The Philosophical Pitfalls of Utopias in Literature and Film

In 1969, influential experimentalist Alvin Lucier recorded himself saying, among other things, “I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now” and proceeded to play it back into the room, rerecord it, then play that back, over and over until the resonate frequencies of the room itself destroyed any semblance of his voice as he continued the cycle for forty-five minutes, leaving instead “the natural resonate frequencies of the room articulated by speech.”[1] I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now, but where I take contention with Lucier’s exercise is the idea that you and I, or he and I, could ever be in the same room anyway. This is a concept that I will apply to utopian visions represented in utopian works of fiction. How can a utopia exist for more than one person? True, though we could perceive one another in the same room, or utopia, there is no guarantee that that room is the exact same in both of our interpretations. This is a tenant of subjective idealism, a philosophical movement aligned around the concept of inherently false perceptions of reality, arguing instead that only the immaterial mind and mere ideas of material objects exist. Where Lucier, subjective idealism, and utopian visions intersect, however, is in a shared predisposition to language. Lucier’s dialogue is broken apart and then literally articulates the natural world around him much like subjective idealism relies on the formation of ideas by speech to identify ‘reality’, and of course utopian visions will have varying dependencies on a shared language. Selecting three works from the 18th to 21st centuries, I will argue that the only utopia is a personal one and that, through subjective idealism, the only universal utopia is a dystopia of individual utopias.

Brown, Locke, and Berkeley

An immaterial and monistic philosophy such as subjective idealism challenges the notions of most utopian visions dating as far back as 1798, when one clever American writer, Charles Brockden Brown, casually explores the argument that because of limitations in reality specifically described by subjective idealism, a utopia can never be a utopia for all simply because it can never be perceived uniformly by two or more parties. The work of literature in which he presents this problem is Alcuin: A Dialogue, specifically part III and to a lesser extent IV. In it, a dialogue is exchanged between the nameless school-master protagonist who is often and will be for the purposes of this essay referred to as Alcuin, and an elderly woman named Mrs. Carter. What makes Alcuin especially memorable and worthwhile for academic inquiry is its anti-Lockean notions presented in parts III and IV which are direct contradictions to his defense of Lockean arguments in the first half of the work, the two halves separated by a week within the dialogue itself. Considering the shift in philosophical allegiance, it appears that Brown is welcoming a dialogue about the inherent impossibilities of utopian visions, in this case a utopia of equality amongst sexes, and he does this by calling upon 18th century philosopher George Berkeley, famed father of subjective idealism and noted challenger of John Locke.

First, we must quickly understand just what Locke and Berkeley were disagreeing about. John Locke was a realist philosopher in the 17th century who argued dualism in a material world. For Locke, the world is indeed material and composed of two different fundamentals: mind and matter. Where Berkeley takes issue with Locke’s realism, however, is whether or not the world exists beyond what the mind perceives. Locke would argue that yes, the world exists beyond the perception of mind, specifically in what he calls “primary qualities.” These qualities include extension, figure, motion, rest, solidarity, and number, and exist as a substance that does not need to be perceived by the mind, called matter.[2] Berkeley, however, would claim in his 1710 A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge that one cannot perceive an object existing unperceived, and would therefore find it impossible that Locke can assume something exists unperceived simply because he cannot prove it by conceiving it.[3] For Berkeley then, the entire world is composed of ideas, “all the [world] have not any subsistence without a mind […] [if] they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other […] they must have no existence at all.”[4] Berkeley would go onto to argue in his theory that the eternal spirit (God) is the permanent perceiver of the world. More related to the refutation of Locke, Berkeley concludes that the world can only be composed of immaterial minds which perceive ideas as opposed to both mind and matter.

Reality according to Berkeley, wherein one does not perceive the object, but instead a perception of an idea.

Brown makes a direct reference in Alcuin to the argument asserted against Locke by Berkeley. Alcuin says of the problem with believing whether or not he ever physically visited the so-called paradise of women, “We have no direct proof that the ordinary objects of sight and touch have a being independent of these senses. When there is no ground for believing that those chairs and tables have existence but in my own sensorium, it would be rash to affirm the reality of the objects which I met, or seemed to meet in my journey.”[5] The chair and table reference is a direct reference to Berkeley, who also used chairs and tables as examples in his refutation on Locke.[6] After Alcuin tells Mrs. Carter of the paradise, she cannot agree that is at all paradisaical due to the institute of marriage not existing there, which they had argued earlier about, specifically that Mrs. Carter found it limiting to women. Even though Mrs. Carter and Alcuin understand the paradise of women, they perceive it differently in terms of utopian possibility. It is this matter of different perception that will continue to hinder utopian attempts for the next couple of centuries.

