Mixed Media: Utopian Schemes

Lenore Malen, The New Society for Universal Harmony (Granary Books, 2005)

Every era creates a utopia in its own image. In ours, the summer’s film offerings exhibit enough dystopian worlds to make the point. Batman, Land of the Dead, Star Wars: in popular culture our empire has become evil, dominant, corrupt, controlled by an exclusive corporate class that gouges the poor and squanders the natural and cultural resources. Or was that last night’s news? Lenore Malen’s comment on utopianism, The New Society for Universal Harmony, rides a peculiarly thin line between parody and triviality, an apt approach for a time in which the frames between reality programs and unreal reportage blur daily. The cues and codes disappear by which we were wont to identify quasi-authoritative newspeak and distinguish it from professional journalism, rant, or the bullying ravings of a licensed mad person.

Malen’s Society might or might not really exist in upstate New York, in those cool regions, like Oneida, funded by well-meaning visionaries from the progressive, reformist, 19th-century middle class. Such projects have fallen out of favor in our times. That niche in the cultural psyche has been filled by the Biosphere and the most recent “Trip to Mars” isolation tank, created to see if humans can sustain years and years of solitary confinement in outer space. These are not utopian projects, but manifestations of rationalism gone wrong. Why not just head to Guantánamo and check on a few of the detainees? Harmony, as Theodor Adorno would admonish us, stinks of the absorption of the individual into the state, of an instrumental rather than critical rationality.

Malen’s narrator records her discovery of the New Society and interviews with F.A. Mesmer, the doctor-designer of the experimental community. The text is stilted. The dialogue as reported has a staged authenticity. The whole structure feels forced. Unreal. Lenore, the teller of the tale, synthesizes the mind-body harmonies of Mesmer’s approach to being as part of a new-age probability theory of social transformation. The documentation of the “experiments” show up here as flat photographs, poor imitations of 19th-century documents of medical science. A bad faith sensibility pervades. A discomfort sets in for the reader. Is this a genuine imaginative document or just faked pseudo-information? What are we to trust? The materials drawn from the “archive” include reproductions from 18th and 19th century publications alongside newly minted materials. The old engravings of mesmerism, like the photographs of Salpêtrière, exert an enduring fascination on artistic imagination. Malen is by no means the first to make use of either images or themes of mind control and psychic forces. The appeal of these early documents is kitsch and genuine. Even as we laugh at the quaint belief in the power of magnetism, the fact is that Mesmer and others hinted at insights that the predominant modes of empiricism and materialist science have ignored in favor of mechanical causality. Quantum physics dislodged these models in some theoretical communities in the early decades of the 20th century, but not all. Our participation shapes phenomena. And Malen makes subtly clear that the boundaries between observer and observed are continually shifting across unstable fields. But these are not necessarily commonly held beliefs.

Malen returns to the New Society for a second visit after her initial research project is concluded, but in the interim she has passed a significant milestone—the events of 9/11. That event, significantly not dwelt on at any length, does provide a rupture between everything that came “before” and everything that comes “after.” This fundamental demarcation provides the narrative pivot in this book. On her arrival, she finds all has changed. The Society has been split, ruptured by trauma. Her narrator shifts from reporter to participant, from interviewer to lover. An entrepreneurial streak emerges in the Society, motivated by everything other than scientific inquiry and community spirit. An exploitative city on the ice, charged to create and export its products, lives on the fringes of what was once a functional and vibrant colony. Why?

This book is full of questionable material. The testimonials by known and named persons (Nancy Princenthal, Irving Sandler, etc.) add to the weirdness. Why are they lending their names to this project? Is this ironic, tongue in cheek, sincere, or a little of each? Why are we presented with social documents of non-events and made to believe through the tangential commentary of actual, living persons that the New Society exists? Why indeed? Think daily on it, and wonder: What is the source of collective belief? If you are not skeptical, you are not paying attention. And if you are paying attention, within what framework of beliefs are you working? The thrust of Malen’s project is clear. The unacknowledged monstrosity of our current circumstances is enormous, but made invisible, naturalized by our daily business. The State generates fear to justify extending its control. In Malen’s Society, the State is at a distance, but the forces of hegemony work through each individual psyche and community.


Johanna Drucker