Tales from the Political Void: The Dystopian Turn in Chilean Science Fiction

in Fact & Opinion

Dr. Gabriel Saldías Rossel
Dra. Carolina A. Navarrete González

Dystopia’s tight grasp on western civilization is undeniable. Not only in the realm of the symbolic, where it has prevailed for over a century, but also in the material, where more and more often we witness dystopian elements leaking into everyday life, as it was the case with the 2018 march of Argentinian women protesting abortion rights dressed as Atwood’s famous handmaids. In Latin America, it would seem, dystopia feels as, if not “real,” at least an ominous certainty; a kind of perpetual apocalyptic zeitgeist waiting to happen when you least expect it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that much of what we consider dystopian fiction in Latin America is, paradoxically, firmly grounded in reality.

I’d like to take the Chilean experience as a case study on this subject, for it’s quite interesting that a country that has embraced capitalism for a long time and, in turn, has redeemed itself as “one of the most stable countries in the region,” is also one where dystopia has reigned supreme for over 40 years. Because Chile doesn’t write eutopias anymore, at best, we remember them fondly and sigh wishfully whenever we see a utopian novel reedited, as La Pollera publishers did recently with Manuel Astica’s Thimor, the so-called “first Chilean utopia,” originally published in 1932. Dystopias, meanwhile, continue to be published regularly each year.

First order of business, then, would be to properly conceptualize this apparent “death” of eutopias in Chile. Let’s discuss the deceased: it’s imperative we have a discernible body upon which to enact our autopsy of the utopian genre, yet this particular entity eludes any forensic endeavor, firstly because it would seem it never existed in the first place, while those that attest to the contrary, usually admit utopias in Chile were never really anything more than imitations of foreign trends with hardly anything original in them.

There’s certainly some truth to this claim, however, not entirely. Chilean utopias published during the 19th century by authors such as Francisco Miralles (Desde Júpiter, 1877), Benjamín Tallman (¡Una vision del porvenir!, 1875) and, to some degree, Jorge Klickmann (La ciudad encantada de Chile: drama patriótico histórico-fantástico en cuatro actos, 1892), José Victorino Lastarria (Don Guillermo, 1860) and Juan Egaña (Ocios filosóficos y poéticos en la Quinta de las Delicias, 1829), were certainly inspired by republican values, futurist literature such as Verne’s and European positivism, yet, their main concern was always related to Chile and its overall improvement as a country and society. This continued during the first half of the 20th century, with the emergence of Astica’s “classical utopia” Thimor (1932), the surprising popularity of “lost civilization” narratives, such as Hugo Silva’s Pacha Pulai (1945) and Manuel Rojas’ En la ciudad de los césares (1939), as well as the continued trend of futuristic fiction by authors such as David Perry and his Ovalle, el 21 de abril de 2031 (1933) and Julio Assman’s Tierra Firme (1927). Eventually, more complex and experimental works of fiction began to be published with mixed reception by critics, such as Vicente Huidobro’s La Próxima: Historia que pasó en poco tiempo más (1927) and Juan Ermar’s Ayer (1935).

All this just to say that whatever it is that supposedly “died” with Chilean utopian fiction cannot be so easily pinpointed, as utopianism certainly didn’t cease to exist after the 1950s. Something did happen, true, but it wasn’t the end of utopia, but, instead, its transformation. At some point in time, probably between 1960 and 1969, Chilean writers stopped thinking in terms of a “better place” or even a “better life,” and started concerning themselves with what would happen if such a scenario never came to happen. This paradigm shift is what Tom Moylan has called the “dystopian turn” of utopian fiction; not exclusively a shift in narrative format, but also in the way of approaching and interpreting utopianism and hope for the future. The history of this phenomenon has been well documented, with experts usually pointing to Yevgueni Zamiatin’s Мы (We;1924) as the first formal dystopia. Huxley, Bradbury, Orwell, Vonnegut and many others would follow, thus allowing for dystopia to take shape and flourish all over the world, leaving classical eutopias as little more than a vestige of history.

Chile, as it has usually been the case, arrived late at the party and only started embracing the dystopian mindset well after the Anglo-Saxon world had already developed it beyond its original limits. To give an example of how disconnected Chilean imagination was with English and North American sensibilities, two years after Huxley published A Brave New World (1932), where he directly hyperbolized and criticized a social model based on Fordism, Huidobro, one of Chile’s finest poets, published La Próxima, a novel where he explicitly and non-ironically praised Ford for his contribution to mankind.

Thus, Chile’s delayed dystopian turn was probably encouraged by two factors: influence of foreign authors already publishing dystopias in English, and the Latin American political context, constantly on the verge of dictatorships and/or revolutions. Indeed, the first Chilean dystopias seem very much concerned with the political dimension of society, especially after Pinochet’s coup d’etat in 1973 and his subsequent dictatorship. This is why I think in order to understand the dystopian turn in Chile, one has to take into consideration how dystopias represent politics and the political in the country, for this is the soul of the Chilean dystopian imagination; not the social or even the personal experience, but the organizational, the flawed structural frame upon which to develop an idea of society. This is what dystopias in Chile are all about and I’d like to explain how and why.

