Enlightenment Utopias, Fall 2014

literary thought experiments of the 17th and 18th centuries

Discussion Questions on Voltaire, Adorno and Horkheimer

by Kate Eickmeyer

1. Candide’s famous source of salvation is “to work without theorizing,” and our heroes ultimately find refuge in relatively physical forms of labor: farming, cooking, embroidery, and carpentry. But what if one’s work, like ours, is theorizing? Voltaire, after all, is a writer and not a farmer. It seems to me that the real salvation Candide offers us isn’t just labor, but the redemptive powers of art and humor; the book itself delivers us from the despair of unnarrated suffering. Why doesn’t Voltaire allow the characters that same salvation through art or humor? And why does he turn to the solution of work so abruptly, without anticipating this idea anywhere earlier in the text?


2. “Not only is domination paid for with the estrangement of human beings from the dominated objects, but the relationships of human beings, including the relationship of individuals to themselves, have themselves been bewitched by the objectification of mind. Individuals shrink to the nodal points of conventional reactions and the modes of operation objectively expected of them.” (Adorno and Horkheimer 21)

In the context of World War II, the human tendency to be bewitched by the objectification of mind amounts to a willingness to blindly follow tyrants and be complicit in violence, horror and genocide. We can probably take it for granted that maintaining a just, peaceful society requires the political participation of an awake and educated population. But, on the other hand, maybe consumer culture, and the somatic, objectifying effects of radio, television, video games, and other forms of relatively passive entertainment actually promote peace; if we accept Voltaire’s view that a lot of people are savage, brutal hypocrites who will torture, murder and rape for fun, isn’t it better that many of our species are parked in front of the television instead of out wreaking havoc? Does the bread-and-circuses argument that entertainment (or soma, or materialism, or religion) lulls the people into accepting oppressive conditions hold up in the context of Candide, or can we argue that a lot of people would only use a keener awareness of their own subjectivities to inflict horrors on one another, instead of engaging in more thoughtful political engagement?


3. “The principle of immanence, the explanation of every event as repetition, which enlightenment upholds against mythical imagination, is that of myth itself. The arid wisdom which acknowledges nothing new under the sun, because all the pieces in the meaningless game have been played out, all the great thoughts have been thought, all possible discoveries can be construed in advance, and human beings are defined by self-preservation through adaptation—this barren wisdom merely reproduces the fantastic doctrine it rejects: the sanction of fate which, through retribution, incessantly reinstates what always was. Whatever might be different is made the same. That is the verdict which critically sets the boundaries to experience.” (Adorno and Horkheimer 8)

Is Candide an enlightenment or a counter-enlightenment text? Humor is generally the product of identifying the connections and sameness among phenomena, and Voltaire does this with great aplomb. The repetition of events in the book, the anticipation of one form of corruption and horror after the next, and the nearly universal failure of human nature is in itself a kind of fatalism with the flavor that there is nothing new under the sun. Is humor an enlightenment concept? Does Voltaire, so critical of the enlightenment’s hypocrisy, participate in its “principle of immanence?” Does he allow his characters subjectivity and uniqueness?


4. Eldorado seems to be the first true utopia we’ve seen, and Candide and Cacambo’s decision to leave is Voltaire’s statement that a real paradise might be possible, but if we found it, we’d be stupid enough to leave it. Yet the description of Eldorado is primarily visual and Voltaire offers us little in terms of its mechanics. Should we consider Eldorado as a device more than an actual utopia? What do we make of the (whimsical) red sheep? Are there other elements of Eldorado worth exploring in the context of our conversation about utopias?


5. Does one have to labor and produce in order to cultivate one’s garden, or does playing a thousand hours of Mario Kart or looking at pictures of breaded cats also count as cultivating one’s garden? Our culture continues to subscribe to Enlightenment ideas about work and leisure, success and failure, and those who have grown up entrenched in middle class mentalities about this find it very difficult to reorient. But does the CEO who earns $15 million a year actually contribute more to society than the $8 an hour barista? Does our fetishization of status and material culture simply give us something to do and a garden to cultivate? If labor is salvation to keep us clear of “boredom, vice and poverty,” can leisure perform the same service without the need for achievement?
6. How is it that so many grown adults are still walking around saying Panglossian things like “everything happens for a reason” and “you can do anything if you believe in yourself?” Is this the product of magical thinking, enlightenment thinking, cognitive failure, compartmentalization, or something else? Does it even matter that there are a lot of Panglosses walking around, since its better to be surrounded by Panglosses than murderers?

