Utopia is not an option

January 24, 2009

To know oneself is to disbelieve utopia.  Michael Novak


Without the Utopias of other times, men would still live in caves, miserable and naked. It was Utopians who traced the lines of the first city… Out of generous dreams come beneficial realities. Utopia is the principle of all progress, and the essay into a better future. Anatole France.


Karl Marx was right, socialism works; it is just that he had the wrong species. Edward O. Wilson suggesting that communism would have been more suitable for ants.


No bounds have been fixed to the improvement of the human faculties; the perfectibility of man is absolutely indefinite; the progress of this perfection… has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has placed us. Marquis de Condorcet, a French philosopher


To try to something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise. Michael Oakeshott, conservative philosopher


Humans have a real yearning for paradise and we have given it many names: Eden, Arcadia, The Elysian Fields, Valhalla, Nirvana or Shambhala. This search has not been confined to the afterlife. Unfortunately, paradise in the material world has proved to be rather more elusive, although this has not been for a lack of trying.

The term utopia comes from the novel of that name, written by Sir Thomas More in the early 16th century. More took two Greek words, Eutopia (good place) and Outopia (‘no place’) to form a new word with an obvious ironic intention. But More was not the first person to address these questions. A much earlier example of Utopian writing was Plato’s The Republic, which proposed the abolition of private property, the banning of theatre, infanticide, and mass mating sessions for the production of an elite offspring who would be raised to serve as the ruling class.  

There have also been numerous attempts to create real utopias, particularly with the discovery of the New World. In Europe anyone who had tried this kind of thing wouldn’t have lasted long but in the United States small groups could organize communities based on any weird theory, without having to worry about being overrun by conquering hordes. In fact the U.S itself was an attempt by the Pilgrims to create a utopia, a city on the hill. Since the arrival of those first colonists, the United States has spawned a profusion of utopian experiments that are still continuing today. Here are three classic examples:

Brook Farm Established by George Ripley, a Unitarian minister, this community based in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, was designed as an alternative to the capitalist state. Residents hoped to free themselves from the ruthless competition of the capitalist world so as to work as little as possible. They would then be able to use all this free to enjoy high culture. Ralph Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry and David Thoreau were all frequent visitors. Brook Farm did indeed have a thriving cultural life but practical matters proved to be more difficult and the farm was sold in 1847 and the society dissolved.

Oneida This colony was founded in New York in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes, and combined cooperativism with the marriage taboo of the Shakers to produce a new form of Utopian community. The community practiced the doctrine of complex marriage, where all members of the community were married to each other. They rejected monogamy and marriage, which they saw as sources of gender inequality. They were actually quite successful economically, producing and selling silverware but Noyes had to flee to Canada to avoid prosecution for adultery.

Pullman The town of Pullman, 15 miles south of Chicago was founded in the 1880s by George Pullman (of luxury railway car fame) It was a utopian community based on the idea that capitalism was the best way to meet all material and spiritual needs. Pullman’s employees lived there and the town was run on a for-profit basis and had to return a profit of 7% annually. The community was unable to break down class barriers, which emerged with virulence and the experiment ended in failure.

            These historical examples have a certain charm to them. But the twentieth century gave us a number of sinister dystopias (a word coined in the late 19th century by British philosopher John Stuart Mill). The attempts of totalitarian dictators to create heaven on Earth were to permanently taint the idea of utopia and challenge our idea of progress. Why has it proved so difficult and why have so many results been catastrophic?

            You cannot just abolish human nature. This idea that humans are a blank slate on which you can write anything is an inherently dangerous one. I prefer a more pragmatic conception of human nature. We are dangerous creatures capable of altruism, creating great beauty and thinking very profound thoughts. We are also very capable of greed, selfishness, and violence discriminating against other groups. The desire for power and status is a human universal. We need to judge ideologies and systems not by their stated intentions but by the results they actually produce. Mao Zedong’s rise to power in China was not some kind of accident or bad luck. We may regret that the more ethical communists didn’t get the highest positions; the reality was that it was a systemic cause the system favoured people like Mao.