To what extent the “political” constitutes the heart of dystopia can be debated; however, it’s important to remember that, unlike eutopia, there’s nothing natural in the way dystopian fiction organizes society. Dystopias are, by definition, an idea of order that never fully becomes what it’s meant to be; they’re a false promise of well-being that denies its own falsehood, a bad joke (or a joke gone bad). It’s from this standpoint that dystopia articulates itself right in between the intersection of what Claude Lefort would call “the political” and “politics.”

We’re certainly familiar with the many images of dystopian politics dystopian fiction has provided us with, such as The Big Brother or Bradbury’s firefighters; yet, we’re not so accustomed to think about the political ramifications of these expressions of power and control. Even if we don’t see it at first glance, there’s always a philosophical substance behind these narrative elements that justify their existence and validate their abuses; a certain kind of “intuition” about the world we live in that explains why, at that moment in time, those particularly terrible, unjust and inhuman politics make absolute and perfect sense. For Lefort this is quite evident if we consider monarchy as an example, for monarchy is not only the reign of kings and princes, but also the world they exist in, from tax collection to the black death. All these apparently incidental occurrences were philosophically interpreted in such a way as to explain why kings were needed to organize society, for without them there could not exist a society in the first place. It just made sense. Politics, then, do not determine the political, but the other way around: what we see and consider as the expression of politics, depends on the tacit philosophical agreement by the majority of the population that the way in which we organize society corresponds with the perception and definition of the world we’re currently living in.

When classical dystopias emerged, they subverted this conviction through irony: at some undetermined point in time, we learn when reading Bradbury, Orwell and Huxley, something happened in the world, and harmony between the political and politics broke. That’s the main revelation most classical protagonist go through, that something is amiss with the way the world works, something’s wrong and they’re the only ones capable of perceiving it. That’s their epiphany and their burden.

This sense of a fleeting philosophical substance probably springs from the experience of World War II, when the political apparently “retreated” to a realm beyond politics, as Jean Luc-Nancy posits. This means we’re left with political action without political substance; organization without explanation, a Big Brother that cannot stop watching over us, despite its non-existence, a firefighter that cannot stop burning books, despite his love for them. This probably was classical dystopias most nuanced and problematic prediction, the idea of a society that has no reason to be the way it is, yet cannot be anything else. What to do, then, confronted with the self-fulfilling prophecy of politics without the political? Nancy and Lacou-Labarthe have interpreted this “retreat”, in classical derridean fashion, as a “re-treat,” meaning a new opportunity to re-signify the political in the historical progression of the West. But what if there’s no coming back from this retreat of the political? What if this permanently elusive meaning dilutes to the point of becoming unrecognizable, or even worse, antiquated? Maybe there’s no political to be found anymore, maybe dystopias are, in their own philosophically twisted way, correct.

I find this philosophical uncertainty and unrest constitute a key component of the Chilean dystopian imagination. Following Tom Moylan’s famous taxonomy, we could argue “mythical dystopias,” forever closed-off to any potential change, preclude the political to ever coming back into contact with politics, while “epical dystopias,” slightly more optimistic and open to change, would argue the opposite, that there is indeed a potential way of coming back from the retreat of the political and recovering the lost meaning behind our societal organization. It’s between these two opposite poles of interpretation that the Chilean dystopian turn takes place sometime during the 1960s and 1970s; constantly negotiating, through fiction, a way of think and re-think politics in a country that seems very much devoid of a visible and coherent political dimension.

In accordance with Moylan’s methodology, I would also like to consider Chilean dystopian fiction in terms of co-existing narratives, instead of one main “evolving” narrative form that takes different shapes over time. The first one of these would be the “classical” type, a kind of dystopias produced very much within Lefort’s original theoretical frame, considering the political as a kind of intrinsically positive force capable of providing meaning where there is none. Miguel Arteche’s El Cristo hueco (1969) and Patricio Manns’ De repente los lugares desaparecen (1972) replicate this narrative trend, presenting us with protagonists obsessed with recovering the political meaning hidden behind dystopia –generally identified with ideas of “social justice”, “fairness” and “equality”– that would allow for the implementation of a new political system; one that would be indeed guided by incorruptible moral principles and universally agreed upon social values. This essentialist predisposition, despite its generally good intentions to re-orient society towards a better life, forcefully leads the protagonists down a very dangerous road, one where their own moral arrogance can become the basis for a new system of dystopian oppression.

We can see a very good example of this ironic dismantling of political meaning at the end of Manns’ novel, where in order to overthrow the dystopian government, the already “woke” protagonist enacts a massive genocide that kills innocents and oppressors alike. He then goes on to justify his actions and proclaim a new system of laws that explicitly discriminates between those that lived within the confines of the previous dystopia and those that didn’t. In the end, after his laws basically exterminate most of the population, he deems society unworthy, and nonchalantly sails into the sunset with his woman by his side and the promise of a new world somewhere else.

