society (IROS) as an active device in reflexive and collective deliberations about possible and desirable futures.[1]

Few activities dovetail better with Levitas’ proposal, one of collective deliberation and active imagination, than tabletop roleplaying. Indeed, both utopianism and tabletop roleplaying are often derided by their detractors as mere frivolity, and unworthy of serious consideration. However, as an interactive medium based on cooperative imagination of the possible, tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) offer a unique opportunity for analysis of the practice of the IROS.

Cover of The Book of Cairn. A hooded anthropomorphic mouse gazes over the hilt of a sword, which they are holding by the top of the blade.

In this article, I analyze one such game: SoulJAR Games’ The Book of Cairn (Cairn). While at first glance, Cairn appears to be little more than yet another ‘fantasy heartbreaker,’ I argue that Cairn’s combination of unique rules and use of a pastoralist utopian setting function as a method of critique, of both contemporary social conditions, and of the themes embraced by the TTRPG industry more broadly.[2] Specifically, I argue, two interlocking rhetorics are built into the rules of Cairn, producing through play of the game both a sense of what would be necessary to maintain (albeit imperfectly and abstractly) a small pastoralist utopian society, and also an enactment of those activities around the gaming table. Before turning to my analysis of Cairn and the implications of its rules, I first address the theoretical underpinnings of my approach. After my analysis, I conclude by discussing the limits of Cairn’s IROS.

Continue reading “The Rules of Utopia: The Procedural Rhetoric of The Book of Cairn

Post-it Utopia: The Promises and Pitfalls of Arium’s Lean Worldbuilding

By Nicholas L. Stefanski 

Arium: Create

The worldbuilding TTRPG Arium: Create by Adept Icarus promises a utopian procedure for creating gameworlds that are generative, safe, and liberating environments for roleplayers, an undertaking animated by recent debates over the prevalence of harmful, stereotypical, or simply repetitive tropes throughout the TTRPG industry. While the shift away from these problematic tropes is admirable and perhaps overdue within the industry, Arium’s approach to addressing this issue is also notable for its enthusiastic endorsement of creativity techniques stemming from the world of corporate management and innovation consulting. Specifically, Arium’s Lean Worldbuilding approach shares many commonalities with the Lean management philosophy that emerged in the 1990s, largely inspired by Toyota’s operating model. Both Arium’s Lean, and Lean as it is now understood in business, are associated with the pervasive use of Post-it notes for ideation and collaboration.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

This article explores how Arium’s utopian solutionism and endorsement of a signature technique of post-Fordist management presents both pitfalls and opportunities for inventive, utopian roleplay. Beginning in the critical mode, I suggest that by adopting techniques that reduce the art of imaginative worldbuilding to a ritualized formula, Arium: Create risks building worlds that are creative merely for the sake of creativity, and consensual mainly in their appeal to the lowest common denominator. Inspired by Adorno and Horkheimer’s critiques of jazz and the culture industry, and following Eitan Wilf’s ethnography of Post-its and critiques of the innovation and creativity industry, the first movement of the article asks whether such strategies of routinized, commodified creativity can only ever produce the ‘freedom to choose what is always the same.’[i] Nevertheless, while this danger should not be ignored, I argue that it would be wrong to dismiss Arium or to label it as utopian in only the pejorative sense. Taking cues from theorists responding to Adorno’s pessimistic stance toward popular culture, notably Adorno’s Frankfurt School colleague and interlocutor Walter Benjamin, the second movement of the article suggests that despite its embrace of corporate solutionism, Arium’s collaborative worldbuilding contains a generative kernel, revealing an additional movement in the dialectic between oppressive technologies of control and the utopian impulse.

Continue reading “Post-it Utopia: The Promises and Pitfalls of Arium’s Lean Worldbuilding”

Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work by John Danaher

Reviewed by Michael Pitts.

Danaher, John. Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work. Harvard UP, 2019. Hardcover. 248 pg. $99.95. ISBN 9780674984240.

Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work is crafted as a response to fears over an automated future in which humans are made obsolete by technological developments. Written by John Danaher, senior lecturer of law at the National University of Ireland, Galway, the text consists of two main sections, which cover automation and the possibility of a utopian future, respectively.

