Forum:Literature

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Topazan (talkcontribs)

I wasn't sure if this is the right place to post this.

George Orwell is most known for writing 1984 and Animal Farm. I really like this guy as an essayist. This site orwell.ru has a lot of his writings archived.

He had some interesting things to say about writing utopia.


http://www.orwell.ru/library/articles/socialists/english/e_fun

By far the best known modern Utopias are those of H. G. Wells. Wells's vision of the future is almost fully expressed in two books written in the early Twenties, The Dream and Men Like Gods. Here you have a picture of the world as Wells would like to see it or thinks he would like to see it. It is a world whose keynotes are enlightened hedonism and scientific curiosity. All the evils and miseries we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear, overwork, superstition all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that that is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who actually wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia? On the contrary, not to live in a world like that, not to wake up in a hygenic garden suburb infested by naked schoolmarms, has actually become a conscious political motive. A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear that modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which it is within his power to create. A Catholic writer said recently that Utopias are now technically feasible and that in consequence how to avoid Utopia had become a serious problem. We cannot write this off as merely a silly remark. For one of the sources of the Fascist movement is the desire to avoid a too-rational and too-comfortable world.

...

Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache. They wanted to produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary. The wider course would be to say that there are certain lines along which humanity must move, the grand strategy is mapped out, but detailed prophecy is not our business. Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness. This is the case even with a great writer like Swift, who can flay a bishop or a politician so neatly, but who, when he tries to create a superman, merely leaves one with the impression the very last he can have intended that the stinking Yahoos had in them more possibility of development than the enlightened Houyhnhnms.


http://orwell.ru/library/reviews/swift/english/e_swift

In a Society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by ‘thou shalt not’, the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by ‘love’ or ‘reason’, he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else. The Houyhnhnms, we are told, were unanimous on almost all subjects. The only question they ever discussed was how to deal with the Yahoos. Otherwise there was no room for disagreement among them, because the truth is always either self-evident, or else it is undis-coverable and unimportant. They had apparently no word for ‘opinion’ in their language, and in their conversations there was no ‘difference of sentiments’. They had reached, in fact, the highest stage of totalitarian organization, the stage when conformity has become so general that there is no need for a police force. Swift approves of this kind of thing because among his many gifts neither curiosity nor good-nature was included. Disagreement would always seem to him sheer perversity. ‘Reason,’ among the Houyhn-hnms, he says, ‘is not a Point Problematical, as with us, where men can argue with Plausibility on both Sides of a Question; but strikes you with immediate Conviction; as it must needs do, where it is not mingled, obscured, or discoloured by Passion and Interest.’ In other words, we know everything already, so why should dissident opinions be tolerated? The totalitarian Society of the Houyhnhnms, where there can be no freedom and no development, follows naturally from this.


I find these to be rather important insights both for writing and for real-world theorizing. The first is that happiness comes from contrast. Permanent happiness may not be possible. I remember seeing someone express this another way. We often assume humans desire nothing but the avoidance of pain. That is untrue in many cases.

The second, that a society with laws can be more "free" than an anarchist one, completely changed my thinking when I read it. Often, people think that letting "the community" make decisions is the solution to the tyranny of distant rulers. But what if the community itself is tyrannical? Having a clear set of rules to follow can actually make you more free than having to stay in the good graces of your neighbours would.

To that end, I have to wonder if it's possible to create a vision of utopia that contains just the right amount of struggle and heroism, and the right amount of law. Any thoughts?

Labster (talkcontribs)

Heck, and I didn't think I was going to jump in on these kinds of forum discussions -- but someone had to make Orwell the first post. I was halfway responsible for this, after all.

Orwell is spot on about the creation of utopia. Most writers, when they create fictional utopias, they tend to turn into dystopias pretty fast, through things like Values Dissonance or Fridge Horrors. It's a natural extension of Most Writers Are Human, as perfection means different things to different people. The idea of utopia itself is a kind of philospher's stone then -- an ultimate level of perfection that can never be created in reality.

The same is true about political philosophies as well. I think one of my favorite insights from Orwell is simply the message of Animal Farm: Communism is so bad, it's almost as bad as capitalism. Neither the communist utopia (The Great Politics Mess-Up) or the capitalist utopia (BioShock (series)) could ever come to pass. The modernist or fundamentalist utopias aren't gonna happen either. The romantic utopia already happened in the past, but we screwed it up, and the realist utopia -- no such thing.

