Chicago, IL – I am sitting in a small café on the Chicago Riverwalk, in what is probably the busiest stretch of the city’s beating financial heart, the iconic Chicago Loop. Trump Tower’s hulking glass façade dominates the water, competing with the sparkle and shine of the river’s golden ripples as the sun slowly climbs up to the middle of a clear blue Midwestern summer sky. A jovial Samoan waiter hands me a steaming cup of Matcha latte, and as he moves away I see a lanky, bespectacled figure making his way through the pedestrian throng. The figure sees me, waves, and threads through the shop’s outdoor tables, beelining toward me.
Meet Adrian Jones. Despite the tucked-in polo shirt, receding hairline and apparent nearsightedness, all conveying middle age, Adrian’s awkward, enthusiastic expressions and body language betray his youth. At twenty six, he is one of contemporary America’s most controversial and influential figures.
His Augmented Reality (AR) app, eRace, is taking the country by storm.
If you haven’t already, you will likely bump into an ad or a recommendation for the application on the “Top Apps” section of your mobile app store of choice. For the uninitiated, eRace is an AR app that changes the skin tone, facial proportions and accent of every person the user comes across, to fit the user’s own cultural and racial profile. While the app’s official description claims its aim is to help overcome racial bias, critics insist the app’s core concept perpetuates racism by effectively preventing users from consciously dealing with ethnic and cultural diversity.
So, Adrian, where did the idea for eRace come from?
Well, do you remember that old musical, Avenue Q? It first hit Broadway some thirty years ago or so, around 2005.
Sure. “The Internet is for Porn”.
Yeah, that one! Well, my parents played the soundtrack all the time when I was a kid, and one song that stuck with me was Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist. That song always resonated with me, and the more I grew the more bothered I was by racial bias. And you know what, it turns out that it’s a biological truth – the more someone resembles you, alongside their being more attractive, the more you are receptive to what they have to say and to the decisions they make. Even if you are the most self-aware person in the world, you’re still wired to prefer people that resemble you, both culturally and physically. And you know what? I think that’s bullshit.
Why? It makes sense that people from similar backgrounds share similar ideas and even a similar sense of morality. Race and accent can be helpful in identifying those similarities as well as in indicating when a rift caused by cultural differences may be imminent. If you erase the indicators you might misplace the cause for that friction.
That’s a valid point, but I have to disagree with you. I think all people share a common morality, and that perceived differences mostly result from arbitrary biases. When someone rubs you the wrong way, it’s not cultural, it’s personal. Still, you’ve voiced a concern that we’ve heard before, and we are working on implementing an element in our HUD that will textually specify the race and accent of people our users converse with, if they so wish. That way, first impressions are still visual, but certain misunderstandings can be traced to cultural roots.
Alright. Tell me more about your choice of name for the app. Using the word “race” has been very controversial.
Well, it’s a silly, tongue-in-cheek thing, really. We’re erasing race using electronic means. Erase – eRace. There’s nothing more to it than that.
Still, you must be aware of the connotations “erasing races” brings up.
Not really. What connotations are those?
Genocide? Ethnic cleansing?
I resent that. Clearly, we’re fighting against racism, not for it.
Some people say that making people deal with only others of their race perpetuates a racist outlook rather than abolishes it.
That seems academic to me. Bottom line, people of different backgrounds are now interacting in a non-biased way with each other, in very heterogenic groups.
What if they were to remove their ARLenses? Would they even be able to recognize their friends?
You’re big on hypotheticals, aren’t you? Anyway, if someone were to go Lensless, not being able to recognize their friends and loved ones would be the least of their problems.
That’s true. Still, several lawsuits have been filed against you. Are you at all worried about the controversy?
Not at all. As you probably know, several states have already chosen to make use of the app a compulsory requirement for all local government employees – including judges. I find it difficult to believe that they’ll rule against us, when it’s us that control what they can and can’t see.
No, it isn’t.
No, it isn’t. So – what’s next for eRace?
Well, other than the textual racial information I’ve mentioned, we’re working on an Ewok “Easter egg” with Disney and AnyScene. It’s going to be great! It won’t just make everyone look like Ewoks, it’ll actually dynamically transform users’ surroundings into a tree village!
