Category Archives: Utopia

The Slow Work of Co-Creation

For my Social Network class, I’ve been reading a lot about processes of homophily and group polarization. A lot of the literature is discouraging.

People tend to self-sort into like-minded groups, groups tend to gravitate towards the pre-deliberation mean, and people tend to disregard or deride information they see as coming from a different group. It’s all a whole lot less idyllic than one might hope.

More generally, the problem is that people, on average don’t do what is best for them or for society at large. It makes it extremely difficult to develop and implement policy solutions when those solutions – while potentially addressing some problems – cascaded into other problems you hadn’t quite anticipated.

Consider a fundamental challenge of urban planning: there is currently deep inequity between communities which is realized, in part, through unequal resources and disparate access. One way to ameliorate this rift to to provide services to communities which didn’t previously enjoy that service. For example, building public transportation in these communities should be to their benefit.

And it is, except –

Public transportation leads to gentrification and rising home prices – the people who should have benefited from the public transportation move out of the community and do not then benefit from the transportation. In the best case scenario, a home owner can profit from the rising housing costs – cashing out to settle elsewhere. Renters, unfortunately, don’t have such luxury and may simply be forced out of their property owners convert to condos sell the land.

Either scenarios is not particularly satisfying; particularly considering that the pre-transport residents – home owners or note – were probably exposed to toxic near-highway pollutants and may just have moved to a different location where their health exposures were equally bad.

These frustratingly inter-connected problems seem nearly impossible to solve. It’s like policy wack-a-mole; if you build public transportation you then need a condo-conversion ordinance, and each potential solution reveals new and challenging needs.

But I think this is okay.

In The Task of Utopia, Erin McKenna argues that it’s damaging to think of utopia as this fixed, static thing: gather enough knowledge, enact enough policy solutions, and we can figure out how to solve the problem forever.

But life is not really as easy as all that – nor should it be. Utopia isn’t an end-state, it’s a process. A slow, tiresome, frustratingly complex process.

There are no easy solutions, but that doesn’t mean we’re left with nothing but to throw our hands up in despair. It means we have to talk together, work together, and search together – slowly, continually co-creating the world around us.

Hope and Utopia

There is a common sentiment that hope is required for social action. We must hold on to hope. We must not give in to despair.

Perhaps it is simply the contrarian in me, but I cannot help but sigh when hearing these exhortations. We must hold on to hope? Why?

On the surface, I suppose it seem like a perfectly reasonably thing to say. So reasonable, in fact, that people often don’t take the time to justify the claim. We must hold on to hope as surely as we must see that the sky is blue – it is just the way things are.

This only makes me question harder.

In The Task of Utopia, Erin McKenna defends the value of utopian visions, repeating several times throughout the book, “utopian visions are visions of hope.” By which she means that they “challenge us to explore a range of possible human conditions.”

Hope is required, then, because only hope can inspire us to imagine that things might be different and only hope can motivate us to work towards those visions.

Importantly, McKenna advocates against static, end-state models of utopia, in which “hope” essentially becomes shorthand for “hope that a (near) perfect future is possible and achievable.”

Instead, McKenna articulates her hopeful vision as a process:

If one can get beyond trying to achieve final perfect end-states and accept that there are instead multiple possible futures-in-process, one has taken the first step in understanding the responsibility each of us has to the future in deciding how to live our lives now.

In this way, “hope” is a sort of future-awareness. It is not a feeling or an emotion per se, but minimally hope is a sense that there will be a future self which our present self has some power over shaping.

I generally take the term “hope” to be somewhat more optimistically inclined, but even under this broad definition, I still find myself skeptical of hope as a necessity.

Consider the character of Jean Tarrou from Albert Camus’ The Plague. After the city of Oran is quarantined following a deadly outbreak of plague, Tarrou organizes volunteers to help the sick and try to fight off the plague.

One could argue that he had hope in the manner described above – perhaps he imagined a future in which the city was no longer wracked by disease; perhaps he imagined his actions could play a role in creating that future. Such a future-vision combined with a sense of agency could be described as hope.

But it is exactly this story which motivates me to be skeptical of hope as a required element of social change.

The situation in Oran is desperate. There is every reason to think that all the city’s inhabitants will eventually succumb to the plague. Perhaps Tarrou’s efforts may stave off some deaths for a time, but in the middle of the novel it is reasonable to believe that Tarrou’s efforts will make no real difference. Either way, the outcome will be the same.

Many of Oran’s inhabitants seem to feel this way. In the face of almost certain death, people celebrate wildly at night, finally free of the taboos and inhibitions which had previously kept them more orderly. They had lost a vision of the future in which their actions played a part. They had lost hope.