Rabbit Holes and Shiny Objects

by Kate Eickmeyer

I haven’t decided which text to write about, but here are some concepts I’ve been thinking about:

I’m interested in the aesthetic environments (or lack thereof) in utopian texts and the implications of those aesthetics for subjectivity. Acknowledging some significant exceptions, I’m thinking about the parallels between early utopian asceticism and the current affinity for minimalistic, white- and beige-washed environments and fears of contamination from color and embellishment, or “chromophobia,” as David Batchelor puts it. I wonder if there is also something to do with the early utopian treatment of whimsy; the word “whimsy” is derived from 16th century words “whim-wham” and “flim-flam” (Houyhnhnms, anyone?); perhaps this was an appropriate moment for such terms for the extraneous and fanciful to come into being. Were lines drawn between feudalistic avarice and apolitical, innocent novelty? Or, was “whimsy” an entirely dangerous phenomenon in the context of a society where punishment was capricious and capital? Or something else entirely?

Obviously Gulliver’s Travels is chock-full of whimsy, but I’m more interested in how our expectations of exotic physical environments in the earlier texts Swift parodies are disappointed. And, while The Blazing World is so encrusted with jewels it makes the Magic Kingdom look like Bauhaus, jewels are children’s trinkets in More’s Utopia and mere rocks in the road in Candide. More and Voltaire are suggesting, of course, that the aesthetic appreciation for color and sparkle in our non-utopian world is driven entirely by the economic value of gold and jewels, with their value owing to scarcity alone. But also colorful, feature-rich physical environments are not part of the rational project, so how do these texts posit non-utilitarian environmental features as contaminants?

This idea is also tangled up with denial of subjectivity, and more recent dystopian works tend to either represent grey, colorless worlds of surveillance and oppression, or overly-embellished societies that conceal evil beneath shallow surfaces. Anxieties about frivolity, and how much of it to allow in the ideal environment, continue to prevail, along with cycles of indulgence and restraint. What is the difference between approved and unapproved types of whimsy? The Fohrmann piece, “From Literary Utopia to The Utopia of Subjectivity,” addresses the issue of subjectivity; he writes: “Utopia’s remedy is now quite simple: a new society should be created in a separated space, in which man’s inner nature is disciplined by a reason that organizes society as a perpetual recurrence of never-changing rituals” (290). Caprice and idiosyncrasy don’t fit, so their disorderly environmental manifestations don’t either.

On a separate note, is there more to make of modes of access to utopias: the portals or trials one must go through to get in or out of them, not just as a metaphor for imperialism and isolationism, but as a landscape beyond natural laws and the limits of reason? Getting to a utopia often requires travel through not only a physical portal, but also through a portal of experience caused by nature or the unknown. The shipwreck is the most common avenue in the texts we’ve read, and it entails not only the unreproducible nature of the event but also a narrative of death and resurrection in the new environment (why the resurrection component?). Animals can also be the catalyzing forces; the coneys in Rasselas show the prince the way out of the happy valley, and the bears in The Blazing World carry the empress into their society. While the requirement of accident precludes the possibility of anyone in the real world verifying the utopia and reinforces the idea of the utopia as elsewhere or nowhere, the invocation of such experiential portals renders the utopias simultaneously more exotic and more personal, or more accurately, promise such outcomes, even if they never come to fruition. The mode of access is irrational and unintended, yet the destination is the product of rationality and intention. Is there anything to do with all this?

I’m also interested in utopia and Enlightenment philosophy as “poor man’s Buddhism” per our discussion of Rasselas, as well as utopian visions of the ocean and oceanic cultures. I’m also interested in writing the paper on Cavendish and the Kabbalah.

As a somewhat tangential aside, I’ve been researching the history of immersive/themed/place-based entertainment, starting with Dyrehavsbakken, a Danish amusement park that opened in 1583 (a mere 67 years after More’s Utopia was published!). Most of what I’ve found on this subject is all about hyperreality and debunking Disney, and I think there’s more to do from the utopian perspective. I haven’t really worked out any connections to our texts so it doesn’t really pertain to this paper, but I thought I’d throw it out there in case anyone happens to be brimming with ideas or has friends in high places who might be interested in the project.

