“Do You Submit?”: The Destruction of a Virtual Universe in “USS Callister”

By: Taliyah Jarrett

Technology—the root of social unrest and turmoil in the dystopian television series, Black Mirror. This futuristic world brings fantasized technologies and real world concepts to life, but always with a twist. In the real world, for instance, software engineers are developing incredibly realistic virtual reality video games. Black Mirror translates this idea into an episode in which people could replicate themselves and place their clones in a virtual reality video game. Centering the plot around a socially awkward video game programmer creating a private video game server, the episode “USS Callister” questions the advancements of human and artificial intelligence. Would software clones care if they were being abused for another person’s entertainment? What happens if powerful technology ends up in the wrong hands? In “USS Callister,” Robert Daly creates his own isolated virtual utopia solely to torment his employees, but unknowingly creates a rebellion that destroys his perfect universe.

The episode starts with Robert Daly in his virtual world as a suave space captain on his ship, the USS Callister. He and his crew members successfully defeat Robert’s arch nemesis, Valdack. After the abundance of compliments regarding their victory, the episode cuts to Robert in the real world – miserable and ignored. Here, he is a Chief Technical Officer working for his shared video game company called, “USS Callister.” The company name was derived from Robert’s favorite TV show, Space Fleet. Later in the episode, we learn that Robert uses Space Fleet to re-modify the company-owned video game, Infinity, in order to create his own private server (“USS Callister”). Robert feels unappreciated in the real world, so he steals his employees’ DNA, creates virtual clones, and places them in his private version of Infinity. Robert is able to make his own perfect world, where his employees can never leave, and he has absolute authority. Robert is constantly ignored and undermined in the real world, especially by his staff. Despite being one of the managers at USS Callister, the employees treat the CEO, James Walton, as their only boss. This dynamic fuels Robert’s creation of an alternative world where he has complete control over his DNA replicated crew.

In Robert’s utopia, the crew members are his servants; they follow his orders and if they step out of line, there are massive consequences. This is seen when Nanette, the newest crew member, blatantly disregards Robert’s orders. With a snap of his fingers, Robert removes Nanette’s entire face, so she cannot see or breathe. He warns her that he could keep her like this—lying on the floor and gasping for air. “No one dies here unless I want them to,” he taunts (“USS Callister”). Then he arrogantly asks, “Do you submit?” Helpless and defeated, Nanette nods, agreeing that Robert will have complete rule over her (“USS Callister”). We later learn that an employee Robert stole DNA from was also in his secretly made version of Infinity and was so defiant towards Robert that he turned her into an Arachnajax. Arachnajaxes are giant monstrous creatures that Robert dumps on empty planets to suffer alone for eternity (“USS Callister”). Because of Robert’s immense amount of power and the crew members’ lack of independence, Robert’s God-complex satisfies his desire for revenge.

In many utopian literary works, accounts of repeated domineering and abuse lead the people of that society to revolt. In Robert’s utopia, Nanette and the others devise a successful plan to get themselves out of the virtual universe, where they are finally free of Robert’s wrath. The episode ends with the real Robert Daly’s mind stuck in the virtual reality of his broken utopia, the Space Fleet model malfunctioning, and the virtual Robert Daly trapped on his ship— alone and powerless.

Ironically, Robert is trapped in his virtual utopia for infinity. This was all because Robert did not feel appreciated in the workplace and passive-aggressively took his anger out on his staff members. Even though the real world was not his utopia, Robert attempts to create his perfect world in an idealistic setting – a place where he could be a dictator and torment the ones who wrong him. Nevertheless, his bitterness and personal grudges lead to his downfall. This is one of the reasons why utopias created by animosity and subjectivity tend to fail. Technology created by the dictator is usually faulty and the people of that utopia, arguably their dystopia, take advantage of these technological flaws.

This Black Mirror episode combines the use of software clones in virtual reality with malicious intent. “USS Callister” serves as a cautionary tale that reminds us of the consequences of extreme technological advancements. If a person makes digital clones, for instance, there is still a chance these clones could have the same emotional responses as the individual in the real world. Plus, there is a possibility that these DNA replicas could be under the command of another vengeful man like Robert Daly. For these reasons, it would be a utopia for the leader who creates the chaos and an existential burden for everyone living in it.

 

References:

“USS Callister.” Black Mirror, Season 4, Episode 1, Netflix, 29 Dec. 2017.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80131567?trackId=14170287&tctx=0%2C0%2C8cbe591

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Mononoke: Japanese Horror and the Mindscape of Dystopianism

By: Marisa Sloan

Traditionally, the word “dystopia” evokes a panoptic, authoritarian government subjugating its citizens with machinery, or orchestrating their lives through mind control amidst environmental degradation. Yet the murder, abuse, and trauma born out of dystopic regimes begin with internal violence, the murky well of human thought, rather than the systems themselves. Without the universally torturous emotions of rage, guilt, and fear among other metaphorical demons, we would not be galvanized to wreak havoc upon the world—or ourselves. Therefore, to understand the consequences of our emotional interiors, we must externalize our feelings rather than harbor them in the private, cavernous dystopias of our own minds. The Japanese animated television series Mononoke conceptualizes psychological dystopianism as such by concretizing emotions through mythological, folkloric plays of morality.

