Frederick Jameson states towards the beginning of “Utopia as Method” that he does not believe “the postmodern city…[to] encourage thoughts of progress or even improvement, let alone utopian visions of the older kind” (20-21). So what discrepancies between the modern and the postmodern make the latter so discouraging? Probably the recent move towards skepticism – postmodernism is essentially a way of thinking based in challenging assumptions about the objectivity of truth and knowledge, which can be useful until it gets too self-involved: creating a discourse centered around empty criticism and making forums for blame out of spaces for learning.
This postmodern attitude is pretty self-absorbed, and pretty chaotic. Since whatever we might have believed to be Certain And True has been revealed as heavily institutionalized and learned, it becomes difficult to have faith in…anything, really. This gets to be a ridiculous hindrance to doing anything productive, particularly because it’s easy to dissolve into nihilism and cynicism when thinking too hard about it. It’s also so easy to think too hard about it because the wealth of information available in this information age is rife with unsavory facts. That’s the crux of cynical reason – we’re all hyper-aware of why we’re being such sticks in the mud, but are too tired and resigned to being sticks in the mud that we can’t figure out anything else to do.
And so hence chaos and the self-conscious embracement of. Jameson characterizes the postmodern city as a place “in permanent crisis [which] is to be thought of, if at all, as a catastrophe rather than an opportunity” (21). It can be observed from Donna Goodman’s survey of the past few hundred years in her book A History of the Future that periods of crisis are nearly always followed by a period of economic, technological, and moral upswing, so is this just a waiting game? Where do we put our faith? The only really infallible logic I can think to name is math. Logic that glaringly, comically logical, however, certainly has a place in utopian visioning. Think patterns: grids, fractals, radial organization. The panoptic architectural and city plan and all its suspect connotations, the legibility of Manhattan’s grid system, the great big spiral of Parisian arrondissements. The literal grounding force.
The city was certainly a frontier in the past, but is it still? The romance surrounding Manhattan is still alive and well but it’s primarily nostalgic. New York City was so inspiring as a frontier because it is awe-inspiring – it creates an overwhelming environment in which possibilities are therefore permitted be overwhelming. There’s a definite tension in the city between the preservation of the old and exciting – what was cutting edge when it was built and signified a spectacular and modern attitude – and the new and “user-friendly,” which invites you, its fortunate visitor or inhabitant, to project onto it in such a way that it becomes exclusive. The blocky-looking condos going up right next to Katz’s Deli, for example, are so luxury-dull from the exterior, so clearly a prices-starting-at-$1 million situation, that they limit who can reasonably imagine themselves inside.
The city is (or perhaps was) such a useful template for a model utopia because it’s so compact and complete – everything you need to live in reasonable comfort is readily accessible, and often the only pressing reason to leave is simply to Get Away. Many socialist spatial utopias are based upon this idea of a tidily contained lifestyle, both realized and not. Thomas More’s fictional Utopia is an extreme example, contained entirely to an idyllic, manmade island. However, completely encapsulated ways of living are not common in the real world – and for good reason.
In Sex and the City, one of the guy-types Carrie qualifies as an undateable freak is “Manhattan Guy,” who never leaves the island – ever – and doesn’t see why anyone would want to. His total contentedness with his circumstances is bizarre, uncanny – means for rejection by reasonable city women. “Spatial play” utopias generally seem to concern themselves with the maintenance of contentedness, usually alongside the creation of beauty and tidiness. Sometimes they’re even imagined into already “content” realities. The freakiness of this is pretty undeniable, though, since these qualities are also usually enforced by means of an implied totalitarian regime. Manhattan is obviously not an isolated totalitarian regime, but Manhattan Guy is still freaky for the same reason the citizens of these imaginary utopias are freaky: they are either complicit in or ignorant of what makes their situation unsettling.
