Whence, Wherefore, Whither Utopia?

by Deanna K. Kreisel (Doctor Waffle Blog)

What does the word “utopia” mean to the battle-scarred denizens of the twenty-first century? A shockingly unscientific survey of the nine or ten people I buttonholed last week suggests that the key connotations of the word are: ideal, perfect, imaginary, unrealistic, and unattainable. I’ve arranged these terms purposefully in that order, so that they imply not a static and fixed definition but rather a narrative arc, a falling away from hope into disappointment: all of the people I spoke to (students and colleagues at the large Southern state-flagship university where I teach, so a fair cross-section of ages, races, ethnicities, and genders) firmly believed that the word “utopia” denotes an unrealistic or quixotic goal. It’s not my thesis here that disappointment is the necessary fate of any utopian project, but it might be a provisional thesis that most people living in Western cultures today think that it is.

As a Victorian literature scholar, I’m a little surprised at how pejoratively the word “utopian” is used today. Because I immerse myself in another historical period for my research and teaching, I am forced to move back and forth, somewhat vertiginously, between the Olden Times I study and the present moment; just like H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller, I sometimes find it takes a few moments to blink away the “veil of confusion” occasioned by my most recent trip home from the nineteenth century. For the Victorians the word “utopian” did not carry the negative connotations of impossibility, naïveté, and dunderheadedness that it does for us now—the writers and thinkers who used that word were for the most part engaged in actual utopian projects, whether literal or literary (or both).[1] Read more »

The List

by Deanna Kreisel (Doctor Waffle Blog)

Modern life would be impossible without pet theories. (One of my pet theories is that everyone has pet theories.) How could we make sense of the quotidian horror and cruel contingency of our lives under late capitalism without a little magical thinking? Everyone has a soul mate out there somewhere. There are two kinds of people in the world. The CIA is tracking our Amazon purchases. Black is slimming. One of mine is that during the course of a lifetime, everyone gets one fabulous found item. (Granted, some people may get more than one, but that is rare and clearly bespeaks a karmic debt.) Some may go looking for theirs—like a detectorist unearthing a hoard of Saxon gold—which is not exactly against the rules, but vaguely contravenes the spirit of the theory; most often, however, it comes when you least expect it. I am happy to announce that ten years ago I found mine and so now I can relax. I wish I could say it was a pilgrim shoe buckle or a lost diamond tennis bracelet, but in some ways it was even more valuable—it has, in the ten years since its discovery, afforded countless hours of speculation and amusement. My Found Object is a shopping list.

Medium: Blue ball-point ink on wide-margin 3-ring notebook paper
Location: Shopping cart bottom, Save-On Foods, Cambie Street, Vancouver, BC
Finders: Doctor Waffle and Mr. Waffle, while grocery shopping
Date: 7 August 2010

[Handwriting #1:]

  • Milk -> a big one (we can do it)
  • Ketchup
  • Bread
  • Frozen veggies?
  • Yogurt (probably strawberry)
  • Diet coke
  • Juice
  • Cheese variety -> the good stuff
  • Cracker variety
  • Salamie like last time
  • Some type of cracker spread
  • Smoked salmon
  • Ceareal ! a good for you kind.
  • Peanut butter (REAL) no kraft BS
  • Strawberry jam
  • Low fat ice cream
  • Chicken breasts
  • Is the pasta sauce in the fridge any good?
  • if not … more sauce.
  • Ground beef & pork
  • Lets make meet balls? Ill get a recipe
  • Croutons & salad dressing

[Handwriting #2, scrawled at top of sheet:]

Sorry Baby got home
at 9pm. Will go
shopping Wednesday

[Handwriting ambiguous, at very bottom of sheet:]

I HAVE $45.00 —

Even after countless re-readings and hours of in-depth analysis, this document still has the power to move me deeply. (I am not being facetious.) As soon as my spouse and I finished reading the list multiple times and wiping the tears of laughter from our eyes, we immediately uploaded it to Facebook. Our friends were as transported by the list as we were, and for the next couple of days produced exegesis and commentary worthy of Maimonides. Who are these people? What is their relationship? Why did the list’s original addressee not get to the grocery store (and did he ever)? Why are they so obsessed with eating healthfully, yet also stock their cart with fatty meats and cheeses? What is the meaning of the mysterious addendum BEANS? And perhaps most importantly: how on earth did these people expect to procure the items on this list for $45 in Vancouver, a city where a pint of Ben and Jerry’s costs upward of ten dollars? Read more »

Dystopians In High Castles

by Thomas O’Dwyer

A fallen statue of Nazi American leader John Smith.
A fallen statue of the American Nazi leader, John Smith.

It could have been that simple — the Nazis nuke Washington D.C. and it’s all over. Capitulation follows, resistance is futile. There are plenty of right-wingers in high places — political, military, even cultural, who see this not as a conquest but an opportunity. French Marshal Philippe Pétain and Norway’s Vidkun Quisling had been such people. So too is Obergruppenführer John Smith, their fictional American counterpart in Philip K. Dick’s classic novel The Man in the High Castle. The conquering Nazis offer formerly patriotic American officers light temptations and they casually fall, and then rise. The war is lost, collaboration is inevitable. It’s better to be at the front of the queue, showing some willingness to proclaim (by some small actions) that you accept the times as they are a-changing.

Dick’s novel differs in many aspects from the recently completed Amazon TV series based on it. But in both, the Nazis secure the east side of the country, setting up their capital in New York. The West Coast is messier, but wasn’t it always? On that side of the continent, the Japanese have won. Unlike the stiff-necked and murderously pure Nazis, the Japanese are unabashedly nationalist. They are ruthless occupiers too, but ration their resources to inflict their cruelties on identifiable enemies and resisters. Read more »

Why you can’t buy a first class ticket to Utopia

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_411 Nov. 23 14.03Just about every high school would like more money and harder working students. I have a modest proposal to address both problems. In every high school cafeteria let there be two groups—call them, say, “premier” and “regular.” To be in the premier group, students must either pay an additional fifty percent on top of the normal price for a school lunch or be ranked academically in the top five percent of their class. Those in the premier group would enjoy a number of privileges: they queue in their own line, which gives them priority over “regulars” for receiving service; they sit in a separate section at special tables adorned with tablecloths and floral centerpieces; their chairs have padded seats; and they have more choice at the food counter. In addition to the options available to the regular group, they can avail themselves of a complimentary hors d'oeuvre, sparkling water instead of tap water, and an after-lunch coffee or cappuccino (with complimentary chocolate mint). Best of all, perhaps, they enjoy unfiltered internet access.

The benefits of the system should be obvious. The extra revenue generated by the premier group will (among other things) enable the school to offer better food to all while lowering prices for those in the standard group. And students will be inspired to work harder so that they can enjoy premier group privileges, or at least ensure that one day their own kids will do so.

Objections anyone? I can't think of any apart from the thought that the whole scheme is utterly pernicious, likely to breed arrogance on the one side, resentment on the other, and to foster social divisions that subtly fracture the community spirit that ideally would unite all members of the school.

My modest proposal occurred to me the other day when, for the first time, by some inexplicable fluke, I found myself assigned to a first class seat on a jumbo jet flying from Denver to Washington.

Read more »