Utopia and High Modernism

I’ve recently started Erin McKenna’s The Task of Utopia, which thoughtfully explores and compares numerous utopian visions.

Primarily, she critiques the popular conception of utopia as a static, end-state, vision, arguing instead for a process model of utopia. What makes this commentary so compelling is that McKenna deftly dismisses both proponents and detractors of this end-state model.

I have written before about this end-state debate. On the one side are utopians who argue in favor of a static society, peacefully at equilibrium, but in which individuals are devoid of personality and incapable of growth and change. Detractors, on the other hand, find that the cost is too high – the generally bad elements of war and pain and grief may be eliminated, but without them we can not also experience the positives of love and joy and creativity.

McKenna summarizes the debate between these views:

This end-state approach seeks to control the future so completely that any future individual participation will become meaningless and unnecessary. The belief is that by gaining control over nature, over the ordering of society, we will be able to achieve the right ordering of individuals in society and achieve a lasting harmony. It is this idea of rational control leading to final harmony that promotes the view of utopian visions as static, totalitarian nightmares. 

End-state utopias, then, may indeed be well-ordered societies, but they are ultimately little more than a dangerous and destructive expression of high modernism.

In Seeing Like a State James C. Scott argues that high modernist ideology “is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress…” However, “high modernism must not be confused with scientific practice. It was fundamentally, as the term ‘ideology’ implies, a faith that borrowed, as it were, the legitimacy of science and technology. It was accordingly, uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production.”

High modernism goes hand in hand with an end-state vision of utopia: it is the arrogant belief that with enough rational thought, with enough scientific process, and with enough control, a select class of humans have the capacity to bring about a utopian society.

Scott argues that this high modernist ideology – along with a totalitarian state capable of implementing this vision and a weak civil society which is unable to resist – ultimately led to “the great human tragedies of the twentieth century.”

The destruction wrought by the high-modernist experiments led, as McKenna notes, to the end-state utopia more recently falling out of favor. Humans were foolish if they thought they could achieve utopia, and wrong if they thought coercion and control were acceptable means of achieving it. The cost, indeed, was too high.

McKenna, however, finds an alternate path. “Those who call for (or lament) the end of utopia have a limited vision of what utopia can entail,” she argues. “They tend to fall back on an end-state model of utopia…Utopian visions can avoid these problems when they no longer seek a final goal, but realize that it is the process of transformation itself that needs to be addressed.”

I’ll cover her approach, a process model of utopia, in a future post, but it seemed worth spending some time connecting the problems of the end-state model with the dangers of high modernism.

In part, this topic is making me revisit the most resent work of utopian fiction I read – Sándor Szathmári’s Voyage to Kazohinia. While Szathmári clearly favors the well-ordered society of the Hins, I – like those concerned about utopia above – found them too lacking in love and art.

I had attempted to provide some arguments rejecting the premise of having to choose between the well-ordered, equilibrium society and a passionate society of extremes, but I ultimately  decided that this was a question worth exploring.

McKenna, on the other hand, seems solidly convinced that the choice may not be forced – the seeming dichotomy is simply an artifact of end-state thinking.

I note this here because Szathmári’s ideal Hin society is not an end-state utopia. We see the Hins only through the eyes of an Englishman, and it is this proud man of Western civilization who deems their society a repugnant, end-state, dystopia.

But that critique is too simple. Unlike the end-state dystopias described by McKenna, the perfect, peaceful society of the Hins did not come about through totalitarian coercion. The are people who evolved, who collectively decided to act in ways that were better for everyone. Far from suffering under a totalitarian regime, the Hins don’t even have a government – it is not necessary because everyone shares a continual understanding of what is best.

And, most importantly in illustrating that it is not an end-state utopia, Hin society is not static. Our English hero is repulsed by their norms, but throughout the novel, we see Hins interested in growing and learning and changing. They are not static, the have a good society but they still quest to be better.

There still seems something tragic in their loss of love and art, but perhaps I was too quick to dismiss the Hins as little more than a vision of end-state ideal. Perhaps a choice between equilibrium and extremes is not required. Perhaps, indeed, we can have a process model of utopia.


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