Friday, April 15, 2011


Tomorrow I challenge you to consider the ideal community.
The island of Utopia is in the middle 200 miles broad, and holds almost at the same breadth over a great part of it; but it grows narrower toward both ends. Its figure is not unlike a crescent: between its horns, the sea comes in eleven miles broad, and spreads itself into a great bay, which is environed with land to the compass of about 500 miles, and is well secured from winds. In this bay there is no great current; the whole coast is, as it were, one continued harbor, which gives all that live in the island great convenience for mutual commerce; but the entry into the bay, occasioned by rocks on the one hand, and shallows on the other, is very dangerous. In the middle of it there is one single rock which appears above the water, and may therefore be easily avoided, and on the top of it there is a tower in which a garrison in kept; the other rocks lie under the water, and are very dangerous. The channel is known only to the natives, so that if any stranger should enter into the bay, without one of their pilots, he would run great danger of shipwreck; for even they themselves could not pass it safe, if some marks that are on the coast did not direct their way; and if these should be but a little shifted, any fleet that might come against them, how great soever it were, would be certainly lost.

-- Sir Thomas More, Utopia, 1516

In his proto-socialist depiction of the ideal society, More's Raphael (the explorer who claims to have discovered this place) cites several qualities that emerge from the particular community he describes: security, serenity, equity, indeed the elusive state of happiness itself... and then there are the "lacks"... lack of covetousness, lack of apprehension, lack of pride (which Raphael suggests leads to ambition, competition, selfishness and commotion). While I already have a bone to pick with this depiction of perfection, it is perhaps the common misinterpretation of More's Utopia as a true utopia that should be the first topic we address. Interestingly enough, the piece ends with the narrator's retreat from the extremity of the views expressed by the traveler Raphael Hythloday (trans. purveyor of truth, but "speaker of nonesense" i.e. Raphael, the guide for the blind Tobais, yet with the meaning of the Greek hythloday suggesting a peddler of absurdity.) And so More's Giles remarks:
When Raphael had thus made an end of speaking, though many things occurred to me, both concerning the manners and laws of that people, that seemed very absurd, as well in their way of making war, as in their notions of religion and divine matters; together with several other particulars, but chiefly what seemed the foundation of all the rest, their living in common, without the use of money, by which all nobility, magnificence, splendor, and majesty, which, according to the common opinion, are the true ornaments of a nation, would be quite taken away... I commend only their constitution, and the account he had given of it in general... I cannot perfectly agree to everything he has related; however, there are many things in the Commonwealth of Utopia that I rather wish, than hope, to see followed in our governments.

To begin with More is already to complicate the simplistic notion of utopia. For, in the many reassessments, More's Utopia has been more recently critically received. How does one effectively analyze and comment upon his own society... the one in which he and his audience are internalized? One strategy is to remove everyone from the perspective of that society -- to get outside -- in order to look more clearly back in.

And so, perhaps More meant this tract as a critique of the faults of and his personal discontents with his own government (he would later be imprisoned in the Tower of London because of his contentious and public opposition to the power sharing system between the King and the Church). In a fascinating article about how we have "missed the point" of More and his visions, Wolfgang Rudat explains the importance of understanding what kind of a traveler Raphael is suggested to be. More spends time differentiating the wayfaring Raphael from Palinurus, and then comparing him to Ulysses and even Plato. In a footnote of his translation of the text, Robert Adams explains that "Palinurus is a type of careless traveler, Ulysses is a type of the man who learns from traveling, and Plato (who made trips to Sicily and Egypt) is a type of the man who travels to learn." (Sir Thomas More: Utopia, Translated and Edited by Robert M. Adams (New York: Norton & Co., 1975), p.6n)

Suggesting that the reader who easily swallows the hook of Hythloday's succulent tale is being seduced by "the mental version of Ulysses' Trojan Horse,"* Rudat advances the necessity for an ironic sipping of More's dialogue... an understanding of the parallels between Odysseus' telling of his journeys (with the narrative enhancement of exaggerations (read: lies) when appropriate for added color and panache) to the the tired tale-telling of Hythloday who Giles kindly helps to bed at the close of Utopia before adding his own more critical analysis of the never-never land to which he has been introduced.
* (Wolfgang E. H. Rudat, "More's Raphael Hythloday: Missing the Point in Utopia Once More (Moreana, no. 69 (Mar 1981): 42)