Yet there is no reason to think that Tarrou felt any differently. Faced with almost certain death, accepting of the knowledge that his actions would make no difference, Tarrou still works to fight the plague.

He has no hope, it is simply what you do.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, another piece by Camus, he snarkily comments of Sisyphus’ labor that “the gods had thought that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”

But life is futile and hopeless labor. This is, in fact, the essence of being alive. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” Camus writes.

Hope is not required.

I am heavily persuaded by McKenna’s process-model of utopia, but find hope to be a somewhat superfluous element. Her vision requires the imagination to conceive of possible futures, and it takes the agency to act in seeking those possible futures, but it does not require hope that those futures are achievable nor hope that one’s efforts will have impact.

In fact, I imagine the process-model as thriving better without hope. This vision finds that the future is and always will be imperfect. Perfection is neither desirable nor achievable. Abandoning hope means accepting the future as flawed, accepting ourselves as flawed. Most of us will probably have no impact, and most of us will never witness the futures we dream of. But that lack of hope is not a reason not to act – indeed, in abandoning such hope, our actions and our choices are all that we have left.



Learning to Be Human

In The Public and its Problems, John Dewey writes:

To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values. 

I love this phrase. To learn to be human.

It emphasizes that education isn’t just a process of obtaining facts and knowledge. It is a process of learning who we are, of becoming, fundamentally, human. Furthermore, the phrase implies the converse – being human is something we must learn.

Everything which is distinctively human is learned, Dewey argues.

This is a profound stance.

If we see ourselves as individuals, that is a learned trait. If we see ourselves as disconnected from others in our society, that is a learned trait. If we see ourselves as different, if we find ourselves filled with hate; those too are learned traits.

But being human isn’t simply a process through which we adopt the norms of whatever society happens to be around us. Human is an ideal. Being human means being an individually distinctive member of a community, it means contributing to human resources and values. 

To Dewey, learning to be human means learning to appreciate ourselves as intrinsically interconnected beings; learning that we are deeply interdependent on every thing around us; that we are shaped by our world and that we have a role in shaping our world.

Learning to be human means learning to love and appreciate the contributions every person makes; it means recognizing the other as inseparable from the self.

Importantly, Dewey notes, this translation is never finished.

We must constantly learn to be human, and, through the give-and-take of communication we must continually learn from each other and educate each other. In learning to be human we learn how to be our best selves while supporting the improvement of everyone around us and while working together to shape our common future.

Collaborating mutually in the endeavor of being human allows us achieve great things.

It is in learning to be human that we can ultimately transform our great society of remarkable technology and innovation into a Great Community, capable of so much more.

Process-Model Utopia

In The Task of Utopia, Erin McKenna argues in favor of a “process-model” of utopia. This vision is built largely upon the work of John Dewey, who dreams of democracy “as a method of living by which individuals are fully engaged in the experience that is their lives.”

We must move away from considering “end-state” models of utopia as a perfect, static, society and instead embrace our role as critical builders and shapers of our future world and selves.

For one thing, a static utopia is simply unattainable: “Social living is an ongoing process, not a perfected life. No harmony is lasting. Each satisfying moment passes over into a new need for which we must alter our world and/our ourselves to meet.”

But more deeply, a static vision strips people of their agency, takes away what really makes us alive. If an end-state utopia were achieved, there would be nothing for people to do, they’d have no role to play in perfecting themselves or perfecting their future. Any change could only represent a move away from perfection.

While that may be a small price to pay for establishment of utopia, McKenna argues that “the unfolding of the future is not determined separate from us, but is intricately connected with us.”  Nearly by definition, an end-state utopia is not sustainable: across generations, people must continually work to sustain utopian institutions, but without a process-model there is no way to prepare future generations for this important task.

This idea fits well with Dewey’s model of democracy which, as McKenna writes, “requires that we recognize how our participation affects what the future can be. It requires that we recognize that there is no-end state at which we must work to arrive, but a multiple of possible future states which we seek and try out. John Dewey’s vision of democracy prepares us to interact with our world and guide it to a better future by immersing us in what he calls the method of critical intelligence”

Notably, Dewey sees democracy as a process rather than an end state: “democracy is not participation by an inchoate public, nor is it a perfected end-state to be attainted. It is the development of critical intelligence and a method of living with regard to the past, present, and future.”

Dewey urges us to consider ourselves as connected, interdependent beings. Connected and dependent not only on those who care for us as children, but broadly connected and dependent our past and present societies. Our individual selves are shaped by collective history and defined by innumerable interactions, and we each have a role to play in affecting the current lives of others and shaping the future contours of society.

