Imagining a Worse World

12 November 2009


soylent green

Imagining a worse world: the dystopian future of Soylent Green.

Time for another mea culpa. A couple of days ago in Imagining a Better World I argued that people are, on the whole, more likely to entertain visions of a better world than a worse world. Here’s what I said:

…on a personal basis we often acknowledge our near scrapes with death and disaster, but I think it is much less common for individuals to imagine the possibility of a much worse world than we actually have. That is to say, I think people are less likely to imagine close scrapes with death and disaster for the world entire than for themselves, and that they are much more likely to imagine a better world or a better life for themselves than they are to imagine a worse world or a worse life for themselves. Hope is not merely uplifting; it is a central constituent of how our minds function.

In short, I was saying the people mostly look at the future through rose-colored glasses. This is not only wrong, it overlooks the fascination with apocalypticism that has often been a topic of my posts. In Fear of the Future and The End of the End of the World (as well as other posts I have written) I have attempted to investigate the exact nature of the pervasively apocalyptic images that constitute the popular culture of the industrialized world.

If we take imagining a better world as our thesis, and imagining a worse world as the antithesis, we ought to be able to find a dialectical synthesis that would give us a perspective more comprehensive (hence more adequate) than that perspective embodied in the thesis or antithesis. When, two days ago, I was thinking about imagining a better world, my perspective was obviously focused on a particular set of examples: instances of some notoriety in which historical circumstances suggested the grim world that we live in might have been a better place if Hitler had been a painter or Kalashnikov had been a poet. With these examples in mind, I proceeded to make an unjustified generalization.

Previously when I was thinking about the prevalence of apocalypticism in our culture, my perspective was obviously focused on a different set of examples: Hollywood’s techni-color images of doomsday, which, despite their theatricality, nevertheless closely reflect the mundane concerns of the lives of the industrialized masses. In Fear of the Future I wrote:

apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided. The science fiction films we have discussed are replete with such dramatic images: an abandoned and ivy-covered Washington DC in Logan’s Run (which latter also includes another evil robot), the dark, forbidding ruined cities of The Matrix, the nuclear annihilation of the Colonies in Battlestar Galactica, and the empty metropolis of The Omega Man. While such images are threatening, they are also liberating. The end of the industrial city and of industrial civilization means the end of wage slavery, the end of the clocks and calendars that control our lives, and the end of lives so radically ordered and densely scheduled that they have ceased to resemble life and appear more like the pathetic delusions of the insane.

I was rather pleased with myself for having made this connection: apocalypticism is the ultimate form of escapism. For some, escapism takes the form of sun, sea, sand, and surf on some exotic beach, or perhaps some carefree sport like skiing in the Alps or sailing in the Mediterranean. For others, escapism has a darker hue; for those who demand complete freedom from civilization and its discontents, nothing less than the complete destruction of civilization will do.

It is a feature of inductive reasoning that it is not only unable to give the sort of certainty for which deductive reasoning is known, but also that it relies upon a selection of evidence, and this evidence can be differently selected by different persons at different times. A formal method of inductive reasoning can control for these variables, and in contemporary science research protocols have been refined to a high degree of rigor. Most inductive reasoning, however, is not formal, but informal. Most people generalize from their experience, which is certainly better than arriving at deductive conclusions based upon (usually unsubstantiated) beliefs, but individual experience is still very limited, and these limitations pass over into the generalizations made from limited experience.

Both escapist fantasies — the inordinately grim and the unrealistically giddy — remain permanent psychological options for everyone immersed in the network of responsibilities demanded by industrialized civilization, and the choice between the two is almost certainly a matter of temperament and inclination. The larger issue is that of escapism itself, the need to get outside and away from the present. Sartre, in his Being and Nothingness, said that man is the being who is what he is not and is not what he is. This flagrantly contradictory conclusion followed from his analysis of time: we are the past in the mode of no-longer-being-it, while we are the future in the mode of not-yet-being-it.

The temporal perspective of Sartre allows us to expand our conception of escapism even beyond the dialectic of imagining a better world and imagining a worse world. For as soon as we think of the past in these terms we recall how many people escape into an imaginary past. This includes not only the innocuously nostalgic who read idealized historical novels and prefer costume dramas when they go to the movies, but also more aggressively political nostalgists who look to the past as the proper model for society. Most notoriously, many contemporary terrorist groups look to an idealized past. The Khmer Rouge imagined an agrarian ideal and attempted to empty the cities of Cambodia in order to achieve this brutal ideal.

Escapism is one “solution” to the pressures and discontents of civilization. The pervasive character of escapism poses several questions: Is escapism a sufficient method of addressing the discontents of civilization? Will discontent with civilization ever reach the level at which it poses a real danger to the continuation of civilization? Might there be a more constructive approach to addressing the discontents of civilization than escapism? If so, could it be put into practice in such a way as to reach the masses brought into being and sustained by mass society and its institutions? Must we be condemned to unrelieved discontent as long as we enjoy the fruits of industry and technology?


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