Interestingly enough, Rudat puts forth a theory that More's Utopia is less a paradise of freedoms, than of securities... even to the point of womb-like protection... because
there is no place that could offer man the security that the Utopians enjoy, unless it were the womb. As has been noted, Calypso derives from the Greek word meaning to envelop. Thus Odysseus' stay on Ogygia is a metaphoric return to the womb, and his departure from the island is his rebirth into humanity as well as a reacquisition of his identity. The womb offers security, but the price it exacts for that security is the negation or at least a severe restriction of individual identity -- precisely the price man has to pay for living in Utopia, and for living in modern communistic or other totalitarian societies. (Rudat, 43)
Thus, is utopia about full-fledged release -- an expression of our perfect liberties? Or is it rather a manifestation of our deep-seeded fantasies about security, protection, and safety? And to continue the metaphor, Rudat writes of the "self-enclosed spatiality of Hythloday's green world... and [thereby] its womblike retreat protected from the outside world." (43) It is hard for all of this not to remind us of that most famous of emerald-green cities, Oz.

What then does utopia require? A yellow brick road? A map? A new urban plan? A philosopher? A progressive thinker? Or a nostalgic preserver? For we cannot forget that the etymology of the word, utopia, takes us back to its ambiguous Greek beginnings where eutopia means 'good place' but outopia means 'no place.' And so in utopia we are at once blissful and delusional. Perfect and non-existent.

In a class on Expressionistic Utopian Architecture that I took at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I wrote one of the weekly "think-pieces" on the similarity that exists between Rudolf Kassner's and Oswald Spengler's physiognomic worldviews, as they both "participate in a cultural pessimism or cultural nostalgia that views modern, twentieth-century European culture, society, and technology as a state of historical decline, a moment of regression and degeneration that one can bemoan, but cannot correct." (Richard Gray, About Face: German Physiognomic Thought from Lavater to Auschwitz, p. 202) In my piece, I posited the obvious question of why an antimodern, pessimistic attitude would have arisen at this particular historical moment (i.e. early 20th century.) And focusing on our reading of Bruno Taut and his Alpine Architecture (1917), I asked what to make of the rural setting of Taut's own utopian visions. Does this relate our utopias more directly to nostalgia? Or to ironically unpeopled idealizations of civilization? Does it, in the lesser sense, suggest a correlation between Expressionist architecture (and perhaps all utopian grand schemes) and an architecture of nostalgia? A "bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past" (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2000)?

Page from Taut's Alpine Architecture

And so the Nietzsche references in Taut. For, 'thus spoke Zarathustra'.... the prophet descending from his mountain retreat (location: utopia) to announce the death of God... to announce the need for self-mastery... to announce the 'eternal recurrence' -- the repetition of past, present, and future events in a circular infinity always returning us, in some sense, to the womb.

O man, take care!
What does the deep midnight declare?
"I was asleep—
From a deep dream I woke and swear:—
The world is deep,
Deeper than day had been aware.
Deep is its woe—
Joy—deeper yet than agony:
Woe implores: Go!
But all joy wants eternity—
Wants deep, wants deep eternity. (Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen)
Taut's utopian visions reference absent realities, imagined situations of the past, 'primitive' communities that were more perfect that our own. It is interesting to compare this outlook with the beginnings of the discipline of anthropology -- for instance in Lewis Henry Morgan's Ancient Society. Through his evolutionary scheme of culture (savagery, barbarism, civilization), he viewed his own society as exemplifying the most advanced state of human progress. But his fieldwork with the Iroquois and the ensuing adoption of his material as the basis for human development by Marx led many to search for societies existing in a state of 'primitive communism,' i.e. societies that seemed to be communist yet had not yet passed through capitalism (Marx's initial requirement for arriving at the perfect communist state.) The interesting connection here is that this search for 'primitive communism' was marked by notions that these societies possessed some kind of perfect societal structure that was lacking from Western culture. Further, the desire was to find them in order that lessons could be learned and applied, like a band-aid, to assist other societies in attaining such 'ideal' states of being. However, it was not as if these early anthropologists and seekers believed that such communities were better than theirs. In fact, quite the opposite -- they believed that Western society was, indeed, the most advanced. It was merely the structure of these ostensible shangri-las that was desirable, as if they had fallen into such a perfect state of existence and organization by felicitous accident. So, theirs was an idealistic view of the state of primitives, yet a condescension towards their actual existence, their reality.