After outlining the scope and purpose of his research, in the first chapter Danaher forecasts the obsolescence of humankind in an automated world. But this is not as catastrophic as it may sound since, for Danaher, “Obsolescence is the process or condition of being no longer useful or used; it is not a state of nonexistence or death” (2). In the rest of the automation section, Danaher responds to two propositions: that automation in the workplace is both possible and desirable, and that automation outside of the workplace is potentially dangerous and its threats must therefore be mitigated.

After making his case for why automation should be conditionally embraced, in the second section Danaher turns to two possible, ‘improved’ societies with automation fundamental to their economies, the cyborg and virtual utopias. While the cyborg utopia enables humankind to remain valuable members of the economy, occupying the cognitive niche that has historically provided an initial evolutionary advantage to the species, Danaher posits that such a future will likely maintain the degradations of employment, enhance our dependency upon machines, and disrupt humanist values while, due to the technological advancements it requires, ensuring no worthy improvements to human wellbeing in the near future.

Following up this analysis of the cyborg polity, Automation and Utopia concludes with a presentation of what Danaher views as the ideal, improved society, the virtual utopia. This improved society, in which humankind ventures into the virtual world to enhance its flourishing, is presented by Danaher as an ideal goal towards which humankind may aim since, as the author posits, it will ensure human agency, pluralism, stability, a myriad of alternative utopias, and a meaningful connection to the non-virtual, real world. 

Pivotal to Danaher’s assessment of automation, and a possibly utopian future, are his views on labor and the avenue he identifies as optimal for human flourishing, the virtual utopia. For the purposes of his argument, he adopts a definition of work which he acknowledges as unusual and likely controversial, since it excludes “most domestic work (cleaning, cooking, childcare)” as well as “things like subsistence farming or slavery” (29). Defining work as “any activity (physical, cognitive, emotional etc.) performed in exchange for an economic reward, or in the ultimate hope of receiving an economic reward,” Danaher builds the case that obsolescence is almost certain and could result in as low as 10% or as high as 40% of the future population remaining employed (28). Such a development is framed as a positive result since work, he emphasizes, has a negative effect upon employees and improving it in the current economic milieu is, according to him, a more difficult route to take than shifting towards a virtual utopia. Specifically, Danaher argues that improving work, which often involves fissuring, precarity, colonization, classic collective action, domination, and distributive injustice is unlikely in our current system since it “would require reform of the basic rules of capitalism, some suppression or ban of widely used technologies as well as reform of the legal and social norms that apply to work” (83). Though this dismissal of the possibility of improving working conditions is short-sighted and ignores the likelihood that labor organizing will prove necessary as technological advances continue, this weakness of the text stands on its periphery. More important to Danaher’s vision of the future is his adoption of an approach that is interestingly more radical than such efforts to protect workers: the introduction of a universal basic income and the normalization of technological unemployment in current economic systems. 

Danaher envisions this radically different distribution of economic power as a salient feature unique to the virtual utopia. Danaher rejects the cyborg utopia, believing it will threaten the prospect of universal basic income and technological unemployment and ensure the continuation of work and the injustices endemic to capitalistic systems. In considering the virtual utopia, Danaher’s audience must consider the ethics and consequences of a nation in which utopian games and escape become a salient feature of its culture. This ideal society is marked by its focus upon virtual worlds as the mechanism by which human flourishing may take place. By venturing into simulations that are shaped to satisfy the desires and needs of individual users, it avoids the problems of a single utopian ideal that must be enforced upon all citizens. It can therefore, as Danaher explains, “allow for the highest expressions of human agency, virtue, and talent… and the most stable and pluralistic understanding of the ideal society” (270). 

Yet as with the cyborg utopia, the virtual utopia is plagued with ethical complications. The question of what actions are permissible in such a simulated environment is closely related to the ethical considerations surrounding cyborgs and artificial intelligence. In very briefly confronting this topic, Danaher asserts that the same moral constraints that shape human interactions in daily life will impact those occupying the virtual world. He supports this argument by pointing out that some of the characters inhabiting the simulation will be operated by human players and that interactions with such players will have ethical dimensions. In addition, he asserts that other actions may be deemed intrinsically immoral even without a corresponding ‘real-life’ consequence.  Danaher asserts that, though there will be some moral frameworks unique to the virtual utopia, there will be no major alteration to human ethics. The virtual utopia, he claims, is therefore a reasonable goal for the post-work society since it enables human flourishing and protects values such as individualism and humanism.

