Archive for March, 2013

“Baby-Making” as Critiques of Capitalistic Society

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

If nothing else, in recent years, American society has become more familiar with ideas of reproductive assistance– from surrogacy to in-vitro fertilization to hormone injections and everything in between. Dystopian literary endeavors seem to have taken these ideas and multiplied them, representing the fears around fertility issues and the medical establishment’s involvement in reproductive assistance– representing fears around literally making babies in removed environments. Some of these representations don’t hinge on the medical; instead, “baby making” is used as a vehicle for a criticism of capitalistic society. The commercialization of reproduction and the way that it is branded, advertised and marketed towards dystopian societies reflects a criticism of capitalism in the most basic way… if these theoretical societies condone the blatant ‘selling’ of the creation of human life, what remains?

In MT Anderson’s Feed, Violet messages Titus with a long backstory of her life, as she knows she’s dying. She talks about her mother and father being together and writes, “I always thought it was strange that they decided to have a kid at a conceptionarium. I guess they really wanted to have me freestyle. They talked about it a lot. Well, I mean, they’d only been going out for a few months, but, you know, a lot for that. Anyway, the ambient radiation was already too bad by then for freestyle. So they went test-tube” (225). The idea of “freestyling” as code for having a child and the prevalence of the conceptionarium in a society made sterile by ambient radiation, so that freestyling becomes a choice or a resistance movement speaks deeply about the highly capitalistic society Anderson gives us. In Feed, the feeds implanted into the wiring of the human mind allow instant communication and provide a constant stream of advertisements, in addition to information and social media. Violet’s parents resist the feeds and opt out for themselves, but her father eventually chooses to allow Violet to get a feed (which leads, ultimately, to her death). In their case, once freestyling fails to produce a child, they have no other option. The parents of Titus, however, recount their decision to have Titus to him as one based in superficial desire; they choose his features based on a little-known actor and add in specific features from their own genetic pool. The making of baby Titus emphasizes consumerism and the aesthetic choices that informed the decisions of his parents, whereas Violet’s narrative underscores the fact that reproductive assistance was so necessary because of environmental factors that even those interested in ‘bucking the system’ were left with no choice.

In the much darker Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, the main character Jimmy/Snowman tells about the downfall of human society when science and capitalism become too intertwined. His stepmother, Ramona, marries his father and they immediately tell him that they want a child. Atwood writes, “Ramona would write him chatty, dutiful messages: no baby brother for him yet, she’d say, but they were still ‘working on it.’ […] If nothing ‘natural’ happened soon, she said, they’d try ‘something else’ from one of the agencies– Infantade, Foetility, Perfectababe, one of those. […] She was doing her ‘research,’ because of course they wanted the best for their money” (250). The competitive baby-making industry represented here, once more contingent on the desperation of a couple who wants to conceive, is even more explicit with the titling of the “agencies” and the marketing that these names represent. Furthermore, Jimmy’s narrative spends time imaging his father and stepmother creating a child in ‘trial runs’ that would allow them to have the perfect child and then load up the child with ‘bloated expectations’ but admits that he secretly envies the unborn child for the advantages that such a creation could give him– including the admiration and support of his father, which Jimmy felt denied of as a child.

Perhaps the most scathing critique of capitalist society is represented by Megan McCafferty in her novels Bumped and Thumped. These books present a world in the wake of the creatively-titled Human Progressive Sterility Virus, known as HPSV. At this point, most people become sterile around the age of 17 or 18, as the virus sets in, and rely upon the adoption of children birthed by teenagers, who are taught from a young age that reproduction is desirable, sexy, and profitable. The book opens by talking about the two twin sisters, Harmony and Melody, in a store called “Babies-R-U”– full of t-shirts that simulate different “sizes” of pregnancies, ‘You-Glow-Girl! stretchmark cream, and other items meant to convince young girls that pregnancy-for-profit is desirable and ‘fun’ as well as necessary. One of the narrators converses with the saleswoman about her pregnancy-simulation, and McCafferty writes, “’And you’ll note the tiny, tasteful stretch marks,’ [the saleswoman] continues, lifting my brand-new expandable-contractable MyTurnTee” (20). Shortly after, the sisters run into newly pubescent girls running excitedly around the store and they notice a girl’s shirt: “The front of the redhead’s T reads: DO THE DEED. As she hops around in excited circles, I catch the phrase on the back: BORN TO BREED. Indeed” (25). The opening of the book with this scene, along with the eventual resistance that the sisters offer to a world full of “reproductive professionals” who are sought out by future parents to get the ‘best’ for their money and infants being auctioned off to desperate, sterile adults, places emphasis on the consumerism inherent in this dystopia. Baby-making by teens becomes necessary– condoms are made illegal– and the purchase of infants as valuable and relatively rare commodities only spurs a capitalistic society towards marketing and selling a fantasy of pregnancy to young women.