Similarly, physiogomy (which is the notion that you can identify a person's character from his facial features, again reflecting that outward appearance (read: architecturally planned perfect city) materializes something essential) sought to identify a pre-rational, more authentic moment of perception. And, even though modern civilization may have undergone a regression, "the cultivation of physiognomics becomes one of the primary avenues by which modern human beings can re-attain this valorized pre-rational intuition." (Gray, 182) Thereby the more insidious implication that consciously experiencing such a regression can teach you to recognize and understand the 'pre-rational intuition' in a much more significant way than a primitive culture that just "happens" to view things that way. Plato and all the travelers who learn from their journeys. Thus, building and architecture and pre-fabricated and manipulated and molded 'perfection' becomes "...the experience of space; inspiration, invention, the clearest, most sudden awareness of the soul's echo in the primeval jungle of the environment; a purposeless, unexampled play of the finest forces in porous matter whose flux came to a standstill in a moment of highest reflection, oblivious of pleasure, existing in appearance only, a waking sleep of forces, a stationary movement that might at any time continue to flower in all directions or disintegrate into well-shaped component parts, spontaneously splitting up living a living crystal without beginning or end like everything through which there quivers the pulse of the eternal." (Hermann Finsterlin: Casa Nova, in Conrads (ed.), Programs and Manifestos on 20th-century Architecture, 85) In order to achieve the "grand simplicity" (Finsterlin, 86), the "immediate primal and eternal, universal expression of being" (Finsterlin, 86), one must have the will and access to this universal knowledge -- a privilege perhaps afforded only a select few. The ideologies of Expressionist architecture (prodigiously imagined, little built) seem to be the "awareness of the soul's echo" in this pristine environment. The intellect and introspective self-consciousness of motive and purpose are equally significant in the realization of utopia as are the romanticized conditions of primitives.

Corbu's plan for Paris

Ville Radieuse
It is impossible to write this thematic entry without addressing Corbusier... especially when architecture has formed the structure of much of this blog's topic. Long before Towards an Architecture in which he proposed his revolutionary re-urbanizing schemes for Paris, he exhibited impossibly utopian tendencies. With the painter Amédée Ozeenfant, he wrote a treatise in which Cubism was rejected in favor of a new artistic movement un-self-consciously called Purism.
Corbu feared the prevalence of "eyes that do not see" and yet, tried to impose his own sort of blindness by isolating families within the identically-replicated cells of his high-rises, the purity of the spirit seeming to be manifested in the purity of space, the architect replacing the engineer, the mass-production of homes echoing the necessary mass-production of the spirit. The erasure of all the messiness of 'real' life in favor of complete and total order and structure, cities cleansed of humanity as it were... a utopia where it seems discipline rather than freedom would rule. And although Corbu presented his futuristic plans as movement, progression, indeed revolution itself, he simultaneously referred to the "primordial instinct" of humans to shelter, thus reinserting our initial question of the nostalgic tendencies of utopias.

Think of your own notion of utopia. Is it future-oriented? Fantasies of the unimagined perfection that could possibly exist? Of tomorrows that could someday be your today? Or does it, like mine, return you somehow to places and people and memories that are cherished. I once read that it is impossible for us, even in dreams, to imagine the face of someone we have never seen... an entirely new face. In other words, when we meet an unknown, unrecognized person in our dreams, this person is not utterly unfamiliar, but rather a composite of parts of different faces recombined in a new way to appear as something we do not recognize. Is it the same with our utopias? Aren't so many of them commentaries on our present discontents and the sentimentalized 'auld lang syne'?

Below are photographs from when I worked in Alaska. This is my utopia. My perfect place. My perfect memory. My perfect sense of my own becoming. My perfect sense of self. All of which is frozen in the past. All of which stays securely the same as I continue to move on, to change, to fumble with life, but always to grow. And to grow, as always, with growing pains. My utopia exists without paroxysm of expansion, self-awareness, and the facing of one after another unanswerable question. My utopia exists in utter simplicity, all complexities having been erased, as the humans from so many architectural fantasies of what we could be in tectonic perfection, in that reverie-induced state in which all existence is a mirage over which we possess complete control.

the waiting

the waiting finds me here

my life sat still and smooth as shale
and I was etched along its
surface wondering what reflection
I could find of such a
timeless me

still and deep,
I ran dark within myself
and the waiting curled up
next to me –
its warmth caressed me like the
supple hands of a lover
and it whispered to me
that I was smooth and gentle,
a stone whose life would be
full of questions,
questions filling me

but questions emptied me,
numbed my heart
and skipped me across the
water with speed
I could not fathom,
until I was sinking down
I was not moving,
did not know that wind
had a name
or that my name could
become lost in its many

the waiting finds me here

here is the first name I
have learned for a place
and the word falls softly
from my lips –
and they are not stone,
I find, and so repeating
they begin to lead me,
“here I am; I am here”

calls echo from the
cottonwoods and the
tundra swallows me
amidst a vastness that is
as incomprehensible as it is

the waiting finds me, alone,
but I do not recognize it
and I walk until my legs
cannot name the miles

here, I move in and out
of stillness,
knowing nothing
but my name

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