In the popular network television show, The Big Bang Theory, four “nerdy” male characters bond over an obsessive devotion to comic books, video games, the Star Wars movies, and arcane mathematical formulas. Portrayed as brilliant scientists but socially-inept individuals, theirs is a self-created world of comic denial of the violence, mayhem, and apocalyptic scenarios, both fictional and real, that so much of television offers to the viewer. A utopia of sorts. Effeminized, easily intimidated, lacking physical courage, and lacking friends, these “men” express the ambivalence towards scientific utopias that characterizes our post-Hiroshima and post-Holocaust age.
Compare with this the proliferation of dystopias in every genre of media culture, ranging from ecological disaster narratives, climate change doomsday possibilities, genetically engineered hybrids, mutants out to destroy the human race, cyber-attacks, nuclear annihilation. What Susan Sontag called “the imagination of disaster” has gone into overdrive. For the characteristics of science fiction films identified by Sontag in 1965 – the landing of monsters or alien space ships noticed by the young scientist-hero, conferences held by scientists and the military, the hero’s girl-friend in danger, the arrival in black limousines of authorities from other countries – all these seem like bedtime stories for today’s five-year olds, so much change and amping up of danger have fifty years wrought! At a time when children learn to interact with screens before they learn to talk, the imagination of disaster forms a continuum with advances in computer technology, bio-engineering, and cloning, so that the line between the stuff of imaginings and the substance of scientific discovery is increasingly being blurred. In The Cinematic Life of the Gene (2010), scholar Jackie Stacey explores the connections between films and twinning and cloning, emphasizing the fact that imitation and replication are common to both.
But not all utopias or dystopias are about technology, though as mediated artifacts they are delivered technologically. As is widely known, utopia signifies an idealized society (a no place), and the impulse to construct such entities is essentially a political one. In the Western literary tradition, some examples are Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, Campanella’s City of the Sun, Swift’s land of the Houyhnhnms, Voltaire’s Eldorado. In these societies, as Sontag notes, “society had worked out a perfect consensus.” Moreover, the urge to build harmonious social relations is a global cultural phenomenon. Real-life experiments would include Gandhi’s Tolstoy Farm in the Transvaal, South Africa. Earthly paradises and other forms of utopianism are said to be found in Sumerian clay tablets and within Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Daoism. Peter Paik, in his book, From Utopia to Apocalypse (2010), undertakes a study of various narratives, including Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind and Jang Joon-Hwan’s Save the Green Planet as instances where utopian and dystopian thinking are two sides of the same coin. He notes that traces of utopia reside almost everywhere, in the desires and wishes aroused by everyday phenomena (fashion, architecture, dancing, sports, fairytales, films, advertising, and daydreams), but that utopia remains at best intangible. To evade the flip side of utopian political experiments is to avoid having to confront the harsh exigencies inherent to any process of far-reaching sociopolitical change.
Clearly, then, contemporary humans are no nearer to “solving” the conundrums of utopia than Plato was several centuries ago. Quite the contrary. Words like ‘ecotopia’ and ‘heterotopia’ suggest attempts to capture different nuances and warnings of our super-connected yet fragmented age.
In this issue of Immediacy, we wanted to explore what utopia and dystopia mean today. If the proverbial Martians (now not so far-fetched a scenario) were to visit our planet, what would they find in the early decades of the twenty-first century? What do we imagine ourselves to be, how do our objects define us, what marks our moments of love or death, laughter and loneliness, fear and forgiveness? The media projects and critical analyses in this issue, submitted by participants from Asia and Europe, as well as the U.S., provide some answers to these questions. Perhaps the chief “finding” of the submissions is that utopias and dystopias form a continuum (the mutual imbrication of hope and hopelessness, the twin faces of utopian and dystopian thinking. We tend to think of utopias and dystopias as antonyms, but we should see the two as a continuum,) with each utopia implying its dystopia like a shadow self. Seen in another light, utopias and dystopias are not mutually repellent: they invite dialogue on multiple levels and in diverse settings. The Arcade/Border/City reading group in Hong Kong asks, “Are we portraying Hong Kong as an historical moment of urbanism, scratching its surface in search of utopian moments, or snapping gloomy pictures of its dystopian panoramas?” Their photographic collage, composed of the many and contrasting views of Hong Kong’s urban rhythms, draws on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project to recreate the open-ended nature of that unfinished text. “What if the giant shopping malls of glass and fake marble I walk through everyday function just like Benjamin’s phantasmagorias of time and place? What if the catalog of the world’s architectural forms are miniaturized and return as small worlds enshrined into these new temples of consumption and transit? How to rethink utopias, dystopias, dialectical images and the sleep of the collective in the hypermediated sociocultural context of tomorrow?” Chelsea Daggett takes us to London via The Misfits, a British youth drama that foregrounds both playfully and agonizingly the dystopic landscape of “broken Britain.” And Hira Nabi takes us into the bowels of New York City’s infrastructure of subways and sewers, and the human labor that becomes seamlessly integrated with it, these spaces relaying both the dream of constant efficiency and the human costs involved in delivering it.
Lina Rahm explores the “zombie apocalypse” and shows how its rules are meant to signal a utopia in dystopia. She notes that “zombies seem to cement a prevailing order instead of enabling disruption and change.” Dystopian also is the social media site, Reddit.com, which Alissa Medina argues is full of racist and misogynistic content. She cites Donna Haraway’s “dance of deference” as a way to retrieve the utopian potential of online communication. Aaron Doughty unfolds the video game Bioshock, a retro-dystopia which draws on early 20th century design principles and the libertarian ideology of Ayn Rand.
Movies have provided us with some of the most staggering images of dystopia, aided by digital technologies and special effects. Not surprisingly, many of the essays in this issue address this phenomenon. Ana Martin emphasizes the schizophrenic tendencies in many commercial films which both celebrate the technological tricks and show them as destructive. And Alexander Davis reveals the artist’s mind as dystopian in Charlie Kaufman’s film, Synecdoche, New York.
And what of utopias? Brittany Farr illustrates the view that “the history of utopias is a history of failures” by considering queer performativity in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Jon Lisi discusses Hollywood’s social film, a new genre in which social media users can contribute to the production of a film if they abide by the rules and guidelines set up by the industry. He calls it “regulated democracy” and argues that its utopian claims do not quite materialize, for the free labor of social media users is used for profits by the movie and technology industries.
If utopias and dystopias call to mind the physical and social worlds out there, the in here and personal is not immune from their dynamics or imprint. Josephine Holtzman creates a soundwalk called “Blind Date” to express the increasingly disembodied experience of modern romantic connection. Sandi Perlmutter’s film is an upbeat story about a person who gets a heart transplant and has to re-learn how to live. The liberating sense that a marathon runner derives from the sport is the subject of Courtney Kistler’s documentary.
These and many other contributions in this issue provide an abundance of insight into the powerful hold that utopias and dystopias exert on our thoughts and creative passions. At a time when powerful digital tools, 3-D animation, and technological advances of all sorts have opened the floodgates of speculation about the future, it is small wonder that the imagination of disaster — and of hope – has found new ways to rejuvenate itself. The scenarios of catastrophe never looked brighter, the faint beckonings of paradise never more luminous. Might not this be the supreme irony of our time?