The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #91: Dystopias

General Introduction
– Being-towards-the-end-of-semester
– Emmanuels far and near
– Thanks, Theology Nerd Throwdown!
– Chess update

What is a Dystopia?
Topos
– Utopias and dystopias
– The great temptation
– Distinctions

Premodern Dystopias
– No, not really
– Pre-dystopian Thebes
– Gods and ideologies
– The role of technology
– The Persia of Xerxes

Historical Contingency
– Incredulity toward metanarratives
– Hegel and Marx
– Human feeling vs. ideology
– Why the Enlightenment is necessary

Notable Examples
– The mutability of 1984
– Cybernetic dystopias
– Putting yourself in The Hunger Games
– Tolkien’s dystopic Shire

Outdated Tropes
– The dystopian catchphrase
– Matching outfits
– Run-down cities
– We bash The Matrix
– Utopias

Fueled by Dystopias
– Turning your brain off
– Here we are now; entertain us
– We bash Margaret Atwood and Ayn Rand

The Use of Dystopia
– A mixed reaction
– Altered consciousness
– Self-condemnation
– The grimness of ultimacy

13 thoughts on “The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #91: Dystopias

  1. Great episode guys! A few thoughts:1) On the definition of a “dystopia”, I would add the nuance that a distinctive feature of dystopian fiction is that ultimately the tyrannical society wins against the protagonist’s struggle for freedom. To be fair, some of my more literary friends disagree with me (and maybe with good cause- I’m not an English major after all), so feel free to correct me on that one. If so, this may explain why dystopias are more of a modern thing, since a) the concept of the individual-as-an-individual vs. an all-powerful state is a fairly modern one; and b) the concept of a state powerful enough to dominate and crush all aspects of human existence is also a fairly modern one. By this definition, “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Matrix” are not dystopias, while “1984” and “Brave New World” are. 
    2) That said, there are a couple of possibilities for older works that may be categorized as “dystopic”: Lucian has a parody of The Odyssey called “A True Story” in which the Kingdoms of the Sun and Moon come pretty close to being dystopian in their war with each other (though again, there’s no concept of an absolutist state). And, I think you could argue with some fairness that Plato’s “Republic” could be read as a dystopia. (That’s right Gilmour, I threw down that gauntlet!) 
    3) Since you asked, my favorite dystopias are Russian (I’m told that all great literature written in the Soviet Union was dystopian, so maybe that’s less unique). I especially like Platonov’s “Foundation Pit”, and what I believe is the first fully-developed dystopia (again, please correct me if I’m wrong) Zamyatin’s “We.” It contains one of my favorite passages explaining the goal of the all-powerful state (which has recently constructed a spaceship):”It is for you to place the beneficial yoke of reason round the necks of unknown beings who inhabit other planets- still living, it may be, in the primitive state known as freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them mathematically infallible happiness, we shall be obliged to force them to be happy…. [Our goal is] to integrate completely the colossal equation of the universe… to unbend the wild curve, to straighten it tangentially, asymptotically, to flatten it to an undeviating line. Because the line of OneState is a straight line. The great, divine, precise, wise, straight line- the wisest of all lines.” 
    Again, great episode!

  2. I really enjoyed the episode, gentlemen. Would you say that the prophetic use of dystopia is possibly a divider between good and poor dystopian novels? In other words, the best function is for it to “warn us of things to come”? This may be what you were getting at regarding the line between good and evil in all of us, but I kept thinking in apocalyptic categories as you were talking about it.
    I would also like to mention my pick for tired trope worth jettisoning, and that is the “its the machines wot dun it!” theme. It probably hasn’t shown up in as many dystopias as I feel like it has, but even its use in the two that I can think of (Terminator and Matrix) has worn it out sufficiently.
    Looking forward to your discussion of that other genre of hopelessness, despair, and dehumanization next week.