But these types of self-contained spaces have been physically built, as David Harvey asserts in Spaces of Hope. He cites Disneyland and the shopping mall as prime examples of escapes into the world of spatial play. Disneyland is more explicitly a Moreian, sanitary, constructed-for-singular-escapist-purpose zone since it goes so far as to make its own mythology – the only heritage discernible within Disneyland is that of Disney itself. The mall, though less extreme, has a similar effect on its visitors, since both are essentially environments “designed to induce nirvana rather than critical awareness” (168). These spaces are, above all else, organized with the objective of being as inoffensively pleasant as possible. Furniture showrooms and pre-furnished or model homes can also be included in this category of fantasy space, since they create the same sort of passive, idealized zone, ready to be projected onto. Their objective is to make you want to live there – to feel at home even though none of this stuff is really your stuff.
As of 2011, you can live at Disney World – if you have $2 million or more to blow on a luxury home at Golden Oak, a residential community within the Florida resort. The Golden Oak website touts it as having all the usual trappings of a gated resort community, plus the inimitable Magic Of Disney. You’re not permitted to lease the properties; you have to buy. It’s a long-term commitment to a retreat.
The ability to live in a place like that is unsettling because it marks a movement from the realm of playfully exercising fantasy to the actual enactment of fantasy – a fantasy so total that it’s hard to see it from the outside as anything other than delusion. It goes beyond the worrying exclusivity of any other gated community because of its location in an invented reality. Golden Oak residents elect not to live in The Real World.
A far sneakier example of gated community-type exclusivity is Uber, the poster child of the sharing economy. The company’s promises of convenience, inclusivity, and the cute fairness of “sharing” put it in the family of socialist utopian visions. Uber has recently begun to reach beyond its well-established role as Easymaking App into the realm of metropolitan transportation systems. It’s working to develop technology that could mark movement towards driverless cars, has implemented a system of discounted ride sharing, and has begun testing a new kind of sharing option called a “Smart Route” that works more like a bus line than a car service. In a blog post on February 2nd of 2015, Uber cited its partnership with Carnegie Mellon University in an effort to develop advanced technologies as paramount to its “mission of bringing safe, reliable transportation to everyone, everywhere.” Not content with just being a taxi service, Uber wants mass transit’s business.
What Uber seeks to create, essentially, is a city with limited options. Unlike established bus and rail systems, there would be no way for the poor to use it. No found MetroCard or amassed change can get you in an Uber; you need a smartphone, a credit card. And since you need to own and maintain a car to be an Uber driver, it’s not a viable moneymaking option for anyone who can’t do so. By creating this new level of convenience for those who can afford it, members of the lower class are taken totally out of the picture. And if those who can afford to are choosing Uber over public transit en masse, funding for public transit will inevitably decrease, worsening conditions and limiting its reach. Traveling in the backseat of Joey’s pine-scented Honda Accord rather than the downtown 6 train also permits you blissful ignorance of parts of the city that you don’t want to see, rendering the poor all but invisible to those they’re not convenient for.
One of the primary goals of imagined egalitarian utopias of the past is for there not to be any poor, but it’s pretty clear by now that that’s not feasible. Actually enacting any sort of spatial utopia is just making the poor harder to see. But utopian visions such as these are valuable when they stay visions, serving not as methods of fixing but, as Jameson proposes, methods of play.
Craig. “Uber and CMU Announce Strategic Partnership and Advanced Technologies Center.” Uber Newsroom (blog), February 2, 2015, http://www.newsroom.uber.com/uber-and-cmu-announce-strategic-partnership-and-advanced-technologies-center/
Disney Golden Oak, accessed 12 March 2016, http://www.disneygoldenoak.com/
Goodman, Donna. A History of the Future. New York: Monacelli, 2008. Print.
Jameson, Frederic. “Utopia as Method or the Uses of the Future,” Utopia/Dystopia: Conditions of Historical Possibility, Edited by Michael D. Gordin, Helen Tilley, Gyan Prakash. 2010. Print.
Nisenson, Lisa. “Uber’s New Wave of Urban Design. Are Cities Ready?” Mobility Lab, last modified September 8, 2015, http://www.mobilitylab.org/2015/09/08/ubers-new-wave-of-urban-design-are-cities-ready/
Plitt, Amy. “Construction Begins on Condos Rising Alongside Katz’s Deli.” Curbed New York, last modified January 5, 2016, http://www.ny.curbed.com/2016/1/5/10849620/construction-begins-on-condos-rising-alongside-katzs-deli/