FROM UTOPIA TO APOCALYPSE: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe

Peter Y. Paik
University of Minnesota Press ($20)

by John Pistelli

Commentators often note that mainstream American political discourse suffers from a lack of genuine radical voices—who, after all, speaks up for full economic equality or an end to warfare? But we might also observe that no authentic conservative vision exists in the contemporary U.S. either. Think of the mutually contradictory radicalisms that unite under the “conservative” banner today, such as Rapture-ready Evangelicalism, neocon militancy, and technophiliac free-market boosterism. All of these would have revolted the founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, who counseled moderation and a chastened awareness of the limits to human knowledge and power.

In his brilliant study From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe, Peter Y. Paik suggests that, with environmental crises looming and our era of material abundance consequently imperiled, we may need to reintroduce some of the lessons of real conservatism into our attempts to better the world. Somewhat in Burke’s spirit, Paik proposes that we put realism at the center of our politics instead of utopia: “An elementary axiom of political realism,” he writes, “is that access to utopia, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is closed to purely human effort.” Paik aims his polemical fire not at contemporary U.S. conservatism, but rather at the academic far left, which he cogently argues has abandoned any sense of political possibility or responsibility. Post-modernists and Marxists alike, following thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Fredric Jameson, have utopia as their watchword. They devote their intellectual energies to keeping alive the dream of a beautiful future to come, even if they cannot articulate the relation between this glorious future and our own degraded present. Thus, Paik immediately locates “the main blind spot of utopian thought in the present postpolitical era . . . in a lack of determination in imagining the irresistible pressures unleashed by political upheaval, a loss of nerve in confronting the intractable forces of social equilibrium that make genuine change impossible without a ‘catastrophe’ befalling the entire society.”

The remainder of From Utopia to Apocalypse aims to demonstrate that the best place in contemporary culture to think through a realist politics is not in academic theory, but rather in science fiction films and graphic novels, specifically those in the super-hero genre. Paik’s brief on behalf of pop-culture heroism may at first seem counter-intuitive, given the common stereotype that super-hero stories merely encourage adolescent male power fantasies and thus aggrandize the egos of its readers, much as utopian theory flatters the self-image of its radical adherents. Through patient and detailed readings of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and Watchmen graphic novels, Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga, The Matrix films of the Wachowski Brothers, and Jang Joon-Hwan’s film Save the Green Planet!, however, Paik shows what readers and viewers of heroic fantasy have always known: if the ethos of the super-hero could be summarized in one sentence, that sentence would certainly be Stan Lee’s well-known aphorism: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Given this, the genre spends most of its time allegorizing, through the travails of its heroic protagonists, the forces that constrain and limit those who wish to transform the world for the better.

From Utopia to Apocalypse divides radical political speculation between two impulses. One is a cold-eyed Machiavellian realism that closely observes the means by which a person may attain and exercise power to best effect. Paik sees such realism in the super-hero comics of Alan Moore. Moore’s elaborately detailed sagas provide a panoptical treatment of the entire social field in which his heroes operate, carefully circumscribing the possibilities of action that delimit what his protagonists can achieve and at what ethical price. In MiraclemanWatchmen and V for Vendetta, Moore delicately calculates the violence and loss that inevitably accompany radical transformation; in this way, he shows himself to be a responsible political speculator, acknowledging life’s cross-purposes and owning the sometimes baleful consequences that attend the revolutions he depicts.

The other pole of political speculation takes the form of what Paik calls “saintliness,” here derived from the French mystic and activist Simone Weil. A saintly politics, Paik writes in his discussion of Hayao Miyazaki’s eco-feminist heroine Nausicaä, pursues “love and justice, based on [a] refusal to abide by the rule of ‘the empire of might’ that prevails among human beings.” But Miyazaki shares with Moore an exemplary sense of what radical action, even or especially in the saintly mode, may cost: while a feckless political saint may utterly disavowal evil, refusing action in order to keep her own hands clean, an accountable saint like Nausicaä “embrace[s] those who commit evil as parts of her own self.” Again, Paik lays his emphasis on a politics that rejects the easy optimism of utopians in favor of a willingness to look reality, with all of its contradictions and interdictions, in the face.

The final chapter identifies the literary mode that best corresponds to political realism. Drawing on the philosopher Eric Voeglin, Paik argues that tragedy, more than any other form of art, prepares its audience for the irresolvable antimonies of ethical experience as well as the grim necessity of taking action in a fallen world. “Tragedy, it would appear, provides an indispensable education in the responsibilities and burdens associated with governing the state . . . The politics particular to tragedy is thus one that, in focusing on the predicaments where one must choose between incommensurable goods, breaks fundamentally with the utopian.” Paik thus locates the tragic spirit in the science fiction he analyzes, showing, for instance, that Jang Joon-Hwan’s popular film Save the Green Planet! illustrates the dilemmas of those who, like the citizens of Jang’s native South Korea, undergo the tradition-shattering influence of global capitalism: “The subjects of globalization find themselves confronted by the dilemma of having to choose between the preservative potentialities of becoming-alien . . . or an unconditional fidelity to human obligations.” In thus proposing tragedy as the proper lineage of today’s science fiction and super-hero narratives, Paik claims more for the gravity of these popular genres than has ever been asserted before, even on behalf of such justly revered figures as Moore and Miyazaki: that they are, in effect, the heirs of Aeschylus and Shakespeare in their fearless commitment to exploring human nature in extremis.

One of the epigraphs to Paik’s introductory chapter comes from G. K. Chesterton—no one’s idea of a progressive or radical intellectual—and it warns against a thoughtless acquiescence to the status quo: “all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change.” Given the polemic that follows this quotation, we may conclude that Paik intends this accusation of irresponsible conservatism to fall on today’s utopians, whether academic leftists or think-tank neoliberals. Staking everything on a future where all our dreams will somehow come true, they leave the present to entropy and decay. With relentless logic and scrupulously clear prose, Paik dismantles the pretensions of this view and, along the way, manages to provide the best critical analysis of heroic fantasy since Geoff Klock’s study from almost a decade ago, How to Read Super-Hero Comics and WhyFrom Utopia to Apocalypse will please those who want to encounter academic theory that transcends the clichés of the last several decades, but it will also delight readers looking for elegant, eloquent literary criticism of a genre only now receiving its due.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010