Wow! What kind of challenges has that raised?
Well, as long as everyone the user is seeing is wearing clothes, there’s no problem. But creating realistic Ewok genitalia which still correspond to human anatomy has been tricky. Disney have been great, though. They’ve shared extensive anatomical details with us, and even provided us with several cloned Ewok cadavers to dissect at their facilities. Our designers were really happy about the free trip to Star Wars Land, let me tell ya.
Thank you so much Adrian, this has been fascinating.
At the start of the CoVid-19 pandemic a plethora of articles flooded the web with talk about the future. The word-overflow was found in publications large and small, from the New York Times and the London Financial Times to a host of local outlets, focused mainly on the disappearing world, the one outside our doors.
This was an understandable and natural focus, the primary reason for which was that the first thing the pandemic took from all of us was the “outside”; the confidence we had, and demonstrated, when stepping “outside” – from the inside; from inside our apartment, our house, from inside our homes. This confidence is much more than merely an everyday reality that had simply vanished.
In the sense that the ability to move freely in public space is fundamentally tied to symbols of power, to the status and meaning of the ‘middle class’, the pandemic attacked the very foundations of the same social strata that produced the aforementioned opinion pieces, the “word-overflow about the future”.
For the journalist, the philosopher, the legal scholar, the economist – the street, the outside, the public sphere – they are the essentials for language, for the ability and the reason, to express any and all ideas.
Therefore, alongside many other reasons that led to that “futuristic word-overflow”, such as the actual magnitude and severity of the phenomenon, the clear economic interest of corporations and CEO’s to “get the economy back on track” – almost all opinion pieces and journalistic texts chose to discuss the street, transportation, economics, construction, and work. They did so, at times with great flair, while almost completely ignoring a topic and a figurative and actual space that’s as important, if not most important, the home, our homes.
The home space, our apartments or houses, our places of dwelling, much like other things deeply rooted in the foundation of our world and perception, tend to be imperceptible, even invisible.
The strong, for the most part, do not have encounters with the law – it definitely doesn’t impede them, it might actually help them from time to time; Members of a majority group are mostly unaware of minority sensibilities (to the say the least), because they see themselves as normal, and blind to the “abnormal”. In the same way, we – the ‘middle class’ and ‘upper class’ of the world (if you are reading this – there’s an assumption in this piece that you can associate yourself to one of these categories. apologies if this is incorrect – UA), take for granted the existence of a secure and consistent shelter, a house, an apartment, a home of our own. We’re not even aware of it’s implicit and undeniable existence.
It’s hard to know exactly how irregular the current situation is: homelessness is a problem that’s hard to define and even harder to measure, with each country having different definitions of what’s a “normal” situation vis-à-vis “problematic”. Despite these difficulties it can be said that the privilege most of us enjoy, i.e., to live safely in our home, to have the availability of clean and running water, regular electricity, sufficient space not only for basic needs but also for some comfort, is a privilege that is becoming more and more inaccessible, year by year, for hundreds of millions of people.
A report submitted to the UN 2020 GA (1) examines the relationship between the CoVid-19 pandemic and homelessness. According to the report, 1.8 billion people live in inadequate living conditions. These 1.8 billion people are basically unable to observe CoVid-19 quarantine, shelter in place, or social distancing requirements, instructions or regulations, either suggested or legally demanded by their governments; they might want to comply, they may not – it’s irrelevant, they simply can’t. Their housing defines their being. It defines their ability to be healthy, but also their ability to follow instructions, be cooperative, express solidarity, but also obey and survive. Live and die.
The pandemic, which has forces and is still forcing many of us to “shelter in place” and “quarantine at home”, exposes the inequalities that define the global housing problem for several decades now.
Obviously, our own living conditions define all these things for us as well, us fortunate ones who have adequate housing. All we have to do is fondly reminisce on the list of mega-celebrities who joined the “tear-jerking” Gal Gadot-led “Imagine” song compilation. Their purpose was to say: We’re all in this together. We too are stuck at home, sheltering in place, we too are isolated. These are extremely difficult times for all of us, but hey – it’s not all dark, there’s a silver lining, there’s hope! It’s quite obvious this is all bullshit.