I do consider myself a sceptic but I have to admit that in one sense we do need utopias. Perhaps we need a sense that progress is possible. If we are paralysed by the fear of failure we may lose out on the possibility of making the world a better place. We become like D-503, the main character in the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, who has a lobotomy that eradicates his imagination. The abolition of slavery, the establishment of universal suffrage and the extension of women’s rights are three examples of progress that has been made. They may well have appeared to be utopias but we now take them for granted. There are complicated problems that have no easy, objective solutions and we cannot avoid the need to make trade-offs; there are limits to what we can achieve. We can make the world a better place but we must not forget that utopia is not an option.

Common traits of dystopian fiction

January 24, 2009

The following is a list of common traits of dystopias, although it is by no means definitive. Most dystopian films or literature includes at least a few of the following:


a hierarchical society where divisions between the upper, middle and lower class are definitive and unbending (Caste system).

a nation-state ruled by an upper class with few democratic ideals

state propaganda programs and educational systems that coerce most citizens into worshipping the state and its government, in an attempt to convince them into thinking that life under the regime is good and just

strict conformity among citizens and the general assumption that dissent and individuality are bad

a fictional state figurehead that people worship fanatically through a vast personality cult, such as 1984’s Big Brother or We‘s The Benefactor

a fear or disgust of the world outside the state

a common view of traditional life, particularly organized religion, as primitive and nonsensical

a penal system that lacks due process laws and often employs psychological or physical torture

constant surveillance by state police agencies

the banishment of the natural world from daily life

a back story of a natural disaster, war, revolution, uprising, spike in overpopulation or some other climactic event which resulted in dramatic changes to society

a standard of living among the lower and middle class that is generally poorer than in contemporary society

a protagonist who questions the society, often feeling intrinsically that something is terribly wrong

because dystopian literature takes place in the future, it often features technology more advanced than that of contemporary society


To have an effect on the reader, dystopian fiction typically has one other trait: familiarity. It is not enough to show people living in a society that seems unpleasant. The society must have echoes of today, of the reader’s own experience. If the reader can identify the patterns or trends that would lead to the dystopia, it becomes a more involving and effective experience. Authors can use a dystopia effectively to highlight their own concerns about societal trends. For example, some commentators say that George Orwell originally wanted to title 1984 1948, because he saw the world he describes emerging in austere postwar Europe.


Source: Nationmaster


Dystopian literature: a list

January 24, 2009

1984 by George Orwell

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Among the Hidden by Margaret Haddix

Anthem by Ayn Rand

Angelwings and Finerthings by Paul M. Jessup

Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (This could perhaps be considered a utopia, as the people in that society are certainly happy, but it is more generally regarded by critics as a dystopian satire, as they actually have no choice in whether they are happy or not.)

The Children of Men by P.D. James

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Doc and Fluff by Pat Califia

Die Andere Seite by Alfred Kubin

The Domination by S. M. Stirling

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

A Friend of the Earth by T. C. Boyle.

The Giver by Lois Lowry (Again, perhaps a Utopia, however it is at a cost)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut

The Iron Heel by Jack London

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Kallocain by Karin Boye

Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald

Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (an example of a dystopia that takes place in the present)

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

Neuromancer by William Gibson.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Running Man by Richard Bachman, a pseudonym for Stephen King.

The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner

The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

This Perfect Day by Ira Levin

Time out of Joint by Philip K. Dick

Tl?Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Jorge Luis Borges

Triage by Leonard Lewin

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut


Source: Nationmaster

Dystopian films: a list

January 24, 2009


A Clockwork Orange

Aeon Flux



Battle Royale

Blade Runner, adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick


Code 46

Demolition Man



Escape from New York and its sequel, Escape from L.A.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within


Logan’s Run

The Mad Max film series

The Matrix trilogy and The Animatrix series

Max Headroom made-for-TV film and television series

Metropolis by Fritz Lang

Metropolis by Osamu Tezuka

The Omega Man

Planet of the Apes filmed on two occasions, by Franklin J. Schaffner and Tim Burton, respectively, plus its sequels.

