American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History. Peter Swirski. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Article first published online: 17 MAR 2013
© 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
The Journal of American Culture
Special Issue: Love and Romance in American Culture Guest Edited by Maryan Wherry
Volume 36, Issue 1, pages 53–55, March 2013
How to Cite
Vanhanen, T. E. (2013), American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History. Peter Swirski. New York: Routledge, 2011. . The Journal of American Culture, 36: 53–55. doi: 10.1111/jacc.12013_2
- Issue published online: 17 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 17 MAR 2013
Peter Swirski is well known for his contributions to the study of science fiction and analytical literary theory, but recently his work has taken a distinctively political turn. This was most vocally presented in his provocative work on political fiction, Ars Americana, Ars Politica (2010), and the trend continues in the admirably original American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History.
As the wordy title hints, Swirski's approach to utopian literature is centered on social and political issues, but what makes this work stand out amid plentiful scholarship on utopian writing is not its focus on works rarely thought of as utopian, but also its pointedly neo-Darwinian perspective on the material. This does not mean some anti-Malthusian view that, given time, humanity will overcome its problems and develop its societies to utopian heights, but rather that all utopian ideas must be grounded on the adaptive nature of humanity. Indeed, Swirski treats his texts as thought experiments that explore the boundary conditions of social policies that are necessarily shaped by the evolved nature of human beings.
This idea can appear incendiary to many academics working on utopias, not only because of its absolutism, but because Swirski's view seemingly ignores the fundamental nature of utopias—precisely that they cannot exist, that they are u-topias, “no-places,” idealistic imaginings that are impossible to realize in this faulty world of real and flawed human beings. It is fitting, thus, that the original title for the book was not American Utopia, but American eutopia—some sloppy copyediting has left the original title in the latter form several times throughout the introduction. The social thought experiments Swirski is interested in do not imagine impossible places, but rather good places, eu-topias—in short, he is focusing on imaginings of a better, not a perfect, society. In a characteristically buoyant style, Swirski sums up the difference: “Utopia … is a primetime TV commercial in which immaculately groomed housewives flash perfect ivories as they burble over domestic robots doing the laundry. Eutopia is an advertisement for a refurbished washer with a warning on the instruction manual: some assembly required” (7).
Focusing on the possible rather than the impossible leads Swirski to a diverse range of subjects grounded on his adroit interpretations of American literary works. The literary perspective ranges from canonically utopian works like B.F. Skinner's Walden Two (1948) to less obvious choices like Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) or Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004). However, Swirski's point is not to focus on American works of utopian literature as such, but on literary works as social thought experiments that trigger the eutopian impulse of imagining a better alternative to the state that we are in right now. This means he can treat works that are not ostensibly utopian at all, but rather serve as springboards for the reader—or in this case, Swirski himself—to indulge in some eutopian thinking.
So, through reading Roth, for instance, Swirski addresses the rhetoric of American politics: he compares Roth's fictionalized Charles Lindbergh, who rises to the presidency in the alternative history of the novel, against modern political rhetoric from the likes of Bush and Obama. Just like in Roth's fiction, where an entire nation is swayed towards anti-Semitism through the emotionally charged eloquence of one man, Swirski argues that in real life politics, truth, and logic are outmoded concepts, obliterated through appeals to passion rather than reason. And Swirski is quick to notice that this makes evolutionary sense: our emotional systems predate rational thinking. It's easy to get caught up at a political rally where we are bombarded with the elation and fervor of the audience even when the orator in front of us is speaking nothing but platitudes that reveal little of the actual politics behind the rhetoric. What Swirski is trying to get at is that by simply recognizing this adaptive trait of being easily swayed by emotional arguments that we all share, we can begin to resist this temptation.
The strategy of going from literary works towards reality and history works to Swirski's advantage throughout the study. In the chapter on Walden Two, he compares the novel with the “intentional communities” that it inspired. He examines how in reality these utopian communities, like the still functioning Twin Oaks in rural Virginia, have evolved from strictly Skinnerian ideals to more permissive structures in line with basic human nature. For example, Skinner prescribed communal child rearing—in the novel's behaviorist society children do not live with their parents or form any particular emotional bond with them. However, in Waldenite communities like Twin Oaks or Los Horcones these ideas were quickly abandoned in favor of a more family-centered model of stable couples that raise their children together—according to Swirski, an adapted behavioral model that is shared in most societies in the world. It seems that certain utopian ideas are almost impossible to realize in reality because they do not take human nature into consideration.
Although Swirski always bases his examinations on works of fiction, sometimes he ends up exploring themes that seem quite far removed from the literary material. However, this does not deduct from the inherent interest that his more politically inclined analyses offer. In a chapter on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Swirski centers on a relatively minor detail, namely the voting system in use in the mental ward that functions as the novel's setting. He goes on to compare the political system of the fictional mental ward to the American system. His focus is much more on real life politics than on the novel, and finally he ends up comparing the American political system to the Swiss system of direct democracy with an abundance of national votes on legislation. The chapter is the most fiercely political—or eutopian—in the book, and Swirski argues that the Swiss model could be made to work in the United States as well.
The rest of the texts examined in American Utopia are less well known, but Swirski's themes are firmly grounded on the more social and political side of things. He examines the evolutionary grounds of altruism through a reading of Bernard Malamud's God's Grace (1982), paying attention to the common evolutionary sources of proverbial wisdom in different cultures. In a chapter on Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome (1986) Swirski bites into the thought experiment of Percy's novel: what if one could genetically engineer people to be completely non-violent? Swirski is an uncommonly funny writer for an academic, and the chapter is worth a look simply for the passage in which he argues, often tongue firmly in cheek, against engineered non-violence. His most memorable argument is that if it were in fact possible to make people absolutely and irreversibly non-violent, it would leave humanity “at the mercy of any nonterrestrial civilization wishing to take advantage of our inability to defend ourselves” (166).
At a quick glance it might seem that the diversity of themes in Swirski's study would make for a confusing read, but the Neo-Darwinist perspective makes all the arguments consistently gel together. In fact, this multidisciplinary diversity is the book's greatest achievement. Whether deep into literary interpretation, evolutionary psychology, or political history, Swirski offers original insights on the subject at hand. While the book's openly political tone can sometimes feel overbearing, Swirski never fails to back up his views through an impressive amount of knowledge and research. Moreover, his lively style of writing makes for not only an enlightening, but also an entertaining read. Accordingly, American Utopia is an exhilarating and indispensable work for scholars interested in utopian thought, whether working in the field of literature, American studies, or political history.