There’s a tremendous irony in this whole final act that’s completely lost to Manns. The narrator truly believes “drastic measures” like this need to be implemented in order to improve humanity, a conviction that, instead of recovering the political substance of societal organization, utterly destroys it, as Derrida explains in “The Force of Law”: every new law introduced in society requires we forbid, forget or break a previously established one, for every new law produces a new rule that didn’t exist before. Thus, if the prerequisite of creating and enacting the law is that we break the law, every new system, such as the one Manns’ protagonist creates, is necessarily grounded in injustice and should be irredeemably be considered unlawful and undesirable.

Critical dystopias, on the other hand, follow a different path. These narratives, as Moylan points out, are fully aware that no binary dissection of the world can truly reflect the complex nature of human society. If we accept dystopian politics as evil, we also have to come to terms with the fact that they, too, spring from a specific political interpretation of the world; one which, at some point in time considered these practices and rules as lawful, just and in harmony with a particular weltanschauung that may be lost to us. “How did we get here?” is the question that echoes through critical dystopias, an inquiry that mostly goes unanswered.

Chilean critical dystopias published during Pinochet’s dictatorship, both in Chile and abroad, clearly reflect the despair that stemmed from the uncertainty left after the quite literal extirpation of any political dimension from the country by the military. The protagonists of novels such as Ariel Dorfman’s La última canción de Manuel Sendero (1982) and Claudio Jaque’s El ruido del tiempo (1987), while also obsessed with recovering a long-lost, abstract and even mythical political sense, are also haunted by the intuition that their quest might lead them nowhere or, even worse, return them to where they started from. Let’s take La última canción de Manuel Sendero as an example: here, the narrative/counter-narrative paradigm Rafaella Baccolini identifies in her analysis of dystopian narrative, is relativized by way of portraying a fractured resistance, one that doesn’t necessarily agree on what political meaning they’re trying to recover. They agree dystopia needs to be resisted, while, at the same time remain awfully conscious of the fact that the dystopia they’re trying to overthrow didn’t appear out of thin air, but was instead a product of its time, something their own resistance might end up replicating. What’s the correct way, then, to resist the imposition of unfair politics? How can we make sure our own political convictions won’t end up creating unfair and oppressive politics after they become the norm?

The terrifying realization of critical dystopias is that we can’t ever be sure we’re doing the right thing. Since there’s no “good” political, there can’t be “good” politics either; everything is relative to its own conditions of possibility and critical dystopias show this impossibility of truly recovering what we strive for, while, at the same time, expressing the unavoidable stubbornness of hope, even at risk of self-destruction.

Finally, I will briefly mention a more recent and less explored variant of Chilean dystopian fiction I’d like to call the “infra-political dystopia”. These narratives represent a change of attitude towards the political that seeks to diminish its importance and destabilize its non-place at the heart of societal organization.

Instead of lamenting the retreat of the political and seeking its return, infra-political dystopias assume its absence as an opportunity to redirect resistance towards politics themselves. In these narratives, protagonists don’t identify as “political beings;” they don’t protest, they don’t create manifests, they don’t plan how to overthrow dystopia and impose a new way of life, but prefer, instead, to exercise subtle and nuanced resistant practices through their daily lives that can’t be fully described or even identified as political. It’s all in the details: the way in which one pays, walks by a police station, or the tone one uses when addressing a superior, all apparently minor and insignificant personal quirks dystopian politics would normally dismiss as flaws of character incapable of truly impacting society in any meaningful way. This is, however, the infra-political aim, to lead authorities into believing there’s no need to restrict, there’s no reason to redirect political attention, all the while creating what James Scott calls a “hidden transcript” of popular discontent that, at some point in the future, will become its own political substance.

The novel that best encompasses this way of looking at the political void is 2010: Chile en llamas (1998) by Darío Oses, where a group of ragtag individuals, all with different agendas, seek to steal the cryogenically preserved body of “the General” that led the country into becoming a cyberpunk dystopia and capitalist paradise. The entire odyssey is marked by futileness, for the protagonists are all aware that even if they indeed manage to steal the body, nothing would change. They know their efforts constitute a way of exercising a symbolic resistance against the world as it is, a kind of rebellion against everything that can’t be successful simply because it doesn’t adhere to any political interpretation of success. Yet, they exercise resistance, they create a hidden transcript of society that could eventually lead to some new political meaning not yet discovered. One can only hope, and that seems to be the infra-political way of looking at things.

In the end, these questions remain unsolved. Whether we assume an essentialist view of the political, become paralyzed by our own agency, or assume there’s no political meaning to recover yet, it all goes to show how the dystopian turn has impacted Chilean utopian imagination. It’s hard to believe we could go back to a eutopian mindset, with such innocence and confidence as that of 19th and 20th centuries authors, not yet completely jaded by distrust, fear and skepticism. However, it’s necessary to clarify that it’s not that dystopian writers have forgotten or renounced hope, that still remains, even if in tatters and shambles. No; the question dystopia asks today is even more unsettling and unresolvable: what are we hoping for?

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