Sunday, June 21, 2009

Utopian Time & Space: De/(Con)structions of Babel (Part II of III)

At the exact opposite end of history from Eden, we have the notion of the New Jerusalem, a utopian space carved out somewhere between a new heaven and a new earth. Revolutionary ideologies spanning the political spectrum from anarchical libertarianism and militaristic regimes of the far right to Marxist communal systems of the far left inform utopia as mode of becoming. It is within this mode that all good revolutionaries must operate and function toward some future goal. To paraphrase Romantic poet William Blake, these zealots cannot rest from mental fight, nor shall their swords sleep in their hands, till they have built this New Jerusalem not only upon the green and pleasant hills of England but everywhere else as well. For as we saw with the Soviet Union and the Third Reich, a utopia—even one distantly removed from its idealistic objective—within its own borders at the end of the day really is not fulfilling its destiny. This species of utopia must spill over their artificial borders and conquer the neighboring states for their own good. All such systems are born out of utopian visions of themselves, but all seem necessarily and thankfully doomed to failure.

A key factor within the construct of utopia is that of exile. God banishes man from both Eden and Babel. In this proto-Freudian expulsion from the womb, man’s fate seems always to be the laborious life of the refugee in search of a new home. This alienation (in which all of earth becomes an alien nation) is from both space as well as from time. Romanian-born writer and philosopher Emile Cioran sees history itself as alienation from the eternal present (102-4), and indeed, “In its general outline, utopia is a cosmogonic dream on the level of history” (107). In this view, utopia becomes a function of history in that utopianists work toward an end of history—to complete history—to end human progress, for the shift from becoming back into being, to an eternal present outside the shifting borders of time and history as well as of geography. Utopia seeks the atemporal, necessitating work around the clock and throughout the year for the final eradication of the twenty-four, the seven, and the three hundred sixty-five. Is it any wonder, then, that both our hexidecimal and sexigesimal, or base-12 and base-60, measurements of both time and space originated in Babel? From these early utopianists, we get, among others, our sixty-second minutes, sixty-minute hours, 24-hour days, twelve-month years as well as our 360-degree circles with which we measure the longitude and latitude of our globe.

These origins of our measures of time and space that keep us connected to the past in order to allow us to look forward lock us into a perpetual mode of becoming. Yet we moderns are more than just cursory heirs to the scientific and cultural legacies of Babel. Its metaphysical and philosophical paradigms still resonate with us today, particularly when we recognize ourselves in the standard definitions of Babel (“noise and confusion”) and its easily conflated twin Babylon (“a place characterized by great luxury and often corruption”). It is as if the metaphoric definitions supersede any acknowledgment of an actual historical and geographical entity. For in our very conception of time and space, we have also culturally constructed the idea of the end of time—that is, the achievement of paradise in the Final Judgment; the becoming in the passage of time would then be the being of utopia. It is even more fitting perhaps that the United States—itself an attempt toward a home to refugees from absolutely every other nation on earth as well as an archetype of both luxury and corruption—has taken upon itself the project of creating (or re-creating) utopia. It is this eternal struggle to rebuild Babel (which is, as we have argued above, itself an attempt to reconstitute Eden) with its hegemonic monoculture (Hollywood consumerism) and lingua franca (broken English)—in effect, to end progress itself via the “idolatry of progress” (Cioran 108)—that millennialist Americans hope to usher in the Second Coming, forgetting all the while that whatever brief respite there may be from the ticking of the clock, the Lord will once again come down to destroy the city—even if it is built upon a hill*—and scatter humankind abroad. And history, of course, will always already resume.

Urban historian Lewis Mumford articulates the importance of concepts, and argues that their histories are just as significant as the histories of actions: man is always working and building toward a conception of the ideal. The conception of utopia, therefore, should be on equal footing with the construction of utopia. To remove the concept is to remove an essential component of history itself. For Mumford, it is the limiting of possibility within the construction of utopia that leads to decline and death—the hubris of “we are the greatest” contrasted with “we are as great as we can possibly be.” Throughout history, we continually hone our ideals as we hone our work. It is this continual refinement and perfecting of utopian ideals that necessarily informs the construction and manifestation of utopia. Utopia, therefore, must always be open to the possibilities of becoming. And yet it can never become if it is not (that is, if it does not first be).

In its purist possibility, utopia can be either total control where all social relations and functions are predefined, or absolute, anarchic freedom whereby the individual exists beyond any structure. Yet clearly either form of social organization would be far from utopian. In the former, humanity lacks any free will to follow its own desires; in the latter, humanity lacks all order and runs the risk of descending into chaos—hardly a perfect situation. The more control exercised on its citizens, the less possibility exists for utopia. According to Mumford, utopia is non-monolithic and non-essentialist: “Utopian thinking, … then, was the opposite of one-sidedness, partisanship, partiality, provinciality, specialism” (5). Cioran, however, in his caustic voice of reason, maintains that every impulse in humanity can be stifled except “the need for an Absolute, which will survive the destruction of temples and even the disappearance of religion on earth” (25). This need for such an absolute necessitates an eternal cycle of becoming, or working toward the absolute beyond purges and witch-hunts as well as economic restructuring.

* The envisioning of America as a “city upon a hill” originally comes from a 1630 sermon by Puritan Governor of Massachusetts John Winthrop. President Ronald Reagan repeated Winthrop’s words throughout his political career, but most notably during his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1984, in which he further expounded upon the idea of American exceptionalism.

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