As McKenna explains:

Our social situation is not something that simply happens to us, however. We appropriate and integrate our environment into experience. Whatever our situation, we participate in its future development. It does not develop separately from us. Our activity partially defines our social situation, and our social situation goes a long way to guiding our activity. There is an interplay of the determinant and indeterminate by which we realize the potential of the future. We are a perspective, influenced by our experience, through which we organize our participation and structure the community so that future experience is meaningful to us.

We create ourselves from our environment, and we create our environment through our selves.

This places a great responsibility on each of us to work for utopia. We must constantly and critically examine ourselves and our world, imagining better possible futures, and actively working towards and adjusting these visions.

We must each, as Dewey writes, learn to be human.

There is something compellingly beautiful about this vision; about the idea of a society which seamlessly integrates the individual and the whole, the past and the future. A society in which we all see ourselves as intrinsically interconnected and interdependent, working together to perfect ourselves, each other, and our shared experience.

Yet, perhaps this is far too much to hope for. The biggest complain about Dewey, most notably from Walter Lippmann, is that this vision is too unrealistic, too naive about the biases of people and the abuses of power.

As McKenna herself writes:

Even if the process model can prepare people to be the critical citizens it needs (a huge task in itself), how can it ensure that they actually will participate and take on their responsibilities? The process model asks a great deal of people in terms of time and effort. Apathetic or lazy citizens will not take up the critical stance easily. Where the end-state vision does not ask enough of people, or give enough responsibility to them, the process model may ask and give too much.

But, McKenna for one, finds reason to hope:

While the process model may require more of people than we are prepared to give now, visions on this model can provide us with insight into the means available to change our attitudes and action and show us the possibilities of the future if we are willing to try to change and become Dewey’s integrated individual…Utopia visions are visions of hope that can challenge us to explore a range of possible human conditions…the first step in understanding the responsibility each of us has to the future in deciding how to live our lives now.

For those less inclined towards hope, perhaps one can at least find some grim humor in this concluding note from McKenna’s final chapter:

One can hope that here, in the United States, the elections of 2000 have awakened people to the importance of their responsible participation in the political process.

The process model asks a lot, indeed.


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.

Embracing Behinity

Throughout the week, I’ve been reflecting on Sándor Szathmári’s great work of social satire, Voyage to Kazohinia. The work critiques a number of social institutions, but largely seems to focus on a broader question: is an ideal society one at equilibrium or one which embraces extremes?

Szathmári presents this question by introducing us, through the shipwrecked Englishman Gulliver, to two contrasting societies: the brilliant, efficient and loveless Hins and the backwards, chaotic, and destructive Behins.

Given the Hin’s complete lack of love, art, and unique character, one might be inclined to favor the mad but passionate world of the Behins, though Szathmári clearly seems to favor the ordered society of the Hins.

Following the principal of kazo – mathematical clarity – the Hins naturally act “so that the individual, through society, reaches the greatest possible well-being and comfort.” The Behins, on the other hand, are “kazi” – a term for the irrationality which captures everything not kazo.

While I have commented this week on the arguments favoring both types of communities and on reasons why we might want to force a choice between the two rather than just rejecting the premise all together, I have yet to actually answer the question for myself.

On this topic, I have found myself greatly torn.

On the one hand, the peaceful, equitable, and rational world of the Hins is clearly the more reasonable of the two societies. Nearly every logical thought argues in its favor.

Yet the Hin’s lack of art, of passion, of love seems too much to bear. It nearly seems worth sacrificing peace and equity for these peculiarities that make us so deeply human.

Furthermore, being generally inclined to favor unpopular opinions makes me want to argue for the Behinistic perspective on principle. If the kazo world of the Hins is so clearly the rational choice, the troublemaker and contrarian in me just has to push against it.

This instinct is quite clearly kazi.

Additionally, that proud desire to be kazi in the face of all reason strikes me as potentially little more than an arrogantly American trait.

One of my Japanese teachers once told me that she couldn’t understand why Americans took such pride in being individualistic. We fancy ourselves as standing up against the crowd, as being brave radicals willing to boldly buck conventional norms. My teacher just laughed. You think doing what you want is hard? Doing what’s best for others is harder.

As something of an aside here, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that in addition to being a clever critique of western society at large, Szathmári’s novel brilliantly satirizes the west’s Orientalism.

The Hins – whose philosophy I previously compared to Lao Tzu‘s – encapsulates everything “the west” thinks of “the east.” They do not, of course, reflect any real culture existing in the world, but our English Gulliver views them exactly as he might if he had found himself among any of the real peoples of East Asia.

