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.

So much for set up. Early on, the visitor to Ecotopia, the reporter William Weston (who is a kind of everyman), notices that the “manners” (one is tempted to say, mœurs in Montesquieu’s sense) of the Ecotopians “are even more unsettling” than their political economy. Much of this is exhibited to the reader in terms of their sexual manners, which are a mixture of what we might call ‘hook-up culture’ and communal-polyamorous living arrangements. But that’s not what I want to focus on (although surely related to what prompted this post).

Rather, the theme I focus on is first introduced by way of the very early observation by Weston that Ecotopian functionaries refuse to be spoken to as if they were machines. I quote:

People seem to be very loose and playful with each other, as if they had endless time on their hands to explore whatever possibilities might come up. There’s none of the implicit threat of open criminal violence that pervades our public places, but there’s an awful lot of strong emotion, willfully expressed! The peace of the train ride was broken several times by shouted arguments or insults; people have an insolent kind of curiosity that often leads to tiffs. It’s as if they have lost the sense of anonymity which enables us to live together in large numbers. You can’t, therefore, approach an Ecotopian functionary as we do. The Ecotopian at the train ticket window simply wouldn’t tolerate being spoken to in my usual way—he asked me what I thought he was, a ticket-dispensing machine? In fact, he won’t give you the ticket unless you deal with him as a real person, and he insists on dealing with you—asking questions, making remarks to which he expects a sincere reaction, and shouting if he doesn’t get it. But most of such sound and fury seems to signify nothing.

Again, I suspect Ecotopia’s implied critique of American urban, ‘public places’ (in the 1970s) cannot be easily decoupled from its (rather problematic) racial politics. But simultaneously its exploration of the implied self-regulation of the expressions of emotions in public spaces under American capitalism is also at least partially orthogonal to such racial politics. By American standards, “these people [Ecotopians] are horribly over-emotional.”

Throughout the book we are shown vignettes of “little emotional dramas.” As our informant-reporter says, “there’s something embarrassing and low-class about them, but they’re delightful in a way, and both participants and observers seem to be energized by them” in Ecotopia. As readers we are exposed to a culture in which shouted arguments and insults are not only normal, but also evidence of public health. (Public health is very important to the soft eugenic culture of Ecotopia.) One way they are shown to be healthy is that intensely expressed emotions create a space for collaborative, bottom-up social problem solving. The expressions of emotions are treated as providing (to use philosophical lingo) shared epistemic and emotional access to social problems and for inviting fellow citizens into participatory experiments in living. There are a lot of small, collective deliberative spaces that intense emotions help regulate in Ecotopia.

This material in Ecotopia has not aged well despite being rather salient as an oblique mirror to ourselves. While ecological sustainability has (despite too slow progress) been mainstreamed, in fact, public expressions of emotions are now often understood and interpreted as ‘social safety’ issues. And while the norms play out differently for men (bullies) and women (hysterics), our culture has very low tolerance for the kind of emotional sound and fury that Ecotopians express.

In fact, one of the more interesting (and to me truth-apt) implied claims of Ecotopia is that it suggests that our practices of emotional suppression also means we can’t properly read in fine-grained matter the expressed emotions of others and ourselves. In her piece, Maria is very attentive to how such norms play out in public. I quote two passages:

[I] He was clearly upset, but never raised his voice, used insulting or abusive language or made threatening gestures. He simply didn’t supply the meekness the very stressed out airport employee desired….

[II] We were all white and middle-aged, and while we’d been quite voluble amongst ourselves, we were each careful to speak in soft, unthreatening and really quite feminised ways to the young rent-a-cops

In both passages, Farrell shows us how much emotional self-regulation we do in public, and also how gendered these norms are. In our contemporary culture we learn to suppress the expression of emotions especially in contexts of escalation of conflict. (Ecotopia is the polar opposite.) I doubt Farrell was afraid herself of the rent-a-cops (but I am happy to be corrected otherwise), but she clearly knows that being emotionally expressive will reduce her credibility and status in the potentially stressful interaction with them.

As I noted, Callenbach’s Ecotopia is full of vignettes that explore the impact of the absence of such extreme emotional self-regulation of the sort our society requires from its members routinely. That’s compatible with there being very different gendered and racial sanctions for violation of such norms in different local and national contexts (with the use alcohol or drugs  being supplementary mechanisms regulating this).