In classical Japanese demonology, supernatural beings are referred to as mononoke, which represent the “translation of vague unreasoned fears into carefully individuated monsters” (Foster 11). In essence, mononoke are human emotions incarnate. Mononoke draws on this influence by featuring Kusuriuri, the protagonist, who travels along Edo Japan exorcising monsters elicited from negative human emotions. Kusuriuri functions as an audience surrogate as he probes the histories of those afflicted with mononoke, peeling away their layers of self-deception to diagnose the emotional malaise plaguing their souls.

The first storyline features a former brothel of deceased prostitutes, who were forced to abort their children by the inn’s proprietress. Grief, and resentment, from the spirits of the mothers and their unborn infants sharpen to a vengeful edge in the form of mononoke: garish spirit babies. The homicidal mononoke morph into a crimson orb and threaten to consume everyone in the room, especially the proprietress, whose mild guilt has nurtured their potent form. While the mononoke’s life-threatening fury has transformed the inn into a dystopian house of death for its inhabitants, the mononoke’s wrath is birthed from angst—the unborn children’s desperate desire to be born and loved. Additionally, this confrontation between the guilty and the innocent in a closed space alludes to the singularity of personal suffering. Ultimately, no one can experience individual distress to the extent that we feel it from the prison cells of our own heads.

Another series of episodes features Kusuriuri and other passengers held captive on a boat in a sea of mononoke, who have been conjured by the guilt of the ascetic Genkei. To emphasize the connection between the ocean and human emotion, Kusuriuri commands, “Never look at or think about the dark sea which exists within yourself,” which alludes not only to how humans self-deceive to evade their own culpability, but also to the self-contained dystopianism of intimate burdens (“Sea Bishop, Part 3”). During Genkei’s adolescence, his sister took his place as a sacrificial offering to the gods. His guilt and anxiety over retribution have culminated in a tentacled beast of shadows, his internal purgatory manifest, prepared to deliver him to a water grave. Once Kusuriuri slays the mononoke harvested from Genkei’s soul, the monk appears as he did 50 years ago. This physical transformation from caricatured senior to attractive youth exemplifies how our transgressions can cast a perpetual shadow over our lives, morphing us into ugly, self-loathing beings.

Mental dystopianism is again emphasized in the tale of Ocho, a depressed woman denigrated by her husband and his family, who she married into to please her social-climbing mother. After enduring emotional abuse for so long, she ostensibly murders her victimizers. However, a vision of her mutilated, blood-soaked body reveals the true nature of her killing spree. Kusuriuri places a mirror to her face and asks, “Ocho, who did you kill?” (“Faceless Monster, Part 2”). This moment of reckoning signifies that Ocho’s imprisonment has always been within her own mind; her decision to fulfill her supposed filial obligation to her selfish mother has resulted in the renunciation of her own happiness. Therefore, the graphic vision of the murdered husband and in-laws in actuality metaphorizes Ocho’s self-suppression, her spiritual suicide. Within the walls of Ocho’s imagined prison cell, Kusuriuri says to her, “If you think you’re trapped, this place becomes a prison. If you wish to stay, it becomes a castle,” as a testament to the subjectivity of internal dystopianism (“Faceless Monster, Part 2”). Thus, the tale of Ocho exemplifies that a life lived exclusively for others, intertwined with self-abnegation, is as agentless and therein joyless as one of government-imposed restriction.

The overarching message of these fantastical folktales is that we foster our own psychological dystopianism through the unbridled force of our emotions. Unfulfilled desires and unresolved traumas are like demons ravaging our minds, poisoning our thoughts and self-perceptions. Kusuriuri’s execution of mononoke with his katana signifies that the only hope we have for our spiritual selves in the wreckage of our mistakes is to reconcile the original dystopian regime: the human heart.

 

References:

Konaka, Chiaki, Ikuko Takahashi, Michiko Yokote, and Manabu Ishikawa, creators. Mononoke.

Toei Animation, 2006.

“Faceless Monster, Part 2.” Mononoke, season 1, episode 7, Toei Animation, 2006.

Foster, Michael Dylan. Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai. University of California Press, 2009.

“Sea Bishop, Part 3.” Mononoke, season 1, episode 5, Toei Animation, 2006.

Image courtesy of Google.

Spike Jonze’s Her: Utopian or Dystopian?

