“Man is the measure.”
1 Since on Ruyer’s account (1988) utopia is a game—a set of building blocks, a social puzzle—I want to start it afresh here, playing this time with the senses of words and expressions. Our epigraph lends itself to this; it is equivocal, but it reflects, sums up, all the structural ambiguity of the utopian genre. Man is the measure because, among living creatures, he alone possesses the faculty, the privilege, of thinking and judging all things and actions as good or bad for himself, as true to and respectful of his humanity or not. At the same time—rather, in doing so—he measures, evaluates, and calculates their value, weighing up their virtues and their flaws to get himself a better, more exact idea of them.
2 Utopia stands at the threshold of modernity, a combination of value and reason, and offers us a paradox in its turn. It is one of humanism’s signature products, testifying on the one hand to man’s centrality, to the importance of his choices and duties when faced with his own actions and creations, and above all with the society he himself freely constructs—without supervision, without some transcendental cause, but simply on the basis of a range of possibilities the ideal city offers as alternatives to what exists now. But utopia is also marked from its origins by the spirit of reason, which it takes to an extreme. Excluding any chance, any difference, anything unforeseen, the social dream of utopia feeds on a deadly passion for order, a mad desire for total control and regulation. Every aspect of life, collective and private, is controlled; every individualistic desire is chased down (Letonturier 2013). The question of the senses in utopia oscillates between two poles: their temporary recognition as constitutive elements of human nature, and their ultimate denial of their potential to be socially subversive.
Technology: Taking communication the wrong way
3 In 1909, E. M. Forster wrote a short story, “The Machine Stops,” which—far earlier and undoubtedly far more radically than many other authors—introduced many of the technocritical themes of later science fiction. In the universe he describes, individuals are locked away from each other in underground cells, having lost contact with the rhythms of the surface and with natural elements—air, for instance, has become unbreathable without a mask. An “omnipotent Machine” mediates their relations in an abstract, indirect way; physical encounters, which induce disgust and even fear, have been replaced with interfaces. The senses are organized according to an age-old Western hierarchy. Physically weak through inactivity and immobility, the body is reduced to its eyes and ears. These control and interact with the screen, enough to satisfy everyday needs and the social directive to produce, express, and receive ideas that glorify the Machine. Its constant humming “penetrates our blood, and may even guide our thoughts” (Forster 2010, 64); it is a reassuring background noise, one echoing in every windowless personal space, a sign everything is running smoothly. The sense of touch is limited to the manipulation of cold, dead objects: buttons, levers, and other controls. The taste for earthly food has apparently been lost or made useless as social life has become intellectualized. Food is never mentioned; neither are mechanical or bodily odors, which are unnoticeable in this automatically sanitized environment. The final part of this freezing of the senses and their products—emotions, impressions, perceptions—is the condemnation of direct observation as a mode of knowledge and perception. Abstract thought is preferred to the flesh and to the fleeting marks the outside world leaves behind.
4 The story briefly describes the surface’s transgressive appeal, detailing the stages by which one emancipates oneself from the Machine and ultimately reappropriates the self by awakening the senses. The ascent reconnects a person with his body and with the new, disorderly sensations assailing him from all sides. Sensual, even painful contact with the material world, the sight of open spaces, the dazzling, penetrating smells of air and wind—all these combine into images and fantasies. Under the influence of this rediscovered, dreamlike power, the landscape finally becomes a living thing of skin, muscles, and movement. Like an inversion of the myth of the cave, the senses—whose suppression served the Machine’s (technical) reason and transcendent idea—bring creativity out into the light, reintroducing the subversive “personal element.” But the possible return to life heralded by this individual, ephemeral adventure has no collective effect. The Machine breaks down over and over, and finally stops working altogether; the dependencies created by linking every person to its artificial world leads eventually to their death. The sensory experience of this is far too brutal for the Machine’s dependents, a vital part of whose being was stripped away so long ago. Tainted air, cries, groans, tears, panicking bodies coming close to each other, striking each other—humanity experiences the extremes of the senses, as well as a final reunion: “we touch, we talk, not through the Machine. . . . We have come back to our own. We die, but we have recaptured life” (Forster 2010, 77). True communication comes from the senses, from an interiority that protects them and nourishes itself on them. It begins when the technology that claims to establish it among us (today more than ever) falls silent. Those “hiding in the mist and the ferns until our civilization stops” find hope and a future in “Homelessness,” far from the womb-like Machine.
