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February 19, 2006



Too much is covered here by "social engineering." How much of a failure would you say that Bernarys's Propaganda (1925) has been?


Um, Nietzche. But you knew that, right.

You're actually getting a bit closer to my own line of work with this question.

Nordau, Degeneration.

Zamyatin's We, of course.

Really, this theme is everywhere in modern lit. Not always as full voiced as in Wells, Zamyatin. But everywhere is the sense that tech and organization will lead to a withering away of human interest / physical-spiritual fitness.

Take a look at the split ending of Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet - the speeches they write (I'm talking about the never-completed notes for an ending...)


Hey - that monkeyluv was me. When the hell was I "monkeyluv?"

What I find interesting about this issue you're talking about (and now we're coming even closer to my actual work) is sense that we have that there are FICTIONAL concerns motivating the anxiety about rational utopia. I.e. - they don't make for good settings for fiction. (See also, on this point - William Morris, News from Nowhere... And, of course, the dusty library (and much else) in the Time Machine....)

It's very tough to write a novel / make a movie about utopia. This is, to my mind, a hugely interesting fact.

I actually have a piece out re: Time Machine and all of this. Feel free to search around for it...


Nancy Kress? And OMG she's 64% off right now!


Jonathan, you're right. Social engineering is too broad. As to this 1925 Propaganda thing of which you speak - if I knew it, I might be in a better position to comment intelligently. (Isn't it brave of me not to google and then pretend I knew about it all along.)

Monkeyluv, I think Nietzsche 'the last men blinking' has quite a bit of Huxley in him on this score. Not sure where you were going to locate him. You are right that the stuff is all over the place. I do see that. That's what's making it hard for me to organize it.

CR, so are you monkeyluv or aren't you? Anyway, I think I get what you're saying, but I'm not sure. So feel free to leave another comment explaining your first comment at greater length.

Tim May
Instead, they invented Rievers (sp?)
I'm shocked. Surely anyone can recognise a common English verb like to reave? Seriously, it had never occurred to me that it could be anything else, or even that it might not be obvious.

(Of course, I've just checked it, since if it turned out I was wrong, the above would sound pretty silly. But it is reavers, at least according to the movie soundtrack.)


I looked in the Columbia Journalism Review for it. Did I have the initials wrong? Not available on-line, in any case, through the databases I have access to.

And that should be Bernays, above. The development of propaganda, the "engineering of consent," has been spectacularly successful--to the extent that speaking of the failure of "social engineering" is necessarily disingenuous.


I'm of Scottish descent, Tim, so I think I reverted to somewhat antique spelling. Googling around I find this passage:

"Black Mail was a yearly payment (for security and protection made) to those bands of armed men, who, about the middle of the 16th century, laid many parts of the country under contribution; till at last the legislature, with a view to put a stop to such unlawful violence, enacted, that whoever, under pretence of securing their lands against the rievers, should pay to them a yearly contribution in money should suffer death. 1567, c. 21; 1587, c.21."

But honestly I just wasn't thinking.

Ah, Bernays. The name is familiar. But I still don't know a thing about it.


There's a relevant quote from Ignignokt here.


Now don't be a wisdom-miser, Jonathan (as Socrates would say). If you think Ignignokt can teach us the nature of virtue, then tell us what he has to say on the subject.


Are you reading Mirrlees because John Clute told you to?

It's important that you receive the wisdom of Ignignokt unmediated. I recommend starting with the first season.

Scott Eric Kaufman

But who has written well about this?

My friend (and occasional Valve commenter) Stephen Schryer's writing a dissertation about exactly this. I'll drop him a line and ask if he doesn't mind me sharing it with you.


This is a complete stretch, but if you've ever read the rather funny Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold I think there's a very interesting if tangential dissing of the seemingly perfect Betan world, especially since most of the characters prefer the wild and and very imperfcet Barrayaran one.

Staircase Witch

Oooh, that's easy. Socially-engineered dystopia? Kurt Vonnegut's Piano Player. I'm wondering if he was targeting IBM specifically...


If we're talking nonfiction, James C Scott' Seeing Like a State is a well regarded recent account charting the spectacular failure of various social engineering schemes and what he calls "high modernist ideology."