Danaher is also keen to emphasize that “the distinction between the virtual and the real is fluid” (229). He rejects the “stereotypical” science fictional view of virtual reality, as something that is only produced within immersive technological simulations, like the Matrix or Star Trek’s Holodeck. On the other hand, he also rejects the “counterintuitive” view that everything humans experience is virtual reality in that our reality is constructed through language and culture. Instead, Danaher offers a middle position. Some things may be more virtual than others, but nothing is wholly virtual or wholly real. He sees virtual utopia as being filled with emotionally and morally meaningful interactions, but in the context of relatively inconsequential stakes (rather than survival, or struggle for hegemony). A Holodeck-style simulation is only one of many ways this could be accomplished. 

Automation and Utopia delves significantly into the topic of possible futures at the intersection of ethics, technology, and humanism. It is a valuable resource for scholars, students, and laypeople engaged with conversations surrounding the advancement of automation in the 21st-century, its impact upon economics and workers, and optimal approaches to accommodating such new technologies through the advent of a post-work society. The work continues discussions at the intersection of technology and labor, but necessitates broader considerations related to the virtual utopia Danaher proposes. Namely, it does not convincingly explain how virtual utopia will avoid the ethical pitfalls outlined in relation to the cyborg utopia. It also does not thoroughly discuss how such simulations may be safeguarded from economic exploitation at the hands of those owning or operating these systems, or address the potential for intersectional inequalities. Finally, Danaher does not comprehensively discuss how such escapism and the further minimization of human interaction in the natural world may impact climate and the environment. Though it is difficult to accurately predict, estimations of both the ecological and psychological effects of a society in which the main mechanism of human interaction is not within nature but instead within a virtual world are vital to identifying optimal utopian aims.

Overall, Automation and Utopia productively dives into the topics of technological advancement and labor policy, proposes thought-provoking socioeconomic policies related to the challenges of automation, and necessitates further discussions concerning ‘the ideal society,’ its connection to technology, and the impact it may have upon human psychology and the environment. 

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Political pragmatism and utopian anticipation: A review of Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Thomas Connolly reviews Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (London: Verso, 2019), x + 278 pp, ISBN 978-1-78663-262-3.

9781786632623The term “fully automated luxury communism” (or FALC) first began circulating among far-left internet commentators in the mid-2010s as a name given to one potential form of post-scarcity economy. Alongside a number of variations (such as “fully automated luxury gay space communism”, or FALGSC, which inflects the term with post-gender and post-sexuality connotations),

FALC gained wider recognition following a Guardian write-up in March 2015 that discussed the origins and significance of the term. Aaron Bastani—a British political commentator and co-founder of Novaro Media, an independent left-wing media outlet—was interviewed as part of that article, and has since become the key intellectual figure associated with FALC. The current work is Bastani’s attempt to unpack the meaning and implications of FALC.

Continue reading “Political pragmatism and utopian anticipation: A review of Fully Automated Luxury Communism”

Reciprocal babymaking is the future: a review of Full Surrogacy Now

Katie Stone reviews Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso, 2019).

Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now (Verso, 2019) is, like all good science fiction, “a book about an impossibility.”[1] In this provocative and carefully-argued work, Lewis clearly demonstrates that the boundaries of possibility not only can, but must, be contested. Lewis moves from a consideration of the impossible, yet actually existing, working conditions of professional surrogates — those who carry and give birth to ‘someone else’s’ infant — to the similarly impossible premise under which all gestational labour is undertaken. In Lewis’ analysis, the reason that “bearing an infant ‘for someone else’ is always a fantasy, a shaky construction” is not because of the uniquely fantastic conditions of commercial surrogacy. Rather, it is attributable to the fact that “infants don’t belong to anyone, ever” (19).

