Thursday, August 26, 2010

Utopian Thinking

It's been a summer of utopian reading here in the 2'23" household. First, in the endless process of editing of some of my Cage work, I revisited Jill Dolan's Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope in Theater. This is a great book that I was originally introduced to by my old roommate in LA, and which I had found very useful and inspiring; she had this great line about utopia being "the desire to be part of the intense present" that sums up quite well my own personal reaction to 4'33".

Then later in the summer I happened across the original utopian thinker, good ol' Thomas More, who makes an indelible appearance in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which I finally got around to reading a year after it won the Booker Prize. More has traditionally gotten a pretty positive rap from history; certainly my impression of him growing up was as a saintly intellectual. I even read his Utopia at a fairly impressionable age, sometime in high school. I don't think I really understood any of it, but I liked the idea. But one of the many great things about Wolf Hall--and it is a great book if you haven't yet read it--is that it portrays him rather villainously, as a cruel and pretentious man bent on enforcing his own rigid orthodoxy as long as he was in power. "Not my period," as we historians say, so I have no idea of the historical truth of the situation, but there was something liberating about Mantel's re-telling of the famous story, and it was also a powerful reminder of the perilous forms sometimes assumed by utopian thinking.

And then finally I've spent the last few weeks devouring José Muñoz's Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. It's an astonishingly cool book, and I'm not the only one with whom it has struck a chord--if you meander over to the Social Text site, you'll find an array of reactions from smart people, all similarly enchanted. (Not to mention an interpretive drawing by the legendary Vaginal Davis!) As you'll see from their comments, Cruising Utopia is a powerful and inspiring writerly performance. It dredges deep into some heavy-duty cultural theory, especially the work of Ernest Bloch, but also Heidegger, Marcuse, and Adorno.

Adorno, you might ask? However could Muñoz find witty, liberatory potential in the work of Adorno? Well, that's part of the joy of reading this book. As with an earlier discussion of Heidegger, Muñoz doesn't feel constrained by earlier, dreary readings of these theorists, and takes an attitude that is both playful but also kind of liberating. My favorite moment so far is when he has a detailed discussion of Bloch's and Adorno's views on utopia that segues neatly into an analysis of some of John Giorno's sexually-explicit autobiographical writing, e.g. "Here is another instance of Giorno doing what Adorno calls the casting of a picture: 'I unbuckled the kid's belt and he pulled down his pants..." I won't go further because this is a family blog, but if you've spent much time with Adorno--and most musicologists have--the idea of Adorno arguing for the utopian potential of anonymous sex at the Prince Street toilets is rather gleeful. But then you realize it's not wrong either. I think it's an example of Muñoz's fundamentally optimistic and, well, utopian approach to theory that he asks us to imagine Theodor Adorno the orgy enabler. Isn't that more fun that going on about how blah blah Adorno hates popular culture blah blah blah?

Anyways, I'm still reading, but if you're looking for some bedside reading to get you through the beginning of the semester, I highly recommend it. As I make my way through I'm going to be posting about it occasionally, and if any of you have read it, I'd love to hear your reactions.


Violet Vixen said...

Yay! I read _Cruising Utopia_ last spring and it did a lot to get me reinvested and reexcited about my own work.

PMG said...

Yeah, I had the exact same reaction, of not only being excited about his book but somehow also excited about my own, completely unrelated, work. That's quite unusual!

cpo said...

My bedside reading lately has been leaning towards dystopian or post-apocalyptic science fiction. This might be a nice break from that. On the other hand, I highly recommend the Wind-Up Girl if you like Earth bound science fiction about the post-surplus world.

MMR said...

not to mention Taruskin's "Dangers of Music", which I am slowly getting through and which is mostly pretty mind-blowingly great. Dovetails nicely with all the awesomely vitriolic criticism of Ayn Rand I've been for some reason reading of late!