Saturday, July 10, 2010

Games to Be Played

The summer issue of Bookforum has some interesting stuff in it. Two of the pieces are collectively titled "Utopia & Dystopia" and feature an essay on utopias by Paul La Farge and another on dystopias by Keith Gessen. Both of these pieces can be read online (though you'll have to register with Book Forum's site to do it). La Farge discusses a few utopias (both literary and attempts at creating utopian communities in real life) and namechecks numerous others (Sir Thomas More's and Etienne Cabet's get the most attention) but obviously hasn't read any feminist utopias, for he arrives at his interesting conclusion via the assertion that (literary) utopias are "novels without characters." Here's the core of his argument:
I think we err in taking utopia seriously. More's book is strewn with winks at the reader: The traveler who comes back from the New World with a story about the Utopians is named Raphael Hythlodaeus, whose surname means "peddler of nonsense" in Greek; in fact, the Utopian nomenclature is nothing but a string of Greek puns. As several commentators have pointed out, More was an ironist; and Utopia is a work of fiction. So are most utopian writings, with the exception of Fourier's—although Fourier's methodology is so bizarre that it's actually easier to read him as a fiction writer or a deranged parodist. This is, as Louis Marin points out in his comprehensive study Utopiques: Jeux d'espaces (1973), because utopia is not an idea but a space. Its dialectics, such as they are, are in the service not of truth but of description.

....This is utopia: a novel without characters, a visitor's guide to a society that doesn't exist, an irony worked out in the smallest detail. As someone who spent years reading the rulebooks to games like Dungeons & Dragons, I'm no stranger to this kind of writing or to its singular appeal. It is the appeal of the fantasy world minus the fantasy story, of the gameboard before play begins. Hythlodaeus and the other narrators demarcate space and enumerate the rules by which people—or rather, the semi-lifelike figurines that represent people in utopia—move around. Here's the city of Amaurote, its houses, its gardens. Here's the Peppermint Stick Forest and the Molasses Swamp. Land on this square and you lose a turn; land on this one and you become a slave. Utopia is a game, which goes a long way toward explaining why it's so controlling. What is a game, after all, but a set of rules?

Folly, then, to build a utopia. Utopias are meant to be played. The Situationists, a self-dismembering assemblage of French avant-gardists who flourished in the 1960s, came close to figuring this out...
It's a lovely idea. But I think he gestures toward a more complicated way of developing his insight, one that he actually might have been able to flesh out if only he had brought feminist utopias into the picture:
Games interrupt life, but they do not suspend it indefinitely, nor is it within their power to supplant it. To play utopia is to admit its impermanence. In fact, this seems to be the only condition under which utopia becomes a real possibility. In A Paradise Built in Hell (2009), the essayist and activist Rebecca Solnit quotes Charles E. Fritz, a sociologist who studied the effect of disasters on the people who lived through them:
Thus while the natural or human forces that created or precipitated the disaster appear hostile and punishing, the people who survive become more friendly, sympathetic, and helpful than in normal times. The categorical approach to human beings is curbed and the sympathetic approach enlarged. In this sense, disasters may be a physical hell, but they result however temporarily in what may be regarded as a kind of social utopia.
Floods, fires, and earthquakes suspend the normal order of things and allow another order to emerge, in which courage and generosity take the lead over fear and self-interest. Solnit catalogues instances of this phenomenon: the San Franciscans who set up soup kitchens after the 1906 earthquake, the Mexicans who rallied in the wake of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake to secure workers' rights and sturdier housing, the New Yorkers who organized spontaneously to distribute supplies and construct memorials after September 11. In no case did the new order last, yet each disaster left behind an improvement, sometimes in the institutions of government, sometimes only in the memories of the survivors. Solnit argues convincingly that these disaster-born communities are windows into what human nature could be were it unimpeded by the power structures of our society, and she concludes, "The challenge is to make something of it, before or beyond disaster: to recognize and realize these desires and these possibilities in ordinary times." Given that permanent disaster is as undesirable as permanent revolution, what do we do? This, I think, is where the idea of utopia as a game becomes useful.
La Farge then goes to Burning Man as a place for playing the game of utopia, where its impermanence and clear temporal limits, he suggests, make utopia tolerable. It would be interesting to bring other planned, intentional gatherings into the discussion-- WisCon, for instance. I myself would like to see a far-ranging exploration of space-times where windows briefly open to different ways of being-- when the ordinary imperatives, mostly unconscious, that rule us for one reason or another have paused in their functioning. Disasters create such windows, but other sorts of situations do as well. I'd like to see more consciousness about why the windows open as well as why they don't stay open for long (so that perhaps we might figure out how to keep them open for longer). One of the reasons disasters don't often result in lasting change is fatigue and the desire of a sense of "normalcy." The illusion of normalcy can be the only comfort left for those coping with trauma or indeed loss of any degree. But sometimes fatigue with being out of ordinary time can alone be enough to slam the window shut.

Anyway, it's an interesting article, even if it is marked by its enormous lack and its failure to know what it is missing. Do check it out.


Josh said...

Gessen's dystopia piece could've been helped by an acquaintanceship with Parable of the Sower, among other books.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I'm glad you wrote on this, because it reminded me that I want to get out to see a local art exhibit that's closing in a few days: "Our Hands on Each Other", photographs by Leah DeVun on intentional women's communities. A number of these communities were in Mississippi, which is interesting in its own right.

I shall also check out the articles. Personally, I still have an urge toward, if not utopia, then intentional communities. But I spent enough time in co-ops (not to mention a brief spell in a commune of sorts that was doomed from the start and that would -- I just realized -- provide the basis for an excellent story) to approach any community building without significant awareness of its faults.

It occurs to me -- thinking of the impermanence of utopias -- that for me for a point we had such a community in the 7 AM class at my Aikido dojo in DC: Daily training, followed by coffee and great conversation. It helped, I think, that we were there for Aikido, which is grounded in principles. But I never quite felt the same about the dojo as a whole; my community was morning class. It's not quite the same anymore. Of course, I'm not there, so it wouldn't be the same for me in any case.