Week 2: Utopias & Dystopias I: Get Out

Page Illustration:Get Out by Nick MCE, FanArt.Tv, 2017

ASSIGNED READINGS & MEDIA

Peele, Jordan (2017). Get Out. United States: Universal Pictures.

Note: You can rent Get Out via YouTube or Google Play among other services.

Hartman, Saidiya (2019). “The Terrible Beauty of the Slum,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 3-10. New York: Norton. (COURSE TEXT)

Jolly, Jallicia (2016). The Audacity of Black Pleasure. Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics Blog, August 22, 2016.

UTOPIA & DYSTOPIA

Image: Alexandre Brondino, via UNSPLASH
ACTIVITY 1: VISUALIZING UTOPIA/DYSTOPIA
Take a moment before moving forward. Grab a pen/paper or another writing implement.  

Close your eyes for a moment and conjure up a utopia.  Jot down what you saw.  

What was the scene? Who was there? What colours appeared? What was the temperature? What scents were present? 
What sounds could you hear? What was the feeling you had in that place? 

PAUSE. RESET. 

Now close your eyes again and conjure up a dystopia. Jot down what you saw. 

What was the scene? Who was there? What colours appeared? What was the temperature? What scents were present? 
What sounds could you hear? What was the feeling you had in that place? 

Coming out of this visualization exercise, I want to you keep in mind your personal experiences, historical context, and embodied reality (based on your race, gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, (dis)ability, immigration status) and how this impacted what you conjured.

To evoke or to open ourselves to the radical imagination requires us to be conscious of our multiple senses, our shared (and conflicting) histories, our positionalities and identities, and our awareness of the ways in which power operates both to inform and occlude our visions.

UNDERSTANDING UTOPIA

Utopia, fr. modern Latin, 1516, Sir Thomas More coined the term as a title for his book, literally means “nowhere”. From Greek ou “not” + topos “place”.  In everyday language we commonly ascribe the word mistakenly to mean “The good place,” which would be eu “good” + topos “place.”

When we consider utopia our minds immediately focus on the notion of “the good place”. A place that seems perfect, peaceful, beautiful, etc. The word first appeared in Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book of the same name “Utopia.” For Thomas More this place was meant to conjure a place that could not exist. More created the word as a pun that mixed Latin and Greek. It is purposeful that ou-topos (no place) sounds a lot like eu-topos (good place). The point being that utopias are too good to be true.

For More, there is no perfect place and as such we should strive for order and social discipline rather than seeking to bring about worlds imagined through our morals or desires for liberty.

Sir Thomas More, a lawyer, politician, and pragmatist, lived by this ethos until his death. He was ironically tried and executed by a jury for failing to appear at the coronation of Anne Boleyn (living by his Catholic morals) despite acknowledging Anne’s queenship privately to King Henry VIII and expressing his desire for the King’s happiness and the new Queen’s health.

SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AS UTOPIAN

“Utopian,” has been used as a derogatory slur against social movements on many occasions. Consider, for instance, that Karl Marx himself dismissed many of the anarchist theorists of his day like Pierre Proudhon as “utopian” socialists. Inferring that their idealism and beliefs did not align with the material realities and scientific reasoning of more centralized forms of socialism or communism.

Movements for social justice are often labelled as “utopian” or unrealistic because they seek to bring about worlds that seem impossible in our current circumstances. Anti-slavery abolitionists in the 18th and 19th Centuries were considered utopians, civil rights activists who sought to dismantle the Jim Crow laws of the U.S. were pinned with that moniker, and today movements that fight against borders or believe in a world without prisons or police are considered foolish or naive by many.

In an article in NY Mag, Zak Cheney-Rice grapples with the claims that the “defund the police” campaign is utopian and unrealistic. Take a moment to reflect on his argument below.

What makes campaigns to defund and abolish the police utopian? How do these campaigns emerge from the Black radical imagination? Why does understanding utopianism as a form of practice rather than as an unreachable place change the way we think about it?

