For the Jun/Jul/Aug issue of Bookforum magazine, Paul La Farge published a sketch of the utopian ideal, and the conceptions of utopia today. This is a quick response I shared with the editors of BF.
Mr. La Farge’s sketch of a utopian ideal as analogous to a game is intriguing, but the claim is misleading. The underlying premise for his game concept is distinctly Western (and especially American?), thus leaving the experiences of much of the rest of the world out of the conceptualization.
“Utopia is a game,” La Farge says, and “what is a game, after all, but a set of rules?” Such a model stems from the imagination of a free liberal, an individual in a free, democratic, Western society. Those repressed by harsh dictatorships or living in rigid socio-economic constructs would have a difficult time seeing a utopia constituted by rules as ideal. Indeed, quite the opposite. Those who live a life under strict rules conceive an ideal utopia of being rule-less, or lawless, unconfined by strictures of any kind. Think not only of greater dichotomies (e.g., Communist to post-Communist Eastern European society) but of also the rule-abiding good Catholic school student who explodes in promiscuity and binge-drinking when s/he escapes to a college life.
Utopian imaginations seem to derive from experience and perspectives. In Mark Twain’s classic tale of the prince and the pauper, the prince seeks to escape a life of rules and rigidity to experience an anarchical life in the streets while the pauper seeks an ideal life of primping and luxurious structure. The prince yearns for unregimented freedom and anonymity while the pauper is willing to succumb to rules of a life of wealth, food, power, and luxury. Each idealizes the situation of the other.
That I have mentioned a possible distinction between Western and non-Western outlooks (of relativity) sets up another argument: Must the idea of utopia be dependent on our own experiences and culture, thus opening the way for endless possibilities of utopia throughout and forward through human history? Or is there one single ideal utopia, one that speaks to greater fundamental aspirations of the whole of humanity? If the latter is so, then ideas about games must be reconsidered.
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Communism, Philosophy, Utopia