It’s impossible to compare the quarantine conditions of Gal Gadot (as an example, who also took the lead for the “Imagine” project, there are countless names to choose from) with my own quarantine conditions, even though the writer of this article lives in the Northern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, in a lovely apartment. When I conjure the memories of the first weeks of the CoVid-19 lockdown, I’d definitely be happy for them to include a private swimming pool and a gym; more money than I could ever spend in my lifetime would surely sweeten the burdens of lockdown and social isolation. Of course, these facts about celebrity life must be kept hidden. They were not videoed in luxury clothing or had makeup and hair done. They did not include the private chefs or their household management team. We were not privy to their lavish home theaters, or their huge and opulent bathrooms. These videos gave celebrities their coveted image: to be “just like us”.
Those wishes, not unlike our own wish, to ignore that our homes are obvious for us but are not self-evident to hundreds of millions of people around the world – those are political wishes. It’s a wish to blur the lines that separate classes, gender, race, religion and place.
Opinion pieces published at the start of the pandemic focused, whether consciously or not, on changes that our society is comfortable focusing on, as they are palatable, not to say could actually be wonderful, from a capitalist perspective: more people will use the “gig economy” to order food and groceries. The environment will clean itself up without any structural-economic changes in our ways of life. True, people might be more hesitant, possibly even afraid of each other, but social media, Zoom calls and other virtual conversations will open up new relationship horizons, be a remedy for the alienation and loneliness of a capitalist society. When these articles did deal with our home space they mostly addressed and discussed one specific context: work.
True indeed, the office has been the form of workplace organization preferred by markets for about 150 years, and much will be lost in moving employees to work from home (i.e., the manager’s ability for supervision), but think about all we might gain! The ability to work all around the clock, as there’s no longer a separation between home and workplace. The ability to work and hire professionals, from anywhere in the world. Although these issues were presented in a slightly hesitated tone and some anxiety and fear by the writers of such articles, not exactly the ideal situation, they were presented as fait accompli: this is how it’s going to be, and that’s that. It’s because of CoVid, you see? There’s no choice but to import the existing forms of work and to apply them on the home space.
And now we finally arrive to the heart of the matter: our living conditions, and moreover, the parts of our living conditions which we take for granted, are political. And in politics, it’s important to listen not only to what’s being said but also, and more importantly, be attuned to what’s not being said. As I mentioned earlier, what determines what we do not see, what we do not hear, what exists and what does not exist, is power. Power determines what’s normal, what’s obvious, because it serves existing power structures. Why invest so many resources in maintaining and protecting the existing order, when the existing order can be turned into something obvious, something we’re oblivious to, something that truly cannot be resisted? Obviously, we have to work from home, because of the pandemic. Obviously, it’s not possible to reduce the quota of weekly work hours. Obviously, it’s impossible to pay people just to stay home, shelter in place, take care of themselves and their loved ones, and not work. Obviously, people need to dress at home as if they were in the office, during work calls and Zoom meetings. Obviously, work calls and meetings still take place, and it’s legitimate to ask people to turn their home space into an office, letting their boss and their colleagues into their most private, safe spaces. Their sanctuary. Their home.
It’s important to clarify – I’m not saying that these “obvious” claims that were just mentioned are necessarily incorrect. Some are certainly true. But why are they self-evident? Were we even given the chance to ask the questions that need be asked about them? Or were they presented to us exactly as the same fait accompli, a done deed, a fact? The pandemic has revealed many hidden truths, but mostly revealed how little choice, impact, and power we have on even the things most important to us, like our living spaces, our homes. The influence and choice were taken from us by the obvious, the normal, the self-evident. Behind the walls of the “obvious” were hidden the drastic changes we are experiencing and will continue to experience in the future, whether they are caused by a pandemic or not.
