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COHN, Jesse.- "An Exemplary Failure: Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Long After and the Dilemmas of Anarchist Utopian Fiction "

Originally published in Anarchist Studies ,vol. 7 (1999), pp. 119-125.

Article published on 15 December 2003
last modification on 30 November 2010
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Abstract

How can revolutionary opposition avoid becoming a mirror image of the system it opposes? This has long been a central question for anarchism. Pat Murphy’s novel, in which a stateless community wages a non-violent war of resistance against invaders, promises to make an answer to our question visible. Paradoxically, The City, Not Long After surrepetitiously closes the very question it attempts to open, sacrificing its own radical potential in the process

.My counter-questions, then, are:

1.) What compels this novel to take back with one hand what it gives with the other?

2.) If this attempt at imaginative transcendence ends in a self-cancelling gesture, what does its fate imply for anarchist theory? Additionally: how can we raise issues of "realism" in fiction and political speculation without falling into the bad logic of vulgar realism — the very logic which makes every alternative to the system appear unreal?

Jesse Cohn

An Exemplary Failure

Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Long After and the Dilemmas of Anarchist Utopian Fiction

Each time I write I hope not to call attention to the artifice of the work... but rather to make the reader forget it, to persuade him or her to exchange his or her reality for mine, an exchange which of course is inevitably doomed to failure since the reader must either reclaim his or her reality or go crazy. I assume that it’s the job of the novelist to fail again and again. I assume it’s his job to fail by narrower margins, investing everything in his failures, until there’s nothing left with which to fail. (Erickson 1993, p. 76.)

In Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Long After , a troop of soldiers walking into post-apocalyptic San Francisco come to a barricade festooned with shards of mirror, skulls, and bones, painted with the declaration: "ARRETE! C’EST ICI L’EMPIRE DE LA MORT" (Murphy 1989, p. 194). This is the defense erected by the inhabitants, a band of artists living in the ruins of a city long since visited by plague. It is possible that the soldiers do not understand the message. Only a few of those in the resistance know that these words mean "Stop! This is the Kingdom of the Dead", or that they came from the entrance to some catacombs in Paris; only a few know where Paris is (p. 195). The soldiers don’t need to know these things or understand what they might mean. They are meant not to understand, but to be confronted by something they don’t understand: a sign in a language which is not theirs, a resistance that refuses to come out in the open or reply to a military invasion with military weapons. This, Murphy proposes, is the power of art — to estrange, to disturb, to hold the shattered mirror before our faces in order that we may see ourselves truly: Death’s kingdom is here . Before this thing, art, an army that calls itself America comes to a halt.

This is the conflict between war and art.

Like an invading army entering Murphy’s San Francisco, running up against a wall painted with signs they couldn’t read and departing confused, critics complained that the plot of the novel was implausible, even "irrational". These critics rejected the book’s premise en bloc as implausible, accusing Murphy of failing to meet the standards of rigorous speculative realism demanded by SF. Specifically, these standards belong to "hard" SF, a subcategory of the genre distinguished by its loyalty to a version of the reality principle, the conviction that human words and wishes are as nothing to the vast impersonal forces of the universe and the instruments we devise to control these forces. No surprise, then that these critics should see the victory of art over war in The City, Not Long After as the abandonment of realism, as mere wishful thinking: here the cold instrumentality of jeeps and automatic rifles is stopped by nothing more than "the weaponry of the unconscious" (Hand 1991, p. 36).

We can celebrate with Hand the growing irrelevance of this boys’ club, and agree that those committed to its rationalistic assumptions are a priori incapable of reading Murphy’s novel — or, indeed, the story of our own times. If we have learned anything in recent history, it has been a lesson about just how much wishes and the words that play to them count for. We have learned much about our susceptibility to seduction by images, by the illogical logic of symbols; all this century’s defining moments, from the rise of the Nazis to the Reagan Administration, offer testament to that. The science fiction genre has been slowly absorbing this lesson, finding ways to talk about "power" less in the instrumentalist terms of Newtonian physics (as a matter of object impacting on object or force on force), and more in terms of the strange language of the information age (as a matter of the interaction of invisible strings of code, the languages of DNA and computers), so that power begins to appear not only as a material phenomenon, but as a cultural one as well (Cohn 1995).