Now, Callenbach was clearly under the influence of ideas that viewed certain kind of emotional repression as expressing a socially stratified class society that is inauthentic and as bad for personal and social (public) health. Think of Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, or Marcuse’s work on surplus repression in Eros and Civilization. In Ecotopia Callenbach implies that systematic practices of emotional repression, meekness, and inauthenticity, are part and parcel of capitalist patriarchy and a militarized society.

Callenbach clearly expects that a feminized polity and work-place that stresses balance will end our extreme practice of emotional repression. (In Ecotopia it is completely normalized to have women in power of social organizations and political life.) And, again, this suggests Ecotopia itself is in the grip of a kind of stereotypical contrast between emotions being feminine and hyper-stoicism being masculine. Even so, I suspect this expectation misses how entrenched emotional repression is in our predominant culture. (That’s compatible with it being visibly rejected in various sub-cultures.)

In her piece, Farrell clearly implies this practice is the effect of institutionalizing mechanisms of coercion as distinct from care.  That’s surely part of the story in some contexts. A Marxist may well go on to suggest that our societies are fundamentally structured by such violence. But I suspect that Callenbach is onto something when he implies that our widespread self-repression, in which we turn ourselves to meek emotional automatons, is the product of wider forces of socialization not the least our extremely long periods of classroom schooling of the young.



MisterMr 08.16.23 at 9:01 am

I think that the concept of emotion control is too general: the example from Farrel’s post is about controlling aggressivity/dominance, but also the “feminized” response implies a show of emotions that should influence the security so this isn’t really just a case of shutting down emotions.

Also emotions are a way of communicate and often of control, so if your boss starts shouting in the face to you this is not emotional control but it is certainly social control.

There is also a difference between emotions conceived as our own private state VS emotions used in communication or shared with other (like public shame).

In general it seems to me that people who speak of controlled emotions think of a subset of emotions, implying that those are the private true emotions, but don’t see the enforced public emotions, that since we are a gregarious animal arr also very important.

Some time ago I reread some Jung, specifically “psychological types” and the previous paper about introvertion/extrovertion (both quite unscientific for modern standards) and I realized that I had problems in understanding them because when Jung speaks of feelings he moslty means what I called gregarious emotions (would be extrovert feelings in Jung’s typology), whereas by feeling I generally mean something way more private, what I called private emotions (introvert feelings in Jung’s typology).
But certainly extrovert feelings, those emotional responses that are accepted and reinforced by society and by those who are around us, are the base of social living.
So it seems to me that the idea that in an ideal society there would be less emotional control is based on a conflation with the idea that people would more immediately express their private, immediate feelings, but somehow this would have the same pro social effect of adering to gregarious, extrovert feelings.


MFB 08.16.23 at 10:33 am

In the 1960s, I gather, calling someone uptight was an insult. (Of course the Velvet Underground turned it into a blessing.) Nowadays, uptight is an agenda, a social disciplining which gets you additional credit points and ultimately into the Party lounge where you can have one Margarita with a half-tot of tequila.

I think I prefer the Ecotopia thingy, even though in South Africa the relaxation of social norms has turned into a nightmare of mutual abuse (one of my schoolmates — not -friends, I emphasise) got into one of his routine shouting matches with a […] traffic-cop which ended with the cop producing his pistol and schoolmate’s exit from the human scene.


oldster 08.16.23 at 11:14 am

Thanks, Eric! I read the book when it came out, but have forgotten most of it. It is very much a time-capsule of its era — the era of Nixon and Vietnam, but also Woodstock and the Whole Earth Catalogue. In fact, I suspect that the WEC would be the best guide to tracing the sources of its outlook.
“…our widespread self-repression, in which we turn ourselves to meek emotional automatons, is the product of wider forces of socialization….”
This could also be inferred from traveling to various actual societies, I assume? Comparing the Netherlands to Italy to Mexico to Japan and so on?

“… we can’t properly read in fine-grained matter the expressed emotions of others….”
“in fine-grained matter” / “in a fine-grained manner”?