Image: Taymaz Valley via: FLICKR, 2020

This is why the dispute over what “defund the police” means matters; efforts made in its name risk reinforcing what they seek to change if severed from its abolitionist roots. Some people would prefer that. Others cite pragmatism to rationalize asking for less. This isn’t to say that incremental change is unimportant; on the contrary, such a monumental task requires it. But wherever there’s agreement that police violence is the problem, and not the solution, aiming to uproot it rather than mitigate it isn’t just prudent, no matter how utopian or unpopular. It’s necessary. Abolition is an opportunity to reimagine how society responds to harm. Past efforts have been disastrous. Even if we’re not ready to demand a new world, we can see more from orbit than we do from underground.

Zak Cheney-Rice, NY Mag , June 15, 2020

UNDERSTANDING DYSTOPIA

Dystopia, “Imaginary bad place,” from dys “bad, abnormal” + topos “place”. Used by John Stuart Mill, 1868, in reference to the Government:  “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, cacotopians.”

The word dystopia is a much more recent addition to the English language. First used by the liberal utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1868 as part of a speech he gave in the British House of Commons criticizing the government, the term did not appear in print (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) until 1952. The concept of dystopia is used to convey an imagined nightmare world, normally one that takes place in the future. The concept of dystopia does date further back. Words like “cacotopia” (from kako “bad” + topos “place”) preceded “dystopia” to mean the inverse of “utopia”. For instance, utilitarian liberal philosopher Jeremy Bentham (who is perhaps best known for the concept of the panopticon – popularized in Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish), often used the term, though it never resonated in the same way.

Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the “panopticon” derived from a prison where the guard was placed directly in the centre of the structure visible to every prison cell. Prisoners would be expected to “self-police” their behaviour because they would always feel as though they were being watched. In this way, the work of policing prisoners could be transferred from guards to prisoners themselves.
UTOPIA & DYSTOPIA IN POPULAR CULTURE

The concepts of utopia and dystopia have exploded in popularity in recent years. Using the Google word tracker we can see the drastic rise of the usage of both “utopia/utopian” and “dystopia/dystopian” since the year 2000 (see image below). A number of popular television shows and movies rely on these concepts to engage the viewer (i.e. The Good Place, Westworld, Lovecraft Country, The Truman Show, Her, The Matrix, Mad Max, Blade Runner, etc.). The concept of dystopia itself is also synonymous with books like George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Octavia Butler’s Parable Trilogy. These books have gained renewed interest in our contemporary era.

Why is this the case? What historical circumstances have created the conditions for the unprecedented popularization of these terms?

Search as January 4, 2021

Perhaps the interest in utopia and dystopia might be aligned with our current historical circumstances that include: climate change caused by capitalist exploitation and accumulation, the pervasiveness of global fascism and ethno-nationalism, the exponentially growing divide between the wealthy elite and the poor, and most recently the reckoning that world governments are both unwilling and unprepared to deal with the types of serious global pandemics these conditions will bring about.

In the introduction to Octavia’s Brood, the 2015 collection of speculative fiction inspired by the writing of the Black science-fiction author, Octavia Butler, editors Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha suggest that “Whenever we envision a world without war, without prisons, without capitalism, we are producing speculative fiction. Organizers and activists envision, and try to create, such worlds all the time.” In times where the line between dystopia and reality blur, we must anchor our visions of utopian futures in the teachings of people who have been there before. They suggest that the tools and lessons learned from movements against slavery, peasant uprisings, the interrelationships of nature in spite of human intervention,  etc. are helpful in planting the seeds of possibilities that exist outside of the logics of our current lives. In this sense, they are seeking to help those of us who wish to bring about a different world, to see the world differently and to break out of what Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg artist/author/poet Leanne Betasamosake Simpson calls the “cognitive box of imperialism”.

PAST/PRESENT/FUTURE

We consider past – present – future – to be separate states of time. The past represents what happened before, the present represents what is happening now, and the future represents what will happen later. Much of history is founded upon the concept of the linear progression of time.

