A Wind Out of Nowhere: The Utopian Impulse

It's been a day, I'm sleep deprived, and I've already accidentally deleted this once. It's going to come out a bit gonzo (is gonzo criticism even a thing? Let's find out,) so bear with me a bit. This isn’t exactly the piece I was intending to write, but I think I’m on to something here and I think this is an idea with some legs. In some ways, this is a companion piece to my writing on Teratology, and in other ways it’s a completely new sort of monster. And maybe this is a companion piece to Edgar’s writing on magical practice (I certainly think a lot of magical practice has a certain Utopian Impulse to it.)

While we're not Jewish, for the past two years, Edgar and I have attended a Seder hosted by a member of our writers' group. It's a nice opportunity to experience another religion's holiday, as practiced by a person of that faith. The fact that it's a chance to have a meal with friends and drink some wine is also a major selling point.

However, last year I was only working two jobs, and this year I've added a third one (as an aside: no one should have to work two jobs, much less three. While I enjoy each of my jobs at times, the necessity for having three, and to work 60 hours a week to make slightly more than my father made in 20 hours at his first job, rankles somewhat. A piece for another time. Until then, have my thoughts on Political Art and Anti-Capitalism.) I had to open at that job to make the schedule work, so I would be out on time to attend the Seder, and I arrived later than I was hoping to. One of the duties of opening is to turn on music.

My preference for music while working is to have something that stands out from that played at other establishments in the area. We're a European store with little name recognition in the states, selling goods that could easily be considered luxuries. I like to pick music that puts people in the proper mindset. I selected DeVotchKa for the day (my other preferred music is Larry and His Flask, but I was feeling more DeVotchKa. Perhaps this loses me punk points, but punk points, unlike dollars, cannot be exchanged for goods and services, and I've got bills to pay.)

So when the manager came in for the day and changed the music to Tom Petty, I gave him an ear full. He assumed it was because he had changed my music, or that I disliked Tom Petty. When business slowed down, I explained to him something that I considered basic: Tom Petty is fine, but shows up on other playlists in the area, and I would pass over the “best 80s jams” in silence. When people step into our shop, we need them to experience an interruption, we need them to feel as if they are stepping out of their day-to-day life and into another one.

Tom Petty just doesn't cut it, there.

In trying to articulate this, I realized that I had happened upon something that is key to my sense of aesthetics, and I'm going to co-opt the term “Utopian Impulse” to refer to this. While I’ve got a strong tendency toward categorizing and making systems to order things, I think this is something that anyone can recognize if they make an effort to look for it, but it might look different to everyone who looks.

Please note, when I say “Utopian” I mean the less-used version of the word, not Eu-Topos (Good Place) but Ou-Topos (No Place.) I think that my nascent interest in this quality is what leads me to Speculative Fiction: it's full of places that never existed though, to an extent, most stories take place in no place that ever existed (find me Yoknapatawpha County on a map. I'll wait.)

It's not about having a window in on another world; it's about the existence of a window, itself. Not what lies beyond the threshold between worlds or regimes of sense-making, but the fact of the threshold itself.

To whit, let's look at music:


DeVotchKa is a band from Denver, and I assume from the fact that they're all multi-insturmentalists and the vocal quality of the lead singer that they met at a conservatory, but it's the aesthetic sensibility they evince, not the quality of their work, that I want to comment on: they sound like they came from a place that never existed. Half Eastern Europe, and Half South American Southern Cone. Equal parts Borges and Kundera.

To elaborate:


Zeal & Ardor is an Avant Gard metal project that merges satanic black metal with traditional Negro Spirituals. The songwriter, Manuel Gagneux, has produced a series of musical sketches, which describe an American South where the slaves, rather than embracing the liberatory aspects of Christianity (see: the story of Exodus and certain aspects of the Gospel,) react against it, embracing a violent, Pre-LaVayan Satanism as a revolutionary creed. In the body of their work, there are mournful laments, certainly (the title tracks from both of their albums Devil is Fine and Stranger Fruit come to mind,) but also songs of a more martial character (my favorites of this stripe are “Ship on Fire” and “Blood in the River.”)

There are more examples from music, but I'm not a musician, I'm a writer. Here's my question to myself: can I find written examples of this? Certainly! Can I find them outside of Speculative Fiction?

Now, that's where it gets hard.

The works of Jorge Luis Borges and Haruki Murakami seem to be soaked in it – so perhaps it's inherent in Magical Realism, but that's a bit close to Speculative Fiction (I've often heard people describe Magical Realism as “fantasy written by people who aren't white” though this smashes things down into an uncomfortably narrow range, and ignores the remarkably skillful work of non-white fantasists.)

I could also point to the Theater of the Absurd and works of surrealism like Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, but again this seems a bit too close for me, as enjoyable as they are.

Okay, limiting it to things to works that might be found in a more traditional literature class. Here's what comes to mind:


The poetry of Hart Crane, especially The Bridge, wax lyrical on finding meaning in early 20th century America, and follow the viewpoint character through the history of the Eastern US, as viewed as an underlay of then-contemporary US. I might point to my favorite section, “The Tunnel” as the best example of this, in the speaker's vision of the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe on the subway, a sorrowful and fearsome specter signaling the darkness that could easily swallow him.

The Romances of William Shakespeare, especially The Tempest, possess a Utopian Impulse. There's even a bit of the other meaning of Utopian for The Tempest. It's not just about a place that doesn't exist, but about the possibility of reconciliation – in fix-ups where Caliban rejects Prospero's offer at the end, I feel it becomes even more realized, pointing to a world that never came to be but could have been, at one point.


Catch-22, though depicting a grim and gruesome world, seems to me to gesture at the Utopian Impulse, with its breakdown of sense-making and attempts to escape into a radical Outside of some variety. While Yossarian never manages to escape the war, the small acts of rebellion against the dehumanizing regime of the military through what could be called acts of radical remembrance, and the hopeful message of Orr's successful escape by rowing an inflatable raft to Sweden from the Mediterranean, resonate.

It is this last one that seems more pertinent to me. Increasingly, I feel that we live in the midst of a crisis that is not solely environmental or political but epistemic or even ontological in nature. People are separated out from each other, reduced to atomized individuals, locked into their own little Empires of Signs, constitutionally unable to imagine the world as other than how they conceive of it (never mind when this doesn't connect to how the world is. The amount of time I spend at my various jobs reading instruction sheets and signs out loud to people is staggering.)

Art that refuses this orthodoxy, presenting other worlds and other systems of sense and meaning, is essential, because hopefully it can engender the habits of mind that might allow us to navigate the Epistemic Crisis we find ourselves in.

That’s a bit of a left turn, there at the end, but it’s on my mind a lot lately. Give a well-educated person not one but two jobs where their major duty is reading signs to people and you’re bound to get weird.