Imagining No-place

Stephen Duncombe

New York University, New York, New York, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The mix of ideals and absurdity in alternative futures and fantasy realms prompts fans to imagine their own alternatives.

[0.2] Keywords—Activism; Fan; Science fiction; Utopia

Duncombe, Stephen. 2012. "Imagining No-place." In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10.

[1] Scratch an activist and you're apt to find a fan. It's no mystery why: fandom provides a space to explore fabricated worlds that operate according to different norms, laws, and structures than those we experience in our "real" lives. Fandom also necessitates relationships with others: fellow fans with whom to share interests, develop networks and institutions, and create a common culture. This ability to imagine alternatives and build community, not coincidentally, is a basic prerequisite for political activism.

[2] Science fiction, for instance, has long provided fertile ground for political germination, attracting writers like the socialist H. G. Wells, the libertarian Robert Heinlein, and the feminist Ursula K. Le Guin, to name just a few of the most prominent politically minded authors. This attraction to alternative models for organizing society is felt by fans as well. The Futurians, an early New York City–based SF fan club that spawned many famous authors and editors—including Isaac Asimov, Virginia Kidd, Damon Knight, Frederik Pohl, and Donald A. Wollheim—shared its meeting space, and some of its members, with the Flatbush Young Communist league, and published its first fanzine on the same mimeograph machine used to put out the Young Communist Flatbush YC Yell.

[3] In a society like the United States, where politics is something usually left up to the professionals, fandom can offer a familiar, first, cultural step (albeit one not always taken) toward the more unfamiliar political work of activism. The paths from imagination to action, and from cultural networks to political organization, are not straight, and the obstacles are large and legion, yet imagining an alternative someplace like a faraway planet or a future society can, and sometimes does, act as a stimulus to action in order to bring an alternative into being. Fine and good, but also, at this point, pretty well understood: exploring the connections and disconnections between imagined cultural spaces and practical political action guided the early work of scholars like Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson, Dick Hebdige, John Clarke, and others associated with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham as far back as the mid-1970s (Hall and Jefferson 1976; Hebdige 1979). What I want to offer here is a slightly different suggestion: that the political power of fandom may reside not just in the opportunity to vicariously experience an alternative someplace, but also in the capacity to navigate and play with a vivid no-place.

[4] Youthful dalliances with Robert Heinlein notwithstanding, my first immersion in SF came through the original Star Trek series, which aired while I was in college. Every weeknight, at 11 PM, I would gather with my friends, many of whom were also my activist comrades, around the TV set to lose ourselves in the adventures of the USS Enterprise. To be sure, we were captivated by the foreign places and strange societies that Kirk and his crew visited, and longed for a similar world where money had no meaning and racism and sexism had been (sort of) left behind, but what held our interest and kept us coming back night after night was something else entirely. We reveled in the melodramatic dialogue, the blocky staging, and William Shatner's overacting. We looked for the seams in the sets and snickered at the low-rent costumes of the aliens. And we all knew that once a crew member donned a red shirt for a landing party their days were numbered. We loved Star Trek, but we also loved laughing at it.

[5] The relationship between fandom and activism is usually understood as linear, but my hunch is that it is dialectical, and that it was exactly this dialectical engagement that opened up a fruitful space for politics within our fandom. That is, we didn't become activists because we wanted to actualize the Great Society liberalism that guided the Enterprise's mission or bring about the postcapitalist world that the crew appeared to enjoy; we were activists because we couldn't take the televised depictions of such a utopia seriously. Our political imagination was inspired by the presentation of Roddenberry and company's SF scenarios, and Star Trek took us on a voyage light-years from the unsatisfactory present we knew too well, yet the sheer campiness of the series kept us from accepting the future it presented as a real possibility, or, rather, a valid fantasy. Refused satisfaction in the alternative futures provided by Star Trek, we were forced to imagine and act upon our own ideas and ideals of an alternative.

[6] Let me explain how this process works through another text, one that actually names the alternative society: Thomas More's 1516 classic Utopia. The island of Utopia, as it is depicted by Raphael Hythloday, the traveler who discovers the island and describes it to More, is, well, utopian: there is no money, private property, or privately held wealth; the government and priesthood are democratically elected, and women can attain positions of power; living and labor are rationally planned for the good of all; there are public health and education systems, and Utopians are guaranteed freedom of speech and religion; and, perhaps most utopian of all, lawyers are nowhere to be found. Utopia was everything More's 16th-century European home was not.

[7] "Utopia" has become a common word and "utopian" an oft-used term, but as a generative text Utopia is an exceedingly curious book, full of contradictions, riddles, and paradoxes. The grandest—and best known—of these is the title itself. "Utopia," coined by More from the Greek ou, "not," and topos, "place," means a place that is, literally, no-place. In addition, the person who describes this magical land is called Raphael Hythloday; his surname derives from the Greek word huthlos, "nonsense." So here we are being told a story of a place that is named out of existence, by a narrator who is named as unreliable. And so begins the scholarly debate: Is the entirety of More's Utopia a satire, an exercise demonstrating the absurdity of social alternatives? Or is it an earnest effort to suggest and promote such radical ideals?