Gulliver comments that “the Behins respected the Hins very much even though they loathed them,” a sentiment which perfectly encapsulates Gulliver’s own attitude. He is impressed by their efficiency and technological innovations, but hates their uniformity and dispassion.

This duality epitomizes the sentiments of Orientalism, and is particularly resonant of western views of Japan around the second world war, when Kazohinia was written. It is no accident that Gulliver was being deployed to Japan when he was shipwrecked.

The Behins, on the other hand, represent the west as it is, disrobed from the vain glory in which it sees itself. One could also make a strong argument that the Behins represent eastern views of the west, but either way Szathmári seems to write in the hopes of convincing his Behinistic western audience to be a little less kazi – using our own stereotypes to highlight our failings and the true ideal we neglect.

And thus I come to my final conclusion. While I put little stock in the gross over-generalizations of cultures, whether as a product of my culture or a product of my experiences, I find myself irreparably kazi. I know rationally that the kazo life is better, but I cannot accept it; I could not survive.

Like Foucault, I’m inclined to find that madness is little more than a social construct and, like Lewis Carroll, I’m inclined to believe we are all mad here.

The whole world is kazi, and – while I’d like to work to make the world a little more kazo – I’m no less Behin than anyone else.

Ironically, it would be kazi to assume otherwise. Throughout Gulliver’s time among the Behins he finds people who rightly mock the foolish beliefs and invented norms of their kazi peers. The greatest error comes, though, when these Behins don’t recognize the same foolishness within themselves. They simply substitute one kazi belief for another.

To not recognize one’s own Behinity, then, seems the height of madness.

At the end of the novel, Szathmári tells as about a certain kind of Behin “whose only Behinity is that he doesn’t realize among whom he lives; for it could not be imagined, could it, that someone aware of the Behinistic disease would still want to explain reality to them?”

I take this as a direct appeal to the reader: having been enlightened as to the Behinistic disease and possibly identifying Behinistic traits within ourselves, we are urged to move beyond our kazi instincts and embrace the better path of kazo. The Hins, we learn, were once Behins themselves.

This is, perhaps, a wise argument, but, in typical fashion, I find myself siding with Camus. The world is indeed absurd and the only thing left is to embrace that absurdity.

Equilibrium vs. Extremes: Rejecting the Premise

In my post yesterday I posed a question raised by Sándor Szathmári’s Voyage to Kazohinia: Is an ideal society one at equilibrium or one which embraces extremes?

In Kazohinia – as well as in some other social satires – these opposite choices are presented as mutually exclusive; a society can not have both. Both options seem to have pros and cons: the society at equilibrium is efficient and stable, but lacking in art, love, and life in its richest sense. The society with extremes has creativity, growth, and change but also has war, poverty, and injustice.

So which is better?

I was careful yesterday not to answer this question for myself: partly out of a interest in trying to define both sides of the argument, and partly because I’m not entirely satisfied with my answer.

I will also not answer that question today, instead exploring an alternate approach. Frankly, my instinct is to reject the premise of the question – why must we see these choices as exclusive? Surely there is some way to embrace the best of both models?

That is a tempting out of this debate, and would surely be the best option. This, however, quickly leads to a host of other questions: is a balance between these models possible? What would that look like?

A core argument for an equilibrium society is that so-called good things necessarily create so-called bad things: that the existence of love intrinsically means the existence of hate. Therefore, finding a proper mix of these two social models means finding a path that allows for some close relationships while preventing apathy towards the broader populace.

You’ll note that I’ve softened the contrast here: perhaps love does not necessitate hate, but favoring some people – through the simple realities of one’s energy and resources – does seem to necessitate not favoring others. In a wealthy country where the global populations we don’t favor are starving to death in poverty, this presents a real conundrum – even if you generously assume that not favoring these populations is completely separate from issues of hate and racism.

This is exactly the issue philosopher Peter Singer tackles in his book, One World. In lecturing to his students, Singer quotes Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick:

We should all agree that each of us in bound to show kindness to his parents and spouse and children, and to other kinsmen in a less degree: and to those who have rendered services to him, and any others whom he may have admitted to his intimacy and called friends: and to neighbors and to fellow-countrymen more than others…

Singer comments that his students nod their heads in agreement with these words. This is the existence of love. We should love our family more than our friends, and love our friends more than strangers. One might sense a nagging doubt at these circles of concern, but on the whole it seems reasonable: we might care for humanity at large, but it seems improper and unnatural to love a stranger as much as your own child.

But while this demarcation may seem reasonable and morally valid, Sedgwick quickly goes off the rails:

…and perhaps we may say [we are bound to show kindness] to those of our own race more than to black or yellow men, and generally to human beings in proportion to their affinity to ourselves.

