Knickerbocker on Apocalypse, utopia and dystopia


Introducing an issue of Extrapolation (51(3)2010) that focuses on representations of post-apocalyptic utopias and/or dystopias, Dale Knickerbocker offers an interesting discussion of Apocalypse, Utopia, and Dystopia. He writes:

“The call for papers challenged scholars to consider how speculative fictions invoke and alter the biblical apocalyptic narrative, and the relationships established between the nature of the cataclysm and the type of society arising afterward. How and to what ends do utopias or dystopias treat questions of race, gender, politics, sexualities, etc.? Is it still possible to speak of “utopia” and “dystopia”? Can these fictions effect social change?” (p.346)

“However, before discussing the articles themselves, it seems advisable to address what we mean when we say apocalypse, utopia, or dystopia—terms whose meanings have been altered, stretched, and blurred over centuries of use. As Lois Parkinson Zamora has lamented, the term apocalypse has come to be commonly used “as a synonym for ‘disaster’ or ‘cataclysm,’” ignoring that “the myth comprehends both cataclysm and millennium, tribulation and triumph, chaos and order . . .” (4; original emphasis). The word itself is derived from the Greek apokalyptein meaning “to uncover” or “to reveal,” and its biblical origin is St. John of Patmos’s Book of Revelation. This text prophesied a future after the destruction of the world as we know it, a future that would, as Frank Kermode has observed, make known the purpose and meaning of all that went before. Kermode proposes that apocalyptic fictions are a necessity of the human psyche, signaling “our deep need for intelligible ends. We project ourselves . . . past the End, so as to see the structure as a whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot in the middle” (Sense 6). He states that, while the age of belief in religious apocalyptic narratives may be past and “for us the End has perhaps lost its naïve imminence, its shadow still lies on the crises of our fictions; we may speak of it as immanent (Sense 6; original emphasis). To give meaning to [-p.347] the past and present, humans create fictions (a term that for Kermode includes history, myth, and literature) concerning the end of the world. Revelation is thus a paradigmatic example of what Jean François Lyotard has termed a gran récit, or grand, master, or metanarrative, one that purports to provide a comprehensive, authoritative, and transcendent explanation of reality.” (pp.346-347)

Another oft-overlooked aspect of biblical apocalypse is its (doubly) utopian nature,” he continues: “Mass annihilation is […] only the beginning of a process that will allow the righteous to enter into the ultimate, eternal Utopia, heaven, and the unjust to be sent to that dystopia par excellence, hell. Thus apocalypse, even in its scriptural source, is inextricably tied to the concepts of utopia and dystopia.” (p.347)

“Even the etymological origin of the word utopia has been subject to debate, although I believe Margaret Atwood, who takes into consideration Thomas More’s reputation as a jokester, may finally have resolved the matter: “‘Utopia’ is sometimes said to mean ‘no place,’ from the Greek ou-topos; others derive it from eu, as in ‘eugenics,’ in which case it would mean ‘healthy place’ or ‘good place.’ Sir Thomas More, in his own 16th-century Utopia, may have been punning: utopia is the good place that doesn’t exist” (n.pag.).” (p.347)

A brief summary of Tom Moylan’s history of the development of the utopian genre should help to contextualize the essays in this issue. Moylan asserts that, in More’s time, imaginary utopian spaces were projected onto the geographical landscapes being explored by European colonizers, and offered models of perfect state, economic, and social structures. Following M.H. Abendsour, he affirms that, from circa 1850 to the late nineteenth century, utopias became heuristic in nature, emphasizing political and economic reform from within the system. Late nineteenth-century industrialization radicalized utopian [-p.348] imaginings, converting them into process-oriented visions of how revolution against the system would lead to an ideal tomorrow. At the same time, the exhaustion of new lands to colonize caused writers to displace utopias into the future. According to Moylan, as the twentieth century witnessed the advent of modern social-economic-political projects that attempted to realize their own versions of a perfect society (socialism, communism, fascism, capitalist democracy), the utopian impulse was co-opted, channeled into either the service of the state or the cycle of production and consumer acquisition. He posits that the anti-establishment movements associated with the 1960s gave birth to the “critical utopia,” a genre that “reject[s] utopia as blueprint while preserving it as dream” (10). It is a species in conflict with the status quo of its place and time, characterized by an awareness of its own limitations with regard to both the effect it may have on society and its own internal contradictions and imperfections. It therefore focuses on “dynamic alternatives” (11) to concepts of utopia as a static ideal future; as a result, I would conjecture that the concept of utopia has thereby also become predominantly indeterminate….” (pp.347-348)

“If it is possible to claim any common ground for the following essays’ interpretations of the nature of apocalypse in the texts they examine, it would seem that they coincide, at least implicitly, in seeing the fictional apocalypses studied as rejecting grand narratives. Whereas biblical-style apocalypses could be counted on to grant meaning to all preceding events, it seems that recent “revelations” reject, or at least avoid, offering closure and transcendent truth.” (p.348)

“Of greatest import, though, is the fact that all the fictions are polysemic and possess open denouements offering no final resolution.” (p.349) “If a general critical consensus might be drawn from these articles, it appears that utopianists have given up on fighting one master narrative with another. They interrogate, they suggest possible paths, but they do not propose answers or outline projects, nor are any utopias or dystopias presented as static or perfect.” (p.349)

“What the works examined in this issue, and the articles that analyze them, offer, I think, is an interesting constellation, to borrow a metaphor from Walter Benjamin. Benjamin’s concept of the constellation constituted an attack on the notion of history as linear and the associated post-Enlightenment narrative of history as progress. The idea posits, in a manner foreshadowing Foucault, that the metaphor of history as line or series of unbroken points should be replaced with a non-linear, non-causal, three-dimensional metaphor: the constellation. Historical events consequently are represented as stars whose gravitational fields mutually influence each other. These recent imaginings of apocalypse, utopia, and dystopia can metaphorically be viewed in the same way, as aesthetic events suspended in the three-dimensional field that is history, influencing and being influenced by the times and thus offering a vision of the same. The fictions seem to manifest a rejection of master narratives, a preference for questions and doubts over answers and certainties, an impulse toward utopia over political or economic programs or models.” (p.354)

Note that the quotes Knickerbocker opens his essay with are also thought-provoking:

As an undercurrent of Western imagination, apocalypticism is always with us.
~Saul Friedländer

What sort of happiness is on offer, and what is the price we might pay to achieve it?
~ Margaret Atwood

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Dale Knickerbocker (2010) Apocalypse, Utopia, and Dystopia: Old Paradigms Meet a New Millennium. Extrapolation Fall (51:3); pp.345-357


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