Ralph Dumain Guest Blog Post: Reflections on Voyage to Kazohinia Seminar

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

Reflections on the Kazohinia Seminar

By Ralph Dumain

Let me express my gratitude for the opportunity to conduct this seminar on Sándor Szathmári’s Voyage to Kazohinia, my most inspiring experience in several months. I was surprised to see not only interest but so much enthusiasm for Szathmári’s novel among the professors, graduate students, and others who attended, most of whom are at least a generation younger than me and can be assumed to have been raised in a cultural environment with a different set of tacit assumptions than mine, not to mention compared to the social background of classic futuristic and dystopian literature of the half-century preceding my birth. But I should also note that some discussants emphasized how funny they found the novel. I am pleased to see progress in the endeavor to place Szathmári, hitherto unknown in the English-speaking world, into the canon of utopian/dystopian literature. Hungarian literature seems to be unaccountably underrepresented in the literary consciousness of our part of the world, and while English translations of works of many Hungarian authors exist, we owe Esperanto a debt of gratitude as a vehicle for transcultural communication in this regard.

The outline for my ten-minute introduction to the seminar can easily be turned into a publishable piece. Here I will focus on the ensuing discussion taking up the better part of two hours. The dozen participants contributed so many valuable ideas I cannot credit them all individually, but will have to for the most part collectively summarize the most outstanding themes and points made.

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There were various comparisons made between Swift’s Gulliver Travels, Huxley’s Brave New World, Kafka’s fiction, several contemporary dystopian novels and Szathmári’s work, as well as comments on common characteristics of the genre of utopian/dystopian literature.

I was asked to comment and fill in some background on Szathmári’s background and perspectives and the relevance of the Esperanto movement. Szathmári was a dedicated Esperantist and internationalist and always destined his writing for an international audience, hence produced his works in both Hungarian and Esperanto. Szathmári harbored quite a bit of idealism coexisting with his unwavering pessimism. I do not have enough information about Szathmári’s overall intellectual background and the range of languages or translations he read in order to make assertions about the philosophical trends to which he was reacting, beyond his satirical references to Hume and Kant. His philosophical perspective remained consistent from the 1930s until the end of his life.

The satire of various nationalisms and empires in the novel, not just Gulliver’s apologetics for the British social order and empire, were pointed out. There certainly is a satire of the capitalist system (in crisis in the 1930s) in the novel, but that does not exonerate in Szathmári’s eyes how the alternative turned out. When queried about this in 1973, the year before his death, Szathmári insisted that his object was not specific social systems, but human nature. In an article published in 1960, Szathmári even denied that material causes were fundamental (as would a Marxist), but rather asserted that human aggression is sui generis.

The question arose in the discussion, as it did in the Esperanto press, as to what extent Szathmári really believed that the Hins represent an ideal society. In the aforementioned interview in 1973, Szathmári insisted that, contrary to others’ claims, Hin society was intended as a positive utopia. Through the decades Szathmári expressed himself repeatedly that we must adapt ourselves to the modern mechanized world, as the instincts and habits that once served survival are now obsolete, but since we are unable to modify them, we are endangering our very existence.

Some questions about Esperanto and the Esperanto movement were also asked. One discussant wondered whether Esperanto itself could be considered an amalgam of science and humanism. While Esperanto has been associated with a range of ideologies and none, it could certainly be said that for Esperanto’s creator Zamenhof, Esperanto’s creation was motivated both by rationalistic and humanistic motives, as was the case for innumerable progressive Jewish intellectuals in the modern world.