Singer’s students “sit up in shock.” This completely reasonable moral perspective to which they found themselves agreeing suddenly turned into a racist manifesto. Good people certainly don’t endorse that last sentence!

Singer shares this story to challenge the notion that “it self-evident that we have special obligations to those nearer to us, including our children, our spouses, lovers and friends, and our compatriots.”

His work, then, centers around answering the question, “How can we decide whether we have special obligations to ‘our own kind’ and if so, who is ‘our own kind’ in the relevant sense?”

For his part, Singer finds moral justification for preferential treatment of family members and friends:

Very few human beings can live happy and fulfilled lives without being attached to particular the human beings. To suppress these partial affections would destroy something of great value, and therefore cannot be justified from an impartial perspective.

Furthermore, while these relationships do require partiality, they may not necessarily result in the sort of broader injustice that should cause us concern. Friendships, after all:

…are stronger where there are shared values, or at least respect for the values that each holds. Where the values shared include concern for the welfare of others, irrespective of whether they are friends or strangers, then the partiality demanded by friendship or love will not be so great as to interfere in a serious way with the capacity for helping those in great need.

So there are grounds for accepting these intimate relationships. After that, though, the circles of concern break down.

I am inclined to agree with Singer in finding “few strong grounds for giving preference to the interests of one’s fellow citizens, and none that can override the obligation that arises whenever we can, at little cost to ourselves, make an absolutely crucial difference to the well-being of another person in real need.”

It is good to love ones friends and family, but nationalism is a step too far.

This all seems good and rational, but there’s something seemingly arbitrary in determining where we draw our lines. Nationalism, for example, doesn’t quite seem to capture the international biases we show in our daily lives. In the US, for example, media attention and public concern are biased first towards our own affairs, and then towards European countries we find, though some ineffable metric, to be like us. Those people we find least like us are then shown the least concern.

Singer resolves this issue by arguing that what we think of as “community” is really a made up concept. Being “American” or even “Somervillian” really just means being part of an imagined community. Building off Benedict Anderson, Singer explains:

Though citizens never encounter most of the other members of the nation, they think of themselves as sharing an allegiance to common institutions and values, such as a constitution, democratic procedures, principals of toleration, the separation of church and state, and the rule of law.

And if our nationalism is little more than an imagined community, we can, with a little effort, imagine ourselves as part of a different community. A global community.

This is an inspiring thought, but Singer has far to go in illustrating that such a thing were broadly possible. If everyone saw this as the clear moral path, one might imagine we’d have accomplished it already.

Furthermore, given the deep racial and social injustices we see within our own ‘American’ community, it is hard to imagine that we are anywhere close to collectively embracing our international identities. If our current imagined community is so narrow as to only accept people of similar race, class, ideology, and national identity, how are we ever – on a collective scale – to move beyond that?

Thus Singer’s solution leaves me somewhat disenchanted. In theory, his approach provides a map for integrating cultures of equilibrium and extreme. We ought, one might hope, to be able to love select people a little bit more, while loving the vast mass of humanity all the same. However, the mere fact that Singer has put so much effort into answering this question – and that the answer is disputable – illustrates that, even if balance is possible, it is neither easy nor self-evident.

As much as we may resist it, we may, indeed, be left with the choice: equilibrium or extremes?

Equilibrium, Madness, and Utopia

Is it possible to have the good without the bad? Does beauty create ugliness and does love beget hate?

These questions are often explored in dystopian fiction, but Szathmári Sándor’s Voyage to Kazohinia is notable in its resounding answer. Yes, these opposites endlessly create each other, Szathmári argues, and thus is it better to have neither.

It is better to leave passion and madness behind in favor of the calm stability of reason.

Perhaps this seems like not such a bold claim. Reason is certainly favorable, and ugliness and hate should be gladly left behind.

Yet, it is not quite as simple as that. The premise of the question finds that to abandon hate is to give up love, that defeating all the ills of society can only be accomplished by relinquishing the passion and spirit we hold most dear.

The perfect society is the monotonous society. Ideal and unchanging.

In making this point, Szathmári introduces us to the Hins. Technologically advanced, the Hins suffer no hunger or conflict. They live in equilibrium and harmony, through the mathematical clarity of kazo. They have no need for police or money; no need for government institutions regulating behavior. They each behave perfectly and have, quite sincerely, a perfect society.

But there is, perhaps, something unsatisfying in their existence.

We meet the Hins through Gulliver, our proud English protagonist. And while we might join the author in snickering at his cultural absurdities, there is one element of Gulliver’s impression of the Hins which resonates.