So we're left trying to craft a postmodernist utopia. Well, then, this seems a bit more doable. We're not trying to come up with a grand theory of that explains everything; instead we're going to try to steal from a huge jumble of theories that make society act perfect. Maybe even pretend to be perfect. But it can never be truly ideal, as the underlying humans that make up the society aren't perfect.

Just a small smattering of the issues that come up:

  • Are gender roles good or bad?
  • How much should ambition be limited?
  • You're gonna have criminals. Should they be punished or reformed?
  • How do you balance rewarding initiative and creativity against the needs of the poor?

You could solve the last one with a "post-scarcity" economy. But the others necessarily imply some sort of balance. There are all sorts of choices in the world today, but we're certainly not at equillibrium. The concept of gender roles, in particular, is in an era of rapid change.

The problem is that the more perfect the setting, the easier it is to write more boring stories. Sometimes the Moe genre manages to do it well by simply ignoring the worst parts of human culture and concentrate on the eternal conflicts: growing up and romance. But sometimes the stories just miss and you're left with attractive people sitting on chairs.

Not sure I know where I'm going with this. But seriously, check out Mars in A Miracle of Science as a technological utopia, of a sorts. Of course, they change what it means to be human just a little bit, but it might be a path forward for you to think about this.

Topazan (talkcontribs)

Heh, well, a frequent criticism of tvtropes is that they focus too much on low culture (kid's shows, videogames, etc), not enough on the high. I don't entirely agree with this criticism. The whole point of a wiki is that the general population can edit it, and it doesn't make sense to be surprised that the current population is interested in what's currently popular. Nevertheless, I decided to make a concession to this complaint and try to start us off with a discussion about a "real" author. (Technically, Dartz's post in the fanfiction forum came before this thread.)

I think at the core of this discussion is Romanticism Versus Enlightenment. The question is "Should we sacrifice a little material comfort for a little emotional fulfillment", with Romanticism in favor. I think even in the post-modern world, the majority of people come down pretty heavy on the Enlightenment side. I used to as well, but more and more I've started to feel that it represents an incomplete view of human nature. That's not to say it's not good to end suffering, but rather the price that it is worth paying is lower than most people think.

Without getting into specifics, I've seen people (esp. on tvtropes forums) who are very deeply emotionally attached to the idea that the scientific authorities know everything and that education can cure all social ills. Basically, trying to force academia into the role of philosopher-kings. Taken too far, this is a very dangerous worldview, in my opinion.

GethN7 (talkcontribs)

If I may comment, I have to agree that allowing devotion to enlightenment to be the be all/end all does sound rather frightening.

In fact, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World covered this theme, showing what would happen if Man surrendered all impulse for creativity for a world where almost every conceivable worry was replaced by literal happy pills, hedonism, and a rigidly defined structure of chattel slavery in practice if not in name (driven by a frightening plausible combination of biological, psychological and sociological engineering).

The upside was a worry free world, for the most part. The downside was a world devoid of creativity or free will, and I found myself agreeing with John the Savage that sacrificing all of that just to be as free from any sort of pain was too high a price to pay, even if Mustapha Mond's arguments were scarily convincing.

In reality, I don't believe we'll ever make a world like that anytime soon, since reality is far more complex than fiction, but regardless, while I consider myself a devotee of rationalism and a supporter of progress, I would not be happy with a world where I have to cash in my free will and creativity for simulated happiness.

Topazan (talkcontribs)

I think one of the areas where these anxieties have already manifested is in the education system (at least in America, don't know about other countries).

The fact that modern teenagers find themselves in an environment where their actions have no real world consequences whatsoever is a major source of discontent, from what I've seen. Recently, there's been a resurgence in young adult dystopias (The Hunger Games, etc). Even when I was in High School, speculating about a post-apocolyptic world was popular. I believe that this reflects a deep desire to escape the overly controlled, overly protected existence many teenagers find themselves in.

And I think this is the important part: the lives of teenagers are far from worry free. If you take away the fear of starvation or danger, and place people in an entirely human controlled world, it's only replaced by an entirely new set of fears. Whether they worry about displeasing their peers or their authority figures, new stresses arise to replace the stresses of nature. In some ways, these are worse, because the skills that can be used to overcome them are fewer in number and more difficult to learn, and success is less certain.

I think a large part of why we'll never actually get much closer to a Brave New World status than we already are is that the resistance is pretty strong. As Orwell pointed out, "...one of the sources of the Fascist movement is the desire to avoid a too-rational and too-comfortable world." I think we see this in the modern world, too. Whenever things have been quiet for too long, reactionary movements experience a resurgence. The only way such a society can occur is if it's forced on a less powerful class by a more powerful class, as it is with students.

