SEEKING A NEW VISION FOR UTOPIA

Last week I attended a talk by Lynne Segal (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynne_Segal), a feminist academic and activist, born in Australia but based in the United Kingdom. I first heard about Segal because of her excellent book Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men; since then I have also read by her one of the very few outstanding books on heterosexuality, Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure and her accomplished volume Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing. It appears that a very cruel member of the audience in a previous presentation asked Segal whether her next book would be about dying… She has chosen instead to write about happiness, and this is what her talk here in Barcelona dealt with.

Actually, the talk, which was a conversation with us, the 15 attendees, soon veered towards dystopia and utopia because Segal argued that personal joy can only be truly achieved in connection with the community (I paraphrase). This started your classic exchange about how we, Southern Europeans, appear to enjoy ourselves in the streets much better than our Northern peers, though I have never been fooled by this idea. Norway was recently chosen the happiest country in the world and this is pretty far up north. Next the conversation moved onto how a society can reach happiness in our current dystopian world, and whether utopia will ever resurface. Lynne Segal claimed that for utopia to re-emerge someone needs to have a clear vision of what it should be like. For her, generating this renewed utopian vision is the challenge today.

Since Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fable The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) has become an instant best-selling novel in the land of Donald Trump, you hear plenty about feminist speculative fiction these days in the media. I’m not sure whether plans for this already existed before the November 2016 election, but next month a TV series based on Atwood’s book will be released (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5834204/). There is already, by the way, a very good film adaptation (1990) with the late Natasha Richardson as the handmaid Offred. Every woman reader of Atwood’s grim story is terrified (as I explained in my post on Houellebecq’s Submission) not so much by the rise of the religious fundamentalism that takes over the US Government, as by the indifference of the protagonist’s husband to the progressive loss of her rights as a citizen. I will insist on this again and again: the current feminist utopian project has made important inroads in recent years but it is still a very fragile structure that can be easily dismantled. As Atwood shows. And Trump.

Many feminist writers have transformed their impatience at this slow process of change into utopian fiction, intended to offer a shortcut towards a better future. The shape taken by this sub-genre has usually been that of the gender separatist utopia, beginning with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915), and even earlier, Mizora (1880-1) by Mary E. Bradley Lane. Second-wave feminist gave new life to this type of fable, which resurrected with well-known examples such as The Female Man (1976) by Joanna Russ or The Wanderground (1978), by Sally Miller Gearhart, often with a lesbian component. A later wave, with works such as Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women (1986) and Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country (1988), are less optimistic about separatism. Nichola Griffith’s Ammonite (1993) is quite critical of the supposition that lesbianism would (or should) be an integral part of the utopian resolution of conflict, not so much between the genders but among women. You may also want to check Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos (1986) for an all-male gay utopia written from a woman’s point of view, or David Brin’s Glory Season (1993) for a man’s view of matriarchal utopia.

I tend to avoid, as I have explained here many times, feminist utopia as I don’t appreciate the separatist solution. As Segal claims, we need a new vision for utopia, but I find the ideas offered by classic feminist speculative fiction writers in support of separatism disheartening. I was beginning to think that the sub-genre had been buried two decades ago, when I came across all the hype surrounding Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power (2016). You may read her own take on utopian/dystopian feminist fiction here (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/25/dystopian-dreams-how-feminist-science-fiction-predicted-the-future). Now, here’s the premise of her novel: because of something to do with pollution, women suddenly develop an ability to generate electrical discharges with their bodies–a literal new power which they use to dominate men (and generally go berserk). No, I have not read this novel yet, and I don’t think I will (at least, I will not pay to do so) because I find the idea of reversing patriarchal domination simply disgusting: it increases misogyny and it offers women nothing positive. Alderman claims that what happens to men in her novel is close to what happens to women in real life. However, showing men that they could victims of rampant hatred and be trapped by dystopia forced on them by women is the complete opposite of the search for a new utopian vision that should bring communal and personal happiness, following Segal’s line of thought. Sorry to say so, then, but it seems that our energies as women are too caught up in our daily fight against dystopian patriarchy (which is the patriarch’s utopia, of course) to offer this urgently needed utopian vision (beyond feminism, I mean, which is utopian).