As my drawing below so eloquently shows, we generally think of past/present/future as three separate states of time. The present is reality – it is the temporal state of being that exists as you read this sentence. The past only exists in your memory – it is the temporal state of being that exists by recollecting the previous sentence. The future only exists in our imaginations – it is the temporal state of being that exists by either assuming what will come next or accepting that which we do not expect to come next.

Craig Fortier, Past-Present-Future, 2021

The study of history often considers the linearity of time to explain why certain phenomenon happen. This process is called teleology. There are multiple historical methods that are teleological, for instance, Karl Marx’s historical materialism draws on Hegel’s concept of the dialectical nature of history to show how history is created through the tension of forces of power that once resolved create new tensions that need to be resolved.

Marx’s dialectical materialist theory of history

As you can see in the above image, Marx believed that human methods of producing our sustenance creates internal contradictions and tensions that create conflict. He believed that in different periods of society, these tensions and conflicts would create “snaps” that would create a new condition (i.e. Unorganized Society to Empire to Landed Aristocracy to Bourgeois Democracy to Communism). For Marx, each stage of history can be defined by the tensions between those who have power and those who do not – with the ultimate goal of humans reaching a stage of classless utopia.

What if we think about time differently?

For instance, French philosopher Alain Badiou maintains that reality is grounded on a “void” of ”inconsistent multiplicity”, which is at once void and excess. An event ruptures the appearance of normality, and opens a space to rethink reality.

Ok, that sounds weird. What does it mean?

TIME AS MULTIPLICITY AND OVERLAPPING

There is a debate raging in the field of quantum physics. What if there are endless worlds occurring simultaneously with countless versions of you? These debates are not just speculation but are based on interpretations of material phenomena. The same debates are happening in the social sciences: what if the teleological and linear conception of history is limiting our ability to see multiplicity as the most realistic understanding of human experience?

In this concept of history, we understand that the past, present, and future exist all together in overlapping, contradictory, and complex ways.

The present is not a single present. It is a multitude of presents experienced differently by different people across space. The best way to understand that is by analyzing one of the most frequently spoken phrases of 2020: “We’re all in this together!”

Image: DREEEM, 2020

Using a linear concept of history, yes, we are indeed all experiencing the global pandemic caused by the outbreak of COVID-19 in the same moment of time. But are we “in this together”? If we understand time through a lens of multiplicity, then it is easy to see that some people: poor people, health care workers, the elderly, Black communities and other racialized people, those with disabilities, etc. are experiencing the pandemic in much different ways than say upper middle class people who are bored and working from home or wealthy elites who are continuing their vacations or travelling on their yachts. We exist in multiple realities at the same time.

Why?

Part of the reason is that we are all experiencing the past differently in the present. The past isn’t just a place in our memories. The past is the living realities that shape our multiple conditions of the present. The rebellions following the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police is a direct result of the histories that converge in the present. These histories are what make the experiences for people during the COVID-19 pandemic so vastly differently.

If we then see the past and present as operating simultaneously to create our multiple realities – then what about the future?

Through this formulation the future exists in multiplicity too. It is not simply the result of meta-battles between power and counter-power (though it certainly is this), but it exists in the imaginations and actions of people in the present. Multiple futures are being forged at the same time. The BLM rebellions of the summer and campaigns to defund/abolish the police offer various visions that exist outside of what many people expected for the future prior to 2020. The dystopian possibilities of the wealthy profiting (like Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon has) during a global pandemic where his workers are contracting COVID and dying at alarming rates was perhaps not the future envisioned by many people prior to the pandemic either.

The future is both the result of these forces and is produced in the imaginations of people on the ground.

In this sense, utopias and dystopias exist in the “space-time” of the multiplicity and simultaneity of past/present/future.

ACTIVITY 2: UTOPIA & DYSTOPIA IN BLACK PANTHER
Watch the following two scenes from the Marvel film Black Panther keeping in mind 
the concepts of utopia and dystopia as well as our discussion so far on past/present/future. 