In this light, the war of art waged by Murphy’s rebels seems not so idealistic, neither in the sense of judging ideas to be more powerful than they are, nor in the sense of impractical high-mindedness. As one of them puts it, to have a sense of the power of words, concepts, and images is only pragmatic: "You must not underestimate the power of symbols. The Christian cross, the Star of David, the swastika — these are all just symbols. But they are symbols of great power. People have fought wars over symbols..." (Murphy, p. 185.) And stories can be symbolically true in spite of, and often because of, their material implausibility. These arguments are important to Murphy’s novel, because her characters have to convince the reader that war (material force) is not the only possible exercise of power, that art (symbols, images, words) has power, too. If they cannot, then their battle is lost; the reader will conclude that theirs is a sham victory, that the novel is not realistic but idealistic.

In 1968, Situationist incendiaries attempted to disrupt an equation that ran something like this: my desires are only ideas in my head, and ideas are not real, therefore my desires are unreal, and I must adapt myself to reality . Instead, the Situationists called on the students and workers of Paris to "take your desires for reality." This was not a call to mistake wishes for facts, but a call to take in the active sense of the verb: to seize, to grab hold of. The aim was to obliterate the spurious division of "reality" and "ideality" in revolutionary action. In The City, Not Long After , the strategy of the resistance forces is to encourage the invaders to take their imaginings for reality. One of the more successful ways that they do this is to surrepetitiously isolate an individual soldier, knock him out with a tranquilizer dart, paint the word "DEAD" on his forehead, steal his rifle, and run away. The victim is thus invited to "consider yourself removed from combat. Look at it this way — we could have killed you. If you don’t stop fighting, we really will kill you next time. Signed, The People of San Francisco" (Murphy, p. 203). In this way, they force a split between the perspective of the "DEAD" soldiers and that of their commander. General Miles insists that "When we kill a man, he’s really dead" — that reality is real and not imaginary, objective and not subjective, material and not mental — but his camp of common-sense realists is slowly infiltrated by imaginary terrors (p. 208). The distinction is undone; the unity of the attackers is broken; the defenders win.

The artist-warriors of San Francisco create a thousand imaginary deaths for the invaders to experience as actual; so, too, Murphy creates stunning images which we are unapologetically encouraged to take for reality: images of moral heroism, a city of surreal beauty, a diverse and self-managing community of creative individuals. In effect, she offers us a chance to betray our leaders and defect to a more beautiful and sane society: a small, decentralized, non-authoritarian, spontaneous society, in which decisions are made by an informal process that one of its inhabitants describes as "a town council model," another as "a somewhat looser structure, more like the city-states of early Greece," and that the invading General Miles simply and accurately labels "anarchy" (Murphy, 169-71, 33). The offer is sincere. But where the San Franciscans succeed in demolishing the barrier that divides reality from ideality, the novel itself tends to subtly reinforce and reconfirm it by continually reverting to a presentation of its utopia as an ideal .

Vulgar realism, our prevailing philosophy of common sense, privileges the real over the ideal. The City, Not Long After inverts this order of things, privileging the ideal over the real. This is what Jacques Derrida calls the first stage of deconstruction, the stage in which a "hierarchy" established between two sides of an opposition is "overturned". A hierarchy turned upside down, however, is still a hierarchy, and it maintains the false division between its two terms. "To remain in this phase," Derrida warns, "is still to operate on the terrain of and from within the deconstructed system" (Derrida 1981, p. 42). Accordingly, a deconstruction of the reality/ideality opposition has to proceed to a further stage, reaching for a state of aporia, or unresolveable ambiguity, in which the question can neither be decided in favor of one of the opposed terms nor dissolved into an unified whole. This novel leaves its deconstructive work half-done — and so it lapses into the mirror image of the dominant cynicism.

A notorious Situationist tract begins with a quote from Hegel: "In the case where the self is merely represented and ideally presented (vorgestellt), there it is not actual; where it is by proxy, it is not" (Debord 1977, i). This holds true for us: the idealized world Murphy gives us to experience by proxy is one in which we cannot be real.

We can defect to a future that we imagine. We can’t defect to a future which has no relation to its past — a past which consists of pain and evil.

