(Also published at A Beautiful Resistance)
We find ourselves in a very difficult and confusing place in which it can feel that reality itself is being contested. At least in the current political alignments within the English-speaking world, the right appears able to claim that is speaks for the Real, for really-existing things, while the left instead seems out-of-touch with everyday reality, or lost in fantasies and utopian dreams.
This criticism of the left is hardly a new one, nor is it necessarily a stinging insult. Any significant change, including revolutions, must first start with a dream. We must be able to imagine the kind of world in which we wish to live in order to change the world in which we live now.
What we are told is possible in this world is never very inspiring. Work for someone else at low wages and perhaps we might one day save up enough money to rent a slightly larger apartment in the dreary and expensive cities where most of us live. Vote hard enough for politicians who repeatedly sell us out and maybe we’ll have higher wages, less government corruption, less exploitation, fewer jails, fewer wars, less climate change.
The left, if has been anything, has been the province of dreamers, of fantasies, and especially of the “impossible.” But more than this, the left has been the province of tricksters and rogues who pull back the curtain on the fantasies of this world, who reveal the magic tricks that keep capital and the powerful in place. It’s been the left who’ve shown this world, this “reality,” to have been born from fantasies and dreams. And if this world was dreamt up in conspiracy, then can we not dream up and conspire a better one?
We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
The prolific fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin spoke those words as part of her acceptance speech for The National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. This part of her speech has lived on in the radical imagination—including in political slogans and leftist t-shirts, and it’s quite inspiring.
However, it’s taken a bit out of context.
Le Guin’s specific point was opposition to the growing corporate dominance over the publishing industry and the tendency of writers to shape their works for a sales strategy rather than to create as artists create. Despite being very rarely quoted, an earlier part of her short speech is much more powerful and deeply relevant to this question of leftism and reality.
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality.
“Realists of a larger reality” is quite a phrase. It seems to invoke the legacy of the popular Situationist slogan during the late 60’s in France: “Be realistic: demand the impossible.” For the Situationists, who were Marxist artists and theorists, capitalism had led to the degradation of all life experience, alienating us from ourselves, each other, and the possibility of authentic social relations. Similar to the critique of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, they believed that we were no longer able to determine what was really “real” and instead mistook spectacle and representation as reality.
We can see the truth in these ideas quite easily when we think of advertising and social media. In advertising, we view images or videos with upbeat or sweeping music in which happy and beautiful people seem to be happy and beautiful because of the product being sold. Of course, we might tell ourselves that we see through the manipulation, yet advertising wouldn’t exist if it didn’t work.
In social media, especially through image- or video-heavy platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, we are presented—and present others with—similar visions of a real that doesn’t really exist. When someone posts a selfie, for instance, they’ve often selected that image from dozens of other photos which they decided weren’t good enough to show. “Spontaneous” scenes of laughter with friends, stunning vistas, and even restaurant meals are never actually spontaneous. Getting the camera just right, making sure your friends are all looking the same direction, ensuring you’ve gotten the right angle on the landscape or the plate in front of you: these actions and many more are very often part of the creation of that supposedly “real” glimpse of our life we try to show the world.
We all know this because we all do this, yet even still we often experience the images and videos of others as if they are actually not staged. We might then feel a bit depressed: that intimate photo of a man with ripped muscles in bed—how does he just wake up with perfect hair in the morning like that? The tanned woman laughing with her friends at the club on a Friday night—why does her life look so exciting compared to our own?
We know it’s not actually “real,” yet we find ourselves nevertheless treating it all as if it were. Worse than this, we find ourselves unknowingly trying to emulate these false representations, posing our friends around a table at a club, arranging our hair and getting back into bed just to show that we, too, are happy and beautiful.
And who are we trying to prove this all to? Others, or maybe also ourselves?
To be a “realist of a larger reality” is not just to dream of something different than what is, nor to be lost in the spectacle or the world of representations. Instead, it’s to see the scene presented to you as well as what created the scene, to see not just the Instagram picture but the camera by which it was taken, the person holding the camera, the staging and posing beforehand and the discarded shots afterwards. It’s also to see the social media network itself, the influence of “influencers” and the algorithms that determine which images you see and which ones you never do. It’s to see the effects of these representations on the way we see ourselves and each other. It’s to see the profit motive behind the corporations which own, shape, and control the way we represent the world and which limit our ability to see what else is possible. And it’s especially to see how we rarely find moments of escape from all this.
Being “a realist of a larger reality” requires all this, but it most of all requires that, in our faithfulness to that larger reality, we refuse to be lost in the world of images and representation, and especially we must make sure that our larger reality has an internal consistency and coherence.
At the beginning of her acceptance speech, Le Guin references a particular political point about her receipt of the award:
“And I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long — my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for fifty years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.”
Le Guin was long a critic of what she saw as an artificial division between “realist” fiction and “fantasy” or “speculative” fiction. Fiction is by its very definition imaginary, “not real” in the sense that it didn’t actually happen. Despite this, some fiction is seen as more realistic than other fiction because it tells stories with elements that look more like everyday occurrences rather than fantastic or magical events. For Le Guin, however, both kinds of fiction served the same purpose, telling us something about life, about humans and they way they act with each other.
A crucial element to any fiction is coherency. Whether or not there are flying dragons and magical schools for children, there are reasons for—and most importantly consequences of—their existence. Flying dragons fly because there is such a thing as flying, which means there is such a thing as not flying and also such a thing as gravity. Magical schools for children exist because there is such a thing as a school, and such a thing as children, and also schools that are not magical. The imagined world has limits and structures and consequences because our own world, “reality,” also has those things.