Some of the most penetrating observations were brought forth in discussion of the characteristics of the Hins and Behins and in the contrast between the two. One important observation was that while the Hins were anarchistic (while being spontaneously cooperative) and automatically calibrated their actions rationally for the common good completely absent any hierarchy, the Behins were entirely ruled by arbitrary authority. Also noted was the total unpredictability of Behin behavior.

There was a lengthy discussion of the outrageous absurdism of Behin society. While I suggested that the extreme irrationalism of the Behins brought out the rationalistic side of Gulliver, someone else insightfully proposed that Gulliver’s behavior among the Hins was absurd, and that Behin society just presented a different vocabulary for the same notions to be found in Gulliver’s world. (Gulliver of course never recognized the similarity.)

As hilarious as readers found the narrative of the Behins, it is also noteworthy that some found that reading this part of the novel was also such a torturous experience that they were as relieved as Gulliver to return to Hin society. At this point the Hins look pretty good, and they are more conspicuously presented in a positive light. I pointed out the poetic images of Gulliver’s last view of the Hins as he departs on the ocean: a Hin’s outstretched arms to the sun, the Hins swimming in the water thinking to rescue Gulliver . . .

However, before and after this turn in the discussion, various participants questioned the characteristics of the Hins. The Hins were said to have no sense of challenge, limiting themselves to exerting the least effort to accomplish practical tasks. Hins do not understand the motivations of others, and the question is, what motivation do they have to do anything? In the modification of their make-up in the course of evolution, which human traits could or should have survived, and which not?

Much later in the discussion, I questioned the strict utilitarianism of the Hins. What is wrong with pleasure for pleasure’s sake, as befits organic beings? Why is sex, which seems rather perfunctory, still linked with reproduction? Other discussants picked up on this issue, questioning the consistency, viability, and assumptions of the Hins’ brand of rationalism.

While there is no body of relevant critical literature in English, and I do not know whatever criticism can be found in Hungarian, I do know most of the critical literature in Esperanto. I summarized several critiques of Szathmári’s work in Esperanto, of the whole schema and particularly of the notions embodied in the Hins. The most frequent criticisms levied are the strict biologism and undialectical perspective. As I indicated in my introduction, the handling of contradictions and the unresolved questions on the nature of organic beings are taken to a logical conclusion in Szathmári’s 1963 novella Maŝinmondo (Esperanto, meaning “Machine World”), in which the evolution of an intelligent machine-driven world leads to the extinction of all organic life. Several seminar participants expressed their eagerness for me to translate this work into English.

One interesting and important point offered that I had not considered is that while neither of the extremes presented in Kazohinia work for us, neither does moderation, neither does the middle ground. What is then the alternative? It then occurred to me that Gulliver, being British, probably does represent the middle ground of the time, as the Brits’ stereotypical representation is the very epitome of moderation. And so with this satire, the indictment of civilization as we know it leaves no one out.

With regard to relations between the sexes, I pointed out that Gulliver’s final crisis in both Hin and Behin society is precipitated by his encounter with a woman.

Another novel topic introduced by others was the question of custom and causality, made in association with the philosophy of David Hume. There were differing opinions on this. Some took the position that the Behins were entirely ruled by custom, but others, stressing the Behins’ randomness and the Hins’ sense of appropriateness, argued that the Hins are the ones who abide by custom. Kant was also introduced into the discussion. The Hins are born as they are, they do not learn. They could be considered incarnations of the Kantian categorical imperative. I found this interchange interesting also because Hume and Kant are two philosophers satirized in the novel.

