17 February 2015

Cooperative Gestalt & Dystopian Fiction

Humpty Dumpty once said that a word meant whatever he chose it to mean. And the Humpty-Dumpties of modern media clearly think they can do the same thing when they use the word ‘dystopian’ to describe any unpleasant scenario any writer may conjure up for the future.

But merely a horrid situation does not a dystopia make.

A dystopia is the outcome of any dysfunctional attempt to create or subvert a utopian vision. An asteroid hitting earth and wiping out half of its population is a monumental disaster, but it is not necessarily the precursor to a dystopia unless in the aftermath, some people try to institute a new form of society with anti-utopian consequences.

So to understand what truly constitutes a dystopia, we need to begin with utopian aspirations. And while ‘utopia’ has also been loosely used to refer to anything some individual may fancy as an ideal world, there is an indisputable historical basis for connecting ‘utopia’ to a core set of societal transformations.

We can take three representative books that between them set out the main utopian themes for overcoming society’s deficiencies. It is important to note that they are utopian in the sense that while they recognise how far prevailing conditions were from what they present as an alternative, they do not envisage the need for any fantastical or other-worldly intervention for those conditions to be reformed in the direction of the alternative proffered.

These three books appeared between 1516 and 1656, during a period that witnessed a series of revolutionary changes in England that were to have major intellectual and political impact on the whole of Europe, and eventually across the world. It began with the declaration that the Pope and the Catholic monopoly of religious ideas were to be firmly rejected; a declaration made not by some quirky mystic or obscure theologian, but by the King of England himself. And it was to end with political upheavals that cost another English King not only his throne, but also his head.

The first of these books is Thomas More’s Utopia, which set out a moral vision of society wherein mutual respect and community bonds were secured through the minimisation of inequalities. No one was to possess or command access to much more resources than others; and none was left vulnerable through having too little of value to live on. The second is Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, with an intellectual vision of society that recognised no authority on what was to be accepted as true except for when a given claim or hypothesis had been tested through observation, experimentation, cross-examination, and remained open to further revision. The third is James Harrington’s Oceana, which put forward a political vision of society that was democratically governed by citizens none of whom would be significantly disadvantaged in exercising their power over those who were to rule on their behalf, especially with land ownership spread more evenly, and political offices rotated frequently.

These three utopian tracts engendered in England radical currents of thought that were to come together in the cooperative communitarian outlook of the Owenites in the 19th century. Communities, on this view, should continue to progress towards the fuller realisation of three related objectives: mutual responsibility in sharing common resources and supporting each other in solidarity (the vision of Utopia); cooperative enquiry in checking and validating truth claims in every domain (the vision of New Atlantis); and citizen participation in securing democratic governance for the good of all (the vision of Oceana). The extent to which these tendencies are advanced, at the personal, organisational, and societal level, provides a measure for attaining what has been termed the Cooperative Gestalt.

Accordingly, dystopian portrayals of the future are best understood in relation to how they envision the Cooperative Gestalt of a society and its members come to be severely and systematically displaced. For example, in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, the disposition to care for others on equal and respectful terms is pushed aside by alienation and distrust promoted by an oppressive hierarchy; the disposition to establish what warrants belief through open exchanges is held back by an unquestionable regime that has the sole say about what is ‘true’; and the disposition to take others’ views and concerns into account when making collectively binding decisions is subverted by the inclination to submit to the diktats of a Big Brother, a World Controller, a Commander, or some faceless ‘authorities’.

The art of dystopian fiction should ultimately be judged by how moving, imaginative and memorable it is in showing us the loss of the vital constituents of the Cooperative Gestalt. Whereas classic utopian writers have painted for us the dimensions that together would give us all a better society to live in, dystopia is where the readiness to embrace these improvements is institutionally and culturally suffocated.

For more examples of how dystopian literature can highlight the threats to the Cooperative Gestalt and alert us to the dangers to our most precious dispositions, take a look at:
Kuan’s Wonderland; or
Whitehall through the Looking Glass