It starts with small observations. The Hins, we learn, “have no expression for taking delight in something.” A crowded beach is bathed in silence; among the Hins, “everybody was a stranger; not a single greeting was to be heard. Each simply did not exist for the other.”

Our hero begins struggling against this dispassionate view. He is impressed by the technological advancement of the Hins, but distraught by their seeming lack of feeling and soul. He desperately seeks to explain his culture to his Hin acquaintance, Zatamon, who interprets his words through the core Hin concepts of kazo, mathematical perfection, and its opposite, kazi.

After Gulliver carefully explains a number of concepts – friend, hatred, wife, happiness, theater, art, and political parties – Zatamon expresses his disappointment:

In your country the kazo is considered to apply to certain groups only, which, however, already means that it is not kazo as you do not observe it where others are concerned. Because you imagine some persons closer to yourselves and favor them, this can only be done at the same time you offer less or nothing to others. That is, both the things you give your friends and those you do not give others bear all the marks of the kazi concept. These friends do not receive out of need, or on the basis of a general state of equilibrium – at least this is what I gather from your words – but purely because you have invented the kazi idea of ‘friendship.’

…And as for the word ‘love,’ it seems to me you wish to indicate with this that people outside an exclusive circle are to be treated beneath the merit of their existence. But why do you call the same thing hatred on other occasions?

The Hins have no love or beauty or friendship because the mere conceptualization of such things existing indicates the existence of their opposites. They throw society out of balance, bring disharmony where harmony would exist otherwise. This might seem a tragic loss to our own kazi sensibilities, but giving up the extremes in favor of equilibrium is clearly the logical thing to do.

It should be noted, of course, that the philosophy which Szathmári advances here is by no means unique to the fictional Hins. Consider this eloquent passage from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

“Practice not-doing,” Lao Tzu advises, “and everything will fall into place.”

That is kazo.

This way of thinking is in bold contrast to the conclusions of others who have pondered this challenge of duality.

In 1959 – eighteen years after Kazohinia, but before it was translated to English – American author Robert Heinlein comes to a different conclusion in his novel Starship Troopers.

Heinlein similarly sees a tension between an idyllic but mundane society and a passionate society of hardship and growth.

Writing in the early years of the Vietnam War, Heinlein imagines a paradise planet called Sanctuary. Life is easy on Sanctuary, a tempting home for weary soldiers. But, while Szathmári genuinely advocates for the lifestyle of the Hins, Heinlein is clear that he sees such an appealing ideal as a trap.

The descendants of Sanctuary colonists will not evolve. “So what happens?” Heinlein asks. “Do they stay frozen at their present level while the rest of the human race moves on past them, until they are living fossils, as out of place as a pithecanthropus in a space ship?”

For Heinlein, it is not problematic that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are inextricably intertwined – both are a necessary part of human existence. Indeed, it is the challenge of living which truly makes us alive. Life on Sanctuary is no life at all.

This is the view of our Gulliver among the Hins. While Szathmári seems to advocate for the ideal society of the Hins, he knows such a view is unlikely to be adopted easily. Becoming fully acquainted with the dull, effortless, efficiency of Hin life, our hero finds himself filled with despair.

A feeling of terrible powerlessness came over me. I was buried alive among the dead in this island in the suffocating atmosphere of which the life-thirsty lung panted in vain. And there was no escape. I was to wither away here, without air and life…

Thus finding the Hins to be efficient but lifeless automatons, and painfully deprived of the passions he deems living, our hero makes his escape. He goes to live amongst the Behins, those  beings which the Hins find to be incurably kazi. 

Life amongst the Behins is so mad as to be hardly worth relaying. Gulliver is relieved to leave the colorless world of the Hins, only to find his new home “the most terrible bedlam in the world.”

Of course, the Behins are hardly more mad than we are. They greet each other with meaningless phrases and useless physical contact. They follow a convoluted set of social norms which are constantly changing and entirely unpredictable. They divide themselves into constantly warring factions that fight over nothing more than whether the circle or square is a more perfect geometric shape. They create work that doesn’t need to be done in order to enforce an arbitrary system in which the rich earn more than the poor. They are embarrassed to speak of basic physical processes (such as eating). They use metaphors which don’t in any way relate to the actual objects they are discussing. Women pay to have their faces mutilated in the name of beauty.

Yes, the Behins are quite mad.

This then, is the price of accepting the extremes. Of taking in love, hate, joy, and despair. It does, indeed, disrupt the unchanging world of the Hins, but while Heinlein sees these extremes as the essence of life, Szathmári argues the opposite – such madness is not life at all.

And while you are pondering which type of life makes you more alive, there is one more element of Szathmári’s deeply amusing satire worth mentioning.