I initiated a discussion of C. P. Snow’s notion of the “two cultures.” I also brought up J. D. Bernal’s 1929 transhumanist vision and its possible impact, mentioning also an article contrasting Bernal with Max Horkheimer’s critical theory. I posed a question to the participants: what other works in the utopian/dystopian genre display the sort of dichotomy I outlined in Kazohinia? Several discussants offered a number of examples, which I will have to follow up on. But I was more convinced by Carrie Hintz’s comment that Kazohinia yields not only contrasts, but the clearest example of a dichotomy that she has ever seen. While Francesco Crocco suggested that most utopias incorporate dichotomies, he agreed with my claim that the Hins are an embodiment of positivism as a total way of life. These reactions are very important to me because the dichotomy I see in Kazohinia is one I see running through the modern history of ideas and is central to my own project, and I cannot remember encountering another fictional work that so clearly and outstandingly expresses this dichotomy.

By now you should have a glimpse of why the participants in this seminar were so excited by this novel. Carrie referred to it as a thought experiment. Making your own readerly Voyage to Kazohinia, you will find yourself thinking through the most fundamental philosophical and existential questions. Let us then proceed to advance the incorporation of this Hungarian Esperantist writer into the mainstream of futuristic, utopian, and speculative fiction studies. 

Read more on Dumain’s blog here:

April 11: Nature, Utopia, and the Garden with Naomi Jacobs

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

Please join us on Thursday, April 11 at 4:15 at the Graduate Center, room 3209 for

Nature, Utopia, and the Garden with Naomi Jacobs

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The garden occupies a special place in utopian representations of the “good place.”  In Judeo-Christian mythology, the Garden of Eden was the place where the first people lived in harmony with nature and with God. For Islamic believers, the paradise reached after death is a beautiful enclosed garden. Thomas More’s Utopians were keen gardeners who vied to outdo their neighbors. Most utopian fictions and projections since More have addressed in some form the importance of the cultivation of both ornamental and useful plants. In contemporary culture, such phenomena as the “Locavore,” and “guerrilla gardening” movements, as well as the shift toward landscaping with native plants, indicate a lively desire to engage with the production of plants, whether as home gardener or as farmer’s market customer, and a conviction that the world would be a better place if it included more or different kinds of gardens. In this seminar meeting we will consider a variety of questions on the relationships between nature, utopia and the garden. Why has the garden been so important in utopian imaginings? What forms of utopianism are at work in environmentalist treatments of nature? Can gardening truly serve as an oppositional praxis? And what does the creation and tending of gardens teach us about our place as natural beings who inhabit a complex natural world from which we draw both physical and spiritual sustenance?


I.  Three poems:

Andrew Marvell, “The Garden,” online at  (date unknown, but ca. 1650)

Bernadette Mayer, “The Garden,” A Bernadette Mayer Reader. New York: New Directions, 1992.   84-85.

Eleanor Rand Wilner, “A Moralized Nature is Like a Garden Without Flowers,” The Girl with Bees in Her Hair.  Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2004.

II.  Articles and Book Chapters:

Lisa Garforth, “Ideal Nature: Utopias of Landscape and Loss,” Spaces of Utopia: An Electronic Journal, 3 (Autumn/Winter 2006): 5-26 < >.

Naomi Jacobs and Annette Giesecke, “Nature, Utopia and the Garden.”   Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia and the Garden.  London: Black Dog Press, 2012.   6-17. On reserve at the Mina Rees Library.

Peter Lamborn Wilson, “Avant Gardening.” Avant Gardening: Ecological Struggle in the City & The World. Eds. Wilson and Bill Weinberg. New York: Autonomedia, 1999. 7-34.

Jennifer Atkinson, “Seeds of Change:  The New Place of Gardens in Contemporary Utopia.”   Utopian Studies 18.2 (2007): 237-260

Naomi Jacobs is Professor of English at the University of Maine, Past President of the Society for Utopian Studies, and founding member of the Advisory Board for Utopian Studies, the Society’s journal. With Annette Giesecke, she co-edited the new volume of essays from Black Dog Press, Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia and the Garden. Her publications on utopian and dystopian fiction range from William Morris to Octavia Butler. 

