getting, beyond the pale: within, against, and beyond

“There’s a lot said against utopia.

Or rather, there’s little said against utopia itself, because utopia-itself is the end of discussion. To deploy the word is to win the argument—or at least set its terms—without further debate. ‘That’s utopian!’ Fin. Done. Utopia is a containment zone for positions that are beyond the pale.

This is a strategy not just of the right, but of many ostensibly on the left: those serious, sober, not-like-the-other-leftists who will denounce neoliberalism, bandy around the phrase ‘capitalist realism’ and talk about shifting the Overton window. What they won’t do is question the axis along which that window runs—the range of ‘acceptable policies’, not possible worlds—condemning the political to a shrunk-horizon realism of their own. Too often they seem at home here: quite content that the biological family, prisons, cops, jobs and borders remain constitutive features of the world; happy to rearrange this world rather than instigate a new one; concerned with ‘winning over the people’ and not forming new peoples. Yet even such minimal ambition is denied them as they, protestations ignored, find themselves condemned as beyond the pale utopians.

‘Beyond the pale’, by the way, is a reference to The Pale: the area of Ireland under English rule during the Late Middle Ages, named for its fenced, or ‘paled’—border. The status quo: (re)produced through colonialism and borders. There are worse places to be sent beyond, and if this is our fate we may as well embrace the label that goes with it, and all it can entail.

Yes, we are utopians and yes, we want utopia.”

“Within, Against and Beyond

Utopianism’s three modes don’t exist in isolation, but rub up against and modify one another. Their specific contributions can be analysed separately, as with the ingredients of a cake, but as the flour, egg and sugar alter each others’ behaviour in the oven; so the within, against and beyond affect each other in struggle—each pole in the constellation pushing the others to achieve what they cannot alone or as pairs. Utopians themselves should be true to this subjectivity: knowing the joys immanent to this world, hating the world for denying them, and partially inhabiting a world in which they are expanded to their fullest extent. Perhaps this world will not even be called Utopia, the idea falling victim to itself: Utopia’s history is, after all, bound up with what Cedric Robinson refers to as coloniality’s ‘terms of order’. The Utopia of More’s book is hierarchial, misogynist, dependent on slavery. It becomes Utopia only after colonization, having previously been Abraxa. And Anarres, the anarcho-communist ‘ambiguous utopia’ of The Dispossesed is imperfect, intentionally (Le Guin made it flawed, and made those flaws the subject of the narrative) and unintentionally (the limits of Le Guin’s imagination revealing themselves, as Samuel Delany has noted, in its biphobia and heteronormativity). And of course in any new Utopia Abraxa there will be discontent too. We’ll be within, against and beyond in that world, too. That is the beautiful, desperate burden of utopianism: the only realism we should accept.”

– David M. Bell in Blind Field

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