What else can we do but challenge the obvious? What else is left but to imagine a different domestic space – strange, uncanny, disturbing, hybrid and subversive? Such visions are much more than mere daydreams, flights of fantasy. When we reimagine home, our most private, cherished, familiar place, our temple, our bastion of self, as a bizarre, natant, mutated, fluid, peculiar place, we perform a political act. An act of resistance. Therefore, our purpose in this issue of Utopia is clear: as always, our purpose is to challenge the “obvious”, in this case rethink the clean, tidy and pastel-colored image of the new domestic home space that has been assimilated, naturalized and presented as obvious in the various opinion pieces and visions of the future from the past year. As we wrote in our Utopian manifesto, there’s no better tool for that, than science fiction:
“Science fiction uses extreme conditions to discuss taboo topics. When venturing into the unknown, science fiction also handles the unspeakable, the hidden taboos lying just underneath the surface, beneath the woodwork, presenting itself in plain sight, in broad daylight, when conditions actually become extreme.
What should we notice right now? What should we be attentive to? Science fiction will have important insight.” – Uri Aviv
Before I let you, dear readers, dive into the investigations and provocations we’ve prepared for you in this issue, our opinion pieces, our visions for the home and domestic space – strange yet familiar, welcoming yet peculiar, our perspective of the uncanny, let me recommend a few exceptional science fiction and speculative creative works that marvelously disassemble and reassemble the “obvious” home space:
Highrise, by James Graham Ballard, 1975 – A cornerstone of postmodern science fiction authored by one of the most feverish and unique creative minds of the past century. The novel, which has been adapted to film in 2015 (directed by Ben Wheatley, starring Tom Hiddleston) describes the social (and physical) disintegration of a state-of-the-art high-rise housing complex, in the not-too-distant future. The book deals with issues of work, class, status and living space (the characters are all middle class, but from very different parts of it) and points to the social and political structures created by our actual forms and conditions of living, in an accurate and distressing manner.
Ex Machina, by Alex Garland, 2014 – Although Alex Garland’s 2014 film (presented at a special screening at Utopia) is most often discussed for its presentation and discussion of anthropomorphic robotics, artificial intelligence intersected with issues of gender, almost the entire film takes place in the eccentric secluded mansion of an equally eccentric, neurotic and extremely wealthy man, who built the AI. The eerie villa becomes the battlefield over which the plot takes place, as access to different parts of the house gives access to knowledge, freedom, and power. The multiple scenes that take place in the various corridors and different rooms, well-utilizing their specific attributes, the different behaviors of the characters in these different spaces, with the added fact that the AI robot is restricted to one and only specific room in the house, makes the film a great example for the seamlines between our visions of the future, architecture, literal corridors of power and forms of control in our home, domestic space.
Swallow, by Carl Mirabella-Davis, 2019 – An excellent indie film released in 2019 (premiered in Israel at Utopia) that tells the story of a housewife with a rare eating disorder, manifested in eating things not considered food (from dirt to various objects, the disorder is called Pica). While not strictly science fiction (an extreme psychological drama, with horror DNA), it is replete with hints at existing and future domestic spaces, which in their cleanliness and power symbols hide, in plain sight, deep class and gender violence. The film excellently showcases how an “ordinary” domestic space, ordinary and obvious to most of its dwellers, can be the stage for an intense psycho-drama for the main character, oppressed and abused, becoming much more (or far less) than “just” a living space (for her it’s far from being a “living” space). The house becomes a theater of war, a path to freedom and inhabits possibilities for resistance and rebellion.
“Save the Children”! cried out thousands of women at intersections and street corners across the U.S. during the Spring and Summer months of 2020. In August of 2020, what became a movement – the women, the call, the signs and t-shirts – started appearing at President Trump’s election rallies.
In March and April of 2020 we all had much more free time on our hands and most of us found ourselves spending most of it online, in front of a myriad of screens our home is equipped with. This dramatic increase brought with it greater attention to social media. One of the most common topics of discussion on social media in the US at the time became worry and care for children. Facebook Groups and (mostly female) communities on other social media platforms, usually dealing with nutrition and dieting, health supplements, fitness, yoga, and the like, became increasingly concerned with the fate of American children. #savethechildren started trending on Twitter.
Naturally, we take care of children, but… How did this happen? Why now, more than ever? What is so threatening the well-being of children? From what do we need to save the children of America (and the whole world)? And what made Facebook block the use of the hashtag #savethechildren?