Snow Crash

Cover of Neal Stephenson’s now classic SF novel Snow Crash.

A potential workaround to the problem of perception could perhaps be argued in science fiction author Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk parody Snow Crash. Stephenson, in a critically prescient but comically exaggerated manner, presents the reader with a seemingly dystopian future. However, the concept of ‘the metaverse’, a virtual reality that acts as a second life for its inhabitants, especially those adept at coding and hacking, is setup to act as a counterpoint to the real world of the novel. Hiro Protagonist, whose role I should not need to explain given his name, is such a person who is able to reinvent himself in the metaverse and create essentially whatever he wants in the apparently infinite space allotted through programming language. A superficial reading of the metaverse may allow one to make the assumption that because Hiro is able to construct the world as he sees fit, he automatically knows the value of truth of these virtual objects and is therefore beyond the philosophical clutches of subjective idealism. This is simply not so, as with further ratiocination one realizes that the metaverse is one of the most literal examples of subjective idealism in its purest sense. How can this be so? Well, language.

cat languages
An image (concept/signified) of a cat with many names (signifier) for “cat.”

Although the entanglement of language and subjective idealism is only alluded to by Berkeley himself, he does consider ideas, which is how the human mind is supposed to interpret the material word, to be subject to irrelevant descriptors, “great and small, swift and slow, are allowed to exist nowhere without the mind, being entirely relative, and changing as the frame or position of the organ of sense varies.”[7] This sort of thinking is precursory to the work of Swedish structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure; whose Course in General Linguistics (1916) argued that language is a formal system of differential linguistic signs. All words are a sign, and all signs are composed of twoparts: the signifier and the signified. Essentially, the signifier is a phonetic sound or construction of the word, while the signified is a concept, or combination of ideas that culminate into what the word is conveying. For example: a C-A-T is fluffy, cute, small, four-legged, two-eyed, curious, and so on until what you describe can only apply to the idea of a C-A-T. For Saussure and Berkeley, language is how reality is both inherently constructed and arbitrarily interpreted. Saussure’s point on ‘l’arbitraire du signe’ is a double of Berkeley’s previous quoted irrelevant descriptors, “[the signifier] is unmotivated, i.e. arbitrary in that it actually has no natural connection with the signified.”[8]

Whether through Berkeley’s argument of irrelevancy or Saussure’s principle of arbitrariness, the metaverse should be understood as a literal manifestation of how both Berkeley and Saussure would view the world: a collection of ideas differentiated by an irrelevant/arbitrary (though necessary) language. Why is this important? By both subjective idealism and structural linguistics, the metaverse is definable identically as the real world in which many in Snow Crash are fleeing from. The primary difference for the intentions of my argument, however, is that Stephenson has attempted to create an immaterial utopia (or at the very least a potential one) that escapes the material world, but subjective idealists, the reader is good to remember, would argue that the material world does not exist beyond ideas in the first place therefore there is no tangible division between the metaverse and New South Africa or Mr. Lee’s Hong Kong. Simply, the metaverse is a literal construction of ideas that reflects the arbitrary nature of the real world.

What is successful for Stephenson and serves as a convenient segue for the argument is the creation of avatars. Disregarding the elitism of the quality of avatars, knowledgeable individuals such as Hiro are able to create complex avatars while most others are left to choose among stock characters available for purchase. These bodies are vehicles for the users to experience the wonders of the metaverse in, but more importantly and abstractly, compliment the immaterial mind argument of subjective idealism. If we are to go along with Stephenson’s notion that the metaverse is immaterial by nature, which is fine, the avatars too must be immaterial. Where the avatars differ from the metaverse, however, is in Berkeley’s argument of an immaterial mind, most easily understood in his maxim “esse est percipi” or “to be is to be perceived.” In order for X (the metaverse in this equation) to exist, it must be perceived by Y (an avatar, i.e. the immaterial mind of the user). The metaverse then is inhabited and perceived by the avatars, which are immaterial hosts for the immaterial mind, much like human bodies are the immaterial host for perceiving the ‘real’ world. It is worth note that Berkeley considers the contradiction of his immaterial mind perceiving yet not always being perceived itself and argues that because the mind is the creator or perceiver of ideas, it can claim a self-perpetuating existence.[9]

Individualism, for subjective idealism, is an inherently principle factor of the school. The idea of individualism is for some, especially those of us in the post-modern and beyond 20th and 21st century, an optimistic thought. For Berkeley, however, no matter how much theological bias plays into his writing, it is a virtue given to all of humanity. Mrs. Carter and Alcuin maintained individual perceptions of the same utopian society just as characters in Snow Crash held totally different opinions of the same idea. For example, one recalls the conversation between Ng and YT in regards to the same dog. Ng perceives the dog as being improved with cybernetic upgrades while YT sees it to be a negative perversion of nature.[10] Each has their individual perception of the dog and sees it completely differently. Individualism is a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for utopian visions. Or is it?