Resident Evil

Resident Evil: Apocalypse

Soylent Green


The Terminator and its sequels

THX 1138

12 Monkeys

Traumstadt, adapted from Die Andere Seite by Alfred Kubin



Source: Nationmaster

My media week 24/01/09

January 24, 2009

Geoff Nunberg, who teaches linguistics at Berkeley, analyses Barack Obama’s inauguration speech listening for plyptotons and catachresis. He also looks at other speeches and speakers. Here is the transcript.


Heard on CNN:

Wolf Blitzer and David Gergen, watching Obama sign official papers yesterday in the Oval Office:

BLITZER: And if you’ve ever seen Barack Obama’s signature, he is very precise when he writes, and it’s and if he writes, he scribbles some words before he signs an autograph, for example. His penmanship, I must say — and I’ve seen it — is really excellent.

GERGEN: He’s got a little flourish to that signature.

BLITZER: He has a great flourish. And it’s very impressive.

From: fair.org


With so many people attending Obama’s inauguration  Slate had a look at How do you measure a crowd?


In this article John Kay argues that banks should go back to what they know best. Here is taster:

To think that today’s market conditions are exceptional, and that yesterday’s euphoria represented a normal state of affairs, is a fundamental misconception. On the contrary: in market equilibrium, opaque products sell with difficulty and at a discount. A barrel of apples whose quantity and quality can only be guessed at should sell for less than the combined value of the apples, and does. There was never an economic rationale for structured products on the scale on which the financial services industry created them. They were the result of a frenetic search for commissions and bonuses.

For the rest of the article go here.






How stories made our world

January 18, 2009

In unsettled times like these, when world cultures, countries and religions are facing off in violent confrontations, we could benefit from the reminder that storytelling is common to all civilizations. Whether in the form of a sprawling epic or a pointed ballad, the story is our most ancient method of making sense out of experience and of preserving the past.  William Collins


Our species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories. Mary Catherine Bateson


Many people don’t realize the extent to which stories influence our behaviour and even shape our culture. Think about how Bible stories teach the fundamentals of religion and rules of conduct. Think of the fables and parables that moulded your values. Think of how stories about your national, cultural or family history have shaped your attitudes about yourself and others.  Lawrence Shapiro


The story was the bushman’s most sacred possession. These people knew what we do not; that without a story you have not got a nation, or culture, or civilization. Without a story of your own, you haven’t got a life of your own. Laurens Van der Post


We are constantly being bombarded with stories. Newspapers have their news stories. Cinema is based, almost exclusively, on dramatised fiction. Prime time TV is largely the same. Novels dominate the bestseller lists. Companies spend billions of dollars every year on advertising, trying to get their stories across to us, so as to influence us to purchase their products. Political leaders and states have also fostered stories about the past in order to construct a sense of community or nation. The founders of the world’s great religions understood the importance of stories, handing down our great myths and legends from generation to generation. Elaborate conspiracy theories intrigue us. Much of our conversation is taken up with anecdotes, jokes and of course gossip – all forms of story. Even when we go to bed at night, our dreams are stories produced by our sleeping brains. We are indeed storytelling apes.

            We may not feel comfortable with the idea of applying human evolution to the understanding of literature and narrative in general, but it can undoubtedly provide many valuable insights. We can say this for two reasons. Firstly, storytelling goes back a long way, pre-dating not only the invention of writing, but of agriculture and permanent settlement as well. We do not know exactly when humans developed language but a 100,000 years ago is as good a guess as any. Secondly, storytelling is ultimately a product of the human mind, which itself is the product of evolutionary pressures.

Storytelling has grown immensely in its scope and power from its origins – telling stories around the campfire. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories. Freudians have their three stages of psychosexual development, the oral, anal and phallic; in terms of narrative Walter Ong, a linguist and narratologist described the oral, print and media stages. It is a good idea to get an idea of the time scales involved. If we began using language 100,000 years ago, the print and media stages represent a mere blink of the eye.

