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The Island (a minor film, but with outstanding car-motorbike-helicopter chases) shows the dystopian future of today’s worship of wealth. Thousands of young adults work at bio-medical tasks in a secluded research institute where they must also live in order to remain sheltered from an outside world that has suffered global “contamination.” If a person is lucky enough to win the nightly lottery, however, s/he wins a place on “the Island,” a paradise that miraculously escaped the contamination and is located outside the institute’s hermetic walls. The trick is that there never was any contamination; each inhabitant/worker is unaware that s/he is the clone of a wealthy person created by the institute from the wealthy donor’s DNA. The clones are “born” fullgrown from pods where they have been implanted with artificial childhood memories and sufficient education to perform the institute’s tasks. For the client, their clone is an “insurance policy”: the institute will harvest the clone’s mature organs should the client ever suffer an accident or a fatal disease. The problem begins when the clones start to wonder, to think for themselves, even in very small measure. One clone tries to map the probabilities of who will win the lottery based on the letters of their names. Another finds a flying insect, which must have come from the outside, and is curious about how it could have survived the contamination.
NOWHEREWhen There’s Nowhere You Have To Be, Where Do You Go?9 Can a case be made for utopia today? In its very “nowhereness” is there not something to be said for the utopian urge that might still manifest itself against our own presumptive plenitude, the saturation of satisfaction, or what I am calling the Utopia of Everywhere?10 Could a different utopian impulse and a more fertile imagination conceive of new satisfactions and other forms of enjoyment not (death) driven by a pleasure principle that inevitably joins the reality principle in a lethal finale?11 Despite the resistance I have to utopianism, I must admit that most famous literary and philosophical utopias, from Plato’s Republic to Thomas More’s Utopia, actually can and possibly should be read completely upside down, ironically, if only because they are composed by language (which always has a repressed, unconscious, and therefore metaphoric side). In stating their claims, utopian works inevitably lead us to question the situation Nowhere Else surrounding their enunciation. Reading utopias crosswise to their self-representation is possible and possibly necessary. And this possibility is even built into works such as More’s, where the narrator explains that Utopia bears a name, Hythloday, whose Greek root points to a triviality that undercuts his reports. Moreover, theoretical utopias often go so far in their proscriptions that they edge toward self-satire: when they insist on banning, say, poets from the Republic, readers feel compelled to question why—and they often side with the excluded, not with the utopians: with the poets; with the lying (and hence the possibilities of metaphor and fiction) that are banished from Swift’s Land of the Houyhnhnms in which no one can “say the thing that is not;” with the theater outlawed by Rousseau’s idyllic “Geneva” in his Lettre à D’Alembert sur les Spectacles (a Geneva whose isolation and self-satisfied smugness he could hardly wait to flee as a boy). Fictional and theoretical Utopias can be ironically reversed because they are composed of the ambivalent form called language, language being the central formative force of civilization and thus the ultimate source of our discontent with it. Language is also our primary, if not only, means of dealing with that discontent. Plato, More, Swift, Rousseau (who first made the case that “perfectibility” was the source of a great human misery) wrote their “utopias” to maximize the potential to read them satirically while at the same time taking them seriously.
Taking perfectibility “seriously” leads to nightmarish outcomes. Efforts to institute actual utopias (and not only by the neo-cons today, but also by the myriad others who preceded them from the phalansteries of Fourier to the often religious utopian communities of upstate New York, to Jonestown, Waco, and the Kampuchea of the Khmer Rouge) have had decidedly mixed and often extremely negative results. When the Khmer Rouge dreamt of extracting a truer, purer, more original authentic Kampuchea out of the Cambodia it had become under various colonialisms, they banned many things, among them those with weak eyesight and less-than-ideal body shapes. These, along with the artists, they killed.
While the excisions that found a fictional utopia as a nowhere are intended to preserve the community’s serene detachment, the violent cuts required to establish de facto utopias are always lethal—for some.
ANYWHERE: UTOPIA, SUBURBIA, & THE UNCONSCIOUSThe processes of the system Ucs are timeless; i.e., they are not ordered temporally, are not altered by the passage of time; they have no reference to time at all.… Disregard of the characteristic of time is no doubt an essential distinction between the activity of the Pcs. and the Ucs.
—Sigmund Freud12 232 Penumbra This leads me to my longstanding criticism of the idea that we are at the “end of history.” This idea has opened the door to a belief in an actually utopian world of plenty or full satisfaction,13 one that has materially shaped and also fundamentally distorted communal life. Contemporary culture and its economy have not failed to present themselves as global in character, as a comprehensive single system encircling the entire world,14 a world of wealth gained peacefully, without exploitation.15 If wealth, as Freud defined it, represents the “amount of instinctual satisfaction” obtainable by its means, and if civilization formerly required that certain instinctual satisfactions be sacrificed for the good of the human group, today’s “immense accumulation of commodities” (Marx’s phrase) renders such sacrifice unnecessary—or so the argument goes.16 A culture of satisfaction, of jouissance aplenty (even if Lacan revealed the fakeness of such jouissance) is the center of today’s representations of the world as a utopia of timeless, universal enjoyment. But in refusing to acknowledge any possible other side, its global character must be called into question. What is the drive to install ours as a one-dimensional universe free of the internal and external contradictions that might propel it in unpredictable ways?