Ray Davis

CR: I recently gave a guest lecture on Samuel R. Delany at a "Science Fiction: Utopias and Dystopias" course, and began by explaining why the course title made no sense. Academia really seems stuck on that particular wrong idea. But at least pointing out how it's wrong made a nice structural device for describing Delany's career: "You have confused the true and the real" is Dhalgren's epigraph, and Trouble on Triton is subtitled "An Ambiguous Heterotopia".

Rich Puchalsky

CR: "sense that we have that there are FICTIONAL concerns motivating the anxiety about rational utopia. I.e. - they don't make for good settings for fiction."

Heh. If you read Acephalous recently, I have a long article ostensibly on Adam Robert's book _Stone_ that is really a good deal about that.


Jonathan's right. You really must watch all four seasons of Aqua Teen; you'll be glad you did.


I'll second the Scott. But as a minor character in a recent Bujold novel myself (I'm the guy with the bear) I have to disagree with Saheli.

Also, to watch ATHF is to live in truth. Really.


I'm reading Mirrlees because Henry Farrell told me. Possibly Clute told him.


Yes, that's it exactly, Ray. And Rich - I'll take a look at it. On first quick glance it looks to me like we're on to something different, but I'll read more carefully soon.


The basic idea is about fiction / utopia is this, via Wells: The sort-of-good Fabian socialist Wells sets out to write the Time Machine. He's doing the Eloi bit... (which lasts like 2/3rds of the book remember)... and the "fictionality" of the book starts to wander away. The plot. This is thematized by the Traveller's bizarre (pseduopedophilic) "romance" with Weena. Keeps saying stuff like "My story gets away from me as I speak of her..." There's no crisis - in fact, the animal-comfort of this new world is quite seductive - why leave? why make trouble? But Wells is writing a novel - needs a plot, crisis, change - and THUS in (or up) come the Morlocks, class conflict, and the story.

(All this with the overlay about thermodynamic heat death - catastrophe by stasis, equilibrium - the terminal beach scene, etc...) (And there's a textual genealogy to talk about too - successive re-writings of the story led from Eloi to Morlock etc...)

I think it's sort of an allegory or parable of modernity itself. A certain tendency to self-sabotage on the part of modern civilization. Picking "human interest" over "human equality" when it is forced to make a choice.

My version: Guy falls asleep, wakes up in this socialist paradise. No bread-lines, no arduous toil, everything just super. His first words: "fuck me!" For he was a screenwriter in the old world, and now he's out of work...

Or to put it another way: every been to the PRC? While the PRC isn't s socialist utopia - being neither socialist nor utopian - it does happen to have reams of the art of socialist utopia. That decorative shit the "students" try to sell you at every turn, inviting you into their "art exhibitions." Contentless, decorative, crisisless, pretty. William Morrisite, sort of.

(Think about the writing seminar scene in Adaptation too... That's a nice, inverted example...)


Sorry for going on and on. It feels weird to talk about something I actually know about.

But, we might say that one of the pressures that informed the development of literary modernism was the unbearable lightness of socialist / technological utopia. The threat to fiction that this concept / never actually existing reality posed.

Read turn of the century type utopia/dystopian stuff, and look for the ways that fiction is forced in. With William Morris, it's something like: "But there'll still be chicks to oggle, to turn us down in our old man skinsuits..." Or, at other moments, "there'll still be folk who want to read novels... even though they can't quite say why..."

But you can see it everywhere, when you start looking for it, when you know what you're looking for.

(Questions that emerge: so is fiction, like, another name for some psychopathology that makes us want mess where we could have order, discomfort where we could have had ease? When we say that socialism is "against human nature," is this in a sense what we mean?)


cripes. I just can't shut up.

John, how about Part 7 of Beyond Good and Evil - this sort of thing:

"Well-being as you understand it โ€“ that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible โ€“ that makes his destruction desirable.โ€ (225).

The melancholy of finishedness, etc...


Um, The Open Society and Its Enemies?

Or maybe that's too gauche to suggest, I dunno...


No, foo. You are clearly correct.

CR, an even better Nietzsche quip is "man does not strive for happiness, only the Englishman does that." (That's from BGE, I believe.)

CR's point seems to me potentially valid, but I was sort of making a different one, for what it's worth. I guess what I'm getting at is a different sort of tipping point: namely, the moment when people started feeling that the problem with Mustapha Mond wouldn't be that he would crush the romance out of life but that he would surely just be, at best, The Pointy Haired Boss. That is, we tend to take it for granted that the problem with trying to turn everyone into Alphas, Betas, etc. would be, in practice, that the whole thing would be so incompetently/corruptly executed that the LAST thing we would have to worry about would be excessive success. There will always be a crisis. Never an equilibrium point of last men blinking contently.

Jonathan is right that 'social engineering' is too broad, but maybe another way to put it would be: for a long time, it seems that the debate rotating around the axis of the question of the advisability of 'rational management' of humanity. But I think - at least at this moment in time - we tend to think THAT issue is sort of moot because, anyway, humans are pretty unmanageable. And if anyone did manage to manage them, they wouldn't be shining rationalist idealists. They'd be sinister corporate figures or corrupt or incompetent in a variety of predictable ways. We tend to assume that the problem with the New Boss will always be that, however hideously technologically enabled, he will still be The Same As The Old Boss. This is an overgeneralization, yes. But it would be sort of interesting to try to track the growth in skepticism about the possibility of management (nevermind the advisability).

Rich Puchalsky

CR, it can be boiled down to: why, in the socialist revival British SF that Banks more or less started/popularized, does the future utopia always have a genocide or major crime lurking somewhere? The whole point of writing this kind of thing is that such a society *wouldn't* have this hanging over it, but the authors put it in, despite their beliefs, for purposes of dramatic tension. This undermines their work in certain predictable ways: the iron laws of genre stronger than those of history, etc.


Ok - yes - we're talking about the same thing. Very nicely said, Rich. I'll read it tomorrow when I get a chance...


Ok - no - we're not talking about the same thing, John.


Yes, very nicely put, Rich. I'll have a look as well.


On the history of disillusionment with 'social engineering'/rationalist utopias, you might want to check out Krishan Kumar's Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times. I forget just how much it covers, but it's fairly compendous, and I vaguely recall that it touches on this issue, even if it doesn't provide a comprehensive account of the trend you describe (though it may do). There are plenty of works on the history of the idea, or romance, of social engineering; but I can't think of any other works that deal with the history of disillusionment with it (even Scott's book -- which is excellent -- is more about the failure of attempts at social engineering than the history of perceptions of that failure.)

Tim May

With Banks's Culture novels, too, the Culture is really only utopian (to the extent that it is utopian) because it's run by AIs. There's a general understanding, I think, that utopian social engineering of and by ordinary humans is impossible (or at least that you can't write about it believeably). That's a data point, I guess.

(That's a pretty good argument for rievers, John, even if it requires a bit too much historical awareness on the part of the show's target audience. (I'd heard of them, vaguely, but not seen the word written.))

Rich Puchalsky

Tim, I don't think that's quite right about Banks' Culture books. The utopia is permitted in part by post-scarcity conditions, which Banks thinks could occur even without AIs -- most production in his universe is done by non-AI automation. I think that the AIs are there because Banks wants to write a utopia in which no one has to do anything, and therefore he shuffles the managerial and military jobs off onto beings who by design naturally sort of gravitate into doing those things freely. The "naturally sort of" bit conceals a major problem, of course.

But in terms of social engineering, both Banks' stated opinion and the implicit author of the books agree, I think, that you need serious social engineering to *avoid* ending up with something like the Culture, not to get there.

And I think that the Culture itself is pretty clearly a utopia. Or, more complexly (as the conversation on Acephalous described) I think that it's a utopia that is sustainable because it's been authorially set up as part of a utopia-plus-hinterland system -- the utopia would become purposeless if there weren't an infinite supply of outsiders to convert, so the hinterland is really necessary in the same sort of way that colonial areas are necessary to an empire. But because Banks set it up this way, not the members of the fictional utopia themselves, they can enjoy it with a clear conscience -- although we as readers perhaps can not.


And of course, see Demolition Man.

Tim May

Perhaps. Certainly post-scarcity is a major point. I have the idea that without the Minds coordinating things, it would be at least substantially less utopian*, but I don't know how much of that I'm necessarily getting from Banks and how much is my own supposition. I probably need to reread the books.

* Possibly others here have a better-defined idea of what constitutes a utopia than I do.


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