To get to the bottom of this bizarre story we’ll have to go back in time to 1919. Following WWI, Europe was in ruin. The war followed by the Spanish influenza (now made famous again) was a one-two punch to European society and economy. One of the most severe problems was hunger, and the immediate victims, as always, were children. The collapsing economy brought with it reports of famine among the children of Hungary, Austria and Germany, reports that were too unbearable for two British humanitarian activists – Eglantyne Jebb and her sister, Dorothy Buxton.
Dorothy and Eglantyne, daughters to a wealthy British family, took upon themselves the task of alleviating the effects of the economic and health catastrophe from the children of Europe, saving the unfortunate little ones from starvation. Thus, “Save the Children.” In May 1919 the “Save the Children” Fund was set up at a packed public meeting in London’s Royal Albert Hall, with the aim of raising emergency aid funds to help children suffering from malnutrition in post-war Europe.
The sisters continued their sacred work for the children of the world up to the day they died, including drafting the “Declaration of the Rights of the Child” (Geneva, 1923), formulated by Eglantyne herself and adopted by the League of Nations and later, the United Nations. The fund continues its work for children in areas stricken by disaster and war all over the world to this day; it fights exploitation and abuse and works for the rights of children everywhere (1).
With intentions so pure and proper, why would Facebook temporarily block the use of the hashtag #savethechildren, identified with the fund and its activity?
To understand what Facebook has against the well-established fund, or against children in general (spoiler alert: nothing), one has to swim in the deep waters of conspiracy theories, deep dive into the mega-theory, now well-known under the moniker of QAnon.
According to the believers of this malicious conspiracy theory, there’s a secret cabal of demonic creatures that walk among us, creatures who impersonate ordinary humans, while running world governments, society and culture, both from the top, and behind the scenes, directing processes and events for their own personal and evil benefit. Some say they are aliens (lizard people – from the Alpha-Draconis star system, obviously) or possibly creatures from the depths of the Earth (which is hollow/flat). Some will outright say these are demons, following Satan. The saner people among the believers will argue that these are all sophisticated and inspiring metaphors used among their surrounding circle of believers, but in practice these are simply particularly abominable human beings.
What is clear to all believers is that this small group – whether there are humans, reptilians or energy vampires – is unimaginably rich, controls all positions of power in the world – politics, finance, religion, media, science, culture – and perpetuates with its immense power a false perception that the masses (all of us) cannot help but believe. If the story resonates with conspiracy theories you may well know about the Freemasons, the Illuminati or just plain old Protocols-of-Zion Jews, then don’t be surprised, these are of course incorporated in the twists and turns of many conspiratorial belief, including being at the heart of this one.
Some “truths” of the QAnon cannon that are important you should know (these are independent beliefs, believing in one concept does not necessitate believing in all of them): the Earth is flat; humans have never landed on the Moon and all space projects are astronomical lies; Obama is Hitler’s grandson; No plane crashed on 9/11; most recently, the 1/6 US Capitol insurrection was an “inside job”, done by Antifa activists posing as Trump activists and/or, it actually never really took place, it’s all “fake”, what we see on the news are paid actors performing on a Hollywood set.
What else is clear as daylight to all QAnon believers? What’s the most heinous act? That alleged Satanic elite group, they kidnaps children and exploits them, sexually (2). From this misguided and preposterous belief the road to “Save the Children” signs at Trump rallies is extremely short.
The conspirators believe in various fictitious tales about CoVid19. In April 2020 a field hospital was opened in Central Park, NYC, for the treatment of CoVid19 patients. The reasoning, funding and organization were contested, but there was no question – it helped people, treated patients. For QAnon acolytes it was obvious the entire operation was a cover story for the smuggling of innocent children into the evil mechanisms of the pedophile lizard people.
From whom should we save the children then? Not from the horrors of war, not from hunger, disease or extreme poverty (3), nor from sexual assault, that studies suggest occurs in places we identify as most safe (4). We must and will save children from pedophile aliens who wish to drink their blood for eternal youth.
How do you contend with pure evil? Few went out to the street corners, town squares, interstate intersections, doing the bare minimum and protest (by the way, the movement being predominantly female (5)). But as we all know, the main and best way to fight pure evil is rage, holy rage, preferably online – on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They liked, commented and they shared, shared and shared (the QAnon feminine faith movement has been dubbed “Pastel QAnon“).
