Ecotopia, Maria Farrell, and Emotional repression

by Eric Schliesser on August 16, 2023

A few weeks ago I read Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston by Ernest Callenbach (1975) for the first time. It is worth doing so if you are one of the few who have not because it very neat to see how ideas around ecological sustainability were conceived back then. In what follows, I will try to avoid major spoilers, although I doubt this is the kind of book that can be ruined by spoilers.

There is a lot to say about the book’s racial and sexual politics (and political economy), its understanding of masculinity, and its implied critique of American militarism and the capture by pharmacological-industrial complex of the political system; but while reading it I was more struck by its implied claims about the nature of emotional self-disciplining and self-regulation in modern capitalist societies. My thoughts on it are inchoate and hesitant, but the attempt to come to terms with them was triggered by a recent post (here) by our very own, Maria Farrell, at Crooked Timber (and the subsequent discussion by our readers.)

Before I get to details, one methodological observation. I tend to conceive of Utopian fiction of having three, potentially mutually reinforcing characteristics. First, it can sketch the contours of a possible society worth having (or avoiding); second, it can sketch the pathway or slippery slope from here to there. And, third, it can magnify the function or effects of existing social institutions and mores that are so familiar that we ordinarily may fail to notice them at all. This third characteristic is what I like to call ‘the oblique mirror’ function of utopian work in which a social mechanism is enlarged and we can contemplate and discuss it.

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