Living in the Teratocene: Bad Places, Dreadful Times

By | March 17, 2024

Guest post by Robert T. Tally Jr., author of The Fiction of Dread

At the beginning of the twentieth century, dystopian fiction was arguably a minor, recessive, or even non-existent genre, while utopian visions seemed to predominate and proliferate. This is not to say that there were no dystopias being produced, and to the extent that cultural criticism employed dystopian ideas, one could argue that dystopia served as an underlying force beneath a great deal of naturalist fiction, social commentary, and even utopian novels (such as Samuel Butler’s satirical Erewhon [1872]). But a vision of beneficent futurity associated with the progressive movement, among other things, gave a certain optative mood to the fin-de-siècle culture in the United States and Great Britain. Virginia Woolf suggested that the world changed in 1910, but most would probably characterize 1914 or 1917 as a more appropriate turning point. Almost exactly one hundred years ago, Woolf’s Russian contemporary Yevgeny Zamyatin penned what many consider to be the foundational modern dystopian novel, We, written by 1921 but first published in English translation in 1924. In the aftermath of the first “world” war, among other cataclysmic events, the dystopian century might be said to have begun.

The zeal for utopian literature and thought at the end of the nineteenth-century was rooted in part in a devastating social critique of the present, but it was also animated by a powerfully progressive vision of the future. Not surprisingly, many famous utopian narratives from this era involved time-travel, with a narrator waking up, Rip Van Winkle-style, to a world transformed. The emergence of twentieth-century dystopia challenges both the hopes for social reform and, more generally, the faith in a progressive arc of history. Time itself did not seem to work as it should, and the radical transformations of the world system in this period altered the spatiotemporal order, to which modernists in the arts as well as modern science attest with equal force. Along those lines, the utopian critique of industrial capitalism gives way to a dystopian perspective on multinational capitalism. If, as Karl Marx observed in the opening line of Capital, “the wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘a monstrous accumulation of commodities,’” in the era of globalization, both the monstrosity and the accumulation expand exponentially, inaugurating a dystopian era of monsters, a teratocene in which the end of the world seems more imaginable, and perhaps even more desirable, than realistic alternatives our present social condition.

The rise of dystopia remains crucial to understanding the system that has become so pervasive and powerful that even the thought of its destruction or evanescence seems nearly inconceivable today. In its original conception, in fact, The Fiction of Dread: Dystopia, Monstrosity, and Apocalypse was imagined as a sequel to my Utopia in the Age of Globalization: Space, Representation, and the World System (2013), but dystopia is not simply the flipside of utopia. Scholars of utopia and dystopia have long known this, of course, and the relationship between the literary forms on the one hand, and the social, political, economic, and cultural forces and networks on the other, are different in complex and interesting ways. Looking at a variety of texts in different media, I explore these themes in relation to three broad, overlapping categories mentioned in the subtitle. In the twenty-first century, dystopian themes, proliferating monsters, and apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic visions appear dominant in popular culture and beyond.

“Monstrous accumulation” seems all too fitting a label for the immense and growing corpus of dystopian visions in our time. It is not just that there seems to be an unlimited reservoir of “monsters” with which to menace us in our present moment, but that the accumulation of dreadful things seems to proceed at an alarming rate. The perils of the postmodern condition, of late capitalism and globalization, that had been cause for such consternation and anxiety a generation or two ago appear almost quaint, in contrast to the far more pervasively gloomy worldviews that predominate the present. Dystopianism has arguably been a leading generic mode or sensibility in popular culture for the past century, but one feels that the acceleration and proliferation of “bad places” in the past forty years or so is especially disturbing. It sometimes feels that the present is fundamentally dystopian, beset on all sides with monstrous forebodings and terrors, amounting to a veritable teratocene or “age of monsters” in which variation predictions of the end of the world, of some sort of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic condition, becomes almost utopian in its own right.

The fiction of dread as it plays out through novels, films, or critical theory allows us to map our world at this time, to diagnose the malaise of the present, to identify the monsters that menace but also give shape to our social order, and to register our anxieties with respect to the ends of our world alongside our hopes for its reconstitution. The dread animating this creative work sparks the imagination, and this is itself the necessary step in the right direction when it comes to our efforts to fashion this world and its future into a better place, after all. This idea is, in some respects, the dialectical complement to Ernst Bloch’s notion of “gold-bearing rubble,” insofar as it attempts to find what there may be of value in a future we no longer dare to believe possible, and yet in seeking it, we make of that apparently rubble-strewn future, a dystopian landscape filled with monsters and teetering on the edge of the world’s end itself, a space that is not only inhabitable, but actually worth living in.

Robert T. Tally Jr. is Professor of English at Texas State University. His recent books include The Critical Situation: Vexed Perspectives in Postmodern Literary Studies (2023); For a Ruthless Critique of All That Exists (2022); J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit: Realizing History Through Fantasy (2022); Topophrenia: Place, Narrative, and the Spatial Imagination (2019); Fredric Jameson: The Project of Dialectic Criticism (2014); Poe and the Subversion of American Literature (2014); Spatiality (2013); Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel (2011); and Melville, Mapping, and Globalization (2009). Tally is also the editor of the Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies book series.

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