Full Surrogacy Now includes astute readings of prominent science-fictional texts, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Octavia Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’ (1984) and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). However, Lewis’ work also provides a striking example of the power of science-fictional thought in its own right. Here the strangeness of cyborgs and surrogates is explored, not to establish surrogacy as an embattled, economically-compromised alternative to ‘normal’ pregnancy, but rather as a way of reflecting on the compromising, violent realities of gestation as such. Full Surrogacy Now extends us a science-fictional invitation to understand deeply familiar words — nature, work, mother, create — in radically new and unfamiliar ways. By asking over and over again—“why accept Nature as natural[?]” (7)—Full Surrogacy Now proves itself the “disloyal, monstrous, chimerical daughter” (27) of Donna Haraway’s classic ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985), and of the tradition of feminist science fiction from which that seminal text was—and continues to be—partially, laboriously, and reciprocally birthed.

To begin with, we must remember that pregnancy is work, and it is often difficult and dangerous work. It is also often work in which the body is “working very, very hard at having the appearance of not working at all” (59). However, Lewis reminds us that the working conditions of gestational labourers vary hugely:

Pregnancy has long been substantially techno-fixed already, when it comes to those whose lives really ‘matter.’ Under capitalism and imperialism, safer (or, at least, medically supported) gestation has typically been the privilege of the upper classes. And the high-end care historically afforded to the rich when they gestate their own young has lately been supplemented by a ‘technology’ that absorbs 100 percent of the damage from the consumer’s point of view: the human labor of a ‘gestational surrogate.’

(3)

Since its publication, Full Surrogacy Now has drawn fierce attacks from ‘readers’ who — having read the title, but not the book itself — assume that Lewis is arguing that such commercial gestational surrogacy is utterly unproblematic, and that we should welcome the expansion of the commercial surrogacy industry. This, of course, is to entirely miss the point. Lewis carefully outlines the exploitative realities of commercial gestational surrogacy, a booming business that is rife with wage theft, deception, brutally inadequate health-care, a lack of informed consent, and extreme power imbalances. She also carefully picks apart the neoliberal, faux-feminist rhetoric used to justify such practices. Instead, Lewis places the lives and voices of actual surrogates, particularly those from the Global South, at the heart of her analysis.

Nevertheless, within commercial gestational surrogacy, Lewis also discovers the traces of a wider revolutionary agenda. Thinking about the experience of gestational workers becomes a way of thinking more generally about pregnancy, child-care, the organisation of our society, and the labour we undertake to reproduce society from one day to the next. Lewis writes, “We are the makers of one another. And we could learn collectively to act like it. It is those truths that I wish to call real surrogacy, full surrogacy” (19-20). Ultimately, for Lewis, “surrogacy politics aren’t just a concern for an infinitesimal, niche sliver of the proletariat” (56), any more than the anarchism of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Anarres, or the lesbian feminism of Joanna Russ’ Whileaway is ‘just’ a concern for the inhabitants of those imagined regions.[2]

Lewis draws upon a long history of socialist feminist thought—Silvia Federici’s ‘Wages Against Housework’ (1974) is a particular influence—to reframe the discourse around pregnancy. By using surrogacy as her lens, she can reveal the inconsistencies in what passes for ‘common sense’ about pregnancy. “Pregnancy is not something society as a whole tends to question. Surrogacy, on the other hand, is hotly contested. Yet we can readily perceive that all that really separates the two is the possibility of a wage” (44). Refusing to position gestational work as a sacred maternal sphere, determined by a naturalised biology, Lewis instead asks: “What if we really felt the politics of uterine work to be comparable to other labors[?]” (129).

In this way, Full Surrogacy Now is part of a larger, pressing, political project. This is the project that challenges the white, liberal, trans-exclusionary, whorephobic, ‘feminist’ discourse which is currently dominating conversations around sex work and gestational labour. Just as infants do not belong to their parents as property, workers do not belong to their clients or employers. In advocating for the rights of workers whose labour is so often delegitimised, exploited, and criminalised, Full Surrogacy Now joins texts as Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes (2018). Here, Lewis argues for the recognition of surrogacy as work, while simultaneously taking up a fundamentally anti-work position. For Lewis, gestational labour’s “articulation as work in the first instance will be key to abolishing [it] (as work) in the long run” (42).