[8] There's evidence for each side. First the case for the satirical interpretation: In addition to giving problematic names to the place and the narrator, More, in his description of the island of Utopia, mixes plausible political proposals like publicly held property and freedom of speech and religion with such absurdities as the Utopians' gold and silver chamber pots. By combining the conceivable and the ludicrous, one might argue, More effectively dismisses all alternatives as ridiculous. On the other hand our narrator, Raphael Hythloday, is named after the Archangel Raphael, who gives sight to the blind and guides the lost. Furthermore, it is well known that More modeled his Utopian society—in part, at least—on the egalitarian community of Jesus and his disciples, and it stretches credulity to believe that More, a devout Christian who would later give his life for his faith, would satirize Christ.

[9] But I think this traditional debate about whether More was satirical or sincere obfuscates rather than clarifies, and actually misses the point entirely. The genius of More's Utopia is that is it both absurd and earnest, simultaneously. And it is through the combination of these seemingly opposite ways of presenting social ideals that a more fruitful way of thinking about alternative scenarios can be glimpsed. For it is the presentation of Utopia as no-place, and its narrator as nonsense, that opens up a space for the reader's imagination to wonder what an alternative someplace and a radically different sensibility might be like.

[10] Reading Utopia, we experience a sense of radical alterity: what is foreign becomes familiar and what is unnatural is naturalized. More provides us with a vision of another, better world…and then destabilizes it. This destabilization is the key. By positing his fantasy someplace as a no-place, More escapes the problems that typically haunt alternative futures. Most propositions insist upon their possibility: positing an imagined future or alternative as the future or the alternative. This assurance leads to a closing off of imagination. You either buy into what is being presented or you don't, and in either case the act of imagination begins and ends with the architect of that presentation.

[11] What More proposes is something entirely different: he imagines an alternative that is openly proclaimed to be a work of imagination. It cannot be realized, simply because it is unrealistic. It is, after all, no place. But readers have been influenced; they have been shown another option. Because the naturalness of their world has been disrupted, they can't safely return to the surety of their own present. Once an alternative has been imagined, the question of whether to stay where one is or to try something else demands attention; a choice must be made. Yet, as no-place, Utopia makes a simple choice impossible. More resists the short-circuiting of this imaginative moment by refusing to provide a valid alternative. We have to generate our own plans, because the plan we've been provided is untenable. More creates an opening to ask, "What if?" without closing down this free space by seriously answering, "This is what." In sum: Utopia is not a serious plan, nor, however, is it a prank. It is a prompt to further imagination.

[12] I have no doubt that many, and perhaps most, fans take the imaginary worlds that make up the kernel of fandom seriously. These phantasmagoric places enable fans to escape the tyranny of reality and picture something different, something better. Along with the solidarity, organizational ability, and communication skills built within fan communities, it is this capacity to imagine an alternative way to organize social life that gives fans such potential as political organizers. And…I have a hunch that many, perhaps most, fans also have a complicated relationship to the alternative worlds they hold so dear. They love them and laugh at them. They are utterly sincere in their desire to manifest such ideals, and they also engage with them humorously, satirically, and critically. This productive tension between belief and disbelief is easy to spot in fans' approach to such SF camp classics as Star Trek and Doctor Who, but I would argue that the relationship is present, to a greater or lesser degree, in other arenas. Joshua Gamson, for instance, insists that "celebrity watchers continually ride the belief/disbelief and fiction/reality axes" (Gamson 1994, 178). And in my own work on fanzines and punk rock I've argued that irony, camp, and other complicated and seemingly contradictory forms of reception, articulation, and communication are an essential part of punk fandom (Duncombe 1997). Fans believe in the alternatives that organize their fandom, but they disbelieve as well.

[13] It is this dialectical relationship with their root fantasies that keeps fans from being mere spectators, enthralled by another's blueprint of the ideal society. Fans enter into fantasy knowing full well it is a fantasy. The story, settings, costumes, and characters are always, at some level, absurd. This absurdity, whether built into the text by its producer or brought to it by the fans through their perception, keeps us from fully losing ourselves in the prepackaged imagination of another. We are continually cast out of the Garden. But it is this very failure of the imaginary spaces and places of fandom that can prompt fans to imagine their own alternatives and then, perhaps, act to bring them about. As Thomas More reminds us, Utopia is no-place, and therefore it is left up to all of us to imagine it.

Works cited

Duncombe, Stephen. 1997. Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. New York: Verso.

Gamson, Joshua. 1994. Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hall, Stuart, and Tony Jefferson, eds. 1976. Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain. London: Unwin Hyman.

Hebdige, Dick. 1979. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen.

More, Thomas. (1516) 2002. Utopia. Rev. ed. Translated and edited by George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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