(REVIEW) Imperative Utopia, by Saskia McCracken
Michael Black reads Saskia McCraken's pamphlet Imperative Utopia (-algia, 2021) through the imaginaries of feminist world-building in the anthropocene. Honing in on the materiality of the pamphlet and its imperative modes, Black highlights the role of the non-human in McCraken's work, always doubling and expanding our imaginaries and desires for utopia.
Like the very first pamphlet from -algia, Stella Hervey Birrell’s Parent. Worshipper. Carrion, the second, Imperative Utopia from Saskia McCraken is a kind of anti-instruction manual. These are not texts that would dare teach us exactly how to be a parent or how to make utopia happen. Both are interested in eliciting the reader’s ideas.
First and foremost, McCracken’s title catches our attention. What figure of speech is Imperative Utopia? Is it oxymoronic to say a utopia will be constrained by imperatives? Or is it instead that a utopia needs some kind of constraint?
The pamphlet opens with an epigraph from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland (1915): ‘This is written from memory, unfortunately.’ Herland is a utopian novel about a community of women overcoming reliance on patriarchy by reproducing through parthenogenesis. The epigraph quotes the novel’s first words where the narrator apologises for not having any documentary evidence of this community called Herland. Both in McCracken’s pamphlet and Gilman’s novel, this apology subverts itself. The imaginative use of memory only strengthens the work, whereas excessively numerous facts distract.
A corresponding resistance to scientism is key to Imperative Utopia. Another McCracken poem not included in the pamphlet, ‘Skying with Sappho’, is sceptical about scientists using astronomical mapping of the skies to date exactly when Sappho wrote. Integral to this cautious view of science is a clear recognition that Perkins Gilman’s novel is rooted in eugenicist discourse. In ‘How to write Utopia’, McCracken writes:
Remember that in Herland the unspoken blueprint is eugenics it's as much about what you don't want as what you do
This dangerous aspect of utopia, its proximity to dystopia, is related in Gilman’s writing to the controversial Women and Economics: A study of the relation of men and women as a factor in social evolution (1898). Though Gilman’s Herland imagines potentially liberating parthenogenesis she argues in this earlier text for highly problematic imperatives, calling on ‘the thinking women of to-day’, an obviously ill-defined exclusionary category, to recognize ‘their social responsibility as individuals’ in ‘their measureless racial importance as makers of men.’
Though clearly interested in Perkins Gilman, by being non-didactic, McCracken’s utopia is often closer to the communitarian feminist utopias of the 1970s, of writers like Bernadette Mayer and Marge Piercy. By foregrounding contemporary communities McCracken encourages us to believe a utopian Herland need not be eugenicist. It is not coincidental that ‘Herland’ is also the re-appropriated name for events organised by the Glasgow Women’s Library. Described on the website as ‘irregular’, the aim is to be ‘historic and cutting edge’, but also welcoming to all in celebrating ‘established and experimental women creatives work.’ The web page about these generous collaborative events has a poster capturing this spirit:
Compare the mirrored typography to the graphic design of the front cover of Imperative Utopia:
The pamphlet is illustrated with beautiful monochrome illustrations by the writer, editor and musician Greg Thomas, whose pamphlet from im and not this is forthcoming from SPAM. McCracken’s pamphlet is printed on recycled paper without the bleached, blinding dye of commercial printing.
This may be part of the overall aesthetic which aims to show utopia could not start from a grand, totalising vision. Instead the pieces invite us to ‘write’ our own individual utopias with simple steps:
Start with something small a blueberry a paper-clip a ball bearing Take all your ideas and put them inside this small object [...] Put on your biggest boots Grind down that small object under the heel left or right it doesn't matter which The don't and the do mingle with hair and dust Take what's left of your object wipe it up with a sponge eat the sponge
McCracken’s work contrasts with Gilman’s because the ‘don’t and the do mingle.’ This sentiment is reflected in the balance between much longer and much shorter lines, the decision not typeset them all in a straight direction. Utopia becomes daily and minute. It can be made from sponges or by rubbing our heel against the ground with our boots. The focus on the detailed and specific helps the poems nudge us gently there.
The paper is recycled but so is the text to some extent. On the back, there are ‘Notes on Compost’ in which McCracken mentions texts that have been woven into the pamphlet. Composting means that the original text being reused has subtly shifted in meaning. It may not be possible to say exactly how. Whereas commercial recycling always leads to a new transparent product for the commercial market, the results of composting in a garden can be more dynamic and exciting. Two of the texts being composted are very positive. They speak to the hopeful imperative of the pamphlet as a whole: Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in a Dark Place (2003), and John Nery’s ‘Hope it turns out, is a mushroom’ (2019). A poetics of composting can be internationalist as well as local and discrete. At a conference on Virginia Woolf, in June 2019, entitled Recycling Woolf, Professor Supriya Chaudhuri spoke about ‘Virginia Woolf and Compost’, in a paper that insisted the idea of ‘literature as compost’ is about being ‘self-renewing’ and ‘gender-crossing.’
There is also incorporation of and attention to the non-human. In ‘Utopia is Sweaty’, the focus is not on which political sects benefit from utopia, but on the ‘ecstasy’ of the resulting ‘Microbiome party’: ‘It is hard to know who is getting more from this paradise-this us or that us.’ Again the ‘do’ and the ‘don’t’ must dance. The non-human rightly dominates also when ‘In the Commune’, the participants in experimental utopia, Herland or elsewhere, focus on ‘the uses of seaweed’, coming to rely on ‘algae’ for toothpaste and ‘acne ointments.’ The merging of species feels mutually beneficial. The pamphlet is alert to species inter-dependence as a utopian possibility.
There are also insects to enjoy. Passing over lifestyle trends, ‘sourdough starters, houseplants, baking, Duolingo, knitting, Yoga with Adrienne’, we can all often get ‘obsessed with lepidoptera.’ In the poem ‘Nematode Mephistoph’, there are discussions of the ‘imago stage’, when from within ‘the chrysalis’: ‘caterpillars dissolve their bodies completely.’ This ‘liquidation’ makes ‘imaginal cells vibrate together and create new organs, a new body.’ Utopia has an imperative that is entomological. This impetus might resonate with another pamphlet this year from Katy Lewis Hood's, Bugbear.
Through its interest in the imago the pamphlet corrects the laziness of Jacques Lacan. Using the imago, the transition of caterpillar to butterfly, for his famed ‘mirror phase’, he thought in 1980 that he could conclude: ‘human knowledge has greater autonomy than animal knowledge in relation to the field of force of desire.’ (Trans. Alan Sheridan, 3). Part of Lacan’s laziness is the bland repetition of the Aristotelian view that politically rational speech separates human and nonhuman. By contrast, McCracken knows that essential to utopia is acceptance of an equal amount of human and non-human desire for its emergence. Imperative Utopia is interested in ending notions of a conflict for the world’s resources.
If the pamphlet therefore desires a non-anthropomorphic desire, it is of course vitally ambitious. It works hard, surprising me with the fact that ‘nematodes have populated almost all areas of the world’:
hot springs deserts mountains ocean depths Antarctica inside the bellies of other animals inside our bellies inside the placentas of sperm whales.
It is only right that 1/3 of the proceeds are donated to the charity for maintaining biodiversity: World Land Trust. It will be hard to conceptualise and maintain utopia that starts with the nonhuman. This pamphlet will help.
Imperative Utopia is available to purchase from -algia here.
Text: Michael Black
Image Credit: Michael Black