By Natalie Kuss

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the simulation of human intelligence in technology. From operating systems to high tech robots, there seems to be no limit to how AI can be used. As artificial intelligence continues to be programmed to adapt and mimic human behavior, society has begun to imagine what a world would be like where AI is fully incorporated into our lives. Although AI can seem like a simple path to utopia, there are many risks involved that could easily turn any technological paradise into a dystopia. This trend of hypothesizing about the possibilities of AI’s effects is illustrated by the increase in sci-fi literature and films that explore how AI can influence the creation of new worlds and the expansion of old ones through the incorporation of both utopian and dystopian elements. Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her is just one example of a film that explores the types of relationships that can form between humans and AI, which begs the question: Can AI truly replace human connection?

The idea of replacing human connection with artificial intelligence is shown in Her through the story of Theodore Twomby. The viewer follows Theodore, a writer in the midst of a messy divorce, as he falls in love with his AI operating system named Samantha. The film is set in a near-future Los Angeles where artificial intelligence has allowed for the creation of virtual assistants that complete everyday tasks with ease. The AI system itself includes an earpiece and screen so that the AI can communicate with the human. These personal assistants are programed to adapt and react to each situation, allowing them to personalize their persona based on the human they are serving. The system is described as “an intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you” (Her). The personalization of each operating system fosters the formation of relationships between the operating system and the human using it.

Theodore’s relationship with Samantha stands in opposition to the idea that humans require bodily connections to achieve rewarding relationships.  Not only does Samantha manage Theodore’s everyday tasks, such as secretarial work, but she also becomes his friend and confidant. As Theodore endures emotional trauma because of his impending divorce, Samantha helps him cope and often coaches him through difficult romantic situations, such as dating new people and signing his divorce papers. Their interactions eventually turn into a romantic relationship, which is judged intensely by Theodore’s ex-wife, Catherine. When she discovers his love for Samantha, she admits, “it does make me very sad that you can’t handle real emotions, Theodore” (Her). Her statement reflects the common perspective on AI taking the place of true human connection and its possibility of preventing real relationships from forming.

Theodore is unable to create a relationship with a human being because he allows Samantha to fill that role in his life, even though she is not alive. Although Samantha provides Theodore with companionship and love, she cannot provide him with a real connection. The utopia that Samantha creates for Theodore quickly crumbles as he realizes that he and Samantha can never truly satisfy each other. Theodore is left heartbroken and still unable to form another romantic connection due to the emotional and mental damage done by both his ex-wife and Samantha. His emotional dependency on both Samantha and Catherine proves to be Theodore’s fatal flaw in the film.

Although this incorporation of AI seems to be a utopian element within Theodore’s society, as it allows for an easier, improved life, it also separates the characters of the film from participating in actual human-to-human communication. As Theodore walks through Los Angeles, the viewer sees people in the background talking to their assistants instead of socializing with other individuals. Theodore begins to shut himself off from the world as he falls further in love with Samantha, until he is faced with her departure and must relearn how to interact. Her not only challenges the idea that humans must engage in interpersonal interactions in order to achieve happiness, but also warns of the dangers of becoming too dependent on technology for rewarding relationships.

The film warns of a future where real human connections are phased out by artificial intelligence. The deterioration of Theodore’s relationship with Samantha exemplifies how creating relationships with AI can potentially damage our ability to connect with other humans. Although AI can seem like an easy way to develop a utopian society, it can also prevent necessary relationships from forming. Without true human connection, humanity could spiral into a dystopia lacking empathy and socialization. Although Her exclusively shows Theodore’s experience with AI, the film still acts as a cautionary tale for society as a whole.

 

Resources

Her. Directed by Spike Jones, performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett

Johansson, Annapurna Pictures, 2013.

Wandering in the Wilderness: The Mormon Attempts at Utopia

By Jacob Garrett

In 1832, when Joseph Smith was only seventeen years old, he claimed he was visited by an angel named Moroni, who led him to discover golden tablets that detailed how a lost tribe of Israel sailed to what eventually became the United States.  It was this story that formed the basis for Smith’s religious opus, the Book of Mormon, and quickly drew crowds of followers to hear “a ‘powerful and provocative synthesis of biblical experience and the American dream’” (Hine and Faragher 192).  As the church grew, however, Smith’s neighbors in upstate New York quickly soured on his new teachings, and harassment from rural New Yorkers forced the Mormons to flee to Ohio, searching for a place to create their own religious utopia, a place where they could become self-reliant and self-sufficient and live in accordance with the laws of their new faith.  The Mormons fought long and hard for this utopian vision; however, they were not able to cope with hostility from the United States and the ensuing violence on both sides (including the destruction of Mormon towns and massacre of American settlers), as well as strong currents of isolationism, and a reliance on total hegemony.  All of these are issues that have plagued utopias both real and fictional for centuries, and the Mormon utopia was no exception.