In the first video we witness T'Challa's (Chadwick Boseman) return to his homeland of Wakanda.  
How do the directors of the film portray Wakanda? What are some of the key racial/gender 
dynamics at play? What about the scenery? What about the technology? Think about how 
Wakanda is presented as a past/future/present place. Why is it blurred? What pieces of 
utopian worlds do you identify? 

In the second scene we witness Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) staging a heist at the British Museum.  
There are many dystopian elements to the scene.  Can you identify them? How does Killmonger 
affirm the lived realities of the past in the present? What do you believe is the future Killmonger envisions?

What do these scenes do to construct a space within the Black radical imagination? 

THE TERRIBLE BEAUTY OF THE SLUMS

Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments provides us with an important window into how particular spaces and moments in time could be understood as both utopian/dystopian in the same instance.

Hartman seeks to show how the construction and production of the “ghetto” in the United States during the turn of the 20th Century can be understood as a culmination of social and political processes: the great migration of Black Americans from the rural south to the urban north in the decades following emancipation; the influx of European migrants and white settlers as part of the United States’ plan of Manifest Destiny; and the re-construction of formal and informal policies of segregation in both the US North and South.

Let’s reflect on two passages from our readings for this week.

The ward, the Bottom, the ghetto – is an urban commons where the poor assemble, improvise the forms of life, experiment with freedom, and refuse the menial existence scripted for them (4).

It is a human sewer populated by the worst elements. It is a realm of excess and fabulousness. It is a wretched environment. It is the plantation extended into the city. It is a social laboratory. The ghetto is a space of encounter. The sons and daughters of the rich come in search of meaning, vitality, and pleasure. The reformers and sociologists come in search of the truly disadvantaged failing to see her and her friends as thinkers or planners, or to notice the beautiful experiments crafted by poor black girls (4).

Saidiya Hartman, The Terrible Beauty of the Slums, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 2018

Hartman uses various terms to describe Black neighbourhoods in the urban north (the ward, the Bottom, the ghetto) as urban commons.

Why? How do the stories and narratives that anchor Hartman’s analysis help us to get glimpses of the way young Black women experienced freedom despite the squalid conditions of their environment?

Hartman then suggests that the same neighbourhood is “a human sewer populated by the worst elements” and is a realm of “excess and fabulousness”. Think about how these multiplicities are happening in the same time and space.

SPACES OF ENCOUNTER

Hartman suggests that the “ghetto” is a space of encounter and a social laboratory. In her book she reflects on the multiplicity of people who interact with the space of the ghetto and its primarily Black inhabitants:

  • sons and daughters of the rich come in search of meaning, vitality, and pleasure
  • reformers and sociologists come in search of the truly disadvantaged
  • social workers, cops, city officials who are sent to control and contain
  • people wishing to exploit, prey upon, and violate those they believe to be vulnerable

All of these interlopers construct and experience “the ghetto” through their own lens. They are not part of the community but rather exist only as tourists, agents of repression, and curious bystanders.

For Hartman, this is most evident by the archives left in their wake. The stories and narratives that she pieces together of the poor Black girls who are the protagonists of her narrative are constructed through the lens of these people. This is the violence of the archives – not only that the stories of the ghetto are told through a liberal lens of pity, disgust, and desire to reform – they are unable to see what is actually happening.

Hartman emphasizes: “failing to see her and her friends as thinkers or planners, or to notice the beautiful experiments crafted by poor black girlsThey fail to discern the beauty and they see only the disorder, missing all the ways black folks created life and make bare need into an arena of elaboration” (4-6).

This is critical to our understanding of the past/present/future of utopia and dystopia and the making the Black radical imagination. Amidst what outsiders saw as disorder (because of their inherent anti-Blackness), there was always an undercurrent of experimentation, relationality, dreaming and mobilizing.