The Congress

The chemically driven world of The Congress.

We come to the conclusive finale that will allow a utopian vision to coincide with the pitfalls of subjective idealism: writer/director Ari Folman’s 2013 live-action/animated adventure film The Congress which is inspired by the 1971 Polish novel The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem. In The Congress, human beings are able to be scanned digitally, specifically film actors are digitally preserved in this way so that the aging process will not affect their ability to perform. Further into the story, we learn that a chemical is produced which allows one to become whatever or whoever they want in an animated form. This chemical quickly becomes popular and we learn that it is being supplied by a single company, who has constructed entire cities in which the chemical is in both the air and water, creating a permanent ‘animated zone’ for the users of the chemical. Eventually, this replaces reality as it allows humanity to reinvent themselves and the world around them. What is the world eventually reduced to? A wasteland of wandering zombies who, thanks to the chemical, can no longer perceive reality and instead inhabit an individual world removed from the person next to them, a world that is utopian to themselves.

The film is a pill to explain, but a pleasure to experience. In terms of subjective idealism, the attentive reader will be quick to note the correlations and why this vision of utopia is the only plausible one thus far mentioned. Alcuin was doomed from the start in thinking that utopia was a destination to be shared by any but himself. The metaverse, too, is such a destination that offers similar notions universality turned-up a few notches. Alvin Lucier, though used only as a clever example of what subjective idealism is working against, made the correct assumption of sitting in a room different than yours or mine, but incorrectly implied that there would ever be such a room that allowed for universal perception. Where The Congress succeeds is not in creating a utopian vision where everyone would simply see it the same way, which as Berkeley argues is an inherent possibility, but in a sense (an attempt at idealistic humorous wordplay) circumvents the shortcomings of perception by creating a utopia in the immaterial mind as opposed to creating the idea to be perceived. The taste, sights, sounds, touches, and smells are all as the user would most prefer because it is coming from the immaterial mind already.

A disillusioned Robin Wright wanders through the dystopic sea of utopians in The Congress.

As our protagonist, Robin Wright, experiences the utopian world that is being perceived by every inhabitant differently, some seeing a steak dinner instead of a tuna salad or perhaps an oak desk as opposed to a pine and so on, she does not disagree that the world seems utopian, but does still wish to find her son, whom she lost touch with soon after the chemical became so widespread. Robin makes the decision to locate a pill that purges the chemical effects from her mind and upon doing so, creates one of the most compelling moments in the film. Her lover, whom she met in the chemically-driven utopia, begs her to turn away upon taking the pill so that she cannot see him as he really is. Robin obliges this request, and once turned away, sees the animated world of beautiful, fantastic people around her turn instantly to a gray sea of ragged individuals with emotionless palates, most of them huddled together and standing still around what used to be a city. Curiously, there is no longer any dialogue, which in itself invites the argument that perhaps this chemical simply elevates human consciousness to different plane of being where interactions take place, or possibly removes the need for dialogue and instead allows its users to perceive silence as something that they want. Regardless, because the utopian visions are now entirely personal, a shared language is no longer a necessity simply because one single language cannot be perceived equally by all anyway.

This is an absolutely fascinating moment for viewers. By removing herself from the chemical utopia, Robin has created a dystopia of individual utopias. Arguably, before she purged the chemical, there were no perceivers who would call the world anything but a utopian vision. Although there exists in this world a select number of scientists aboard zeppelins, this is a temporary measure to ensure that automatic systems will come into play to sustain human life, allowing the last gasp of humanity to come under the influence of the chemical, and whether or not they are aware of the world below is unclear. Feasibly, in the near future of the film, there will be no one left to perceive the dystopian world of utopian visions. The logistics of this future world are irrelevant to the principles that it presents. Every individual perceives ‘reality’ as a utopian vision, distinct yet no more correct or incorrect than any other, and for subjective idealism, as the reader can guess, is infallible.

I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now. And that is how it will always be.