Labster (talkcontribs)

It's not so much a difference between highbrow and lowbrow to me -- it's just I'm not much of a forum-goer in general. I like wikis on the theory that the information gets better through evolution. Doesn't always happen, but in general it does work.

As someone who has spent a lot of time in grad school, the idea of making the academic world into philosopher-kings is quite scary. These dudes can barely decide how to assign lab space, let alone manage a country. Never mind the fact that some scientists hold on to irrational ideas until they die. As always, there is a place for academia, but running the world isn't it.

I'm gonna agree and disagree on the the "teenagers' actions have no real-world consequences" bit. Sure, some are overprotected and ignored. But then we have places like Chicago where the gang violence has a lot of real world consequences. I think the biggest conclusion there is that teens don't completely understand when their actions do and do not have major consequences, which is... yeah. As I said earlier, you can't remove the conflict of Coming of Age, because that's a core part of being human.

I'd say that "avoiding a too-rational world" is more of a fear than a desire. People never object to abstracts like "rationality" or "utopia", they object to change or the lack thereof. And most of this comes from fear of losing one's place in society. Fear is definitely not rational. Fear is the mind-killer.

My graduate studies were in meteorology and climate change. The fact that anthropogenic climate change exists is glaringly obvious if you study it. Corroborating evidence comes from thousands of institutions in hundreds of different fields. People deny it because they fear the change, or fear the idea that man is usurping God, or whatever. It has nothing to do with rationality.

However, it's not like knowing climate change exists helps all that much. There are hard decisions to be made with no clear answers, even for the things that are the most obvious. Sure, let's shut down all the coal plants -- the CO2 release + black carbon on snow + radioactivity + SOx/NOx smog and acid rain + waste water pollution all makes it a no-brainer. But what do we do with the people who mine the coal; could they really be trained to work in a new industry? What about metallurgical coal use? What do we replace it with, and how much are we willing to pay? How fast can we do this and maintain the level of electrical service? That's just a simple version, for a complex version try the debate between using water for farming, fishing, or hydropower in California during a drought.

Society is full of these non-trivial problems. So how would a utopia address issues like this? I simply don't know. I think it would be easy to create a dystopia based on the problems with climate change (Mad Max anyone?), and a corresponding ecotopia sounds just as bad (reproduction limits, industry highly controlled by the state, getting invaded for our unobtanium by less scrupulous aliens).

Governance has to spring from effective conflict resolution. Maybe utopias are just really really good at that? I think some form of conflict in inevitable assuming we're humans -- or any life-forms honestly. A utopia is a government that can effectively balance the many and the few; one that can think in both the short-term and the long-term. And that... is really freaking hard.

Topazan (talkcontribs)

The low-brow high-brow remark wasn't directed at you, it's a criticism I've seen on other sites.

Yeah, I think it's really people who don't have much experience with with the sciences that assume empiricism to be the end-all and be-all of human knowledge.

"I'm gonna agree and disagree on the the "teenagers' actions have no real-world consequences" bit. Sure, some are overprotected and ignored. But then we have places like Chicago where the gang violence has a lot of real world consequences. I think the biggest conclusion there is that teens don't completely understand when their actions do and do not have major consequences, which is... yeah."

That's true, I did oversimplify. In addition to the danger of things like gang warfare, there are also young people who do have to worry about starvation. In these cases, society not only fails to remove their worries, but can stand in the way of their own attempts to solve these problems themselves. We don't make it easy for a pre-majority person to leave an abusive home.

"I'd say that "avoiding a too-rational world" is more of a fear than a desire. People never object to abstracts like "rationality" or "utopia", they object to change or the lack thereof. And most of this comes from fear of losing one's place in society. Fear is definitely not rational. Fear is the mind-killer."

No one would ever say that in those words, but I think that people do have a way of getting restless when life feels too safe and predictable.

"Governance has to spring from effective conflict resolution. Maybe utopias are just really really good at that? I think some form of conflict in inevitable assuming we're humans -- or any life-forms honestly. A utopia is a government that can effectively balance the many and the few; one that can think in both the short-term and the long-term. And that... is really freaking hard. "

Yeah, and this goes back to what Orwell was saying about the Houyhnhnms. In order to achieve this level of consensus, you pretty much have to wipe out all independent thought.

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