Although Full Surrogacy Now always keeps these wider goals in sight, a substantial part of Lewis’ writing takes the form of an analysis of the material conditions of gestational workers currently labouring within the commercial surrogacy industry. The study which Lewis provides of the Akanksha Hospital, and in particular of the charismatic representative of neoliberalism Dr. Nayana Patel, is detailed, wide-ranging and politically and theoretically rigorous. Lewis notes that

[…] most prominent white feminists, no matter how queer they are at home, no matter how critical of the family as the primary site of patriarchal and queerphobic abuse, are remarkably prone to forgetting this antipathy when it comes to legislating lives in sufficiently “other” (proletarian) neighborhoods.

(41)

In contrast, Lewis’s approach provides a welcome alternative to this ideologically-driven amnesia. Even for those for whom commercial surrogacy is not (yet) a particular area of interest, Lewis’s determined focus on the material conditions of these particular labourers should be noted.

The emphasis on the working conditions of surrogates is also of particular relevance to those SF critics who study so-called “pregnancy dystopias” (10), given that, as Lewis argues, “in order to paint the neat picture of surrogacy-as-dystopia that First World feminists so often seem to want to paint, actually existing gestational workers have to be ignored almost by definition” (16). Lewis reintroduces the voices of those workers who are actively seeking out these supposedly-dystopic surrogate pregnancies into the conversation around dystopian pregnancy narratives. In this way, she demonstrates that a queer, feminist, anti-capitalist critique of an industry in which “living humans have become the sexless ‘technology’ component of the euphemism Assisted Reproductive Technology” (24) need not take a Eurocentric perspective which erases the agency and desires of those same “living humans.”

One prime example of a ‘pregnancy dystopia’ is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Lewis joins scholars such as Kate Meakin in critiquing “Atwood’s sterility apocalypse” (11) for its deification of white motherhood, its race-blindness, and the “stylized pleasure” it takes in its “chastity cos-play” (13): something which has become increasingly prominent in the recent HBO adaptation of Atwood’s writing.

Borrowing the historical experience of forced surrogacy from the American plantation, Atwood had […] clearly adapted its emotiveness for the purposes of a color-blind — white — feminism. […] At least the original novel had referred to Gilead’s eugenic purging of the tacitly African ‘Children of Ham,’ thereby demonstrating some recognition of the racial character of reproductive stratification as elaborated through the Middle Passage [slave ships crossing from Africa to the Americas]. In 2017, Hulu series director Bruce Miller took blithe erasure of black women’s historic connection with surrogacy to the next level. Announcing that he had ‘simplified’ the story, Miller presented an image of a society with no race, class, or history: a society in which ‘fertility trumps all.’

Lewis further argues: “the pleasures of an extremist misogyny, defined as womb-farming, risks concealing from us what are simply slower and less photogenic forms of violence, such as race, class, and binary gender itself” (14). She is certainly not dismissive of those for whom, as she puts it, “a personal encounter with this particular text has been the moment of feminist coming-to-consciousness” (14). But nor does she accept that the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale in feminist circles ought to absolve it of all its many failings. In this she provides a model for those feminist SF critics who are hesitant about demanding a rigorously intersectional, trans-inclusive feminism from texts which are often hailed as feminist masterpieces simply because they champion the rights of (cis, straight, white) women.

Lewis also offers readings of Butler’s and Piercy’s writing: framing their surrogate-focused works as texts which either engage in surrogacy as terrifying and alien (Butler) or as a utopian alternative to the ‘problem’ of human gestation (Piercy). By returning frequently to these texts as part of her wider theorisation of surrogacy, Lewis joins the great tradition of feminist writers such as Haraway, Susan Stryker, and adrienne maree brown, who weave science fiction into their theoretical analyses—once again challenging the boundaries of possibility. From a SF studies perspective, it’s worth pointing out that Lewis’ coverage of these texts is relatively brief, and highly focused. I feel that there is more room here for SF scholars to explore the implications of what Lewis calls “full surrogacy” (20) within feminist SF. Feminist SF is a field which is deeply invested in the ethics of reproductive technology, and thus in the fact that, as Lewis puts it, “we are the makers of one another” (19). In Piercy’s lactating fathers and Butler’s multi-generational, multi-species communities where — just as in the contemporary commercial surrogacy industry — gestational labour is coercively but consensually entered into, I see more than the oscillation between “the alienated misery of the status quo” and “the silver absolutism of their techno-fix” (28). I see a gesture towards the “horizon of gestational communism” (21) that Lewis locates in the science-fictional sculptures of artist Patricia Piccinini. Lewis argues that the question to be gleaned from Piccinini’s sculptures is “not whether surrogates will intimately produce us one day,” but “rather, how we should respond to them and hold them—since they’re already here” (158).