The reader may by now have seen that I have been building a picture of
this everywhere/anywhere utopia on the model of the Freudian unconscious:
timeless, without contradiction, inalterable. Neoconservative/neo-liberal theory frames its utopia as a space(less)-time(less) that fully saturates the drives once consigned or confined to the unconscious. The pre-eminent concrete expression of its ideal global state (concrete, literally and figuratively), that which anchors its vision, is suburbia-as-utopia. The suburb, whose architecture and installation over tracts of land cleared of all historical reference and distinctive natural features, also happens to be the site where the plethora of ready-to-wear satisfactions are supposedly freely enjoyed.17 In contemporary cultural images, suburbia is depicted as that special non-place where incest and murder are no longer punishable transgressions, and where the drives that fuel them need no longer be repressed or even symbolically sacrificed. See the infamous show, Desperate Housewives, where murder, child abuse, pederasty and incest flourish on the Wisteria Lane of suburban Fairview. Or take the BBC’s Murder in Suburbia, which uncovers the wild sexual lives led by murder victims, lives that often shock the two young women detectives, but not the victims’ blasé neighbors, who are not only fully cognizant of these sexual aberrations but often their cheerful co-participants.
Or consider Showtime’s Weeds, which features a widowed housewife in a San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles, who also happens to be a dope dealer. She has soccer mom values, yet in one episode she will casually have sex with a rival dealer (a Latino) on the hood of a car, in an urban alley, in broad daylight. (This is to keep him away from her ideal neighborhood, where pedophile millionaires prey on teenage boys and everyone engages in all Nowhere Else manner of what were once considered deviant sexual practices.) Advertised, then, by and as our new utopia: “An orgy of sexual transgression now available in your nearest neighborhood suburb.” Suburbia is not, of course, the unconscious: it simply denies that limits are necessarily placed on absolute enjoyment. It is a will-to-jouissance, an effort to control this unruly and unmanageable excess. As such it is only modeled on the unconscious—on that no-place where antipathy to civilization reigns supreme. This may be the key to comprehending why suburbia must be a bland sameness—it must be an “anywhere.” If it had a specific spatiality and a genuine historicity it could not aspire to the utopian nowhere of the unconscious unleashed.
The problem is obviously that where this “repressive desublimation” masquerades as the unconscious unbound, all it actually realizes is a sadistic pseudo-utopia where “unfettered” enjoyment is tied up—in bondage, chains, forced confinement; in sequestered bedchambers, fortified enclosures, prisons. Spaces self-declared to be exempt from the Law (in the Lacanian, symbolic and linguistic sense, not in the sense of positive law). We now translate these into the forms of gated communities, of the “entourages” who guard the privacy of the billionaire, of the infamous “bubbles” enveloping our political leaders where they enjoy the bliss of ignorance and irresponsibility.
Is consumer capitalism’s pretension to full “satisfaction” (that one that de Sade dreamed up for his own utopias) really a final conquest of the repressions that drive the Freudian unconscious? Has it achieved the universal “right to jouissance” that Lacan once claimed would alone be truly revolutionary?18 Here I cannot help but recall Freud’s remark (re-emphasized by Lacan) that the damming up of libido is a hallmark of the impotent subject, the one unable to partake of “good old fashioned enjoyment.” This impotence, Lacan adds, is the psychical foundation of capitalism. The dream of stockpiling jouissance is the act of someone lacking actual political or social power.19 I have argued that the “reality” of late capitalist life is shaped as if it were a realization of our deepest fantasies, so fully satisfying that we need be tempted by no elsewhere and by no other moment. If this is utopia, it may be high time to find a new way out. For, after all, as Lacan wryly remarks in Seminar VII, “we haven’t even been able to create a single new perversion.”20 If not that, then what is at stake in touting utopia’s long-awaited arrival?
At this point, I will be mercifully brief. We stand in the greatest need of imagination to pursue (as Ambasz says) “alternative futures.” It is indeed seers we need now, seers who will dream utopia for us neither as a “nowhereand-everywhere,” nor as a “never-and-forever,” but simply as elsewhere. The “utopian” turn of the post-war mid-century has now reached a dénouement that turns out to be only the bland, blank anywhereness of global sadism-assuburbia. In other words, it has arrived at no utopia at all. Its subjective commandment—superegoic in form—to enjoy by respecting none of the laws of “civilization” shows itself as nothing more than the age-old game of exploiting us by extracting our wealth and adding it to the stores of the already wealthy.
What is to be done? If utopias have been the chief mode of attempting to solve the insoluble puzzle of what to do with the surplus that comes from/ with the sacrifices (of enjoyment) imposed on us in the name of civilization, they have never yet come up with anything more than a series of proposals
for administering this excess—which is also its waste. None has yet devised anything like a perfect solution. Recall Freud’s late thesis has civilization spontaneously generating three ways to treat the problem of surplus enjoyment: