I recently finished watching the fantastic season of Watchmen on HBO. It got me thinking about utopias, and whether they have a role to play in Terranism. I have been struggling with this topic for a while. On one hand, utopias are fantastic motivators for people to engage with their world and act in a unified way. On the other hand, I have come to believe that pursuing utopias can be destructive. What Watchmen provided was the vision of a mild, socialist utopia, but was able to notice where the utopia would fail. Such a vision helped bring my criticism of utopia into clarity. But I am not interested in just criticising utopia. It is a core syntheist mentality to move past a criticism and into a new solution. To remain based in criticism, as atheists do, is to stagnate growth. So I will explore utopia, what bothers me about it, and what might be an alternative.
Utopia is always defined, it is not discovered; if I were to pin down my core understanding of utopian thinking, it would be that principle. To define something is to name it, to put boundaries around it. In the case of utopia, it also includes cutting out whatever doesn’t fit. Utopia doesn’t seek to make the world better, it is a formula for how to make the world perfect. Instead of building a relationship with the world and trying to approach it on its own terms, utopia creates an abstract definition of perfection (similar to the platonic forms), and then tries to restructure reality according to that model. To communicate under utopia, there is no need to listen to the world, you must only yell out that you are right. As a result, utopia is incredibly motivating. Anything that doesn’t fit into the vision of utopia must be either modified or removed.
This is not necessarily wrong, but it does have implications. If utopia, by definition, is always good, then it is permissible to pass through any discomfort or ugliness to achieve it. It feels worthwhile to tame chaos, defend your homeland, work hard, or stay loyal to the end, because the vision of utopia promises to make your efforts worth it. In a similar way, you can ease your conscience when you enforce racial purity, start a bloody revolution, slaughter infidels, tear down ecosystems, enslave, raze cities, or drop an interdimensional squid on manhattan; because you know that it’s all for the greater good. A utopian vision of the future can mobilize people toward impressive action that may not have been possible before they accepted the vision. Whatever my opinion of utopia is, I must respect it as a potent magic.
Is Veidt Right?
Adrian Veidt is the character in Watchmen who exemplifies a utopian motivation, and he achieves what he set out to do. His goal through the comic book is to avoid nuclear armageddon and save the world from mutually assured destruction. His plan is to create an unrelated disaster so spectacular and threatening that it distracts world leaders from their nuclear game of chicken to usher in a peaceful world united against a common enemy. To this end, he drops an interdimensional squid on manhattan, kills millions, and creates his utopia. He was completely successful. HBO’s Watchmen explore the implications of Veidt’s utopia and how even Veidt himself becomes dissatisfied with it. The show is a thoughtful extension of the world Alan Moore (Watchmen’s original author) crafted. The world plays out exactly how Veidt wanted, but what he imagined would be a utopia is rendered as neither a utopia or a dystopia. It is just the world, remade in his image.
Two things stand out to me about Veidt’s utopia. The first is the profound notion that, even though it suits his parameters for utopia, it confounds the notion of utopia. People in his world don’t feel like they live in a utopia. I found this insightful; the distinction between utopian vision and utopian experience. Utopian visions may be achieved, but it may not be sufficient for a utopian experience (the constant feeling of peace and/or euphoria we imagine accompanying a perfect world). After reading the Watchmen comic book for the first time I remember wondering, “is Veidt right?” The Terranic answer is that there is no answer, but we’ll get back to that later. What is important is that Veidt, however effective he was, fulfilled his utopian vision without achieving utopian experience. It doesn’t matter how well the world fits to a definition of utopia, the experience of utopia may still be outside of our grasp.
Second, and more importantly, we already know that Veidt’s efforts were unnecessary because we’re living in his alternate universe. Our world did not destroy itself. The superpowers of the world didn’t bomb each other into the stone age. Since Watchmen is set in an alternate universe to ours, we can see that Veidt, despite his intelligence, did something unnecessary. This was the core insight of the comic book and it still rings true in the TV show. Veidt, while effective in creating his utopia, is proven to have committed an unnecessary massacre because we get to look at his universe from the outside.
By looking at Veidt we are able to recognize that a utopian vision, however well formulated, may not coincide with a utopian experience. To reach the utopian experience it is always assumed we need the “correct” utopian vision. But what is the “correct” vision? It is easy enough to comment on the failures of a fictional character’s utopian vision, but what about the utopia you believe in? Surely your utopia is less silly than humanity united against aliens. “True” communism seems possible doesn’t it? The Third Reich just needs another go right? Wasn’t Eden a paradise? We don’t have an alternate history to compare to our utopian visions, so who’s to say? Certainly not me.
Utopia vs. Time
But for the sake of argument, what if we did somehow discover the correct utopia? Would that mean we could enjoy a utopian experience for the rest of time? In fact, it is almost guaranteed that we wouldn’t. Because even if we create a utopia which we somehow are able to objectively determine is the correct answer to the human condition, there is no telling that it will apply to the next person born. Imagine designing the correct utopia, only for it to apply exclusively to the humans born in a particular month of an ancient year! After all, new genetic configurations and mutations will ensure that the next generation of humanity is always different from the last. Evolution has not stopped. We are all contingent, unique, evolving entities. As a result, there is no fundamental nature to humanity. Without a fundamental nature, there is nothing stable to calculate our utopian formula with. Time will confound our utopian visions. What this means is that, even if humanity is successful in fulfilling the parameters of the “correct” utopia, it won’t stay perfect.
Utopia vs. God
But how can this be? If God can never be discovered, then isn’t utopia the solution to our problems? After all, if syntheism believes that God is created, couldn’t utopia be a rendering of that creation? Couldn’t God and utopia be the same thing? They could; in fact, Quad Syntheists (my term for the syntheism articulated by Bard and Söderqvist) make similar sorts of assertions. I explored them briefly in my review of their book Syntheism: Creating God in the Internet Age. For them utopia is an important part of the syntheist ethos. Utopia is a manifestation of the created god, Syntheos. They characterize their utopia as “imperfect” (pg. 173), which theoretically solves the problem of evolution I articulated above. But in practice, the notion of utopia still claimed their imaginations, encouraging them to define their utopia as “a society where ideas are free and are not owned by anybody, where the memes form memeplexes that wander freely from human to human, from network to network, and are transformed during these movements without being met with any resistance whatsoever anywhere, apart from the lack of attention that sifts out all memetic losers” (pg. 280). While imaginative, their picture infers a totalitarian system little different from China’s Great Firewall. In order for information (memeplexes) to move freely through the system according to their popularity (attention that sifts out memetic losers), they must be totally meaningless to the infrastructure that allows them to move. In order for this system to support information in any capacity, it must ensure that all the information it supports won’t destroy it, rendering all information meaningless. “Imperfect” indeed. China already does this to a degree. If China is their idea of utopia, power to them, but I would prefer another option. Perhaps Quad syntheists have a superior interpretation of the syntheist worldview, but I am dissatisfied with it.
Terranism takes a different approach. For Terranism, utopia implies that there is a correct answer to the universe, something that a God doesn’t necessarily imply. Some gods obviously do imply that there is an objective, correct configuration for the universe and humanity, which is why Quad Syntheism’s interpretation of God and utopia are valid. However, there are many kinds of gods, and not all of them imply a correct configuration of the universe. Many gods are imperfect themselves. Even the Christian God deviates from correctness through the salvation of Christ’s love. The greatest sinner can be saved as long as they have some sort of relationship with Christ.
In contrast there is no mercy in utopia. Utopia is salvation. If you don’t fit the utopian vision, you aren’t human, you’re a monster. This is why it’s ok to kill Jews, Nazis, or the bourgeoisie depending on your utopian vision; they’re not humans. I am not making an argument that any of these groups are good or bad; please don’t misunderstand my use of these examples. What I’m exploring is the mechanics of utopia. While a god can be merciful, utopia cannot. Some may wonder why utopian ideologies veer into totalitarianism so often, but it comes as no surprise when you consider utopia’s abstract origins. If utopia is founded by forcing a vision onto the world, why would its establishment be any different?
That forcefulness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, if humanity finally figures out the right formula for utopia, a bit of force is a small price to pay for a perfect world! So where is the issue? The issue is the notion that we can find the perfect utopian formula. Terranism asserts that, because there is no God outside the universe to design utopia, no utopian vision will render a utopian experience. Even if it did, it wouldn’t last due to evolution. Just as God will never be discovered outside of ourselves, there is no cosmic utopian model. The universe can’t answer “is Veidt right?” because the universe didn’t ask that question. All we can say about Veidt is that he was effective, not that he was right.
Utopia and Terranism
But, what if utopian visions are still valuable? This question is what makes me struggle over it, particularly for Terranism. I recognize utopia as magic, which prompts me to consider not only its structure, but also its practical merits. Utopia generates faith, the faith that all our suffering is worth the trouble in service of a perfect world. I like that feeling, it reminds me of my old faith in heaven. I like believing that my efforts will help put the world on the path to eternal perfection. It can be comforting. Many religions gain momentum from utopian magic for these reasons. Do I need a utopia to give me faith in this religion I am building?
I might, but probably not. Maybe in the future I will insert a utopia into Terranic doctrine. For now, I have a hunch for an alternative; instead of building a perfect world, I’ll worship Terra.
Mushrooms Beyond Utopia
The clearest way to avoid the pitfalls of utopia will likely not include trying to make a better utopia. I’m looking for a different mechanic. Where utopia starts with the abstract then tries to impose it on the world, a different approach would be active listening and acting according to what you notice.
I recently read The Mushroom at the End of the World, by Anna Tsing. The book describes arts of “noticing”, where emphasis is pulled away from notions of progress and placed instead on being present in the world. The book is an exploration of fringe capitalist economies, focusing on matsutake mushrooms. She explores how much of the skills needed to collect these mushrooms require paying attention to the world. While you don’t necessarily need advanced scientific knowledge to find matsutake, the mushrooms lie at the intersection between many kinds of changes and worlds. From the book, I gathered two points relevant here (put in my own words): a new world follows the old, and a concept she calls “latent commons”.
The first point relates directly to matsutake. Matsutake is valuable in Japan, used to strengthen social ties. It lies at the boundary between an old, ruined world, and a new, resurgent world. The mushroom cannot grow in old growth forests, it can only grow in places where pine trees dominate. Pine is a fast growing tree, which lives best in newly disturbed landscapes burned by fire, washed away in flood, or clear cut by humans. It is only here, in disturbed places, that matsutake can grow. I recognize this example as a lesson, a hopeful one. In Terranic terms, Genesis follows Apocalypse.
Such a notion is important to move away from utopia and retain hope. There will always be a tomorrow, and it will be different from today. Whether that tomorrow is yours or others’ it will always come. There are opportunities in difference which are not available in utopia lest it collapse. You can change your situation, or find depth in your life which you couldn’t before. Even if this hope transforms into dread, you can know it will give way to hope again. The highs of life become brighter, because they are contrasted against the lows. And the lows become more bearable with the knowledge that change will come.
As I write this, Covid-19 plagues the world. It is not the first pandemic and it will not be the last, but it will end. It will give way to a new beginning where we are better prepared against a viral threat. The people who died and suffered due to the virus will not have done so in vain. This is not because we are forcing the world into utopia, but because we are trying to respond competently to what is needed in our world. If we did neither we would just watch people die of the virus and do nothing (unfortunately, there are some who would prefer this course of inaction). It is through responsibility and our relationship with the world that the future after covid can be hopeful. The future cannot be hopeful if we have faith everything will be good in the end. Such a faith in a perfect future encourages lethargy or zealotry. But hope comes from noticing our world and engaging with it on its own imperfect terms. Hope comes with struggle.
As for the second point, I’ll quote Tsing:
I search for fugitive moments of entanglement in the midst of institutionalized alienation. These are sites in which to seek allies. One might think of them as latent commons. They are latent in two senses: first, while ubiquitous, we rarely notice them, and, second, they are undeveloped. They bubble with unrealized possibilities; they are elusive….Thus, I characterize them in the negative:
Latent commons are not exclusive human enclaves….
Latent commons are not good for everyone….
Latent commons don’t institutionalize well….
Latent commons cannot redeem us. Some radical thinkers hope that progress will lead us to a redemptive and utopian commons. In contrast, the latent commons is here and now, amidst the trouble. And humans are never fully in control.
Given this negative character, it makes no sense to crystallize first principles or seek natural laws that generate best cases. Instead, I practice arts of noticing. I comb through the mess of existing worlds-in-the-making, looking for treasures — each distinctive and unlikely to be found again, at least in that form.The Mushroom at the End of the World (pg. 255) – Tsing
It would be difficult to teach such an idea, almost as difficult as understanding it in the first place. But there is a way to do it; we talk about Gods instead of “latent commons”.
What Tsing is talking about here is a relationship with the world; an active, loving relationship. On the final page of the book, she gives an example of this sort of relationship in a girl named Xiaomei:
The next time I came, two years later, I was pleased to see she had not lost her sense of the deliciousness of life. She dragged Michael and me to see vegetable gardens along the road, and then further into the uncultivated verges where the wild plants of disturbed places grow. This was the latent commons of weeds, the “vacant places” of progress narratives, so often imagined as without value. Yet it was full of interest for us. We stuffed ourselves with berries from the brambles and searched for tiny mushrooms. We followed goat trails and examined flowers. She explained what everything was and how people used it. It was the same kind of curiosity Tanaka-san wanted to nurture in his town’s children. Multispecies living depends on it.The Mushroom at the End of the World (pg. 282) – Tsing
Xiaomei had a relationship with the world around her where she was invested in its cracks and patches. There was no comparison to an abstract utopia, but rather a present, direct relationship with her world as it was.
I don’t want to be burdened by language like “latent commons” when I talk about this sort of relationship. When I tell people I have a relationship with the world, I want to say just that. Myth is the best way to communicate this. Instead of saying that I am practicing “arts of noticing” due to the “precarity” of the “latent commons”, I’ll say “I worship Terra”.
Worshipping Terra is an alternative to utopian visions. To have a relationship with Terra, a god, is a direct and fruitful mode of action. As a personification of the planet, approaching Terra will feel different than approaching the “latent commons”. Community, spirituality, and ritual will be important tools in worshipping Terra. By directing our efforts and magics to a god, we focus ourselves not on an abstract ideal, but on a present emergence which includes us and our multispecies kin. Instead of trying to cut out what doesn’t belong, we begin with the assumption that Terra’s emergence is contingent on inclusion. Because Terra is the planet, everything on the planet is included; ourselves, creatures, and natural systems. We are all in this together, it doesn’t make sense to isolate one part of the planet as more important or better. Worshipping Terra requires mercy and active listening for it to work at all.
If you respect Terra as a person, then building a relationship with it will not include the notion of perfection. Good, strong relationships are not built by imposing an abstract ideal. Imperfections will abound, and there has to be a willingness for flexibility, mercy, and attentiveness to each other’s needs. You must listen to them. You have to be aware of their shortcomings and your own. There must be a willingness to meet them where they are. Like music, the point of a relationship is not to get to the end, it is to be together.
So too is our relationship with Terra. The point is not to get the end, for evolution has no end. Instead the point is to be alive, to be with our world, to be together with each other. We must learn how to listen, for Terra communicates in ways we are not used to. We must learn what actions strengthen our relationship with Terra; where we benefit just as much as it does. We need to be willing to sacrifice the luxuries Terra asks of us, just as Terra has sacrificed for us. We must share with each other what Terra has told us to get a clearer picture of her needs and gifts.
So then the hope that Terra offers is not complacent or static. It is dynamic and active, striving to be present in worlds we contribute to creating. This hope is pragmatic; it looks at where improvements can be made and how to make them. It respects where we can succeed and where we can fail, and strives for success. If failure comes, the process repeats by identifying the next possible success. This worship is energetic and hopeful. To be present in such a way does not mean to fixate on the future or the past (as utopia does) but synthesizes them, stimulating an active participation in the future’s creation and the past’s education. Worshipping Terra is to act on our behalf to make our worlds better. Not perfect, better.
Terra is not the only alternative. The environmentalist movement, social justice, and various spiritual revivals are manifestations of this hope. People are pursuing this way of life in many diverse ways. This is good. Unlike utopia, which excludes other utopias, worshipping Terra does not require excluding other methods of making worlds. Even utopian visions might have a role to play. Terra’s emergence means that all efforts to strengthen it are valid, regardless of the banner they fall under. Health and happiness is the hope of Terranic worship; anyone who hopes for the same thing is an ally.
So then why do I, personally, choose to worship Terra? Because I believe our relationship with earth is more profound than “noticing” a “latent commons”. I believe that we are Terra. Because Terra emerges from our planet, to worship her is to work on our behalf, myself included. This gives me hope. Terra gives us hope. I want the relationship Terra has to offer.
The Mushroom at the End of the World – Anna Tsing
Syntheism: Creating God in the Internet Age – Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist
Watchmen – Moore
Watchmen – HBO
P.S. For many people these conclusions against utopia may seem obvious. In many ways this meditation is an exorcism of my faith in heaven, and a lesson to my younger self. I hope it can help someone else on their journey.