Review: Visions of Utopia by Edward Rothstein, Herbert Muschamp, and Martin Marty Print

utopia(American Book Review November/December 2003 Volume 25, Number 1)

Searching for Nowhere

Embedded in utopian thinking are so many ironies that one might conclude, after enumerating them, that the idea of a paradise was devised to house its impossibilities, not to resolve them. A utopia is, as commonly thought, neither something perfect in its momentariness (the seventh game of the World Series, tied in the ninth inning) nor something supposedly once perfect (life in small-town America). While eu-topos refers to "good place," ou-topos, or utopia, refers to "no place." How can a place be no place? It’s in the nature of the mind to form paradoxes, make literary constructs, smoke the artistic hookah. Our wiring tells us to imagine that which we can’t have. For two reasons: to change or accept our lot. In the latter case, utopian thinking is a Bodhisattva-like calling, helping us to accept what is, not what isn’t. What is, is unalterable, and, perhaps, is what should be.

And yet still we seek change. We imagine the impossible because what is, is so often unacceptable. And this disappointment, even with the gift of life, infuses the veins of most utopian thought, whether it’s desiring what we once had (the Garden of Eden) and lost or what we hope to have (ecologically wonderful cities built by Paolo Soleri) and won’t. Whether we choose the lustrous narrative of paradise or actual experiments in creating good human communities (one thinks of Brook Farm or New Harmony), any utopia must fail.

No place in thought and deed. But utopian ideas engage us passionately. We seem to be drawn to ameliorate our condition and then disgusted at ourselves for even trying. Lyndon Johnson’s very high-minded Great Society fell apart, and the lesson was, those who will such radical change are as much to blame as the will to change itself. How often are attempts to organize people toward social goals met with derision when such organizing fails. Our tendency is not to understand human gullibility but to replace it with two insuperable entities: God and memory. Such is the operating instructions for right-wing thinking: the neo-conservative, Christian notion that the past was better than the present is utopianism in retrograde: a less-taxed America, with vastly limited federalism, was perfection indeed.

But there’s more confusion. If utopia is the journey, and not the destination, then immediate and equal access to health care for every American citizen befouls slow, non-utopian progress. In other words, it’s a bad idea to try and create something good, all at once, despite the goodness of the idea. Thus, the dream of getting there someday—but not now—means trust your handlers: they know what’s best. But they don’t know best. Which is why writers and city planners invented and keep resurrecting utopia.

We return to utopian thinking not for its elixir of progress but for its quaff of irony. Thomas More’s Utopia, written in 1516, envisioned a communist state based on non-egalitarian doses of reason that subjugated individual freedoms and rights, especially those of women. His no-place contrasted the worse-place of Christian Europe, its clerical elitism, its intractable poverty. And yet it’s never been clear whether More wanted or thought ridiculous what he advocated. He himself may not have known which state was preferable, so he used literature to pose the question. His romance of the utopian ideal has inspired countless satires on perfectability, from Brave New World to The Matrix Reloaded.

One of the three essayists in Visions of Utopia, religious historian Martin Marty, assesses More and two other utopian ironists, Thomas Müntzer and Johann Andreae, who followed More’s lead. Taken together, their depictions insist on violence as the means necessary to paradise and the means by which the new Eden will be secured. Either they are warning us against that path, which is church-driven, or they are pointing out the end result of sin. Marty, wisely, underscores the leprousness of no-place: It’s clearly an island on which none of these "visionaries" nor any of us would ever want to live.

Our age has developed a violence-obsessed, "machine v. man" utopia in its unsubtle cult movies and privacy-gobbling sci-fi. Such flap exists side by side with politically insipid promises like "leave no child behind." Both dark and puerile visions of the future indicate how bad things are these days. It’s stupid to even think about utopias, not because a politically egalitarian society devoid of pollution that runs on corn-oil methane with human life expectancies of 120 years might look pretty good, but because our attempts to re-imagine and re-create the world are either base or inviable. How can the world and its condo-bound population of 6 billion, doubling in 50 years, be anything but post-utopian? One-quarter of Kenyan males are HIV+. The earth is heating up not a degree per millennium but a degree per decade. Lobbyists run Washington, and big donors run the political parties. If the planet and the dimwits who inhabit it are incorrigible, utopian thinking is irrelevant.

But be warned (and I wish one of our three writers here had warned us): Utopian ideas are alive and well in, for example, the drive toward genetically modified foods or the broadband takeover of America’s communication networks by media conglomerates: These raids upon the masses, using science and technology as the vanquishing weapons, are impositions of corporate order; they have very little to do with grass-roots change that sorts a better society out from a worse one.

No matter its fascist or halcyon stripe, utopian thought is a measure of our dissatisfaction with what is—because social conditions are worse than ever and because we can’t leave anything alone. Mounting the high horse of perfectibility is easy; getting off the steed is much harder, and more interesting. Deconstructing utopian thinking is perhaps the most visionary utopian thinking of all.

Alas, Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic for The New York Times, is not up to that task. His essay is too abstractly self-involved; it has no sense of an audience beyond those who are members of his architectural clique.

However, Edward Rothstein, the third essayist, engages utopia in our time more than my anti-utopian sensibility thought possible.

Rothstein argues in "Utopia and Its Discontents," that the Internet is a classic utopian vision: "something new is introduced to the world that promises transformation." Rothstein is more empathic than analytic when he portrays the wild side of the communal urge in America: the "high-tech tribal culture in which literacy becomes irrelevant." This culture is marked by universal access to the Web; the Nevada desert performance festival, called Burning Man; Napster, legal and illegal versions; and the end of information as private property. On one hand, he celebrates the social promise of a Net-engaged globe; on the other, he terms all virtual realities "fictions" and "aesthetic constructions." And in Rothstein’s restlessness with new-world ironies we find the most lucid point in this little (uneven) book: "It may be that the most challenging political question in a world appropriately wary of utopianism is how to envision progress without envisioning a utopia."