There's 'no-place' like home

<!-- p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 13.0px; font: 10.0px 'Chaparral Pro'} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 13.0px; font: 10.0px 'Chaparral Pro'; min-height: 12.0px} span.s1 {font: 10.0px Helvetica; letter-spacing: 0.5px} span.Apple-tab-span {white-space:pre} -->It's the year is 2016. Republicans control the House of Representatives by a 4,122-to-93 margin and John Boehner has been coronated Dear Leader. Triangular hat-wearing hordes patrol the streets jamming their muskets in the face of anyone they suspect of being an illegal or a gay. The military has reinstated the draft to support ongoing military operations in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Colombia and Indonesia. Rupert Murdoch is the head of the FCC and Fox News is broadcast on every channel. Jon Stewart has been murdered by Glenn Beck. As some imagine it, this would be life in the Republican dystopia. As others imagine it, this would be life in the Republican utopia.

Consider the etymologies of the words ‘utopia’ and ‘dystopia’. In Ancient Greek, utopia means ‘no place,’ while dystopia means ‘bad place.’ One is imagined and the other is real. Utopias are oftentimes the end point of political idealism. William Morris’ News from Nowhere and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, both bestsellers at the time of their publication, depict life in a Marxian socialist utopia. However, history has shown us that utopias only exist in the mind. Oftentimes the attempt to bring about a utopia creates a dystopia. For example, North Korea is guided by a utopian philosophy of self-reliance and self-sufficiency that has utterly failed, much like the communist philosophy of the Soviet Union before it. Even smaller scale utopias such as Brooks Farm in Massachusetts have failed because of the inability of reality to match the grandeur of the ideal.

Utopias can only exist in the mind. The vision seems perfect, but it can never quite live up to its conception. In this sense, a utopia is truly “no place.” Like a utopia, the pleasures of the mind do not exist in the material world. The joy I feel at the sight of a painting I love is only a physical phenomenon in the crudest sense: some electrical impulse does something somewhere in my mind, but the thought itself somehow transcends the physical, existing above and beyond it, though dependent on the material world for its existence and possibility. Likewise, utopian socialism or anarchism seem appealing because they reference the discontents of the world in which we live. That is to say, if we lived in a utopia, there wouldn’t be any utopian visions. Instead, we live somewhere in a purgatory, somewhere between utopia and dystopia. Not quite heaven, not quite hell.

One common element in depictions of dystopias is the inability of people to partake in the pleasures of the mind. The oppression of the state is seen as totalizing: even in the realm of the mind, there is no escape from the dictates of the state. In Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron, the state is careful to ensure that even people’s mental faculties are severely handicapped.

What does this prejudice show us about ourselves and our own fears? Does it show that we value the pleasures of the mind or does it show that most authors do not consider the possibility of freedom of the mind existing alongside oppression and tyranny?

The prevalent image of the average consumer as a mindless, utility-maximizing automaton presumes that all pleasure must be derived from consumption. However, the very act of thinking and reflection, which requires no inputs or exclusive consumption, is a pleasurable pastime for many. Would it be possible to create a world we would find to be inherently dystopic if people are still afforded this pleasure? Would Harrison Bergeron still be dystopic if the people could be uninhibited in their thought?

We see the people of these works as being miserable because their only pleasure is derived from consumption, which they cannot sustain at an adequate level. The fascination with celebrities illustrates this point. Images of people enjoying lavish lifestyles can be found in every checkout line in the United States. They are happy because they are wealthy. They have piles of disposable income to satisfy their every possible want. The old Socratic equation of happiness with virtue lives on in the modern era. The thought is that each individual could be happy if only they were rich enough. If they work enough within the totalizing capitalist system, they will be rewarded with a beachfront condo in Boca Raton and infinite bliss. At least, this is how the image goes.

It is this prejudice that creates the totalizing dystopia: that there is no escape from the system of production and consumption. To think is to take oneself out of the frenzy of the world. There is a distinct pleasure and reassurance in the knowledge that whatever the totalizing force that creates the dystopia is (e.g. the state, the economy), an individual still has the power to retreat into his or her own mind. In the words of Cato, “never is man more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.”

If we are on our way to worshipping an orange-hued Dear Leader, at least we will still have the pleasure of remembering and contemplating life in the good old days of our Socialist Nazi Caliphate.

Brian Judge B’11 only exists in his mind.