Inventing Utopia

This week in my speculative fiction first-year seminar we have been working through a mini-unit on Utopias and Utopian thinking.

On Monday, I gave in lecture a “brief history of Utopian thinking” (I tried to name as many daily topics as possible like they were episode titles from Community). We started with a breakdown of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and the society therein, but then explored both earlier examples like the Golden Age of Man in Hesiod’s Works and Days and Plato’s Republic, and historical attempts to create these communities like the Shakers and the Oneida Community. That day concluded with a discussion of what utopias do, both in terms of social critique of the present and imagining a better future. We haven’t yet talked about Atlantis and Atlantean-type stories as Utopias because I (mistakenly) put it at the end of this unit, but the next time I teach this class, I’m going to move that day to put it more directly in dialogue with this one.

Then, on Wednesday, we read Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” This short story asks you to imagine a happy, pleasant city that can only exist because of the abject suffering of a single child. Everyone in the community is aware of this trade-off and the ones who walk away cannot live with that knowledge. The story prompted a lively discussion, drawing comparisons to the Trolley Problem and generally about the morality of Utopias that always require some sort of trade. Several students challenged whether the people walking away are any more moral than the ones who stay given that even though they are opting out of the benefit of the Utopia they are nevertheless still living with the knowledge of the child’s suffering. One student asked how the message changes if you can’t walk away, to which several responded that it suddenly becomes a dystopia. This was my favorite question, though, because Omelas can be read as allegory for modern society where the happiness of people in one part of the world comes at the expense of the suffering of people elsewhere, in which case individuals only have so much capacity to opt-out.

(We are going to return to this point in the class at the very end of the semester with N.K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight.” Now that I think about it, I might move the Utopia discussion to the end of the semester next time around.)

The assignment for this unit is a poster where the students work in groups to create their own utopia, as agreed upon by the group members.

This is a deceptively difficult assignment. It requires thinking through the consequences of the society that they set up and consider what makes it a Utopia. One of the things I stressed in our discussions is that a Utopia for one is not a Utopia for all (except in the fleeting moment of Hesiod’s Golden Age), so one of the tasks is to define who are the “in” group and who are the “out” group, with those definitions being entirely up to the group. The larger the society, the harder it is to think through the consequences of the rules, laws, and social norms. This is why it amuses me that one group is re-creating a Matrix to allow each person their own bespoke Utopia that exists only in their minds.

To be completely transparent, this assignment is my equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru, just with a different set of lessons that can be taken from it.

If I were completing this same assignment, I would start by considering the sources of human conflict, big and small. If we were able to eliminate scarcity, jealousy, and pain, that would eliminate most conflict. Something like the world imagined in Wall-E as a dystopian future after humans destroyed the world.

The issue is that the elimination of all of these needs strips away something essential to being human, I think. Put another way, I think it is not possible to both have humans and to have a true Utopia, thus short-circuiting the whole exercise. As Hesiod says in Works and Days, we live in an Iron Age where we are doomed to experience sickness and pain as our meat sacks move through the world. It is simply the price of being human. Thus, the best that we can hope for is to mitigate the suffering that comes from scarcity, jealousy, and pain rather than eliminate it altogether. And, to paraphrase a delirious priest in Brothers Karamazov, we already live in paradise, so we have all the tools of that mitigation if we’re willing to commit to the practice.

However, this impossibility is also why I really like this assignment, perhaps with some fiddling around the edges. Utopias are good to think with, and working through the potential issues as a group forces the students to focus on the process rather than skipping ahead to the product.

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