Come Together: Session 2

MODERATOR

Daniel Tucker

Daniel Tucker

Chicago-based artist, writer, and organizer
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PANELISTS

Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff

Author of the novels Arcadia and The Monsters of Templeton
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Pablo Helguera

Pablo Helguera

New York-based artist and writer
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Stevphen Shukaitis

Stevphen Shukaitis

Editor at Autonomedia and lecturer at the University of Essex, United Kingdom
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Session 2


Moderator

Daniel Tucker

In this session, I’d like to continue with Lauren’s discussion of belief, and the role it plays in allowing for some dreams to come true, while others lie fallow.

In her 1971 novel, The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula Le Guin introduces a protagonist who can dream worlds into being in his sleep. His every dream comes true, and only he remembers the dual version of reality, while everyone else unknowingly accepts it as unique and unchanged. One day the world is home to seven billion people, the next there are less than one billion, simply because he dreams of feeling less cramped. In Jack Vance’s novelette Rumfuddle (1973) the main character invents time-space travel, allowing everyone to maintain an alternate wilderness retreat, devoid of neighbors, called Home. In the same year, cultural critic Raymond Williams tried to debunk the dichotomous relationship between urban and rural perpetuated in literature in his book The Country And the City, yet the commitment to their separation runs very deep.

The dream of having control over one’s surroundings is a perennial theme in the visions of actually existing alternative lifestyles, from the religious and socialist intentional communities of the 19th century to the self-sufficient communes of the mid-20th. Early back-to-the-land advocates Helen and Scott Nearing influenced generations of people looking for “the good life” away from urban consumption-intensive living. After leaving New York City during the Great Depression, the Nearings placed great emphasis on the aesthetic dimension of a simpler lifestyle, from the siting of their homestead in a place that allowed for close observation of the passing seasons to the daily organization of their tools and their adaptation of building projects to both the health of the environment and the needs of the inhabitants.

The dream of “self sufficiency” often conjures up an aesthetic along the lines of the “handmade” commune. But there are many versions of this dream across the ideological spectrum. Controversial American political pundit Charles Murray put forth his vision for less government in part through an aesthetic critique: “The reality of daily life is that, by and large, the things the government does tend to be ugly, rude, slovenly—and not to work. Things that private organizations do tend to be attractive, courteous, tidy—and to work.” While on the campaign trail in 1967, Ronald Reagan toured California touting his dream of a “creative society” that would replace Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. He explained that this was not a retreat into the past, but an update of the “dream that gave birth to this nation”—that is, one of smaller government.

Last session, Stevphen described the unethical myth and Pablo cited the concept of imagined communities—both of which are regarded as disingenuous. But among the many competing dreams about the kind of world we might live in, cynical or not, some are attached to significant concentrations of power while others remain marginal and that makes a difference in their influence. There are those who dream up visions of the world, like Reagan’s and Murray’s, which become realities that we all have to live with and within. Then there are those such as the Nearings (and their many inspired followers), whose dreams prefigure the world as they would have it, but only for themselves and their immediate circles. Then there are science-fiction authors like Le Guin and Vance who envision social structures that never leave the pages of their books.

To continue our discussion, I wonder what thoughts panelists might have on the aesthetic dimensions of envisioning utopia, and on “dream worlds” that we actually have to live in versus those that we can read about, but which remain elusive?


 

PANELIST

Lauren Groff

“The mind is its own place and in itself/ Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.” [254–255] One of the most seductive characters ever written said this, in what is arguably the greatest poem in the English language, John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is germane that the character speaking is Satan, the apostate angel, and that his greatest sin is pride. In heaven, Satan chafes under God’s rule. He rises up in arms and is cast out of heaven into hell, where, calling his minions to him, in the space of an hour wrests gold from the ground and pours it into a temple-like “Fabrick huge,” which:

Rose like an Exhalation, with the sound
Of Dulcet Symphonies and voices sweet,
Built like a Temple, where Pilasters round
Were set, and Doric pillars overlaid
With Golden Architrave; nor did there want
Cornice or Freeze, with bossy Sculptures grav’n,
The Roof was fretted Gold. [711–717]

Satan makes his internal vision of a heaven in hell into an external and literal vision, all in fewer than five hundred lines. He is the original idealist whose utopian uprising failed; he’s the artist whose idea for a dwelling goes from concept to what Milton describes as a profoundly aesthetically pleasing creation. In the first book of Paradise Lost, Satan’s thoughts and actions are implying two kinds of reality: there’s the world of the mind, which can make our external situation into the hell it may not actually be, but also alleviate the pain of a terrible time and place, and there’s the physical world that the fallen cherubim and demi-gods and angels work to make more beautiful.

The visions of utopia that Daniel discusses play with different calibrations of these entwined worlds, the world of the mind and the world of external existence. Science-fiction writers, at least the ones I trust and love like Ursula Le Guin, don’t believe that what they are representing on the page is going to come literally true; if they seek any influence it is a metaphorical influence, or an influence of thought and emotion which can lead people to make different decisions. Closer, perhaps, to the material world are books that are perhaps fictional in creation but that have a polemical bite: Plato’s Republic, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, William Morris’s News From Nowhere. These have the potential to have more of an ability to sway actual policy in the time in which they were written. And then there are the world-builders like the Nearings, whose aesthetic response to utopian urges is to take what is internal—thoughts of ameliorating the present and influencing the future, an understanding of the past—and turning it all directly upon the material world. Their actions can sometimes spread outward and double back unexpectedly into the internal aesthetic; I read a lot about the Nearings and saw a wonderful photographic exhibition about them in Vermont, and they had a direct influence upon my own fiction, which is never meant to directly influence action.

But return again to Milton, the man. For most of his life, the poet was an influential and famous political polemicist and defender of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth: he wrote to accomplish his aims. By his mid-forties, however, he was almost totally blind and impoverished. He’d had to compose Paradise Lost in his head, then recite it to his amanuenses who would then write it down. The poem is commonly read as an extended metaphor for the failed revolution, Satan standing in for Cromwell. In that sense, the visions of Eden in the poem can be read as a lament. I think of Milton, blind, isolated, looking backwards at what could have been, having turned away from the forward propulsion of pamphleteering and towering political pride, and toward the subtler dream-building of art.


 

PANELIST

Pablo Helguera

I agree with Daniel that dreaming and conjuring up possible worlds is inextricable from the artistic process. At the most basic level, artists produce proposals for seeing our reality in a different or new light that may have an impact on how we view ourselves, and which may push us to act. However, I think it is important to remember that, historically, the relationship between artists and dreams has as much to do with imagining new possible worlds as it does with escapism—that is, with imagining impossible worlds to inhabit in order to avoid the real one. So while dreamers can be visionaries, they can also be, well, simply dreamers.

Out of this distinction emerges what I think has been one of the main debates around contemporary practice over the past decade or so. This revolves around the question of whether art is meant to be a reflective practice or one that also aspires to—and is measured against—the agency it creates. This is essentially a political debate, and one that isn’t new, having emerged sporadically in the 1930s (think social realism), and recurred throughout the ’60s,’70s and ’80s. The current version pits socially engaged art against art inclined more toward symbolic representation and the production of objects.

It is hard to pin down the exact moment when this debate emerged, but I always have seen it as post-9/11, and as a response to the dominance of relational aesthetics. Utopia Station, curated by Molly Nesbit, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija at the 2003 Venice Biennial, was a great project but may have been a tipping point into “utopia exhaustion.” Around this time, many artists were beginning to understand that we were not interested in simply imagining utopian scenarios, but in actually going out into the world and attempting to realize them. Aesthetically, the changing of the terms of the debate has to do with the fact that social practice does not attempt merely to illustrate a problem, but actually to make a verifiable impact on individuals and communities—and claim that impact as a key part of the artwork.

The usual criticism of this position (recently summarized by critic Ben Davis in International Socialist Review) focuses on whether this aspiration to change the world is just more dreaming—but a kind of dreaming that is unacknowledged, as well as vainglorious and self-righteous. I think that the debate (as usually happens with debates) tends to caricature opposing sides and not appreciate, for example, interesting artistic projects that do manage to create agency. But to restrict myself to the question at hand, I think we now realize the limitations of mere utopian spirit and understand that art should be functioning differently than it used to, but we can’t yet figure out how to reconcile that knowledge with our creative heritage.


 

PANELIST

Stevphen Shukaitis

Daniel raises some interesting questions about the nature of utopia, which is something near and dear to me. While this might seem like rather a banal statement, I tend to think of utopia more as a process than as a fixed goal or end. This is an important distinction, precisely because of the way that utopian political thought has fallen into disrepute and been accused of underpinning various totalitarian attempts to rework society during the 20th century. The framing of utopia as a process might represent one way out of this difficulty. In this sense, utopian goals that are unrealistic or even batshit crazy can be helpful precisely because they rupture the idea that we necessarily need to achieve and maintain them—their true value then is that which is produced while working toward them. Thus utopian thought can become a guide to the process of development, a space of otherness to the world as it exists, but not an obsession.

One of my first published essays was “An Ethnography of Nowhere.” This text represented an attempt to renew, in a specific way, utopian political thought and analysis within the anarchist milieu. What it suggested was that the best way to approach utopia was not to create unworkable plans, but rather to seek out existing forms of cooperative practice and utopian experimentation, and to find ways to generalize their logic on larger scales. This idea grounds utopian thought and politics in the materialities of cooperative practice. Thus an ethnography of utopia would be the study of the nowhere that is now here—there is no existing utopia in which to conduct fieldwork, yet there are always utopian worlds within the existing diversity of cooperative practices.

I would make a similar argument for thinking about the aesthetics of utopia. The idea would not be to attempt the projection of a utopian world through aesthetic practices, even though there continues to be value in doing so. Nor would it necessarily be to presume that any aesthetic practice could be utopian in and of itself (as opposed to becoming so through emergence from and engagement with its context). Rather, it would be to look at the participation of aesthetics in the guiding, shaping, cohering, and articulating of existing utopian practices. While aesthetic utopian practices do not necessarily correspond with artistic ones, they often do. This strikes me as the particular value of hanging on to art as a space for experimentation, precisely because it can help to enable forms of social interaction that are not necessarily bound by the calculations of effectiveness usually demanded of political action. Aesthetic “utopistics” can help maintain a space of indeterminacy even while working toward political and social transformation.


 

 

 
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