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garethrees comments on Making Beliefs Pay Rent (in Anticipated Experiences) - Less Wrong

110 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 July 2007 10:59PM

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Comment author: garethrees 12 May 2010 04:24:53PM 18 points [-]

You write, “suppose your postmodern English professor teaches you that the famous writer Wulky Wilkinsen is actually a ‘post-utopian’. What does this mean you should expect from his books? Nothing.”

I’m sympathetic to your general argument in this article, but this particular jibe is overstating your case.

There may be nothing particularly profound in the idea of ‘post-utopianism’, but it’s not meaningless. Let me see if I can persuade you.

Utopianism is the belief that an ideal society (or at least one that's much better than ours) can be constructed, for example by the application of a particular political ideology. It’s an idea that has been considered and criticized here on LessWrong. Utopian fiction explores this belief, often by portraying such an ideal society, or the process that leads to one. In utopian fiction one expects to see characters who are perfectible, conflicts resolved successfully or peacefully, and some kind of argument in favour of utopianism. Post-utopian fiction is written in reaction to this, from a skeptical or critical viewpoint about the perfectibility of people and the possibility of improving society. One expects to see irretrievably flawed characters, idealistic projects turn to failure, conflicts that are destructive and unresolved, portrayals of dystopian societies and argument against utopianism (not necessarily all of these at once, of course, but much more often than chance).

Literary categories are vague, of course, and one can argue about their boundaries, but they do make sense. H. G. Wells’ “A Modern Utopia” is a utopian novel, and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is post-utopian.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 May 2010 12:28:18AM 7 points [-]

Would you consider Le Guin's The Dispossessed to be post-utopian? I think she intends her Anarres to be a good place on the whole, and a decent partial attempt at achieving a utopia, but still to have plausible problems.

Comment author: tog 21 October 2011 06:44:42AM 2 points [-]

Not to go off on a tangent, but I'd say it's more utopian than critical of utopia - I don't think we can require utopias to be perfect to deserve the name, and Anarres is pretty (perhaps unrealistically) good, with radical (though not complete) changes in human nature for the better.

Comment author: Jack 13 May 2010 12:32:30AM *  1 point [-]

Brave New World is definitely dystopian, not post-utopian. Nancy's suggestion for post-utopian is exactly right. I definitely agree that we can meaningfully classify cultural production, though.

Comment author: garethrees 13 May 2010 11:46:22AM 8 points [-]

I think it's both. "Brave New World" portrays a dystopia (Huxley called it a "negative utopia") but it's also post-utopian because it displays skepticism towards utopian ideals (Huxley wrote it in reaction to H. G. Wells' "Men Like Gods").

I don't claim any expertise on this subject: in fact, I hadn't heard of post-utopianism at all until I read the word in this article. It just seemed to me to be overstating the case to claim that a term like this is meaningless. Vague, certainly. Not very profound, yes. But meaningless, no.

The meaning is easily deducible: in the history of ideas "post-" is often used to mean "after; in consequence of; in reaction to" (and "utopian" is straightforward). I checked my understanding by searching Google Scholar and Books: there seems to be only one book on the subject (The post-utopian imagination: American culture in the long 1950s by M. Keith Booker) but from reading the preview it seems to be using the word in the way that I described above.

The fact that the literature on the subject is small makes post-utopianism an easier target for this kind of attack: few people are likely to be familiar with the idea, or motivated to defend it, and it's harder to establish what the consensus on the subject is. By contrast, imagine trying to claim that "hard science fiction" was a meaningless term.

Comment author: David_Gerard 02 December 2010 02:12:56PM *  7 points [-]

Indeed. Some rationalists have a fondness for using straw postmodernists to illustrate irrationality. (Note that Alan Sokal deliberately chose a very poor journal, not even peer-reviewed, to send his fake paper to.) It's really not all incomprehensible Frenchmen. While there may be a small number of postmodernists who literally do not believe objective reality exists, and some more who try to deconstruct actual science and not just the scientists doing it, it remains the case that the human cultural realm is inherently squishy and much more relative than people commonly assume, and postmodernism is a useful critical technique to get through the layers of obfuscation motivating many human cultural activities. Any writer of fiction who is any good, for instance, needs to know postmodernist techniques, whether they call them that or not.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 02 December 2010 03:46:53PM 3 points [-]


That said, it's not too surprising that postmodernists are often the straw opponent of choice.

The idea that the categories we experience as "in the world" are actually in our heads is something postmodernists share with cognitive scientists; many of the topics discussed here (especially those explicitly concerned with cognitive bias) are part of that same enterprise.

I suspect this leads to a kind of uncanny valley effect, where something similar-but-different creates more revulsion than something genuinely opposed would.

Of course, knowing that does not make me any less frustrated with the sort of soi-disant postmodernist for whom category deconstruction is just a verbal formula, rather than the end result of actual thought.

I also weakly suspect that postmodernists get a particularly bad rap simply because of the oxymoronic name.

Comment author: David_Gerard 02 December 2010 03:51:29PM 1 point [-]

That said, it's not too surprising that postmodernists are often the straw opponent of choice.

Oh yeah. While it's far from a worthless field, and straw postmodernists are a sign of lazy thinking, it is also the case that postmodernism contains staggering quantities of complete BS.

Thankfully, these are also susceptible to postmodernist analysis, if not by those who wish to keep their status ...

Comment author: BarbaraB 14 June 2012 08:55:57PM 0 points [-]

I played a mental game trying to make predictions based on the information, that Wulky Wilkinsen is post-utopian and shows colonial allienation - never heard of any of that before :-). Wulky Wilkinsen is post-utopian ... I expect to find a bunch of critically acclaimed authors, who wrote their most famous books before Wulky wrote his most famous books (5 - 15 years ahead ?), lived in the same general area as Wulky, and portrayed people who were more altruistic and prone to serve general good than we normally see in real life. It does not say too much about the actual writing style of Wulky - he could have written either in the similar way as "the bunch" (utopians), or just the opposite - he could have been just fed up by the utopians' style and portray people more evil than we normally see in everyday life. So my prediction does not tell what Wulky's books feel like, but it is still a prediction, right ? Colonial allienation - the book contains characters that have lived in a colony (e.g. India) for a long time (athough they might have just arrived to the "maternal" colonial country, e.g. Britain). These characters are confronted with other characters that have lived in the "maternal" colonial country for a long time (athough they might have just arrived to the colony :-) ). There are conflicts between these two groups of people, based on their background. They have different preferences when they are making decisions, probably involving other people. Thus they are allienated. Do not tell me this was not the point of Eliezer's post, let me just have some fun !