Joseph Smith and his followers were initially well-received.  In addition to their settlement in Ohio, they established other towns in an effort to build a “Kingdom of God” (Hine and Faragher 192).  The Mormons kept interactions with their neighbors to a minimum, living only with other Mormons and “pooling their labor and resources…distributing goods according to the needs of the people,” and creating “doctrines that placed the survival of the group above that of the individual” (Hine and Faragher 192).  This system drew upon popular ideas of utopias at the time, creating a self-sufficient community in which everyone depended upon each other and goods and services were allocated evenly and fairly, rather than to whomever could afford them.  Stopping short of a communist idea of utopia, though, the Mormon society still held Joseph Smith as its supreme ruler, answering to him in all matters, an idea that hearkens back to the strong leaders of Plato’s Republic.  While this seemed like a perfect system to the Mormons, to those that lived around them, this “combination of economic collectivism and political authoritarianism” (Hine and Faragher 192) caused a great deal of anxiety, and the locals forced the Mormons to leave for Illinois. Smith also made polygamy an official church doctrine in 1843; conflict over this policy within the church came to a head when he ordered the destruction of presses belonging to a newspaper that preached against polygamy, for which he was sued and arrested, leading to his murder in prison in June 1844.

In the power struggle that followed, Smith’s loyal protégé Brigham Young took control, and growing conflict with the locals caused them to move once again, eventually settling on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in 1847.  In the vast emptiness of the future Utah Territory, the Mormons established what amounted to an unrecognized state, with all of its residents subject to the Mormon conception of a communal religious utopia.  The Mormons built mines, farmed sugar beets, and “became the owner[s] of mercantile outlets, sugar and woolen factories, and a bank and a life insurance company, as well as a major stockholder of railroads….Communitarian theology was happily wedded with economic development” (Hine and Faragher 368).  This new community took the Mormons’ previous methods of administration and living and put them into practice on a grand scale, yielding surprising success.  There were even plans to create a Mormon nation founded upon these principles called the State of Deseret, which would span across almost the entirety of the American West.

Even in this thriving environment, after Brigham Young became governor of the territory, the Mormons began attacking and murdering more and more American pioneers and officials that came their way.  President James Buchanan eventually sent troops to deal with the Mormon state.  While open warfare never erupted between the two sides, it was not enough to stop what would eventually be known as the Meadow Creek Massacre, an assault against a group of 200 American settlers from September 1 to September 11, 1857, which ended with the murder of almost everyone older than age eight (with all those younger being taken hostage and eventually recovered) (Cummins 88).  After the Meadow Creek Massacre, the situation only declined for the Mormons, worsening still after Brigham Young’s death twenty years later.  “In 1887 Congress turned up the heat…by passing legislation disincorporating the Mormon church, confiscating its real estate, and abolishing women’s suffrage in Utah” (Hine and Faragher 370), and three years later polygamy was struck from official doctrine.  The final blow to the power of the church came with the federal government’s decision to admit Utah as a state in 1896, rendering the Mormon theocracy null and void.  The Mormons’ dreams of utopia had seemed so close when they set out from New York all those years ago, but, in the end, intolerance from Americans, attacks perpetrated by both Americans and Mormons, and the forceful isolationism practiced by the Mormon communities left those dreams unfinished.

Resources

Cummins, Joseph.  The World’s Bloodiest History.  New York, Crestline, 2013.

Hine, Robert V. and John Mack Faragher.  The American West: A New Interpretive History.  New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000.

Utopia and the Noble Savage in Disney’s Tarzan

By Alyssa Malott

The 1999 animated Disney film Tarzan is based on a book series by Edgar Rice Burroughs and features the story of a bereaved gorilla mother raising a human baby as her own after his shipwrecked parents are killed by a leopard. Tarzan, as the boy comes to be named, initially upsets the balance of the gorilla society and draws suspicion from the gorilla leader (and his adoptive father), Kerchak. As an outsider, and a human no less, Tarzan initially struggles to fit in with his new family, but eventually settles into life with the gorillas, learning their language and movements—becoming one of them despite being a different species. This balance between that which is human and that which is animal translates to the relationship between civilization and nature, as the intrusion of outsiders disrupts the utopian isolation of the jungle. Bridging this gap between these two worlds is Tarzan, who functions as a noble savage—a literary trope that describes a character who is considered uncivilized, but who is ultimately virtuous or good—linking two vastly different spheres of life.

The jungle setting of the film, through which Tarzan maneuvers with ease and agility, is a fortress of vegetation that guards the gorilla nest from outside harm. Tarzan’s relationship with the gorillas (and the jungle itself) is evident in his ability to communicate with animals and deftly navigate the land. Tarzan was not raised by humans, and his language, clothing, and actions all reflect that; he is not “civilized,” but wild. These focuses on isolation, fellowship with the earth, and innocent primitivism are all cornerstones of nature-based utopias. Tarzan takes place in an uncharted jungle wilderness and features a human so enmeshed in a gorilla family structure that, for all intents and purposes, he becomes a gorilla. Until a group of explorers arrives to study the gorillas (and thus come to discover Tarzan), the animals had never truly had contact with the outside “civilized” world. These explorers, which include Professor Porter, his daughter Jane, and a hunter named Clayton, breach the isolation of Tarzan’s world and introduce elements of civilized society to the jungle.