Visionary utopian fiction, fiction that is utopian in earnest , always fights to open up the gap between the two terms in Thomas More’s paradoxical coinage ("utopia", from ou-topos , "no place", and eu-toposƒ , "good place"), so that the "good place" does not appear to be "nowhere". A world without a history, a process through which it came to be, is a static abstraction: no one can really live there. The City, Not Long After presents us with a world without history. Unable to imagine the historical process through which it could have been born, it conceives itself as a virgin birth — a new world sprung from the ashes of the old. This apocalypse, in the form of a "Plague" spread by monkeys from a Tibetan temple given to cities around the world as a token of peace, is not a historical event, but an end to history, an escape from history — as was the Biblical version of the apocalypse. The millenarian revolts of the medieval peasants, as Guy Debord reminds us, were destined to fail "because they could not recognize the revolution as their own operation" (Debord 1977 [1967], 138). Similarly, the upheaval which clears the ground for Murphy’s San Franciscan utopia is the work of none, the result of no human choice or agency. The mysterious monkey-borne plague is doubly perfect: it brings about a lasting "peace" (albeit not "the sort of peace we expected"), and at the same time excuses human beings of the responsibility for acting to build peace (Murphy, p. 145). The hands of the survivors are clean: they are not accountable for what would otherwise be an unthinkable act of genocide — the erection of utopia on a foundation of corpses, the old sacrificial bargain repeated at the level of billions of deaths.The bodies of these billions are invisible.

They are simply not present; only the living are present. "You don’t have to be afraid to go back [to San Francisco]," Leon reports; "People are getting on with their lives. They don’t live in the past" (p. 42). Instead, they live in a present disconnected from its past, which is to say, in an inauthentic present. The countless dead are only sixteen years dead, but their unbearable concrete reality, the truth of bones, has been sublimated into the ethereality of bodiless spirits, "ghosts" and "angels". Indeed, these two categories seem to collapse into one, as the ’ghosts,’ in their benevolent guardianship over the living, are all too angelic — they are not hungry ghosts, not angry ghosts, not apparitions of inconsolable grief, fear, pain, and loss, such as we might expect to find, given the incredible magnitude of the death. On the contrary: these ghosts are apparently happy to have died in the service of humanity. It is difficult to believe in them, difficult to suspend one’s disbelief in them.

Pain and evil instead manifest themselves in the form of groups of outsiders — particularly General Miles’ army. Of all the military dictators we have come to know, Miles is surely the mildest. On the one hand, his arbitrary arrest and detainment of Mary and Leon does evoke the memory of the disappearances in countries like Chile during the 70’s. On the other hand, we are neither allowed to witness nor really led to imagine what happens to these prisoners, nor to any of Miles’ other victims. The practice of torture, a traditional pastime of tyrants, appears to have vanished; at least, it conspicuously fails to appear. Throughout the entire novel, only a handful of murders take place either on or off stage.

Miles’ army is, in fact, truly harmless. They can hardly kill a thing. In effect, they are accidentally pacifists every bit as much as the San Franciscans are intentionally pacifist; and, as Peter Lamborn Wilson reminds us, in fiction there are no accidents (Wilson 1991, pp. 54-5). The army and the rebels turn out to be, in this sense, identical, because the author will not allow them to differ. Their substantial sameness undermines the novel’s attempt to ask what is really the great means-ends question of revolution: how to overcome oppression without becoming the mirror image of the oppressor? Since, by authorial fiat, Miles’ soldiers are not permitted to kill more than a few rebels, Murphy has solved the problem in advance by arranging for the oppressor to become a mirror image of the opposition. In the terms of the novel, "war" accomodates itself to the requirements of "art" so that "art" does not have to face the question of how to oppose "war".