In Behinistic society, people who speak the truth, who exercise reason, are frequently burned at the stake. Therefore, as Gulliver explains:

If one wanted to say something particularly sensible and dangerous he put a cap and bells on his head and put his fingers into his mouth. And the Behins listened to him with great amusement…

These makrus, as they were known, are the only ones who are free to speak the truth; at the cost that they are laughed at and never understood.

While “some openly described how stupid and wretched the Behin life was,” listeners always believed the words of a makru to apply only to their enemies. “…It never occurred to them that all the vile words the makrus wrote also applied to their own lives.”

In fact, while living amongst the Behins Gulliver begins writing the travel diary which we are ostensibly reading. His friend discovers the text and, finding his own name frequently amid the list of mad occurrences, asks out loud who that name is supposed to represent.

Yet this same friend guffaws moments later finding distasteful but accurate descriptions of a local dignitary. The friend encourages Gulliver to publish his comical work, assuring him that he need not fear the dignitary’s wrath: “How do you imagine that he would recognize himself?”

Considering the opportunity to publish his work among the Behins, our Gulliver reflects:

The proposal was enticing but after some thinking I realized that for the very same reason there was no point in publishing it. How could it be imagined that reading it would make them even one iota cleverer or would render their lives one jot more endurable with such a lack of comprehension? Should I publish the account of my travels? It deserved a lot better than to be object of idiots’ imbecilic guffaws.


I recently finished reading Voyage to Kazohinia by Hungarian author Szathmári SándorIt’s a great book, and I highly recommend picking up a copy. As it turns out, the full English text is also available online. So you really should go read it.

I have a lot of reflections after reading this striking social satire and expect to be posting more about it throughout the week. But, as a simple start today, I share the concept of kazo.

Kazo is a core element of the novel and, quite frankly, one of those terms that I’m not sure how I’ve managed so long without having in my lexicon.

But, let’s back up a bit.

It is 1935 and the world is on the brink of a second great war. Our hero, whose travel diary we read, is a respectable British Naval officer. While on en route to be stationed aboard the Invincible off the coast of Japan, our intrepid traveler – Gulliver – is shipwrecked and finds himself among a strange people in a strange land.

You have no doubt grasped that this presents an indelible opportunity to satirize western culture, and Kazohinia does not disappoint.

In the land of the Hins – as its people call themselves – Gulliver marvels at the lack of police force:

Human life and freedom seemed to have no protection here, at least until then I had seen no policeman, nowhere was there anybody with pistol or bayonet. How could they sleep at night?

Our hero finds himself similarly confused by the Hins’ inability to differentiate between ‘crime’ and ‘punishment.’ While the proper Englishman tries to explain to a hapless Hins why social order demands that a crime be met with punishment, the Hin simply shakes his head and remarks:

It is not enough that you commit crimes, you even punish as well.

In a discussion about private property, one Hin explains that such a thing cannot exist – the only thing which belongs to a person is their body. Gulliver objects:

There are certain cases when citizens must sacrifice their lives for their country, so at such times the fatherland has our bodies at its disposal. But let us not stray too far from the point. Clothes are private property that other people cannot take away.

While our hero ironically misses the conflict in his statements, he does at first find the Hins to be a near perfect culture.

I may say, it was very strange to my European eyes, seeing this society whose every member was rich without having a single penny. As if the whole society had formed a single household in within which there were no financial problems, no written regulations, no prohibited areas, and no work status problems, but where the members of the family went about freely, helping each other with the housework, and helping themselves from a dish in the middle of the table. I felt a warm, friendly, and intimate atmosphere that I had never before felt among any such people.

And how is this peaceful synchronicity possible? Kazo.

As our author explains:

Kazo is somewhere between chivalry, impartiality, patience, self-respect, and justice. It connotes a general rightful intention but cannot be translated with any of these words…Kazo is a strict mathematical concept for equality of service and counterservice, similar to the principle of action and reaction in physics. If someone who does more strenuous work also eats more, that is kazoo to them. If somebody eats more because his stomach requires it, then that is also kazoo. And if an invalid who does no work wishes to have finer food, then this, too, is kazo.

…The more talented, the stronger, produce more. To us this appears to be an injustice, but to the inhabitants of this land it is as natural as to expect a bigger output with less fuel consumption in the case of a more efficient machine.

Quite simply:

Kazo is pure reason that perceives with mathematical clarity, in a straight line, when and how it must act – so that the individual, through society, reaches the greatest possible well-being and comfort.

You might wonder how such a thing is possible. How could a whole society of people possibly effortlessly coordinate their efforts in such a way?

