Wednesday, 14 May 2014

(...) there is yet a time of rest in store for the world ...

I must now shock you by telling you that we have no longer anything which you, a native of another planet, would call a government.


         - William Morris: “News from Nowhere"


The idea of a perfect place is, of course, nothing new. Even when Thomas More penned his famous work, and the word for such a place - “Utopia” - came into being, the idea had been around for a long time. In religion there was - for example - the biblical Garden of Eden, and Augustine’s City of God; in literature Dante’s Paradiso, and in philosophy Plato’s Republic, to name but a few. In addition, many cultures other than ours already had and have still their own notions of a perfect topos, that is to say of a ‘place’ where everything is just as it should be, the inhabitants enjoying all the benefits of divine, human, political, societal, communal or civic good, or indeed a combination of all of these; and where all imperfections or perceived evils are removed, resolved, or can cause no more harm.

It could be argued that in our own time the aim of all political movements, major or minor, is to achieve - at least to some varying degree - an aspect or aspects, in part or in whole, of utopian perfection. To the modern mind the literary Utopia may appear fanciful - a view More himself did not discourage - and the scholar’s notions obscure or outdated; but in reality other ‘utopian’ ideals of one form or another have been and are now pursued as practical and teleological, to be attained sooner rather than later, in the immediacy of today’s or the transcendence of tomorrow’s society. They are the basis of many of our laws, of our political systems, and also of our individual material aspirations. Even failed ideas such as fascism and communism were utopian, seeking perfection after their own fashion: the problem here is that what is deemed ‘ideal’ or ‘good’ for one individual or group is not necessarily of benefit to everyone else.1 In the West, we have settled for democracy as the political system most likely to offer the material ‘place’ that we are all seeking, and the ideal of democracy is that we are constantly working towards perfecting that place.

But there is a catch to the title of More’s book, one which has found its way into our language and our culture, and indeed has led to diverse interpretations of his book and its intention. “Utopia” is a phonic pun. The sound may be interpreted as ‘eu’ plus ‘topos’, meaning - from classical Greek - a “good place”: or conversely it might be interpreted as it is indeed written, where ‘u’ translates as ‘no’, hence “no-place”. This double meaning has become, down through the centuries, the connotation of the word ‘utopia’: it is a perfect place that we know will never be, that is not real, an impossible dream, a place that in fact exists nowhere.2 It is what you might call a ‘non-place’.

And yet our aspirations for a better world cannot help but contain an element of utopian impossibility. Even when we strive to rationlise that element - through post-Enlightenment dialectic, for example - it emerges as “spirit” in Hegel, and economic and social justice in Marx. These qualify as teleological goals, and the inference in both Hegel and Marx is that they are pursued mainly unconsciously and with inevitability, rather like Darwinian evolution.  The difference would be that in Darwin there is no goal as such, apart from life itself, for as long as it may thrive.3 But it is perhaps in post-Marxism, post-modernism, and post-structuralism that the idea of a ‘non-place’ begins to take on the positive significance of being just what it seems to be in being a non-place: i.e. a place that is not a ‘place’.4

Jacques Derrida makes extensive use of this paradoxical notion in a number of his works. He takes “onto-theology”5 - an older term derived from Kant through Heidegger - and re-inscribes it as motivating all philosophical activity; along with the implication in language and thought of the “transcendental signified”; and shows how in “deconstruction” the authority of texts as “presence” is undermined through what he calls “différance” - a pun on the French verbs for differing and deferring. It is important to understand that this is not a negative, but rather a positive discovery: what Derrida calls an “affirmation”. The goal of all ontological, theological, philosophical and political discourse cannot be deduced by way of the proposition, is never “present-to-itself” in texts or otherwise, but rather is constantly displaced and deferred through them. Thus, deconstruction is “always-already” at work within any discourse - and what is being sought is both prior to and beyond question and answer - all of the time, within every text, and everywhere.

If we apply this to the issue of utopia, and imagine utopia as a democracy, it means that whatever dream we may have of democracy is motivated by an idea of a perfect democracy that already exists - yet is ‘nowhere’ present - but is perhaps progressively revealing itself through time. This is essentially the way we imagine democracy. But according to Derrida there is a problem, in that the democratic ideal contains two essential ideas that are contradictory: equality and freedom. It is therefore impossible to reduce democracy to a single idea.6 If, for Derrida, the ideal of democracy is static - as ideals invariably tend to be - it is a singular “transcendental signified”. But if the ideal of democracy actually contains two irreconcilable ideas - equality and freedom - then democracy is constantly working against itself in what Derrida calls “différance”. It can therefore never be present-to-itself, and is also beyond the future-present perfection of a fixed goal in time. It transcends the transcendental-signified. It is forever different to its own deferred presence. It is both in and out of time; a place that is not a ‘place’; nowhere and everywhere. It is an idea that is not, strictly speaking, an idea.