Utopian fiction written in good faith knows the truth of the deconstructive insight into what Derrida calls the "trace": that for every pair of opposed terms, neither term can exist apart from its partner. Freedom and domination, equality and inequality, violence and peace: none can free itself from the trace of its "other" and become completely self-contained. This insight obviously undercuts conservative thinking in a number of ways — e.g., the so-called "free market", under scrutiny, requires the constant intervention of the very "state" regulatory apparatus it seeks to eliminate. On the other hand, these relationships of interdependence are reciprocal, so that it might appear that we can never achieve a state of equality that did not presuppose some inequality, nor a peace without violence, nor a freedom without domination. In this reading, deconstruction tells us that utopia as such is impossible — an essentially conservative position, and thus an essentially conservative reading of deconstruction. A utopian fiction which acknowledges the necessity of the trace can instead choose to conceive of trace as memory . On this understanding of things, another course is open to us: we can imagine a future of untrammeled pleasure in which horror exists only as a thing which from we have learned in order that we might not be forced to repeat it. We can strive to convert pain into history. In Murphy’s ahistorical San Francisco Not Long After, memories of the pain that came before are largely repressed; the citizens of utopia live in a state of half-amnesia. Their collective trance, induced by an authorial presence which is unwilling to let its children suffer remembrance, prevents them from actually living in a present moment.

Every one of the ways in which Murphy stacks the deck in favor of her utopia cheapens its victory against the odds — but the "odds", the material probabilities, are what the game-players of hard SF are concerned with, and this is not really my point. In Percy Shelley’s words, to acquire definition — to make itself near to us — a utopia needs to "suffer" and to "defy Power, which seems omnipotent... to hope till Hope creates/From its own wreck the thing it contemplates" (Shelley 1994 [1820], lines 510-514). But the suffering of Murphy’s utopia is everywhere minimized, the power it confronts is almost impotent, and so its animating hope robs itself of force by refusing to risk its own wreck. To borrow Steve Erickson’s words, we could say that The City, Not Long After fails precisely through its unwillingness to invest everything in its failure.

Coda

As shapes are defined by their edges, all things are defined by what they are not. A utopia is defined by its enemies. This is not to say that every form of opposition to the system is inevitably the Loyal Opposition, since it depends on what it opposes for its identity. The difficulty of the Loyal Opposition conundrum, in which our every attempt to resist the system may become a means of confirming and supporting it, is not to be underestimated. On the contrary. Indeed, although postmodern cynics like Lyotard or Baudrillard and nouveaux philosophes like Bernard-Henri Levy would have us believe that are the first to have hit on the possibility that the domination of the Same can return in even its most seemingly radical Other, this dilemma is one of the starting points of anarchist thought in the nineteenth century, as in the dire question Bakunin demanded of Marx: what will differentiate your "transitional State", your "dictatorship of the proletariat", from any other State, any other dictatorship? To call these things "tactics" is no answer: adopting the tactics of the system can mean surrendering to it in advance. To give your enemy the opportunity to define you is to pay him or her the supreme flattery of imitation

- Look, I am your hateful reflection in the mirror! But this is not what I mean when I say that a utopia’s enemies define it.

What I mean is that in so far as a utopia does not confront everything that conspires to prevent it, it withdraws itself from view, becomes more ghostly, invisible, and apocryphal: like light without shadow. Such thinly imagined utopias are the kind that Marx and Engels so fairly and unfairly denounced as mere daydreaming, a substitute for action, an escape from history and its responsibilities. Our hope is confined to the observation that a shadow is in fact only the absence of light, and the intimation that in some day yet to come, the memory of injustice can stand in place of its reality.

The future doesn’t have to be pain and suffering; it has to remember them. As Theodor Adorno wrote: "Even in a legendary better future, art could not disavow remembrance of accumulated horror; otherwise its form would be trivial" (Adorno 1997 [1970], 324).

References

- Adorno, Theodor W 1997 [1970]. Aesthetic Theory. Trans Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

- Cohn, Jesse 1995. "The Trope of the Virus: SF Reconceives Power". Paper delivered at the 16th International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts

- Debord, Guy 1977 [1967]. Society of the Spectacle . Detroit: Black and Red

- Derrida, Jacques 1981. Positions . Trans Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

- Erickson, Steve 1993. [Untitled article], Science Fiction EYE 12 (Summer): 74-6

- Hand, Elizabeth 1991. "Distant Fingers: Women Visionaries for the Fin-de-Millenaire". Science Fiction EYE 8: 31-6

- Murphy, Pat 1989. The City, Not Long After . USA: Bantam Spectra

- Shelley, Percy Bysshe 1994 [1820]. "Prometheus Unbound" . In Jerome J. McGann, (ed.) The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse pp. 535-59. UK: Oxford University Press

- Wilson, Peter Lamborn 1991. "Amoral Responsibility".
Science Fiction EYE 8: 54-7


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