I mystified everyone in the room in conversation with Segal by declaring that we are already in the middle of an emerging new utopia but too scared to even contemplate it seriously. I refer to the replacement of humans by robots and artificial intelligence in many aspects of work. The debate about this issue has been steadily increasing and, I should think, accelerating quite fast in just the last year. The usual headlines concern fears about the many millions that will lose their jobs, with a warning about how these will mainly be the unqualified men now in low-paid jobs (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/24/millions-uk-workers-risk-replaced-robots-study-warns). Yet, for the first time in decades, there is also a debate about whether the income generated by the robots could be taxed so that citizens can be offered a minimum wage, beginning with those soon to be replaced at work. Someone in the room objected that this will be catastrophic, as our identity centres on work and being deprived of this would destroy our lives. Whenever I come across that kind of comment, I always hear in my mind the voice of the late comedian Pepe Rubianes: “They always say that work helps you to fulfil yourself–sure, this is why I see every morning happy people in the metro, singing all the way to work… .” Everyone listening to him would laugh in discomfort.

Fears of the utopian vision in which robots and A.I. give us leisure to live our lives in content (if not total happiness) depend on which dystopian texts you are familiar with. Even though Isaac Asimov spent his lifetime promoting the idea of the positive contribution that robots could make to human wellbeing, the film adaptation of his I, Robot (2004) is the typically shallow story about robots rebelling to eliminate humankind and rule the world. I even fail to see that negative version as dystopian, since, from the point of view of Planet Earth, our elimination would surely bring much relief and a new breath of life. But, anyway, bear with me: utopia lies that way, in letting the machines take over. Obviously, the idea is not mine, and my belief in this utopia shows how deeply influenced I am by the novels of the late Iain M. Banks.

Once again, then: in the civilization imagined by Banks, which he simply called the Culture, the formidable artificial intelligences known as the Minds have taken control. The inhabitants of the Culture live on the artificial planets and on the colossal spaceships (the General System Vehicles) that the Minds have built. Banks explained that the Culture comes from a combination of ideas: to survive (in space) you need to cooperate with each other, trusting the machines to do the right thing can be extremely liberating and communal happiness can only be reached by embracing socialist anarchism. A citizen of the Culture craves nothing because all their needs are cared for. Property, and this fundamental, has not only been abolished but made simply ridiculous. So has crime. In the Culture, you can do as you please with your body (they are all technically post-human), including changing species if you like, and with your mind. Immortality is not ruled out, though most people have enough of life after a few millennia… And, yes, utopia works.

Critics of Banks’ eutopia claim that the Culture is boring. Utopia as a narrative genre is, indeed, boring, which is why Banks organized his tales around the idea that the Culture feels bound to export utopia to other civilizations. The clashes with these other more or less reluctant peoples are the focus of the novels, whose protagonists tend to be Special Circumstances Agents, part of the (secret) body preaching utopia to the galaxy. Living in eutopia might also be boring, for all we know–Norwegians, the happiest nation on Earth, remember?, do not hesitate to declare themselves boring. Offer Syrians and Iraqis a chance to be bored for a lifetime and see how they react… I am totally serious when I argue that if boredom is the reason why we are rejecting utopia, then we deserve dystopia. You cannot begin to imagine how depressed I feel when I think that I will never be a citizen of Banks’ Culture. I could cry, really. Of course, the challenge of utopia is how to fill your time productively without the onerous obligation of work–but we already have that: it’s called retirement and we all want it. So, here’s utopia: we live off what the robots and the A.I. produce and we use our lives for whatever we want, as retired people do. Whatever we want may include work, if you’re so inclined. Work would not consist, however, of the kind of backbreaking, mindsquashing jobs most people devote their lives to.

Now, here’s my call to women: if you, my dears, can look beyond gender and imagine utopia that gives everyone a new vision beyond patriarchy, we all win. And thank you Lynne Segal for the inspiring talk.

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