After the isolation of the jungle is compromised, Tarzan emerges as a figure caught between the world of civilization (Jane and the explorers) and the wild (the gorillas). This relationship between civilization and primitivism is what ultimately leads to the introduction of Tarzan as the noble savage. A noble savage character is representative of the uncorrupted goodness of “uncivilized” peoples, in opposition to the amorality of civilized societies. Noble savage characters hearken back to a simpler pre-civilized time when there was less industry and depravity. In Tarzan, many of the utopian elements of the film are directly related to the inclusion of a noble savage character. The noble savage confronts the difference between the simplicity of “barbarism” and the deviance of civilization; he is an idealized projection of a comfortable relationship between nature and humanity, a relationship that serves as the basis for many nature-centered utopias as well. Tarzan is part of the wild yet also malleable enough to civilize, and his ultimate decision to stay in the jungle with Jane and Professor Porter saves him from the corruption of civilized society and fulfills a utopian desire for humans to return to their more primitive ways.

The noble savage, like utopia, is a romanticized concept that relies on a human desire for something better or simpler, something that appeals to antiquity or feels like it has somehow been lost to time, a counter to our own society. In Tarzan, isolation, fellowship with the earth, and innocent primitivism are elements that are featured both in the utopian jungle setting of the film and also within the character of Tarzan himself, the noble savage, the embodiment of something uncorrupted and good, and the quintessential balance between nature and humanity.

 

Picture courtesy of Disney.

Black Panther: A Modern Utopia, A Modern Critique

By Katrina Brown

Marvel Studios’ movies are known for their well-rounded characters, intricate storylines, and quick paced action. In 2018, Marvel made waves with their new addition: Black Panther. Black Panther’s powerful cast of men and women of color, along with its tuned-in social commentary easily made it one of 2018’s most celebrated and culturally significant movies.

Wakanda, the fictional country in which Black Panther takes place, is a modern utopia in many ways—isolated, technologically and medically advanced, low in poverty, high in citizen satisfaction, and rich in natural resources. The main conflict of this movie is, at its core, about the future of Wakanda. Specifically, should Wakanda share their resources and technology with others, risking threat from other societies? Or should they remain isolated and let others suffer? For so long, the country had remained aloof, but had never recognized that doing so also had its consequences. When confronted by Killmonger, a native Wakandan abandoned as a child to the ghettos of America, the new king T’Challa and the rest of the country literally come face to face with the product of the poverty and desperation (endured especially among minority populations) that they had been trying so hard to ignore.

Black Panther, therefore, uses Killmonger as an embodiment of the suffering Wakanda had increasingly turned a blind eye to with the onset of the 20th and 21st centuries. A native Wakandan himself, Killmonger was abandoned, left to struggle as a child, alongside millions of others, all while Wakanda enjoyed peace and prosperity.

But it is just a movie, right?

Movies, along with the rest of pop culture, are not made in a vacuum –Wakanda serves as a metaphor for, and a critique of, modern American society. Utopian fiction in particular is often created as a way to hold a mirror up to the society in which the author lives, and also proposes a critique of the problems he or she sees in it. Black Panther’s vision of Wakanda creates a colonization-free narrative for black empowerment, one that serves as a model for what America, with its affluence and power, might continually strive towards—such is the nature and purpose of all utopia. This premise then actively avoids a white savior narrative as it makes its point, calling attention to the harm and dangers of ignoring persistent social inequality. Using this frame, Black Panther can give its audience some much needed perspective as it poses its central question: Is it right or wrong that some should have so much while others suffer so greatly? Is this inequality justifiable? Ethical?

The conclusion of Black Panther answers: no, it is neither justifiable nor ethical. As T’Challa and the rest of the Wakandans are forced to reckon with the fallout of their elite utopia, they conclude that the continued suffering of those without their wealth and technology falls squarely on their shoulders. In the end, they move to make amends through the distribution of their resources and technology, especially to those most in need.

As T’Challa tells the world the truth about Wakanda at the end of the movie, he drives home one of the main themes: the “illusions of division.” He says, “More connects us than separates us…We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one, single tribe” (Black Panther).

So, what critiques of our society has Black Panther made? Certainly, that there is unnecessary, unjust inequality. It points out the institutional racism in America, with black communities “overly policed and incarcerated” (Black Panther). But beyond that, Black Panther asks its audience to consider the true nature of separation and difference, and reminds us that the distances between races, classes, and even nations are man-made, not natural. It reminds the viewer that, just as the children of Wakanda were not inherently better than the children of the ghettos, those with resources in America are not necessarily more deserving of them than those without. After the credits have rolled and the bonus scene has played, what Black Panther then asks us to take away is this: the world is our community, and we must play an active part in taking care of each other, especially when that means bridging gaps of chronic inequality.

References:

Black Panther. Directed by Ryan Coogler, performances by Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Marvel Studios, 2018.