It is this utopian turn in her writing which, I argue, transforms Lewis’ work from insightful critique into transformative critical apparatus. This is not a book which is merely about impossibility; rather, it demands impossibility.[3] The fact that we cannot necessarily explain every detail of what Lewis calls the “gestational commune” (29) must not prevent us from desiring it, nor from creating it. Moreover, this is not an impossibility which lies in a distant future, beyond the utopian horizon. As Lewis rightly notes: “Despite capitalism’s worldwide hegemony, many people on earth are putting something like ‘full surrogacy’ into practice every day, cultivating non-oedipal kinship and sharing reciprocal mothering labors between many individuals and generations” (147). Reciprocal baby-making is the stuff of impossibility. It is also happening right now. We can only hope that, as Sun Ra might put it, “when you’ve achieved one impossible the others / Come together to be with their brother” … or, in this case, with their multiply-parented surro-sibling.[4]

Patricia Piccinini, ‘Surrogate’

Katie Stone is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Her thesis explores childhood and utopianism as imagined in science fiction. Katie is co-director of the London Science Fiction Research Community and co-founder of the research network ‘Utopian Acts’. She recently co-edited a special issue of Studies in Arts and Humanities Journal and she has written for Foundation, Fantastika and SFRA Review. She is on Twitter @cyborg_feminist.

[1] Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (New York, NY: Verson, 2019) p. 19. All subsequent references are to this edition and are given within the text.

[2] See Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (London: Gollancz, 2002; first published 1974) and Joanna Russ, The Female Man (London: Gollancz, 2010; first published 1975).

[3] See Tom Moylan, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (York: Methuen, 1986)

[4] Sun Ra, ‘Reality has touched against myth’, Esquire (July, 1969) 53-141.

N.B. This review was slightly updated in September 2019.

Conference Report: Utopian Acts 2018

UA-poster-med

By Sasha Myerson

Organised by Katie Stone and Raphael Kabo, ‘Utopian Acts’ was a one-day mix of art, activism and utopia hosted by Birkbeck at the beginning of September. The conference provoked us to explore ideas set out by Ruth Levitas in ‘Utopia as Method’ and consider utopia as an act. Aiming to challenge the dystopian pessimism of our current moment, it asked whether examining the intersection of academia and activism might provide a way forward, out of our current impasse, towards a better future. Such thinking informed the structure of the conference, which included a mix of interactive workshops alongside talks by artists, activists and more conventional academics. In a welcome break from the norm at conferences, the event was free and substantive effort was made to ensure inclusivity and accessibility. This included grants to reimburse speakers, step free access to the building, gender-neutral bathrooms, a policy on pronouns and encouragements to keep academic language clear and intelligible. Overall, the conference made an ambitious attempt to relate its content to its form, putting some of its ideas into practice.

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Continue reading “Conference Report: Utopian Acts 2018”

Out of this World: Five Days Left / More’s Utopia

What I love most about Thomas More’s Lucian-inspired (among other sources) text Utopia isn’t the descriptive text, the building of a somewhat egalitarian community, the observations on crafts, the framing narrative, or its dual-purpose as satire. It’s all of the visual world-building which it, in turn, inspired.

There are earlier maps of imaginary places, although I love the ones made for Utopia, this one from 1516this one from 1518 edition, or these later ones. (The 1518 Ambrosius Holbein edition is available online for browsing in its entirety. See also this selection of eighteenth-century illustrations of Utopia.)