And so it happened that the well-intentioned, century-old fund, working for children’s rights and fights abuse, maltreatment, exploitation and trafficking of children all over the world, was forced to distance itself from a social campaign that bears its name in vain. The hashtag “Save the Children” had become, at least for a while, digital taboo.
The past few decades mark a gradual but crucial awakening regarding sexual assault in general, of children in particular. We realize, more and more, the extent and manner in which these horrors are present in society, recognize the social institutions and organizations in which it exists and where it was, possibly still is, being all too often plastered, concealed, not to say sadly, preserved.
We’ve learnt that rape doesn’t occur in dark allyways, perpetrated by shadowy attackers. Rape usually occurs in intimate, close situations, surroundings understood to be most safe, benign, homely. At home, with family.
Worst of all is sexual abuse of children, of the helpless. Over the past few decades we’ve learnt, it’s been exposed, that child sexual assault is much more common than assumed and occurs in the places supposed to be the safest for children: churches, little league sports teams, schools and kindergartens (and in Israel, the children’s home of the Kibbutz). Safest of all and therefore worst of all is also most prominent – most sexual child assaults take place at home and within the family.
The disillusionment is inevitable but also necessary, as the crisis breaks people apart. The recognition that school, church, soccer practice or little league and of course, home itself, are not the safe place we believed them to be but a potential crime scene, is a horrific understanding that’s not easily digestible, for some. The difficulty is clear, understandable, undeniable, but the intensity of the pain involved correlates to the magnitude of denial and the social-cultural-psychological monster created.
The parish priest, the baseball coach and of course – neighbors, uncles, relatives and our most cherished and intimate loved ones – they are not the ones to hurt our children. Not possible. Inconceivable. Impossible. We won’t allow it. Not Way. The solution – a world-wide conspiracy of powerful monsters.
We alienate, as individuals and as a society, threats and fears. As we alienate, we also sometimes demonize. The Science fiction and horror genres often engage with imagery of the terrifying other, the peculiar stranger, but a deeper terror, a more disturbing otherness, lies in the alienation from the familiar, the ordinary, the well-trod – the unheimlich.
In 1919, as the Jebb sisters were working relentlessly in Great Britain to “Save the Children” of Europe from starvation, Freud published his article Das Unheimliche (translated as “The Uncanny” to English).
Dana Tor elaborates on the article, whose connections to literature, science fiction and horror works are plentiful (Freud analyzes the works of E.T.A Hoffman, and in particular his story “The Sandman”. Hoffman was one of the most significant proto-science fiction creators of the late 18th century).
Freud made the Uncanny famous in his 1919 essay by that name, Das Unheimliche, exploring the eeriness of dolls and waxworks, but for a century it remained a professional term used in a few very specific disciplines: psychology, sociology, literature and cinema, robotics and animation. It seldom made it into idle conversation, you didn’t hear it in small-talk or around the family dinner table.
Nowadays – everyone, everywhere, whether knowingly or not, is talking about it. We’ve all experienced in the flesh the unsettling feeling of the strangely familiar, the unheimlich. The Uncanny is all around us – in our haunted homes, beaming from our screens, in the streets – emptied out, now strangely revitalized, our cities, muted and mutated. It’s in the fabric of everyday life, in the sudden strangeness of daily routines. A fear not triggered by alienation, not external… A fear coming from inside the house!
None of us are strangers to the disruption of daily life: urban space, family or home. Israelis are well acquainted with sudden recruitment for military reserve duty or with the immediate need to seek shelter from missiles and terror attacks, and we’re not alone with any of this; Wars, terror attacks, nuclear accidents, oil spills and natural disasters afflict every region, strain economies, scar cities, injure homes and families.
Nonetheless, we’re still far from a complete understanding of the exceptionality of the CoVid19 event in history, being both on a global scale, but also extremely intimate.
At a particular moment in 2020, billions of people all over the world experienced a complete upheaval of their lives and routines as they were asked, sometimes required, to quarantine in their homes, to shelter in place. This, surprisingly, did not coincide with reports from the frontlines, at least not as we were used to them – Hospital Wing C isn’t exactly The Somme, Iwo Jima or NYC on 9/11. There were no reports from the engineering teams at the nuclear accident or from the rescue efforts at the Tsunami-hit coastal region.