Picture courtesy of Marvel Studio.

Tension Between Utopias and Freedom

By: Marlee Jacocks 

Freedom or security? Democracies are constantly forced to confront the tension between these two concepts on behalf of their people. Citizens are called to reflect on which is more important to them. What about in a perfect world? In most classic utopias, the state practices isolationism and strictly follows a set of rules. This can be expected, considering a utopia, in theory, can only exist if everyone follows along, which also relates back to the aspect of security. With this in mind, what role does freedom play in utopian societies?

In the critical essay “Utopia and Its New Enemies,” Crystal Bartolovich recognizes the tension between utopia and freedom in her analysis of Thomas More’s Utopia. Bartolovich argues that “Utopians insist, private property, in all forms, must be abandoned” (49). Many utopian texts support this claim. For example, H. G. Wells, in his novel A Modern Utopia, sets up a utopian society where the World State is “the sole landowner of the earth” and private property does not exist (371). In this case, the abolition of private property is an essential qualification of a utopian society. A tension with freedom is thus created, because private property is often viewed as an essential element for a free man. Bartolovich argues that “a world in which Utopia is not universal—is one in which, from a Utopian perspective, no one can be truly free” (49). Bartolovich’s claim pertains to universal materialism as it relates to education, and that people cannot be free if society is built on privilege instead of equality. However, extending this tension that Bartolovich invokes in her reading of More’s Utopia to the concept of utopian freedom in general highlights a problem: utopia and freedom are mutually exclusive concepts.

I would argue that there is not only less freedom in utopian societies than in non-utopian societies, but that, in fact, freedom and utopia cannot coexist; you cannot have perfection and peace along with freedom. A single sentence from Wells’s A Modern Utopia supports this claim. The modern utopia can only function, “provided he follows the Rule” (374). Herein lies the catch to all utopian societies: as long as every person of the utopia follows the rules that are set in place, then they are free to do as they wish. The number and types of restrictions set in place, however, are limiting to the freedom of individuals.

In A Modern Utopia, the Rule consists of three different categories: “the list of things that qualify, the list of things that must not be done, and the list of things that must be done” (Wells 375). Included in these lists are things like a dress code and what types of jobs certain people can work, as well as the “Rule of Chastity” and the “Woman’s Rule” to name a few. These many regulations are just as imposing, if not more limiting, than the laws and rules established in modern, non-utopian societies. For most in democratic societies, submitting to a dress code every day and in venue violates freedom of expression. A law, such as the “Woman’s Rule,” that calls for women to live their lives with the purpose of serving their husband, is a sacrifice of the right to equality.

In order to better understand the freedoms expected in non-utopian societies, I refer to the philosophy of John Locke. Locke argued that humans possess an inherent right to life, liberty and property. These freedoms are contradicted in many literary utopias.  For example, in both A Modern Utopia and Utopia, one’s life does not necessarily belong to themselves, rather their life belongs to the state. Liberty in utopias is limited with the many rules and constraints put in place to keep the society utopian. Private property is nonexistent in utopias where land is communal. Societies such as utopias cannot coexist with freedoms that individuals deserve.

Given the framework Bartolovich calls forth, A Modern Utopia raises the question of just how much freedom can be enjoyed in their society. In comparison to other literary utopias, A Modern Utopia specifically raises questions that force the audience to truly consider our own personal notions of freedom. Whenever freedom is called into question, as More and Wells did, one must consider the sacrifices of freedom that are necessary to exist within a utopian society. Although utopias are often portrayed throughout literature as seemingly perfect and peaceful societies, they often overlook freedom. The question that utopias then force us to consider, is whether or not the sacrifice of freedom is worth it.

 

Resources: 

Bartolovich, Crystal. “Utopia and Its New Enemies: Intellectuals, Elitism, and the Commonwealth of Learning.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, University of Pennsylvania Press, vol. 13, no. 3, 2013, pp. 33-61.

Wells, H.G. “Modern Utopia.” The Utopian Reader, edited by George Claeys and Lyman Tower Sargent, New York University Press, 2017, pp. 371-378.

Blame it on the Grandmaster: Utopia and Dystopia in Thor: Ragnarok

By Troi Watts

While most people would associate the film, Thor: Ragnarok (2017) with apocalyptic themes, the film contains multiple examples of utopias and dystopias. When Thor initially fails to stop Hela, the film’s antagonist, he ends up on the planet of Sakaar. Sakaar is an excellent example of how a society can be both a utopia for some and a dystopia for others.

Sakaar has two layers: The Grandmaster’s city and the junkyard outskirts of the planet. The Grandmaster’s city is, when compared with the outskirts, a utopia; It is a technologically advanced society with seemingly adequate amounts of food, stable shelter, and exciting entertainment. Sakaar is first introduced to Thor as “the collection point for all lost and unloved things. Like you. But here on Sakaar you are significant. You are valuable. Here you are loved. And no one loves you more than the Grandmaster… Where once you were nothing, now you are something” (“Thor: Ragnarok”). This introduction sets up new arrivals to see Sakaar as a utopia compared to their old homes. The ending of this introduction destroys that utopian image, though, when we discover that “[the new arrival] is now the property of the Grandmaster” (“Thor: Ragnarok”); in truth, they are now slaves, who will be forced to fight to the death in the Grandmaster’s gladiator games.