Works Cited

[1] Lucier, Alvin. I Am Sitting in a Room, Lovely Music Ltd. 1981
[2] Berkeley, George. “The Principles of Human Knowledge.” Jessop, T.E. The Works of George Berkeley Vol. II. Camden: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1964. 41-113. Pg. 44-45
[3] (Berkeley) pg. 44-45, 50
[4] (Berkeley) pg. 43
[5] Brown, Charles Brockden. Alcuin: A Dialogue. 1798. pg. 36
[6] (Berkeley) pg. 42, 59
[7] (Berkeley) Pg. 45
[8] Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. New York: The Philosophical Library Inc., 69
[9] Dickers, Georges. Berkeley’s Idealism: A Critical Examination. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. pg. 3
[10] Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. United States: Bantam Books, 1993. pg. 247-249

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  1. Jacque Venus Tobias

    Peek thank you for an exceptional article. I truly enjoyed reading your work. I will now have some new points of reference and authors to explore. Thanks for sharing your passion.

  2. Delossantos

    Philip K. Dick.

  3. Snow Crash is one of those books that everybody says you ought to read, but it seems that an awful lot of people are then disappointed in it when they get around to actually reading it. I’m not one of those people though, because I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  4. Hurricane

    Most cyberpunk novels were written before the transformational effect of the internet on telecommunications.

  5. Snow Crash is probably the only book I’ll ever read whose main character is half black and half Japanese!

  6. Shuuler

    The Congress is one of those films I absolutely will have to watch again in order to have a true opinion of the quality.

  7. Senaida Gould

    snow crash is regarded as the book that spelt the end for Cyberpunk, though it certainly went out with a bang.

  8. Everyone should read The Futurological Congress. For a book that’s almost 50 years old, it still feels fresh and funny.

  9. Vernell

    Fantastic article!

  10. I love your connection to the idea of Utopias and subjective idealism. Something we often see in Utopias is the emphasis on “stuff”. The characters might have all of their material needs and wants met, but true social connection is minimized or gone. The ironic part is that social connections are one of the factors linked most highly with happiness or well-being. In order to gain this individualized “utopia”, we have to give up or own awareness of our world and isolate our experience, the opposite of healthy behavior. This is because what is “ideal” is based on our own personal perspectives and couldn’t possibly be the same for everyone. The way you tie in The Congress and Snow Crash is fantastic!

  11. The TFC book killed me: made me laugh much of the way through, and then smacked me in the face with its utterly bleak conclusion. I could compare it to a certain movie, but to do so would give it away.

  12. The concept, the images, the themes, the lead actress… the congress was filled with so much potential. But sorry. It sucked. With more depth or story, it could have been an epic sci-fi surrealist drama.

  13. Stephenson’s out-of-this-world unique writing style… man I love it

  14. Jae Negron

    Lovely read.

  15. Toni Wooten

    I enjoyed the first 35 minutes of the congress. It was very thought provoking in the beginning and I liked that it made you question reality.

  16. As someone currently addicted to Second Life (a virtual world where you live represented by an avatar) I like everything to do with virtual and utopia.

  17. Snow Crash was my first cyberpunk novel, and I liked much of it.

  18. Stanislaw Lem writes with a style that is inaccessible for me, but I could see as being accessible for other people.

  19. Congress short novel is a gem that all fans of dystopian stories should read.

  20. Technoculture is the combination of the most fascinating and important developed trends in technology that most affect our culture.

  21. The Congress is an amazing piece of movie-making.

  22. In his early novel, Stephenson showed faint glimmerings of promise.

  23. GrettOliva

    Snow Crash is to Books as The Matrix is to movies (with only the absolute BEST parts of Tron and Da Vinci Code thrown in).

  24. I loved that film, The Congress. I guess the idea of the drug is that anyone can become what they want to be, exist in whatever world you desire, and perceive reality in your own right. That to me is fascinating and scary. Fascinating because anyone could become their inner desire. Someone shy might then change themselves into the archetypal hero, a god, a majestic creature. But the downside is the loss of touch with reality. If we were to really achieve that I fear something would in the end go horribly wrong. Nicely written article.

  25. Aliya Gulamani

    Absolutely fantastic article, a brilliant exploration of such an intriguing concept. Really enjoyed this. Thank you.

  26. aileenmaeryan

    Excellent article. With all the talk around dystopias, its’ refreshing to read about the flaws of utopias, and about the complex interplay between the concepts of utopia and dystopia.

  27. Futurological Congress is a really wild read.

  28. Janel Fine

    SC is a freaking cool book. Super rad.

  29. Very cool insights. I’d be interested to know your perspectives on Aldous Huxley’s or Philip K. Dick’s works, as well.

  30. geopikey

    So many interesting concepts to think about. Every point you make had my mind racing with new ideas, very thought provoking. It is sad to think that a Utopia is unachievable however i believe an ‘ideal’ society can be achieved one that embodies freedom and lives in harmony with the climate whilst not ignoring the fact that every persons reality is different.

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