A copy of our flier from the Center for the Humanities: 4.11_Naomi Jacobs Utopia, Nature and the Garden

Podcast by Ralph Dumain

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

The Utopian Vision of Sándor Szathmári:


Some Resources in Preparation for Thursday’s seminar

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Hello everyone!  Here are some resources in preparation for Thursday’s seminar:

Ralph Dumain on the “two cultures” and “warring dichotomies” of the mid-twentieth century:

Dumain’s bibliography: “Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers”:

Sándor Szathmári’s epilogue to Voyage to Kazohinia, translated by Ralph Dumain:

Dialect and Slang as Rhetorical Power in Feed and A Clockwork Orange

Monday, March 4th, 2013

That’s one of the great things about the feed– that you can be supersmart without ever working. Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and shit” – Titus, in Feed (47).

Dialect and slang can define culture– especially youth culture. Dystopian fictions often represent class difference through changes in dialect, but in the case of novels featuring young adult or teen characters, often it is the language that used that reinforces their youth. Feed by M.T. Anderson and A Clockwork Orange by Andrew Burgess are both characterized by language, as they are written in dialect. Feed features Titus and his friends and family, who have less of a use for language after the implantation of a “feed” directly into their neurological wiring. They communicate via chat with each other and are influenced or directed by advertisements wired directly into their brains. A Clockwork Orange‘s dialect, Nasdat, is used almost exclusively by the violent youth culture– especially the story’s narrator, Alex, who changes up his speech patterns based on the people around him…and whether he wants something from them.

In Feed, everyone appears to use the same type of slang– even the President of the United States is quoted as having called another head of state a “shithead” in a speech, which some desperate government official attempts to cast as a compliment, given the fertilizing power of manure. The exception here appears in Violet, the love interest of Titus, and her father. Violet’s father is a professor of dead languages, which she explains to Titus are those that “were once important but that nobody uses anymore. They haven’t been used for a long time, except by historians” (37). The dead languages that she references appear to be variations of computer code, and when she writes examples for Titus by hand, he’s impressed by the fact that she knows how to write with a pen. Physical words– written words– seem to have all but disappeared from the world of Feed, leaving only the digitally communications transmitted via the feed behind. When Titus meets Violet’s father for the first time, he sees their house and notes that “the place was a mess. Everything had words on it. There were papers with words on them, and books, and even posters on the wall had words” (135). Titus and his generation associates written words with sloppiness, with clutter, with trash not yet disposed of. In response to this rejection of language, we see Violet’s father– a man so obsessed with the preservation of language that he is no longer understood when he speaks. Violet explains to Titus that “[my father] says the language is dying. He thinks words are being debased. So he tries to speak entirely in weird words and irony, so no one can simplify anything he says” (137). But when he actually speaks, his language is also telling– he combines slang and word usage from different eras, as if they bleed together as one in the history of language.

Language represents, then, the deterioration of culture as a whole in Feed. In A Clockwork Orange, we can read the use of slang in a similar way– except that it pertains exclusively to the youth culture in the story. Alex knows when to lapse into Nasdat and narrates the story in it, but has a grasp that older generations and those in official positions warrant a shift in tone and dialect that he refers to as his “gentleman’s goloss.” In speaking with the prison charlie, Alex says, “Sir, I have done my best, have I not?” before making sure to tell the reader that “I always used my very polite gentleman’s goloss govoreeting with those at the top” (62). This “gentleman’s goloss” appears at many other points in the novel as well– generally when Alex attempts to deceive or trick people into allowing him into their homes or speaking to his parole officer to try and convince him of his innocence and reform. It stands in contrast to the Nasdat slang that he speaks in the company of his gang or fellow prisoners in Staja (State Jail). Alex’s language is used as a tool, as manipulation– when asserting authority over his gang or over fellow prisoners, his Nasdat is flawless, but when he realizes that he has no power in the conversation, he attempts to manipulate people by showing him that he, too, can speak like an educated and polite ‘gentleman.’

Both stories immerse the reader in their dystopian context by writing the narrative in dialect, but Burgess and Anderson both reinforce the fact that the language of the story is not always the language of every character. In fact, the divergences from the dialects used by youth in the narrative seem to be powerful rhetorical moves that comment on authority, education, and willingness to participate in sometimes oppressive cultural norms– like the rampant consumerism and capitalism of Feed or the problem of youth violence in A Clockwork Orange.

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