  3. Wow.  No love for the Matrix around these parts!  Poor Keanu.  Have you seen his portrayal of Don John in Much Ado About Nothing? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7eOwKN3Goo 
    Now that was brilliant casting.  A cardboard cutout of an actor to play a cardboard cutout villain.
    Being a psychologist (and a psychologist who frequently uses behaviorism as a whipping-boy), when I heard you were doing dystopias, my first thought went to Brave New World.  Better Tyranny Through Pavlovian Conditioning!  In addition, although I have to admit that I have only seen the film, not read the book, I’d toss a little love toward A Clockwork Orange.  Now, you asked about utopias, and I’ll mention one of the worst utopian novels ever: Walden Two.  Yuck.  If you want to read it, read because you’re interested in Skinner’s ideas about building a behaviorist society, not for anything resembling literary merit.  It’s painful.  “In this chapter, we see something that we do better here in Walden Two. Modern society is stupid and does it wrong, but we do it right because we’re modern and scientific.  Now Professor Strawman raises a weak objection that is handily shot down.  In this next section, we see something that we do better here in Walden Two. Modern society is stupid and does it wrong, but we do it right because we’re modern and scientific.  Now Professor Strawman raises a weak objection that is handily shot down.  In this next section…”
    Nathan, you should totally apply for the position at Briercrest!  We’d love to have you here, I woud happily include you in our circle of geeks and invite you to our Kung Fu Movie Nights, and you wouldn’t feel so out of place, because we have a ton of Americans (myself included) running around Caronport.  Do it!  IT IS YOUR DESTINY.
    Going to do Christian fiction next time?  Cool.  Any chance Stephen Lawhead will be in the mix?

    1. Charles H 
      Several shameful confessions:
      1) I actually liked the Matrix movies (probably the second one most and the third one least);
      2) Whenever anyone mentions “Walden II” I immediately am filled with warm and fuzzy feelings. This is mostly because the non-Thoreau “Walden” I was exposed to first was E.B. White’s column of the same name, which is simply wonderful. And while I’ve had opportunity since then to read (and largely dismiss) Skinner, my gut reaction to the title is still a positive one.
      3) I also thought Keanu was great in “Much Ado”, and have tended to like his movies (if not so much his “acting”).  I suspect that he just has a decent agent…
      4) I am not Nathan Gilmour, yet I’m still applying to teach at Briercrest (to the open philosophy position). Hopefully there are no objections to a much less intelligent American shooting for a job there 🙂
      A hopefully less shameful confession: I also enjoy Stephen Lawhead, especially “Byzantium”, good call on that author!

      1. Coyle Charles H  
        Don’t get me started on Skinner.
        Yeah, Briercrest is in a period of expansion, so there are a good number of job postings up.  Good luck with your application; I have no say in the process (thankfully), but if you get to the interview stage, we should meet up when you’re here.  I have many hard-won nuggets of wisdom about being an American moving to Canada (here’s a freebie: never take your car to Canadian Tire for service. CT is where you go work when you’ve been fired from your mechanic job at a good garage).

        1. Charles H MichialFarmer Coyle  
          So, the opposite of dystopian is “Christan Humanist”? 
          Suddenly I am skeptical, even if I can’t quite articulate why… 😉

  4. Is the television series Battlestar Galactica dystopian or more nuanced a dystopia seeking a utopia? I wouldn’t call the Colonial government totalitarian, but they are oppressive of Cylons in the prehistory of the show. The Cylons then attempt genocide and the newer 12 models seem to have way more rights than the old school soldiers and planes. The humans living in a post-apocalyptic world then seek out a utopian earth to start again amd save their race. 
    No matter how it is classified, I enjoy the show and the board game.
    I am disappointed with no mention of Soylent Green or Mad Max in the episode – ha.

  5. In undergrad I took a class on “The Culture and History of Utopias.” http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/01S/hnrs55-1/ One that particularly stands out was “The Dispossessed,” an anarchist utopia by Ursula Le Guin. They’re all kind of funny to read because of how different the future turned out from what they thought.

  6. Also, I as popular as the Hunger Games is right now, I think it’s worth addressing a little more. SPOILER ALERT. It’s not as one-sided as it may seem in the first book. Katniss isn’t a stand-up person. She makes pretty terrible choices herself and willingly participates in the slaughter of the games. She isn’t some self-sacrificial figure, her selfishness guides almost all of her decisions. You don’t hate President Snow at the end of the trilogy. You understand that he did terrible things in the interest of preventing a brutal civil war, and his opponents from District 13 may not be any better.

    1. OwenPaun Interesting.  My wife has read all three novels, but I’ve only seen the movie.  She didn’t like the way that the trilogy ends, but she did say that the politics becomes more interesting towards the end of the series.

    2. OwenPaun Interesting. I’ve not read any of the books and have only seen (obviously) the first movie. Glad to know it gets better.

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