Eric Schliesser 08.16.23 at 11:36 am

thank you for catching that typo. I will leave it in the main body of the text for now.
Yes, I almost added a paragraph on what I intended to call the Stoicism of the Northlands, but removed most of it.


some lurker 08.16.23 at 2:53 pm

Maybe not news to many but ecotopia was one of the nine “nations” in Garreau’s book of that name from 1981. His map includes SoCal so PNW locals have moved on to a new name — Cascadia — that severs that link.


steven t johnson 08.16.23 at 4:08 pm

I read Ecotopia when it first came out in mass paperback. Even then I was amazed at the way in utopia meaningful sex was freely available but there was nothing to ensure meaningless sex didn’t happen. Or maybe I just didn’t understand/remember? Maybe it was like Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, the inappropriate sorts of people would simply be rejected by the right sorts, being instantly recognizable as wrong or defective?

Trying to remember any of the rest, I have an impression that population, not total, not density, not age groups, not ethnicity played no open role in the story. Inasmuch as I tend to think of the subject of ecology being the diversity in populations, which very much includes the numbers, in retrospect calling this book Ecotopia is a misnomer. There is bad style in the fictional science of SF and flagrant nonsense in my opinion is bad style

(Philosophical fiction purporting to be influenced by scientific ideas, as the “Eco” in Ecotopia does, is SF, the mode of this novel in the utopian genre.)

Insofar as the book is quasi-anarchist, I have no doubt there are fundamentally reactionary ideas, because anarchism looks backward. Looking backward will turn your brain at least into a pillar of salt?


nastywoman 08.16.23 at 4:36 pm

@’I was more struck by its implied claims about the nature of emotional self-disciplining and self-regulation in modern capitalist societies’.

But anybody who currently has to travel a lot might be a lot more struck by the nature of the very liddle emotional self-disciplining and self-regulation in modern capitalist societies –
anymore? –
and Maria’s experience reminded me on all the Drama we just experienced in the last six month – from some drunken (British) dudes having to be escorted from a flight to Island and/or a enraged German grabbing a Alitalia Groundess by the neck -(because he lost his connection) to the Crazy American who yelled in Austin Texas ‘I have no Filter anymore’
(because Trump told me I can yell whatever I want to yell?)

And I don’t know if any of you guys ever saw the Cult Shocker ‘Snakes on a Plane’
Now that movie makes a very good case for keeping ANY Snakes on Planes constantly in check – with the exception perhaps of Communistic (Chinese) Snakes as they tend to be pretty ‘orderly’ NOT biting everybody…


J, not that one 08.16.23 at 5:16 pm

@1 Yes, I think lots of discussions of ideal societies assume part of the “ideal” bit is that people’s private emotions will be the same as the socially desirable public emotions, and/or vice versa. The devil being, as usual, in the details. Do they think the private kind of emotions will go away, because people will be educated better? Or do they think the currently desirable public emotions will change to be more natural (i.e. more like the private ones)? Or something else? Will a perfect social arrangement ensure there are never any problems, or will there be some kind of coercion or exclusion required?

Lots of people have thought Western mores were flawed, going back at least two hundred years, but the specifically way anyone thinks they’re flawed in any given decade is complex. There was a time when we were supposed to take Maugham’s (of all people!) play “The Constant Wife” as feminist! This kind of fiction is a time capsule, as oldster says.


Raven Onthill 08.17.23 at 3:43 pm

I am left thinking that Ecotopia in some ways resembles Italy, or maybe Mexico.

More seriously, I have never read the book; I always got bored and put it down. (I hadn’t, at that time, encountered Blish’s conservative remark that he had never encountered a fictional utopia that would not in practice have been a hell.) I suppose it would be worth the trouble of studying.

As to the subject at hand; the free expression of emotion is a matter of privilege: Brett Kavanaugh’s tears were treated with sympathy, while Christine Blasey Ford’s were mocked. It is not a matter of capitalism; the ultimate example of this is Edo Japan, which was not at all capitalist, where anyone expressing the wrong emotions around a noble would quickly be run through with one of those finely-crafted swords. (It was done depressingly often. Traditional Japan was an intensely violent culture.)