Not everything that looks like liberation actually is, nor is every political idea which claims to help people actually helpful. Sometimes the left is truly out of touch with reality—with larger reality. Sometimes the theories and frameworks crafted to fight oppression only lead to more oppression, sometimes the “impossible” is actually really impossible. Sometimes, our fantasies make us unrealists of a larger reality.
A place we can see this easily without too much controversy is the “anti-work” movement now popular among urbanites in the United States. It’s a fantastic idea that humans might all be able to survive without working, and might even seem feasible because it’s anyway what the rich are doing now. However, the rich don’t actually live without working, even though they’re not the ones doing that work. They are able to live lives of leisure because of the labor of others, those who have created wealth for them through work.
We can very fairly ask, why should we not all have the same luxury? Some have even proposed fantastic solutions which would enable us all to live without work. Often called “fully-automated luxury space communism,” the fantasy is that we might all instead live from the labor of machines and not-yet-developed technologies which would fairly distribute resources to everyone.
To say this is unrealistic is not the correct analysis. Instead, it is an incoherent fantasy, one which makes those who propose it far from being realists of a larger reality. Someone must make those machines, and in order to make those machines they must work. Someone must maintain them, and program them, and service them when they break. That’s all work. While we might propose the singularity (which is believed in by some people the way others believe in the “second coming” of Christ), we do not currently have self-replicating and self-constructing machines, nor is it really clear we’d truly want them.
The problem with work isn’t that we humans do it, but rather that most humans are currently in a position where we don’t get to choose or decide what’s done with the work we do. Very few people are able to work only for themselves, while the vast majority of us must instead sell our labor to others for a wage. We cannot choose how we work, nor to what ends we work, but rather must work for others in order to survive.
Being a realist of a larger reality regarding work would mean being realistic about work itself. We humans have always worked, even if that meant the work of gathering food in once-abundant forests or the work of hunting animals. Caring for a child is work, just as creating and maintaining a home (whether a simple hut or a cramped urban studio) is work. Cooking is work, and so is cleaning, and so too is art of every sort.
What people realistically want is to work in fulfilling ways that better their lives and the lives around them. Few really want to work in mindless factories or behind fast-food counters, because this sort of work doesn’t feel fulfilling. Why doesn’t it feel fulfilling? Probably because all we are able to get from it is a wage which we know is significantly less than what the owner earned from our work.
Sure, maybe some truly wish not to work and somehow still have significant wealth and luxury. Again, we call those people “the rich,” and they’re actually the reason the rest of us don’t get to work in fulfilling ways. We’re working for them, rather than ourselves.
The dream of life without work is not our dream. As in the way we unconsciously emulate popular social media “influencers,” any revolutionary theory that would try to abolish work is only emulating the dream of the rich. We need to dream our own dreams, not theirs.
This is what is would mean to be a realist of a larger reality. The larger reality is the political and social arrangement—instituted, disciplined, and maintained by violence—called capitalism. Abolishing work isn’t realistic and is anyway not what we actually desire. We want to abolish capitalism, to have control over our own “means of production,” so we can actually enjoy work again.
There’s one problem with all this, though. It will require work to get there. While a world without capitalism might seem a fantasy, it’s actually quite realistic. What isn’t realistic is such a world coming about on its own, or through a revolution of people who believe it’s possible or even desirable to abolish work itself.
If it does one day come, and because I am a realist of a larger reality I think it probably will indeed come, it will come about because we worked to reclaim our work. We learned the power of our own bodies and our own minds, the joy of human effort towards our own and others’ fulfillment, and we decided to turn some of that work towards helping others get there, too. We didn’t wait around for some technological fantasy, nor did we indulge in our own, but instead insisted that the world we saw coming actually existed.
And then we worked to help it arrive.
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Very important piece, thank you! What came to mind as I read were Einstein's quotes about imagination, its importance and its creative power to push beyond current reality.
While you emphasize the importance of work in the conclusion, I think that the work will come less tediously once we've bathed sufficiently in the dreams, in imagination. With our commonly imagination-impoverished minds, I think it will take a good soaking to absorb enough imagined realities to propel us forward with them. Unrushed time spent in imagination helps crystalize possible next realities into inspiration and motivation to take a first working step towards them. Work towards good change has a very different feel than work towards survival.
Thank you for bringing imagination to front-of-mind today.
Fucking beautiful! One of the ironies of the modern world I see is how people work jobs they hate to afford hobbies which are nothing more than the original work of humanity- cooking delicious food, making clothing, decorating our stuff, building things, hunting, fishing, and gardening, caring for animals, etc.
To be fair though, I have nothing but sympathy for the anti-work crowd. Overtime is an epidemic and it does things to your mind. The worker on overtime enters a state of active depression where consequences are muted and the future becomes hazy and mirage-like. Their relationships suffer and they drift in a zombie-like state. Which I suspect also leads to susceptibility to advertising. They dream of rest and time off like a starving man dreams of a feast. Of course, the starving man could never actually consume all the food he dreams of, and it would harm him if he tried. But his obsession is not based on a realistic assessment of his needs, but in his body’s red alert intrusion into his consciousness. Similarly, those working 80-100 hour weeks (the new standard for anyone who wants to make more than $20/ hr) dream of far more rest than they could consume, or would want to consume were it offered to them.