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By David Livingstone Smith


The Montréal Review, August 2012


"American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History" by Peter Swirski (Routledge, 2011)

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Oscar Wilde famously remarked that "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing." The map, however, is not the territory. Maps picture the world, and Wilde was right to assert that representations of utopia are of great value. But are we always landing on the utopias that we picture? Not really. History teaches us that that these vaunted utopias have a way of turning very sour-the greatest bloodbaths of the 20th century have been in the service of utopian visions. Why is it that the quest for paradise leaves such misery in its wake? Perhaps this can be explained by a gap between our human nature and our utopian aspirations. Peter Swirski's American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History explores this idea through the lens of post-WWII American literature. To this end, he attends to five novels spanning six decades, treating each as a thought experiment on the relationship human nature and the assumptions underpinning programs of social engineering.

Utopia is, by definition, an ever-receding mirage-it is literally no place. Although utopian dreams cannot possibly be realized, they are nevertheless of great practical significance. They have much in common with the elegant models deployed in the physical sciences, models that present an idealized picture of reality scrubbed clean of the messiness and "noise" of the real world. Utopian novels likewise present an idealized portrait of the social world. They are, in Swirski's words, "thought experiments at their limits."

Swirski is a Professor of American Culture and Literature at the University of Missouri and Research Director at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. He is also the author of several important and provocative studies, including the From Lowbrow to Nobrow and Ars Americana, Ars Politica, and his most recent offering continues the tradition of incisive, stylishly written, scientifically-informed critique. Swirski's take on what it is to be human is unapologetically Darwinian. He considers "adapted human nature" (that is, biologically adapted human nature) as "the sine qua non of any viable social reform." "Evolutionary science..," he writes, "teaches us that, with a better grasp of the interplay between human evolved nature with ecological and cultural conditions, we may be able to modify those aspects of social life that we would really be better off modifying."

This is precisely where our five novels-five narrative thought experiments and five blueprints for eutopia-come handy. Forging their visions of a better society, they direct the spotlight to those facets of social and political life in America that, in their opinion, should be prime targets for modification.

The notion of an evolved human nature has long been an ideological battleground, in the sciences no less than the humanities. Arguments for its rejection proceed along two distinct (though occasionally intersecting) tracks. One charge is that the very idea of human nature is a retrograde step-a denial of the plasticity and historical contingency of human behavior and a retreat from the recognition of our capacity to create and recreate ourselves. The other is that it imputes to human beings an implausible essentialism-a claim that there are necessary and sufficient conditions for being human. But these charges don't stick. A sophisticated conception of human nature need only assert that certain traits shared by most members of our species in consequence of our shared evolutionary heritage, and that these commonalities impose structure on the mosaic of human variation-they embody a bauplan that was hammered out over evolutionary time. Given that we have no alternative to being the kind of animal that we are, we had better take account of the bio-psychological forces that govern our behavior, and exploit this knowledge to pull our own strings.

The content of American Utopia and Social Engineering resists easy summary, partly because of its high word-to-idea ratio, and partly because of the deftness with which the author addresses a cascade of interconnecting themes. Although there are clear links between the chapters, the book is less a single sustained argument than it is a series of meditations on interlocking literary, sociopolitical, and scientific topics. It begins with a fascinating discussion of what is perhaps the most notorious utopian novel of the 20th century: B.F. Skinner's Walden Two. Walden Two was, of course, a vehicle for promulgating Skinner's version of psychological behaviorism. Swirski skillfully probes the holes in Skinner's vision of a behaviorist paradise-not by questioning the scientific bona fides of the theory of operant conditioning, but rather by articulating the tension between that theory and the stubborn realities of an evolved human nature. Next, the focus shifts to Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cukoo's Nest, where we are treated to a lively critique of American democracy by way of a discussion the darker side of behavior control: electroconvulsive therapy, psychiatric imprisonment, and so-called enhanced interrogation. The Darwinian theme, so prominent in Swirski's evisceration of Walden Two, resurfaces in his celebration of Malamud's mordant allegory God's Grace, in which Cohn, an American scientist, fashions a post-apocalyptic society of great apes that goes horribly wrong. In Swirski's hands, Malamud's tale points to an ironic twist in our evolutionary story: the evolution of human intelligence, and with it, an aptitude for culture, played a leading role in the rags-to-riches story of the hominid line, but presently threatens to bring about its demise. As Swirski remarks:

The same big brains that served us so well against predators, glaciations, food shortages, and other ecological IQ-tests, are responsible for the nuclear means of exterminating life on earth-and for the lack of political will to ensure we can't. Viewed in this light, shared intentionality, which begot intelligence, which begot culture, which begot science, which begot the H-bomb, may be the ultimate Trojan horse.

If human aggression is the problem, then why not banish it by fiddling with our neurophysiology? This is the possibility explored in Walker Percy's existentialist detective novel The Thanatos Syndrome. In Percy's conceit, the population of Louisiana is rendered innocuous by scientists who clandestinely introduce psychotropic chemicals into their water supply. Violent crime is vastly reduced, but there are ominous side-effects. Although computational intelligence skyrockets, but articulate speech is replaced by the sort of "telegraphic" talk characteristic of toddlers, and sexual activity becomes, "a kind of placid, almost simian copulation" while "existentially anxious but, for all that, human agency gives way to a sort of good-natured animal placidity." Pharmacological methods for violence reduction are now on the scientific agenda, may soon be within our grasp, thus offering an unprecedented opportunity for eliminating a persistent source of human misery. Should such interventions be embraced or should they be abhorred? What sorts of trade-offs do they entail? Would eliminating our propensity for brutality render us more human, or would it diminish our humanity? Swirski's meditation on these questions concludes like a Socratic dialog, on a note of perplexity.

The final case study, Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, is a counterfactual history in which republican candidate Charles Lindberg, a Nazi sympathizer, wins the 1940 presidential election. Borrowing beneath the sociopolitical surface (the thinly disguised representation of post-9/11 America) Swirski examines the powerful emotional forces that make us vulnerable to skillful propagandists and messianic leaders. We are, as David Hume pointed out almost three centuries ago, creatures in whom reason is subservient to passion. This feature of mind design exposes us to the chicanery of professional politicians who know how to push all the right discursive buttons. Our only defense lies in understanding the nature of our susceptibility. Here's how successful propaganda is done. First, make your audience feel depressed: tell them a long, sad, sentimental story about their sufferings. Next, induce a state of paranoia-give them an external enemy to blame for their misery. Finally offer them a manic solution-a magical promise of salvation. Swirski covers much of this ground, but gives the story an evolutionary twist. His instructions to would-be propagandists are: first, be negative (because we are animals evolved to be sensitive to danger); second, be tribal (because we are animals evolved to discriminate against out-groups); and third, "simplify even the most complex issue to an emotionally satisfying victory of the good guys over the bad."

Politics is a marketplace of utopias. To make sound political choices we need some method for homing in on those utopias that are worth pursuing. Swirski offers us a model for interrogating utopian visions-a model that, although imprecise and perhaps unreliable, is remarkably fecund. It would be foolish to imagine that utopian literature in can provide reliable prescriptions for the treatment for our social ills. Like all good thought experiments, its significance lies in the power expand our imaginative horizons by helping us entertain unconsidered alternatives and track their likely entailments. American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History is a vigorously argued and beautifully written testament to just how far in this direction historically savvy, scientifically informed literary analysis can take us.


Dr. David Livingstone Smith is a professor of philosophy and founding director of The Human Nature Project at the University of New England. He is the author of  Why We Lie, The Most Dangerous Animal, and Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others. Visit his blog at realhumannature.com


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