A Trick of the Light

June 30, 2012

It starts with a dream of another, better place. It may be in the future, as in science fiction, or the past, as in legends of a Golden Age of paradise lost, or in another land, as in the classic Utopia first named by Thomas More. Such dreams act as critiques of present conditions or values, revealing tendencies of wish fulfilment as well as the desire to avoid conflict. These possible alternatives can stimulate responses that challenge or enhance prevailing paradigms, as they inspire a change in the status quo or bolster it by perpetuating the very dream upon which the dominant system builds its power. The dream is collective, but may exclude certain groups from its version of social harmony. It may include mythic narratives and symbols that structure human realities and link them to more-than-human powers. Very often it promises to banish darkness and fill the world with light; to replace lack with abundance, chaos with order, or ignorance with abundance.

This kind of utopian dream is perennial, although not necessarily a universal or essential quality of the human imagination. Our lives are never complete and incorporate an unending flow of challenges. Sometimes the cure presented for this perpetual malady is worse than the disease, or one person’s utopia seems distinctly dystopian to another. Anti-utopian commentators have pointed out how visionary excess threatens everyday norms and freedoms. But the dominant paradigm of production and consumption is itself based upon a utopian dream of a better world, and the results certainly seem dire from outside of the bubble of excess this dream promotes, where the very conditions of life that could promote flourishing ecosystems and shared wealth are compromised to the point of widespread extinction and devastation.

The dream of civilization tends towards an ideal of perpetual consumption, which offers an experience of transcendence that can only be manifest ephemerally and that thus results in a paradigm of addiction. This is the utopia of abundance and light that leaves a wake of darkness in its shadow.


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