The shock itself includes a disruption of perspectives. We receive periodic reports from the Ministry of Education about the opening and closing of kindergartens and schools; heated debates on the news about visits to mom and dad, grandma and grandpa and how to celebrate Passover Seder, Thanksgiving or Christmas; And there’s also the many smaller personal dilemmas: do I hug the friend who went through a painful breakup, or the one who just found out has cancer An alienation from the familiar, an intimate, uncanny strangeness that can only be defined as unheimlich, took over.
We all went through, are still going through, a difficult and strange process of alienation, from what we know, perceive, identify, as normal, common, regular, as ourselves.
We were not drafted for military reserve duty, did not need to flee our own homes (on the contrary), we were not refugees nor were we in the trenches. Our trenches were the city streets and boulevards, our battlefield was on Zoom. A lull in the fight was a step from the bedroom to the kitchen, a return from the frontline – a drive from home to work.
We also had no idea if and which of these disruptions are temporary or permanent and if and which of these life changes are good or bad, which makes them even harder to address, to process, to understand how we feel about them.
Changes we did not know if they would be temporary or permanent (not to mention the complete confusion in scales of time and space – discussed in the previous Utopia issue about Inhuman Scales and the Hyperobject), are these good or bad changes (and to whom?) And therefore – how do we even refer to them?
All of this, along with the political shocks, social, economic and health distress, have generated in many increased anxieties, anxieties that have brought the uncanny to our mental doorstep and to the front and center of the psychological, social, and cultural stage. Das Unheimlich is among us, it has always been, and will always be. But, might the Uncanny be the new dominant fear in the soon to be “new normal” time? not fear of an unknown other, but fear of an unknowable self?
“True Voyage is Return” – Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed
Two processes led me in my thoughts to Das Unheimlich – the terrible realities that pushed so many people, desperate for meaning, to the Cartoon-ish conspiracy theory – QAnon; alongside my own daily CoVid19 anxieties and those of my immediate loved ones. The two processes met in one place – home.
The past year has given us a special one-time only focus, whether we wanted to or not, on our homes, and the very concept of home: figurative and physical; the private, family and social home; The technology, architecture and design of home; the psychological, economic, political home. Home provides shelter and comfort, all the while concealing secrets and pain. In the US this focus has led quite a few frightened individuals into the arms of a cult-like conspiracy theory, but this extreme scenario represents normal anxieties and fears that inhabit all of us.
The feeling of strangeness, the uncanny alienation from the familiar, understanding that true evil isn’t necessarily external but might be within us, inhabit us – part of our childhood memories, our own personality, the building blocks of the home we live in – I see all of these as important insights of our times. Threat, discomfort and even evil are all part of us, of who we are.
Hope is our mission at Utopia! We can only hope that CoVid19 will reduce our acts of alienation and demonization (6), precisely in light of the ongoing and powerful experience of the Unheimlich we are all experiencing together and especially with the understanding that the virus and pandemic can not be outed, alienated, from the human body or from human society. On the contrary, fighting CoVid19 requires communal and geopolitical collaboration, alongside social solidarity, more than ever (while on the contrary the populists might use the moniker “China Virus”).
I truly hope and aspire for a future where we no longer imagine complete and utter evils that must be eradicated, we stop producing monsters – be they pedophile lizards, energy vampires, orcs in service of the dark lord, radical Islamic terrorists or Chinese virologists – and deal with discomfort, anxiety, fear and possibly even evil, which is not on another planet, but exists with us everywhere, even in the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom. At home. We might be better off not calling it evil, at all.
Acknowledging these homely, domestic, fears, anxieties and horrors, is a worthy task. We’ll never proclaim victory, never speak under a banner claiming “Mission Accomplished”.
but like the journey towards Utopia itself, the one that’s always on the horizon, it’s a commendable mission. The journey to Utopia teaches us how to be better people.
Author Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that “True voyage is return” (The Dispossessed, 1974). The journey to the Unheimlich, makes us better people, or at the very least, less anxious, which isn’t so bad as well.