Hartman continues:

At any moment, the promise of insurrection, the miracle of upheaval; small groups, people by themselves, and strangers threaten to become an ensemble, to incite treason en masse (8).

Saidiya Hartman, The Terrible Beauty of the Slums, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 2018

This is critical to Hartman’s argument in the chapter “The Terrible Beauty of the Slums”. In the midst of the nightclubs, the patio stoops, the crowded streets, the rooftops, is the undercurrent of Black joy. That joy amidst the dystopia of US racism is audacious and revolutionary. It is also seen (perhaps correctly) as a threat to white supremacy and it is policed, surveilled, social worked, studied, and demeaned by many of the same interlopers who come to the ghetto in search of greater meaning or feeling.

Zoom in to the present day for a moment and watch this infamous Pepsi commercial starring Kylie Jenner.

How do these same dynamics play out today, whether in communities, on social media, in the news, etc.? How does the commercial appropriate and sanitize Black resistance to state violence and re-centre whiteness and/or non-Blackness in the process?

THE AUDACITY OF BLACK PLEASURE

Image: Jallicia Jolly, Abolition Blog, 2016

Let’s fast forward to the present.

In Jallicia Jolly’s blog post in Abolition Journal, she describes a particular incident that happened to her and her friends. A group of Black folks was assembling by the beach in Detroit to collectively engage in leisure. Within minutes of arrival a phalanx of tow trucks arrived and began to tow away people’s cars.

Jolly uses the experience as an entry point to speak about the continued surveillance, policing, and assault on public displays of joy and pleasure among Black communities.

Jolly argues that in such a context, even the most innocuous public and collective expressions of pleasure by Black folks is itself a deeply political act.

What does that mean? How does it relate to the scene set in Hartman’s “Terrible Beauty of the Slums”?

Centering this approach to policing is the criminalization of public spaces and services, especially in predominately poor inner-city communities of color. City spaces remain demarcated by class and race distinctions that determine who can access the benefits associated with citizenship. These include the right to life, safety and protection as well as access to public services.

Black pleasure is a political act in the era of anti-black (& poor) state sanctioned violence. It is more important than ever to secure healing spaces that revive spirits as they uplift souls. As I’ve learned, calls to embrace black joy become revolutionary in the wake of the dehumanization of the militarized carceral state.

Jallicia Jolly, The Audacity of Black Pleasure, Abolition Journal Blog, 2016

Jolly expresses two related points above:

(1) City spaces remain demarcated by class and race and these less overt boundaries are regulated by police, social service providers, and urban planners who construct city spaces for specific populations and to remove others.

(2) Calls to embrace black joy become revolutionary in the wake of the dehumanization of the militarized carceral state

Let’s consider these points more closely.

First, Jolly argues that while segregation as an official policy ended in the United States nearly 50 years ago, de facto boundaries continue to exist and poor and Black people are a policed in various ways in public spaces.

This policing includes the “Karen” phenomenon of white women calling the policing on Black people living their lives. It includes urban and municipal policies that seek to remove “tent cities” of homeless people. It appears in urban planning through “hostile design” to drive away poor people from downtown shopping districts and other areas that are meant for middle/upper classes.

Second, Jolly then makes the claim that to engage in public displays of collective pleasure and joy becomes a revolutionary act given this context.

THESE CONCEPTS WILL BE IMPORTANT AS WE ANALYZE THE FILM “GET OUT” BY JORDAN PEELE.

GET OUT

BLACK DYSTOPIAN HORROR OR DOCUMENTARY?

In her essay 2018 “Horror vérité: politics and history in Jordan Peele’s Get Out“, Alison Landsberg proposes that “the cinematic conventions of the horror film are uniquely suited to bring into visibility everyday, endemic horror – a horror that many in US society refuse to see” (629).