What are the functions of storytelling? Within evolutionary science there is a debate as to whether it is an evolutionary adaptation or a by-product of the human mind I favour the latter but whoever is right stories serve an essential role in our society; they can teach morals, cultural expectations, and behavioural norms. The knowledge we acquire through storytelling vastly outweighs the firsthand knowledge we have about the world. Stories are indeed a wonderful teaching tool. It is clear that we respond far better to stories than we do to graphs and numbers. Thomas Sowell’s book Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy contains no graphs or mathematical formulae. It does however contain lots of stories that really bring the dismal science to life. Mathematician John Allen Paulos tries to do similar things with mathematics. We need to be given a context and stories are wonderful at doing that.

            However, stories have their dangers. Life is not a Hollywood narrative. It does not imitate art. Many events have no meaning and are purely arbitrary occurrences but humans need to try to impose order on all this chaos- we have a need to use the word because; we are a pattern-seeking species. This is why we’re all so riveted by stories of any kind – we can’t live without explanations so we make up all kinds of theories with insufficient information and a blatant disregard for empirical evidence. This has been called narrative fallacy and we are suckers for it. In at the beginning of a Hollywood film we see someone buying a gun we know that that he will use it very soon. If someone coughs, it is because they have a terminal illness. In real life many things occur but they have no particular connection to what comes after they are merely random, meaningless events. In economics we often hear stories about how individuals are affected by a particular factory closure but we don’t see the overall effects. We hear from the most vocal groups but we won’t hear from people whose future jobs will be destroyed by protective tariffs. Anecdotes are not necessarily the best way to carry out an economic policy. Anti-semitism is an example of a terrible story that has been handed down from generation to generation culminating in the horror of the Holocaust.

            So, stories are all around us. We cannot escape from them. They do many wonderful things but we should also be aware of the dangers.  I would like to claim the wisdom to be able to see beyond them but we will probably never be able to transcend all our biases and see things in an objective way. 

The seven basic plots

January 18, 2009

In 2005  a journalist called Christopher Booker published The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, a Jungian-influenced analysis of stories and their psychological meaning, a labour of love on which he had been working for over 30 years. Although he got very bad reviews in the press, he did receive praise from many novelists, playwrights and academics.  He attempts to answer the answer to the age-old riddle of whether there are only a small number of ‘basic stories’ in the world, using examples, from ancient myths, folk tales, plays, novels, movies and soap operas. Here are the seven archetypal themes, which according to Booker, recur throughout every kind of storytelling:


RAGS TO RICHES Story of an ordinary person who finds a second, more exceptional, self within. Examples include Cinderella, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre and Hollywood films such as The Gold Rush and My Fair Lady


THE QUEST A long, hazardous journey to reach a priceless goal far away. Examples of this include The Odyssey, Jason and the Golden Fleece, King Solomon’s Mines, Around The World in Eighty Days and Raiders of the Lost Ark


VOYAGE AND RETURN Story in which some event — a fall, crash, shipwreck — propels the hero or heroine out of their familiar surroundings into a disconcerting and abnormal world. Examples include Alice in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe, The Ancient Mariner, The Time Machine


COMEDY Not just a general term, but an identifiable form of plot which follows its own rules. Examples include Tom Jones, the novels of Jane Austen, The Importance of Being Earnest, Fawlty Towers, Some Like It Hot


TRAGEDY Is an archetypal plot, with a five-stage structure culminating in destruction and death. The main character is overcome by a desire for power/passion, which destroys them or they become monstrous. Examples include Macbeth, Doctor Faustus, Lolita, and King Lear


REBIRTH Someone falls under a dark power or a spell that traps him or her in a state of living death. An miraculous act of redemption takes place and the victim is released and brought into the light. Examples include Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol, The Sound of Music


OVERCOMING THE MONSTER A hero or heroine confronts a monster, defeats it against all odds and wins treasure or a loved one’s hand. Examples include David and Goliath, Nicholas Nickleby, Jack and the Beanstalk, Dracula, James Bond stories, Jaws