Week 2: swarm-sourced research questions
I had a very productive conversation on Facebook this week following a series of Tweets about non-fiction and utopias. I've consolidated the whole thing and reposted it here (with names removed for privacy, but the responders are all current or former colleagues of mine):
Mark: Sorry for all the separate posts: I'm trying to put a complete thought together on Twitter, which is not, as it turns out, a place for complete thoughts. Here's what I was asking for my working research question on utopias:
Lyman Tower Sargent describes a "utopia" as "a non-existent society, described in considerable detail, and normally located in time and space." This definition isn't without its problems--it describes nearly any fictional setting, for one--but it is helpful because it starts to tell us what utopias AREN'T.
By his logic, the Declaration of Independence qualifies as a type of non-fictional utopia about an America that didn't yet exist, even if the writers and their intent were very real.
So my research question is this: if non-fictional texts can be utopias (and presumably dystopias) in the future tense, then do books about the PAST like George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia or John Hersey's Hiroshima qualify for Sargent's definition? They're certainly dystopian (and at moments of Catalonia, utopian), but they did exist, and the detail they can be described in is limited by subjectivity and scale. Are these texts "merely" history, or are they full-fledged utopias/dystopias?
Friend 1: This is fascinating, and I'm glad you posted it.
Friend 2: This is a tough question Mark, because at its root is the wild card of perception. One man's utopia is very likely not utopia for the next man. As in Shrodingers Cat theory, there is the possibility of more than one utopia, depending on the viewer.
Friend 3: This is hard to answer, but a good question! I'm tempted to take issue with Sargent's definition; IMHO, it's much too broad and nondescript. He might as well call a utopia simply "a place." My answer to your question: no. As you said, those places did exist. I think you could only really use the terms to label an incorrect telling of the past. Good question! Hope that helped.
Friend 4: I need a drink, now.
Mark: (Friend 2 and 3): Well, Sargent's definition is just the beginning of his taxonomy of utopia, and it goes a little something like...
Utopia: A non-existent society, described in considerable detail, normally located in space and time.
Eutopia: (note the different spelling to offset the commonly-used "utopia" which was a pun by Thomas More meaning "no-place" versus "good-place." The correct spelling is restored in this definition of what we commonly refer to as utopia) A non-existent society, described in considerable detail, normally located in space and time that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably better than the society in which the reader lived.
Dystopia: A non-existent society, described in considerable detail, normally located in space and time that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably WORSE than the society in which the reader lived.
I tend to agree with you Amanda, that Sargent's definitions are broad to the point of silliness, even when you don't take into account epistemological questions of how we can even know if a place "exists" or "existed" or how hopelessly subjective such a term must be when it comes to a reiterated account of that place.
Nevertheless, it DOES give us a place to start, and by these definitions we can start to rule things out. A utopia (either a eutopia-which hilariously my spell check autocorrects-or dystopia) that doesn't proceed in detail is not a utopia. For example, "Elsewhere" in Lois Lowry's The Giver is never described in substantial detail, which rules it out, whereas the town the story takes place in IS described in detail, which means that place could be a dystopia. The America described by the Declaration of Independence (and even the Bill of Rights) didn't at the time, and still at times doesn't really exist; it's an ideal that's as flawed as the human beings who try to bring it into existence.
So my question is that if utopias (eutopias, dystopias) can exist in the future, and they can be told about the past if they didn't actually provably exist (the legends of Atlantis, El Dorado/Manoa, the Scholomance, etc.) AND non-fictional places based on utopian texts exist (the United States, but also think smaller like experimental communes and "intentional communities" from the 19th and 20th centuries), then can we look at texts like Homage to Catalonia, Hiroshima, and Journal of the Plague Year as falling somewhere on this same taxonomy of "societies in great detail in space and time that are better/worse than our contemporaneous reading"?
Mark (continued: Journal of the Plague Year is a particularly interesting example because it's a fictionalized account of an actual event, but it's EXHAUSTIVELY detailed, down to precise body counts and population numbers and demographics, organized painstakingly by district of London. The characterization is kept minimal, which also screams utopia. In most glaringly utopian fiction, characters are secondary to the society described and what choices it represents. But there's a wonderful moment in JotPY where the narrator is observing London from afar, a 17th century city reeling from a "visitation" of the Black Plague that wiped out huge numbers of people with frightening swiftness, and the narrator thoughtfully observes that it's only a few months later, after the visitation is ended, when he stands on the same place and watches the entire city burn, engulfed in the flames in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
It's an extraordinarily haunting moment of the book, and very apocalyptic. Is it a comment on the ways in which the people of London exacerbate the Black Plague by being awful to each other while enduring it? Hard to say. Does the description of London overwhelmed with the dead and dying and the authorities' inability to handle it constitute a dystopia? I sure feel like it does. It's critical, it's highly detailed, and it's much more about the social mechanism of London than specific Londoners. There's only a handful of characters in the book that even have names.