A Hin has a perfect parable to explain this to us:

There is a species of ant, for instance. If one ant finds honey, it will take its fill. Now, if it meets a companion that has not found honey and is hungry, it will stick its mouth into the other ant’s mouth and thus the full any will transfer honey from itself until each of them is equally satisfied. How does the full any know that the other is more hungry, and how do both know when each of them is as satisfied as the other? …They know because the fuller ant gives honey to the hungrier one, and they will be equally satisfied when they part.

Kazo, then, can perhaps best be described as the natural path towards perfect equilibrium. The ants don’t need to discuss when enough honey has been shared, nor do they need to ‘know’ in our common sense exactly how much to share. They simply do what is right. Naturally. It is kazo.

It is this principle which allows Hin society to function so smoothly. Without government or economy, without wars or hunger. As we’ll see more tomorrow, our hero is impressed, but distraught, by the functionings of the Hins:

It came to light that everything took place entirely without money. Factories turned out goods but nobody received payment. Goods, on the other hand, lay in warehouses for one and all, and indeed everyone took as much as they wished. I could not imagine how maintaining order was possible in this chaos. 

Politics in an Ideal World

Not long ago, a friend asked me why anyone would want to engage in politics for politics’ sake. We worry about such things because we have to, but wouldn’t it be better, in some theoretical, ideal world, if we didn’t have to?

Imagine, for a moment, a perfect world; a society so flawless that it was always just and fair without any need for engagement from its citizens. In such a world, people would have no need for the frustrating practice of politics – they would be free, instead, to devote their time to more productive endeavors.

Now, such a thought experiment immediately raises all sorts of practical concerns; but let’s for a moment put those aside and assume that such an ideal society is both attainable and sustainable. In such a world, what would the role of citizens be?

In thinking about this question, it seemed natural to turn to John Dewey, philosopher, educator, and unwavering proponent of what he called the Great Community . Dewey’s 1927 book, The Public and It’s Problems defended democracy and responded directly to the skeptical critique of Walter Lippmann.

You’ll note here a subtle shift in language – is the thought experiment one of politics or one of democracy? Much lies, I suppose, in the definitions of these terms, but I’ll borrow here from Dewey in detangling them:

We have had occasion to refer in passing to the distinction between democracy as a social idea and political democracy as a system of government. The two are, of course, connected. The idea remains barren and empty save as it is incarnated in human relationships. Yet in discussion they must be distinguished. The idea of democracy is a wider and fuller idea than can be exemplified in the state even at its best. To be realized it must affect all modes of human association, the family, the school, industry, religion. 

To be clear, Dewey had little loyalty to the specific mechanisms of political democracy:

There is no sanctity in universal suffrage, frequent elections, majority rule, congressional and cabinet government. These things are devices evolved in the direction in which the current was moving, each wave of which involved at the time of its impulsion a minimum of departure from antecedent custom and law. The devices served a purpose; but the purpose was rather that of meeting existing needs which had become too intense to be ignored, than that of forwarding the democratic idea. 

So, if ‘politics’ is simply the act of engaging in a narrow system of political democracy whose mechanisms randomly sedimented over time, it’s unclear that Dewey would have much zeal for the idea of politics as an essential element of human life.

However, ‘politics’ can also be interpreted through the wider lens of democracy as a social idea; a concept to which Dewey was deeply committed.

For Dewey, democracy wasn’t a set of systems or an inventory of regulations; it was a way of life:

Regarded as an idea, democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community life itself.

In this sense, ‘politics’ is the very element which transforms the “physical and organic” stuff of “associated life” into the moral entity of community. The work of politics is the work of building the Great Community:

We are born organic beings associated with others, but we are not born members of a community. The young have to be brought within the traditions, outlook and interests which characterize a community by means of education…Everything which is distinctively human is learned…To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its believes, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers onto human resources and values.

Importantly, Dewey argues that the two senses of politics cannot exist separately; without the broader understanding of social democracy, the mechanisms of political democracy reduce to nonsense: Fraternity, liberty and equality isolated from communal life are hopeless abstractions.

It is only through the engagement of the people in this deeper politics, in democracy as a way of life, that we can ever achieve the mechanisms of political democracy we strive for.

If, some how, the ideal world described above were possible – if justice rained from the sky with no effort from below; such a society would still be lacking in the moral concept of democracy writ large.

Dewey was under no illusion that transforming the mechanisms of political democracy would be an easy undertaking – but it was a transformation he believed could only occur through the political work of the Great Community:

The highest and most difficult kind of inquiry and a subtle, delicate, vivid and responsive art of communication must take possession of the physical machinery of transmission and circulation and breathe life into it. When the machine age has thus perfected its machinery it will be a means of life and not a despotic master. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consumption when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.