Landsberg suggests that the conventions of horror film do the following four things:

  1. Horror films create a confrontation; the viewer is brought face to face with the grim and the graphic
  2. Horror films depict the unthinkable; the viewer is forced to confront the depths of evil
  3. Horror films make that which is unimaginable in reality an exhibition project; the viewer becomes a voyeur to a violent imaginary
  4. Horror films let viewers come to terms with things that they otherwise refuse or cannot see

This creates a real opportunity for horror film directors to engage in a process of making visible the real horrors of everyday life.

Jordan Peele in interviews promoting the film seems to affirm this is how he wants audiences to experience the film. Pay close attention to the following interview on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert as he explains that he wanted to submit the film for consideration for the Golden Globes as a documentary. As Peele explains it, “the movie is truth.” While this is partly comedic, Peele situates the film within the long history of the horror genre, but also in the everyday experience of Black people in America. He explains, to have a horror movie with a Black protagonist requires that the “protagonist is aware the whole time that horror is going down”.

Why does Peele make this claim? How does he then situate it in a historical context of horror cinema, especially in reference to the classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead? Consider Colbert’s reaction.

KEY THEMES IN GET OUT

The film Get Out is filled with deep and complex themes on the dystopian reality of Black people in America (and we can extend this analysis for the most part to the Canadian context as well). While not an exhaustive list, I suggest pay close attention to the following themes:

Liberal Racism the film does not focus on the overt and pervasive outward racism faced by Black people. The villains are not “Trump” supporters or southern/rural Americans. They are white upper middle class liberals in the US north. The type of people who “would have voted for Obama a third time if it was possible.”

Pay attention to how the film shows the deeply embedded racism that is at the core of white liberalism in America.

Hollowness of White People “Being Woke” the film works to critique the notion of “wokeness” among white people. It does so through both comedic scenes and hair raising horror – even using the Childish Gambino song Redbone with its repeated refrain “stay woke” as a device to clearly make this point to the viewer.

How do the white characters in the film betray the hollowness of their supposed “wokeness”?

Fetishization and Desirability of Black Bodies – the film makes clear and consistent allusion to the fetishization of Black peoples’ bodies in white America. The central purpose of the Armitage “scheme” is to literally occupy and utilize Black bodies for their own benefit. This theme can be seen as a critique of white capitalist enterprise that desires and fetishization Black people when their bodies are put to the benefit of white entertainment or financial gain.

Consider this theme within the context of criticisms levied by Black artists to their white fans, who benefit from their art, appropriate their styles and dialects, but who remain silent or even antagonist when the same artists make a plea to support movements for Black lives.

The Trap of “White Washing” – the film reflects upon the pressure on Black people to “white wash” in order to seem less threatening for the benefit of white people. Peele shows the ways that white people through coercion and temptation create the context whereby Black people are offered benefits for conforming to certain white norms (this happens most clearly in the story line of Andre Logan King – played by LaKeith Stanfield – and in the device of the sunken place ).

In what ways does the film suggests that this white washing is an empty and hollow pursuit.

The Historical Present of American Slavery the film examines the ways in which the past of American slavery remain within the present conditions of Black people. This is a dominant and “meta” theme in the film and one that plays upon the concepts of past/present/future we covered in this week’s lecture.

Reflect upon how Peele uses the story as an allegory about how slavery is re-constituted in different forms in today’s America. But also how the radical Black imagination continues to create moments of liberation.

ACTIVITY 3: UTOPIA & DYSTOPIA IN GET OUT
Reflect upon the very final scene in the film.  As Chris leaves the house attempting to escape he is confronted by numerous obstacles including having to confront his girlfriend Rose directly.  As the film reaches its final crescendo we hear sirens coming up the laneway. Chris automatically puts up his hands in surrender.  

Think about this moment in the context of what has happened in the film. 

What makes this scene dystopian? How does the arrival of Chris' friend Rod disrupt the dystopia to create an audacious moment of black joy? 

One thought on “Week 2: Utopias & Dystopias I: Get Out

  1. Pingback: Week 6 – Black Queer Futurities I – Paris Is Burning/Freetown Sound | Popular Culture//Radical Imagination

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