Friend 2: In light of what you have written here, I'd love to see big data projects pulling specific detail from the fictional lives of some of those huge online games where you have millions of people building their own version of utopia. I'd love to compare the trends to the findings of your research into fictional and non fictional books on the subject. Human nature is fascinating and finding usable patterns in the evolution of human perspective on "no place" and "good place" would be make my head spin.
Friend 5: This is really fascinating. I've been reading all your posts wishing I could take your class! I wonder if it would be useful to think about the purpose of utopian/eutopian/dystopian stories (without getting too mired in authorial intent issues). Why do writers tell stories about imagined future societies? What do these stories tell us about the fears, issues, etc., of the time they were written? Can you apply those same characteristics to stories about past imagined places? Because I would think that would be a defining trait of utopian literature--ie if someone writes a book describing Atlantis because they think it might have been real and are just trying to figure out how it worked, that's not necessarily a utopia. But if their Atlantis story is a thoughful exploration of or metaphor for societal fears and hopes and issues...then maybe it is?
Mark: (Friend 2): I agree, especially games like Minecraft, where you can control everything from the weather to the number and abilities of the other players you allow to play with you. You really can (within the limits of the game's engine) create or modify the "world" any way you see fit if you own the "world" that you're playing on. Most other MMO's make you adhere to a set of standard world rules and they don't give you the option to play solo or dial up and down the interaction you have with other players. I'd think that would be one of the first things you'd need in order to create a "game" utopia. Though, by Sargent's definition you would have to play with at least a few other poeple, because a utopia is a "society" not just an individual existence.
Mark: (Friend 5): we've actually had some discussion about authorial intent, and came to the tentative conclusion that it is at least sometimes knowable. Your question about why people write utopias gets to one of the earlier points I was exploring while I was wrestling with the problem of definition. I personally think the definition of utopias (eutopias, dystopias) MUST contain some element of criticism of the present time/space. It's almost impossible to separate criticism from utopianism (the dreaming aspect, the urge to create a utopia), and I might even go so far as to say it's impossible to separate satire from utopias, though the argument can be made that this is all just semantics and a utopia is satirical if it's "mostly" satirical in intent, etc.
Your point about that same mode with regards to past imagined (or even real-but-subjectively-rendered) places is exactly what I'm getting at here. Certain historical fiction, creative nonfiction, or even journalistic nonfiction veers noticeably into the realm of examining an ordered society in great detail in order to be critical of it, and with the evident intent of making us compare these past societies to what we have now. Even the most faithfully rendered past society can only at best be authorially subjective, so they didn't really ever "exist" in the strictest sense. We're only getting an impression. With that in mind, they satisfy almost all of the same qualifications as a garden-variety, future, fictional utopia.
My Mental State: Definitely improved from last week. Getting a start on the mountain of texts I need to absorb this term helped. Once you get into the groove of reading 19th century fiction and nonfiction it comes more easily. It helped that I really enjoyed Frank Norris's McTeague and Capt. John Cleves Symmes' Symzonia. Both were a pleasure to read, so it's not all slog-and-drag, at least. Freud and Marx are as impenetrable and loopy as ever, though a reread of a portion of Darwin's The Origin of the Species was a pleasant surprise. I didn't remember his writing being as lucid and down-to-earth as it is. One thing that fascinates me is how books from the 19th and very early 20th century were marketed. They were a form of entertainment, at least to some extent, and part of a world in which radio and television didn't yet exist in widespread form. There were early arcades and nickelodeons and theater and carnival-type entertainment spectacles, but one of the only types of entertainment you could take home with you were books. If that's the case, I'm interested to know more about how texts from the 19th century in particular were meant to be experienced by their audiences. Many were published serially like seasons of a TV show, so we know they were meant to be enjoyed in small doses, rather than jammed through in a day or two (I'm looking at YOU Sister Carrie), but others were published as standalone texts, like Symzonia, and their pacing is noticeably different. I read Symzonia in two sittings and never felt like the author was trying to dole out the action to me in any deliberate way. Whereas Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, broken into discrete sections not just by chapter but by his habit of beginning each chapter with abstract philosophical claims, seems almost impossible to smoothly read through over a weekend. A note for more exploration later: have we lost the ability to do this with fiction? In the age of the summer beach novel and the Netflix series season released all at once and ready to binge-watch, do we even have patience for serially-produced narratives anymore? The recent spate of Hollywood films that take the final book of a trilogy or series and split it into two separate films suggests that this pattern of slowly doling out a narrative is something we associate with capitalizing on a story to the embarrassing utmost, rather than it being a deliberate narrative strategy.
I'm also starting to really enjoy this process of sharing the research process with the world. At first I was worried the unwelcome extra layer of work and engagement was going to be robotic and forced, but it seems to be engaging my online spheres rather spiritedly, and if nothing else it does help maintain some sort of social media presence while I'm in school; something I had a very hard time doing last term. It makes me feel a little less isolated, and hey, I even got a decent research question out of it this week. I'm reminded of undergrad when my friends and I would sit in the dining hall long after we'd finished eating and talk over what we'd learned in our respective fields and try to find the places where our knowledge-bases connected. Of course we'd also argue over which Star Wars movie was the best, but at least we did it together, and that seemed to add something.