If literature departments in Israeli universities seek relevance, they must start teaching and exploring the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, acclaimed science fiction author, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 88.
In support of this argument I’ll present the radicalism in Le Guin’s thought and the manner in which she shaped the way I myself think about literature, life and their reciprocal influence. To do this I’ll begin with media theoretician Marshall McLuhan’s most famous idea: “The medium is the message”.
The claim on which the expression “The medium is the message” is based upon, is that when analyzing any media technology, what’s important is the medium itself, and not the message (“content”) that is transmitted through it. A train is a train and it affects humanity the same way whether it transports cargo around Europe or takes people to work in Asia. McLuhan said of the machine, the production line, that it affects man all the same, whether it produces luxury cars or popcorn. It is of course true about television – it doesn’t matter what we watch on TV, rather the very fact that we sit in front of the television every night. This is true also about literature, and more specifically about storytelling, a medium that is almost transparent to us. We always think about the content of the story, but we do not take into account that storytelling itself enwraps a message, by virtue of being what it is. And what it is, is something much more biased than we may believe it to be.
In 1986 Le Guin published an article titled “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction“, the shopping cart theory of literature. In general, she claimed in the article that through eons humanity lived in gathering societies. We picked fruits, collected nuts, gathered plants and occasionally lucked out with an accidental hunt. One day several men got up, went out into the field, and stumbled across a gigantic animal (in our collective memory it is of course a mammoth), killed it and came back to the tribe with the spoils. But what they brought back with them to the tribe was far more significant than the meat from the hunt – they came back with a heroic tale. “I did this, and a friend of mine jumped out, in front of it, from here, then I flanked it from there, he strangled it, was trampled under it, and then I slit its throat with that pointed stick and killed it.”
This tale became the human narrative, and the little tool, the pointed stick – the spear, sword, arrow – it became human technology. In our collective experience, this phallic form is known to be the origin of technology, the first tool, and it is what had allowed us to spread out and become what we are today. This story – the hero who tackles a monster (real, mental, bureaucratic) and defeats it (or loses, if it is a tragedy) – Is the story we are all familiar with. For us, this is how a story is meant to be told.
But Le Guin reminds us that before all this there were tens of thousands of years of gathering. We ate from the tree and field, and what we wanted to keep for tomorrow, we kept inside a pouch or some basket – this was the first tool, the initial technology that allowed us to spread and expand. It was the first thing that transformed us from an animal that is surviving from one moment to the next into a complex creature that thinks about tomorrow. But there is no story to it; It is impossible to tell a heroic tale about how I struggled with a nutshell and came home with ten acorns. It’s just not as interesting.
In her literature, Le Guin tries to tell different stories. True, there are always heroes and there are always obstacles that they try to overcome, but “The real journey is coming back”, to burrow one of her captivating quotes from her novel “The Dispossessed“. In her article she writes that the hero hijacked the novel; she doesn’t believe we need to give him the front stage but rather put him inside the basket or carrier bag to mix with other ingredients. The societies she describes in her novels mix femininity with masculinity, dream with reality, actions with consequences, intentions with acts; everything is more circular, more ambivalent.
It is not obvious that if the hero has a strong enough desire and that if he kills enough monsters, he will get what he wants, because it is not even clear what he wants. Her storytelling style is not exactly the unleashed arrow flying straight ahead, the same linear movement of hero-desires-obstacles-victory.
That is why her literature is so radical. Because it makes us wonder “what if”- and the “what if” question is at the heart of science fiction. What if the default of storytelling was not the arrow flying straight ahead, but the circular narrative? Not one, but zero. Not a spear, but a basket. What would reality look like then? Possibly, some capitalist, masculine, violent wrongs would have been spared from us. She reminds us to think about the very medium of storytelling, not just about the content, but on how we tell any story.
She’s not only radical because she presents in her stories anarchist, socialist and a-gendered possibilities of society, but because she explores and presents how the very basis of storytelling could have looked like, how our thinking would have changed, and how this change, might have changed the world. And it’s so much more interesting than reading literature through the prisms of gender or class or all that shit that’s being taught in numerous literature departments and faculties of the humanities. Le Guin is a true radical, the kind of radical we need.