The book’s attitude on this matter, and indeed much of the radical culture of the time, was a reaction to ferociously anxious buttoned-down 1950s US culture. The ethics and personality model of Freud, itself built on the denial of trauma, was simplified to the point of absurdity. Freud believed that the superego was a necessary part of personality; Marcuse felt it it was a tool of capitalism, yet has there ever been anything more intensely sexual than 1950s masculinity? In any event, in the sexual revolution, abandoning “sexual repression” in practice turned into letting masculine privilege loose, without creating any countervailing feminine privilege. Hence, modern feminism.


hix 08.18.23 at 12:21 am

I´ve been thinking for a long time that a particular form of hell must be working in a Disney Theme Park. And i do like Theme Parks. At least Ryanair staff does not have that particular problem – they are allowed to be as negative emotional as they like, as part of the particular emphasice how we are all about price marketing ritual aren´t they?

A bit like some discount stores do use cheap looking, but not necesarily cheaper floor materials and the like. Since one of the “expensive” thing about airlines were historically the relativly high educated high social status flight attendants that where expected to give a lot of emotional support to often rare flyers. Now with Ryanair flying is like riding a bus, everybody can do it all the time….

One of the more interesting things i learned about expressing emotions at work in different countries was that South Koreans would be forgiven (sufficiently rare) emotional outbreaks that were a sure reason to be fired in Germany without them ever getting even mentioned the next day. So there often are nuances to those things that do make them supportable. Think the British outlet for emotional suppression in the worksphere are the pub visits with colleages?


Raven Onthill 08.19.23 at 12:08 am

Inspired by this, I am now again attempting to read Ecotopia. I am 20% in and I feel thoroughly slimed. (And reading another pastoralist minimizing agricultural labor makes me wince…and scares me a bit; if anyone actually tries this, the result will probably be mass starvation.) I’ve also gotten to the point where he is endorsing volcanic expressions of anger, so long as they do not involve actual violence. This is very much consonant with the over-simplified Freudianism I mentioned above, and with Freud’s original sin of the denial of abuse and trauma. It is discredited as a practice.

…I continue north…


oldster 08.19.23 at 9:15 am

“(And reading another pastoralist minimizing agricultural labor makes me wince…and scares me a bit; if anyone actually tries this, the result will probably be mass starvation.)”

Did someone say 1975?

“Seeking to create an agrarian socialist society that he believed would evolve into a communist society, Pol Pot’s government forcibly relocated the urban population to the countryside and forced it to work on collective farms. Pursuing complete egalitarianism, money was abolished and all citizens were forced to wear the same black clothing. Mass killings of perceived government opponents, coupled with malnutrition and poor medical care, killed between 1.5 and 2 million people….”


Raven Onthill 08.19.23 at 5:27 pm

Oldster@12: my feathered brothers fed well.

I did have that in mind; also Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture, but Thomas Jefferson had a streak of it, though most of his ideas were not adopted. Agrarian idealism depends on unrealistic ideas of agriculture and psychology. (I’ve actually worked on an organic farm, a little. I know whereof, a little. It’s probably why the whole thing offends me.)

Anyhow, back the politics of emotion.


Paul Davis 08.19.23 at 11:42 pm

Oldster@12 : it has been a while since I read Ecotopia, but I think the “by choice” element of it was fairly central (though Callenbach never really addressed, I think, what happened to the residents of Cascadia who didn’t want to come along for the particular ride outlined in Ecotopia).

These days, the kids who are somewhat adjacent to the Ecotopia-ish vision don’t seem to advocate for secession or Pol Pot-like takeovers; rather, they seemed resigned to operating within the same space (physical geography and economy) dominated by capitalism, but finding new ways to limit capitalism’s impact on their lives.


steven t johnson 08.22.23 at 2:00 pm

Since this thread took a turn to red-baiting, finding that Thomas Jefferson was too left-wing, I did a little review. I see I missed a reference to the famed conservative James Blish, a remark that fictional utopias are all dystopias for anyone who actually lives in them. It might explain why Blish felt free to imagine a fascist utopia in A Torrent of Faces?

But I would like to point out that all conservatism sees real life on a spectrum running from vale of tears to heroic struggle to the death. All conservatives are unhappy with a complacency that merely accepts the world, instead of a sacrificial dedication to the status quo/struggle to return to the imperiled status quo of the golden age (which is usually six?) And of course, dystopias are always critiques of the present. And again that’s why so many conservatives write dystopias. My impression is that conservative dystopias tend to be even more unconvincing because the ills they critique are largely imaginary. But I am not literary at all, so I’m probably wrong?

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