Thus Derrida speaks of true democracy as something that is always on the move, never static, constantly open to new ideas and new movements. But even these qualities of novelty and movement cannot themselves be fixed in any way as a method, or a system. That would be to subtly compromise them. Democracy must be spontaneous, whilst at the same time thoughtful. Thus the ideal space of democracy is openness. He calls this ever-open democratic process the “democracy-to-come”, where democracy is not a fixed idea in either a static present or a messianic future, but a constant opening of possibility in a creative now.

If one were to try to sum up succinctly what the so-called ‘creative process’ is in art, one could do a lot worse than ‘thoughtful spontaneity in an open space’, as mentioned above.7 We have an idea of what we want to create, but usually have no real idea of how it will turn out. Often we follow a thread of thought, an echo of sound, or a glimpse of colour or form, applying our knowledge and skill while remaining open to where the thread will lead, and to perhaps challenging our assumed knowledge and skill. This combination is then the process by which - sometimes in spite of ourselves - we arrive at the final created work. Thus the finished piece is usually something of a surprise, an event, a form that in its entirety was unpredictable prior to its completion. And yet when resolved it appears - paradoxically - to be just exactly as it was meant to be. It is almost as if the finished work already existed ‘somewhere’ but was yet unformed, and is now uncovered piece by piece until it appears in its perfection, without anyone knowing what that perfection will look like beforehand.8 Again, when read, or heard, or seen, it retains something of that constant surprise and unpredictability: when we  encounter or re-encounter a work of art, it seems to have the power to re-create itself each time, with constant newness. Moreover, this ‘perfection’ is usually the starting point for yet another work, building upon the first or going in a different direction. Perfection does not stand still, although it seems to.

When we look around us, at nature, we can perhaps catch a glimpse of this same creativity at work. We know - through our sophisticated sciences - that evolution is the process by which all life forms have gradually become what they are today, and that they will continue to evolve randomly. At the same time, there seems to be a beauty and harmony in nature that to our ‘unsophisticated’ mind makes everything appear as if it were meant to be created just as it is, and is perfect in its pattern. Might it be that the seeming unpredictability of evolution, and the notion of a perfect, harmonious whole, may yet combine in a world that is ‘nowhere’ - at least for the time being?


1 I have written elsewhere on this aspect of utopian perfection, the ‘ideal’.

2 This notion of utopia evidently influenced William Morris’s fictional ideal society in News from Nowhere.

3 In his correspondence with Engels, and footnotes in Das Kapital, Marx acknowledges Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as having parallels with his own economic and political theoryHe sent Darwin a copy of his book, which Darwin did not read, but politely acknowledged. Interestingly, in his return letter, Darwin observed that both writers were contributing to the future happiness of mankind. This would appear to be a utopian principle, and teleological, whereas teleology is deliberately excluded from both works as being unscientific.

4 This seemingly ineluctable paradox may appear to owe as much to the deconstruction of language as it does to the notion of a physical impossibility that might actually be a metaphysical possibility. Language, indeed, can lead us anywhere: especially when that language is used in art. An infinite number of things are possible in the universe of language, and the universe of art, limited only by the delimitation of imagination (which may be a contradiction in terms). Thus, it is perfectly possible to conceive of a ‘place’ that does not exist - i.e., that does not exist as physical stuff, in the material universe. It would simply be a case of metaphysics standing in for physics, fantasy for fact, an imagined world for the real world. But it is a curious phenomenon that the more we try to realise a possible world of fantasy, the more we find that it can never become ‘real’ in the material sense. It is only when we try to imagine a good and perfect world - a seeming impossibility - that we find a correlation between that world and this, and there seems any real possibility of its coming into being. There appears to be an intrinsic logic that links imagination to vision, and vision to a future reality, as if that reality already exists without form, and is awaiting manifestation. Here, we can perhaps see why More was apparently happy with the pun he invented, and when asked whether utopia referred to a good place or to no place, he replied “Why, surely, it must be the former”.

5 The terms mentioned here, such as “onto-theology; différance; always-already”, occur throughout a number of Derrida’s works. The notion of a “democracy-to-come” is to my knowledge most comprehensively developed in: Derrida, J., Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. P-A. Brault / M. Naas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005). A helpful overview, by Daniel Matthews, can be found here.

6 Here, we can at last appreciate Plato’s insistence on the perfect ideal of form, which cannot ever exist as material form without a new ideal popping up in its place - hence ideal form must be singular, whole, and incorruptible.  And, consequently perhaps, his skepticism about democracy, which he saw as being dangerously erratic in its consensus opinion. My feeling is that Plato saw the perfect world as union of the real world with the Ideal World, and attainable first through personal wisdom - not political action. The Wisdom and Goodness of that Ideal World can be the only source of utopia in the ‘real’ world, thus his only political solution is the rule of the “philosopher-kings”. Any other political solutions - such as even democracy - would be subject to error. To my mind there is an echo of this in Derrida, in that the “democracy-to-come” is, in its alterity, essentially both of and not of this world.

7 In conjunction, of course, with applied knowledge and material skills open to their own disruption and re-invention.

8 This may be similar to, but not quite the same as, what Heidegger referred to as “disclosure” of the truth of being, in Being and Time.

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