Comments on Stillman and Mahlberg’s Discussions of The Isle of Pines

by Kate Eickmeyer

What a very strange little text The Isle of Pines is. Three issues leap out from Neville’s deceptively casual narrative style: (i) George Pines’ enthusiastic polygamy, (ii) the severity of punishment and total absence of due process under Henry Pines’ law, and (iii) the racial dimensions of both circumstances. At first I read The Isle of Pines as misogynistic fantasy metamorphosed into racist cautionary tale about overpopulation and idleness, but the historical context explained in Gaby Mahlberg and Peter Stillman’s articles in the assigned issue of Utopian Studies brought my attention to the parody at work and Neville’s more likely agendas. Stillman identifies George Pines’ resemblance to Charles II and his brother James II, both of whom indulged in an array of mistresses and prioritized their polyamorous personal lives and over statecraft and England’s well being (157). Stillman posits Neville’s allegory as a direct warning: “George’s misrule, or failure to rule, leads the Isle of Pines to internal breakdown. Will not, The Isle of Pines suggests, the rule of Charles II do the same to the island of England?” In that light, Neville’s pamphlet reads as a clear reference to the dangers of absolute monarchy and the need for structured government and rule of law.

Establishing the degree of Neville’s political radicalism vis-à-vis monarchy is perhaps essential to understanding how far his parody goes. If, as Stillman suggests, the pamphlet is a “brief but powerful statement against unlimited monarchical power and patriarchal political thought,” to what extent are each of the three issues so startling to present sensibilities called into question (9)? In other words, if George and Henry are flawed monarchs, and the Isle is their flawed kingdom, does it follow that the sexism, racism and draconian system of punishment that are the direct products of George and Henry’s leadership also fall within Neville’s critique?

On the one hand, it seems highly anachronistic to attribute such views to Neville, and the nuances of Neville’s position on monarchy might suggest alternatives. Stillman refers to the “tumble of arguments” over absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy and republicanism that unfolded during Neville’s lifetime, and indeed it seems impossible that Neville’s republicanism is so straightforward in an era of such complex (and mercurial) political conflict (157). Gaby Mahlberg’s article, “Historical and Political Contexts of The Isle of Pines,” seems to be omitted from the dropbox PDF, but it has a lot to say about this issue so I wanted to mention it in case others missed it too (it’s available in full text via the library website). Mahlberg evidently has published quite a lot about The Isle of Pines and Neville in general, and she points out that Neville’s politics were less radical than “Neo-Harringtonian” desires for a republic without a monarch (112). She never quite pins down the nuances of Neville’s politics, but much like The Isle of Pines, maybe they defy such clear classification. Regardless, if Neville’s views of monarchy were mixed, then we have grounds for excluding monarchy’s allegorical products from his critique.

Yet, Mahlberg’s account of Neville’s political career does portray him as a clear Republican and even a Neo-Harringtonian. Mahlberg notes that Neville fought unsuccessfully for “a new type of government by a ‘single person,’ a ‘senate,’ and a ‘popular assembly’” (121). That sounds familiar, and suggests that Neville’s Republicanism was ahead of its time. After all, the British political debates of this era paved some of the intellectual roads for the founding of the U.S. government 100 years later, and the English Bill of Rights, which forbade cruel and unusual—although not capital—punishment, was passed in 1689, 21 years after the publication of The Isle of Pines and at the end of the Exclusion Crisis. Additionally, the Magna Carta and its due process requirements had been revived recently under Charles I’s reign, and its contents were the subject of ongoing debate. Mahlberg describes Neville’s opposition to Oliver Cromwell (who, according to Lord Woolf, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales in 2005, dismissed the Magna Carta as the “Magna Farta”—thanks, Wikipedia). The unfortunate consequences of George and Henry’s reign also could be construed as an argument in support of due process and the Magna Carta’s revival and against Cromwell specifically.

Even so, neither the Magna Carta nor the 1689 Bill of Rights were concerned with the connection of race with due process and excessive punishment. It’s notable that both executions that take place in the text are not only of black men, but are also of men accused of sexual crimes. Clause 54 of the Magna Carta stated that no man could be imprisoned on the testimony of a woman, except in the event of her husband’s death. Maybe Neville was less concerned about the targeting of black men as the targeting of men based on the testimonies of women; the Isle’s disorder is inevitable in the absence of laws like Clause 54. Along the same lines, perhaps George’s polygamy functions entirely as an allegory for political patriarchy and distraction from statecraft, and the misogynistic aspects are clear only to our present readings.

I also wanted to mention Stillman’s discussion of the Isle as an arcadia and its Hobbesian engagement of the state of nature, which opens up another line of inquiry. And, as an aside, I’ve always found Restoration politics, with all its crises and parliaments, rather murky, and if anyone with more expertise can recommend a good general history of it, I’d be interested.

Here’s a link to Lord Woolf’s charming discussion of the Magna Carta, in case anyone is curious: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.dca.gov.uk/judicial/speeches/lcj150605.htm#4

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