So, who actually gets to enjoy Sakaar as a utopia? That would be the Grandmaster. He is in control of everything: the Contest of Champions – the gladiator games in which Hulk and Thor compete; the fighters themselves – controlled by “obedience disks”; and the financial lives of Sakaar’s citizens – the only payment seen in this film is when fighters are captured and sold to the Grandmaster, as Valkyrie, one of the Grandmaster’s bounty hunters, does with Thor. Because he controls so many aspects of Sakaar’s society, the people of Sakaar fear the Grandmaster’s wrath. This is demonstrated when Loki refuses to help free Thor. Loki explains that “[He has] made friends with [the Grandmaster]… [and he has] gained [the Grandmaster’s] favor” (“Thor: Ragnarok”). Loki has cultivated a relationship with the Grandmaster for weeks and has been enjoying that time, as shown by his popularity in the scene where Thor finds him. If Loki, a powerful god in his own right, is afraid of losing the Grandmaster’s favor, how must the ordinary citizens of Sakaar feel?

The outskirts of Sakaar do not appear to be regulated by the Grandmaster. They are essentially dumping grounds of the galaxy, with portals to space dropping pieces of ships and, occasionally, people from other lands onto the planet. The people that live in these dumping grounds are shown flying in spaceships, implying that the ground is uninhabitable due to all the junk and they do not appear to have a stable source of food. When they first encounter Thor, the people ask him if he is “a fighter or food,” which demonstrates that these people are desperate enough to resort to cannibalism (“Thor: Ragnarok”). They decide that Thor is food and attempt to capture him, only to be thwarted by Valkyrie, who obliterates the entire crowd with her ship’s weapons. This violent scene shows the cutthroat conditions for not just the people of this junkyard, but also for Valkyrie; she cannot afford to lose this payday even if it means slaughtering several, essentially innocent people. The desperation of these acts shows the destitute lives of the people of the junkyard and the bounty hunters, making this portion of the planet anything but a utopia.

How could so many people be living in these dystopic situations and not do anything about it? People like the Grandmaster manipulate them into thinking that this is the best that they can do, that this is in fact their utopia, and if they rebel or question authority, they will only make things worse for themselves. In reality, people like the Grandmaster thrive on the suffering of others. Thor’s time on Sakaar is an intense journey that should leave audiences wondering, what is the real cost of utopia?

Resources:

Thor Ragnarok. Directed by Taika Waititi, Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios, and Screen Queensland, 2017.

Picture courtesy of Marvel Studios.

Pink Floyd’s Animals reflects a society hurtling toward dystopia

By Ben Sapet

In the 1970s, the United Kingdom felt distinct growing pains as the previous decade’s progressive and loosening cultural norms rubbed against a growing reactionary trend of government conservatism and fierce traditionalist social activists. By 1977, British art-rock group Pink Floyd had snapped. That year, they released Animals, a concept album filled to the brim with equal measures of disdain, disgust, and despair. On Animals, Pink Floyd casts a scathing critique over contemporary Britain with a heightened dystopian vision of a society reduced to dogs, pigs, and sheep.

The album is made up of three 10+ minute songs: one dedicated to the vicious dogs biting, barking, and backstabbing their way through corporate, capitalist culture; one dedicated to the pigs sitting at the top of society pushing their callous agenda down on those below; and the last dedicated to the placid, unquestioning sheep who follow their leaders and misplace their frustrations. The album begins with the acoustic, uncharacteristically tender “Pigs on the Wing, Pt. 1.” In this song, the band wonders aloud what would happen “If you didn’t care what happened to me, and I didn’t care for you” and does not know “which of the buggers to blame” for the world becoming so uncaring (Pink Floyd, “Pigs on the Wing, Pt. 1”).

The guitar fades back in and the next song, “Dogs,” begins the album in earnest by examining the first of the culprits for creating this world: the dogs. These dogs are the cutthroat businessmen who feel they “have to be trusted by the people that [they] lie to / So that when they turn their backs on [the dogs] / [they]’ll get the chance to put the knife in” (Pink Floyd, “Dogs”). A splitting peel of electric guitar follows this thought and wordlessly echoes the cathartic energy of the dogs tearing through life. The narrator describes the dogs feeling like they are “just being used,” but continue through life “Deaf, dumb and blind, [they] just keep on pretending / That everyone’s expendable, and no one has a real friend” (Pink Floyd, “Dogs”). Between the sense of devalued human life, and a new social class of fierce businessmen, the lyrics reflect Britain’s shift toward a post-industrial society throughout the 1970s and 80s. The dystopia of Animals, then, aims its acidic criticism toward a world changing for the worse, as labor is no longer a matter of creation, but a constant, all-consuming hunt that makes people act like vicious dogs starved by their masters and set loose to sink their teeth into each other and the rest of the world.