But I know of no earlier instance of an alphabet being developed for a fictional world. Either More, or his friend Peter Giles, developed it for the book. You can see the full version of his Utopian alphabet and a sample use of it on the British Library’s website. And, if you really like fictional languages, the alphabet is even available to download as a True Type Font.

Utopia is on display currently at the British Library as part of its Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It show which is available, for free, until this Sunday. The library is open until 18:00 today.

Bold as Love: IV

Bold as Love cover

(Previously.)

A confession: I actually came to the Bold as Love series backwards. As part of my Clarke judge duties I had to read the final volume, Rainbow Bridge (2006), and at the time I had no experience of its predecessors. Truth to tell I don’t remember all that much about it, and that which I do remember I should not speak of, but what does seem worth mentioning here is the lingering elegiac impression the book left, crystallised in a self-description by one of the triumverate, that they are “veterans of utopia.”

And so I came to Bold as Love on the lookout for the possibility of utopia, and was a little surprised by the novel’s darkness. Not the darkness in the stories of its characters — I’d read “The Salt Box” in Interzone — but in its ambience and events. Bold as Love opens in a period of near-crisis, with the authorities struggling to maintain an orderly dissolution against a backdrop of economic and ecological collapse, and the trials don’t let up: an influx of migrants, a failing electronic infrastructure, a small war in Yorkshire. It seems astonishing that this world will ever progress far enough to look back on utopia.

But there is a utopian desire present in Bold as Love, refracted by the triumverate, and in particular by Ax and Fiorinda. The latter is profoundly pessimistic — the combination of youth and experience, perhaps — and sees no good in the way the world is turning. More than once she comments that everything is going up in smoke, that it’s the end of the world. And on the role of Ax himself, when pestered, she says:

“I think he’s the Lord’s anointed. I think he has the mandate of heaven. I think he is rightwise king born over all England. But still–”
“But still you are the cat who walks by herself, green-eyed Fiorinda–”
“But still nothing’s changed.”

What does that “nothing” denote? Manifestly things are changing through the novel, dramatically so. But we know what Fiorinda means, of course, we kow she means that there are still winners and losers and — in the novel’s terms — suits with power. Sage, similarly, is a sceptic. For him, the cross-demographic appeal of the triumverate, as evidenced by the diversity of their gig audiences, does not seem like a compliment; it seems “like a deeply, deeply mistaken confidence” (243).

It’s left to Ax to lead: the only character to deliberately articulate any vision of utopia. In the aftermath of the coup, he rallies his countercultural comrades to that vision, speaking of the potential for something new in history, “a genuine human civilisation. For everyone”, enabled by technology. His goal is “To make this turning point the beginning of civilisation, instead of a fall into the dark ages”; but it’s tempered with pragmatism:

And yeah, before anyone says it, I know it won’t work. If I succeed beyond my wildest dreams, it’ll be partial, fucked-up and temporary. Partial, fucked-up and temporary will be fine. If we can get that going, for just a few years, just here in England, we’ll have made our mark. Something will survive. (82)

The grandest of visions an the most modest of terms: that’s the tension that defines Ax, seen later as dedicated to the art of the possible over the good, and seen from inside his head as one who endures. In the warzone, he recognises “a reason for Fiorinda’s mourning, the end of a world, an unbearable loss”, but “he had to bear it. Accept” (118); or, later, more than once, he thinks, “If we can just get through this part …” (I started to think of the catchphrase of Kim Stanley Robinson’s much sunnier Phil Chase: “I’ll see what I can do!”) The fragility of it all, the provisionality, is exhausting for Ax, and we sometimes feel that exhaustion. But between the three leads we also scent the elusive spirit of change, the muscular belief that things can get better, slowly.

All of which leads to the curious ending note. Superficially Bold as Love closes on a not entirely unexpected moment of grace, a pause that sees the triumverate together and comfortable. Stubborn stuff, this world; hard not to retreat from it sometimes. At the same time, Ax’s thoughts, on the final page — “I was not perfectly happy, but now I am, and if I had the power this is where I would make time stop, this is where I’d stay forever. This is it, this moment. This, now” (307-8) — make it seem coldly plausible that this is the utopia of which they become veterans: a limited, individual utopia, an impression of the world around them shaped entirely by their personal emotional circumstances. But on reflection, it’s hard to imagine another ending for this quixotic, thorny book.