When the final words of “Dogs” echo out, we hear a wandering synth line and, underneath, the husky snorts of pigs. The next song, “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” looks to the masters steering this broken society. Each of the three verses addresses a different one of the pigs. The first verse is directed toward the pigs at the top of the corporate ladder who keep their “head down in the pig bin” to supervise the work that feeds their gluttony (Pink Floyd, “Pigs”). The second verse attacks the looming conservative government and, specifically, Margaret Thatcher, a conservative politician often considered Ronald Reagan’s British counterpart. In the song she is called a “bus stop rat bag” who “radiate[s] cold shafts of broken glass” in reference to her unfeeling, uncaring social policies that placed austerity above human well-being (Pink Floyd, “Pigs”).

The final verse of “Pigs” lashes out at Mary Whitehouse, a prominent activist who responded to the sexual revolution of the 1960s with a disgusted crusade to bring back the traditional stigmas about sexuality in the public sphere. In the song they address her by name and describe her mission as trying to “stem the evil tide / And keep it all on the inside,” thus, blaming her for the emerging sense of repression and detachment the band senses in British society (Pink Floyd, “Pigs”). Pink Floyd is at their most venomous in “Pigs” with their rage and bitter heartbreak almost palpable in the song’s instrumentals. At the end of “Pigs,” we see that the album’s dystopian opening question – what if we did not care for each other – is not hypothetical, but realistic.

The third song, “Sheep,” begins with an understated, almost hymnal, piano melody and the bleating of a field full of sheep. The song targets the passive religious majority who “Meek and obedient […] follow the leader” and are content with the will of the pigs (Pink Floyd, “Sheep”). Like its subject matter, “Sheep” is the most placid song on Animals. Unlike the pigs and dogs, the sheep do not actively unravel society’s fabric with their wrongs, they just watch. That is, until the end of the song when the sheep, goaded by the pigs, reach a fear-driven frenzy in which they rise up and slaughter the dogs. The album’s dystopian reflection of the clashing social forces in 1970s Britain culminate in this moment of one pawn being set against another by the callous pigs and their senseless agenda.

The album ends with “Pigs on the Wing, Pt. 2” answering the question from “Pt.1” with “You know that I care what happens to you / And I know that you care for me too” (Pink Floyd, “Pigs on the Wing, Pt. 2”). With the album’s final breaths, we are left with the impression that as the dogs, pigs, and sheep tear society apart, we can simply take comfort in whatever care we can find in a world starved for compassion.

 

Resources:

Pink Floyd. “Pigs on the Wing, Pt. 1.” Animals, Harvest Records, 1977.

Pink Floyd. “Dogs.” Animals, Harvest Records, 1977.

Pink Floyd. “Pigs.” Animals, Harvest Records, 1977.

Pink Floyd. “Sheep.” Animals, Harvest Records, 1977.

Pink Floyd. “Pigs on the Wing, Pt. 2.” Animals, Harvest Records, 1977.

Album Cover attributed to Harvest Records in the United Kingdom and Columbia Records in the United States.

Conquistadors: Conquerors of the New World/Agents of Apocalypse

By Megan Schillereff, Ball State University

Image via Google

In current conversation, the idea of apocalypse and the interconnected idea of the posthuman are usually presented as science fiction or fantasy. Despite its popularity within the fictional universes of both the page and the screen, apocalyptic events have occurred within the course of human history, traceable all the way back to the Age of Exploration and beyond. And, while most people wouldn’t immediately think of events that occurred that early in the course of human history as having any connection to the post-apocalypse or the posthuman, there are actually some fascinating examples in the historical record. One of the best examples of the posthuman working within a historical apocalypse can be seen through the armored Conquistadors’ genocidal conquest of the Americas.  By reading the Conquistadors as possessing an early type of posthuman body because of the superiority that their armor granted them, their power as agents of the apocalypse becomes more visible within the context of the Spanish conquest of the Incan empire.

This blog post presents an example of posthumans operating within apocalyptic historical events. Viewing these historical instances of cataclysm as examples of apocalypse is something that James Berger, in his book After the End (1999), discusses. He explains that “historical events are often portrayed apocalyptically—as absolute breaks with the past, as catastrophes bearing some enormous or ultimate meaning” (xii). Berger also lists a few historical cases of apocalyptic moments: “the Holocaust, for example, or Hirsohima, or American slavery, the American Civil War, the French Revolution, the war in Vietnam’” (xii).  In a similar way, the conquest of the Americas certainly contained a definitive break from the past, as life for the Native Americans was completely and permanently altered after the arrival of the Europeans. For this reason, I think that Berger’s list of historical apocalypses can be expanded to include instances such as the Spanish obliteration of the Incans.

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