Whither the super-reader?

I’m still slowly working my way through Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory, and have reached postcolonial criticism. In true textbook fashion, each chapter includes a “STOP and THINK” section, and this one actually made me do both:

Postcolonial criticism draws attention to issues of cultural difference in literary texts and is one of several critical approaches we have considered which focus on specific issues, including issues of gender (feminist criticism), of class (Marxist criticism), and of sexual orientation (lesbian/gay criticism).

This raises the possibility of a kind of ‘super-reader’ able to respond equally and adequately to a text in all these ways. In practice, for most readers one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest.
[…]
Should we, in general, try to become super-readers, with multiple layers of sympathy and awareness, or will trying to do so merely produce blandness and superficiality?

Obviously, it is impossible for anybody to answer this question for anybody else. My own feeling is that while an even spread of awareness across all these issues is theoretically possible, in practice aiming for this, merely in the interests of political correctness, is almost bound to produce superficiality. A genuine interest in one of these issues can really only arise from aspects of your own circumstance. These perspectives cannot be put on and off like a suit — they have to emerge and declare themselves with some urgency. (198-9)

Now, Barry’s bias shows through before he declares it — the very term “super-reader” carries connotations of the unattainable, even childish. And when he does declare his bias, he still loads his dice, with that clause about “merely in the interests of political correctness”: yes, obviously aiming to do something merely in the interests of political correctness is doomed to failure.

But leaving that aside, I’m still struck by a number of things. To start with: “for most readers one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest”. I’m sceptical of that most (many, I could get behind; but I’m not sure about most), but more than that, this doesn’t seem to leave much room for the idea that a text might shape the way people who read it respond. Surely it is also the case that for most texts, one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest, in either a positive or a negative way. There is a threshold, I think, beyond which reading a text from any particular perspective becomes an act of creation in itself, rather than a useful response to the text; where any given person draws that threshold will vary, but it seems an inevitable limitation of single-perspective criticism.

So I think that limitation has to be put on the other side of the scales to a super-reader’s presumed blandness and superficiality — except, I’m not sure what Barry actually means by those terms, here. The most sensible reading I can come up with is that it comes from what he discusses in his personal opinion paragraph, namely motivation: it’s impossible for anyone to truly care about all these different perspectives at the same time, says Barry, so attempts to accomodate them will of necessity be artificial. There is an extent to which I agree with this (or at least am anxious about it; see below), but I think I disagree with it much more. If nothing else, it’s a position that presumes these different perspectives are indeed separable, and it seems to me that’s only possible in an — pardon me — academic sense. In the real world, and by extension in sufficiently complex texts, they’re going to be interlinked. Parsing them separately has value, but taking that so far as to declare them islands seems damaging.

And then we come down to the nub of it, which is to say Barry’s argument for his position. “A genuine interest in one of these issues can really only arise from aspects of your own circumstance.” What is genuine, here? This gets personal: for each of the four perspectives Barry lists in his first paragraph, I fall at the “privilege” end of the spectrum (as, indeed, I do for just about any axis of privilege you care to define). That establishes the terms of my engagement with any of them and, clearly, those terms are never going to be the same as they are for individuals at the other ends. In a real sense, that’s going to limit the depth of my understanding. By the same token, however, the implication is that whenever I do try to adopt one of these perspectives, I will, precisely, be putting it on like a suit; and that my interest can never be “genuine”. Which rather leads you to wonder, why bother?

And the inevitable answer to that is, because I like to think I care. That no one of these critical perspectives seems to declare itself to me with particular urgency — or, put another way, that it costs me nothing to see them as all urgent — is certainly a luxury. I’d like to think it’s a luxury I can take advantage of, though. “Multiple layers of sympathy and awareness” doesn’t seem like a bad thing for me to aspire to, nor does it seem inherently unattainable (though a perfectly even spread of concern surely is). I’d go so far as to say, acknowledging this is as biased a way of putting it as “super-reader”, that to me, right now, it seems the responsible thing to do.