Anthropotechnics: Practice as a condition for imagining an ideal world
5 It has become a truism to see “The Machine Stops,” like many other twentieth-century counter-utopian narratives, as a warning and a condemnation (Jarrige 2014)—the opposite of the blissful, ideological optimism of the great utopias of communication. Machines in these portraits of future societies always encroach on the human, eventually claiming it for their own purposes. They interfere to such an extent in our intimate lives that they eventually replace or anesthetize the senses, the means of experiencing others and the world that fundamentally makes homo communicans what he is. Technology aspires to a communication without subjects, one which can do without the activity and feeling of the senses which nevertheless condition it. Especially when it becomes “intelligent,” the Machine is seen as responsible for the ultimate diminishment of man, which it tacitly supports in order to subsequently raise man up by artificially replacing the constituent faculties of his humanity and his culture.
6 But is the Machine really at the origin of the evil that Butler condemned as early as 1863 in his letter on Darwin and technology, in language continually repeated and developed since then (Butler 1914)? Must we wait for the advent of machines before we perceive the malicious intentions they are accused of, particularly the denial of the senses? We could instead see the machine as the recent, externalized product of a larger project, an anthropotechnics man himself engaged in well before he started building robots, well before the array of ever more sophisticated material and chemical “enhancements” offered by medical research (Goffette 2006). We cannot just say, as is customary, that our tools are extensions of our hands—or, like Descartes, that technology is an adaptation by which man dominates nature and satisfies his needs.
7 The more Epimethean hypothesis defended here instead pictures man as partially foreign to nature, unsuited to it, unlike animals—at the very least, not limited or predetermined by nature’s laws alone. This only partial affiliation with the physical world opens a path for choice and the will, a chance—unless we think life is absurd, empty of meaning and value—to formulate our own existential projects in the ways available to us, starting from our own normative basis, to inhabit the world and to protect our well-being. In this Heideggerian framework man is, as Ortega Y Gasset thought, an “inner event” (2016, 9) because he is fundamentally led to “invent the argument of his own life” (1982, 56) and to imagine the conditions of his well-being, which are neither immediately nor totally given to him. The imperative to build another world in the face of this state of original incompleteness explains why man is the agent of his own departure from a nature to which he cannot ontologically reduce his definition.
Utopia as a training ground for the senses
8 This other world must be built if we are to attain and satisfy our humanity. It presupposes a renunciation of one’s natural inclinations, a self-overcoming which demands the resources and support of augmentation. The technical imagination is one of the means that have always been exploited for this task—particularly today, with the real-life applications of NBIC (nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, information technology, and cognitive sciences). Similarly important is the practice of various spiritual and physical exercises, both mental and practical, usually classed under the very useful expression “techniques of the self” (Foucault 2001; Hadot 1995). On this decisive point, the demand for elevation that the plasticity of human nature allows us in spite of its membership in the natural world explains the draw of promises—with regular, programmatic discipline—a more intense life oriented toward an ideal of perfection typically claimed by emblematic figures: monks, artists, athletes, scientists (Sloterdijk 2013). Discipline gives access to these higher forms of existence, but necessarily demands we make a sacrifice and break with the normal, obliging the aspirant to leave the world, putting aside its comforts, the habits and received wisdom of the majority—even disappearing if vocation demands it, renouncing one’s self as the ultimate sign that one has been chosen.  The military ethos, for instance, as a means of calling on and amplifying a soldier’s physical and mental strength and ability, is a highlight of this genuine, effective form of augmentation. We do not need the later technical versions of such augmentation—the high-tech equipment now used in operations, for instance—to witness the ability of military values to produce an amplifying existential effect which bears out the extraordinary training a soldier receives, one which gives him the ability, should he sacrifice himself, to become a hero (Letonturier 2014).
9 Utopia shares these conceptual underpinnings. The role and fate of the senses in utopia should be seen from this general perspective—which is, ultimately, the complex history of different asceticisms, and particularly of their progressive despiritualization as they instead become practices and behaviors to be performed and perfected. The world has become a vast training ground for these different practitioners; different utopias form part of the same project and the same claim to excellence, but this time the experience is offered, not to a small group, but to an entire society. Whether or not it bears any fruit in reality, the utopian project reflects a “mental exercise on lateral possibilities” (Ruyer 1988, 8, my emphasis). The utopian thinker always participates in this practice, of course; the inhabitants of utopia he describes—their social organization, their distinctive way of life, their radical otherness compared to the known, the habitual, the common—do so even more deeply. Breaking with what exists, cutting off all communication with the rest of the world, are visible proof of this collective practice, and the first condition if it is to be implemented effectively. Plato, the genre’s great inspiration, gives instructions and describes the rules of the game which will forever determine the utopian spirit. He does so by setting it against the senses. Divine reason dwells within us (Republic, book 9, 590d), and the construction of the ideal city, as described in Critias or Laws, presupposes a “technique of conversion” (téchnè periagōgès) in which anyone aspiring to live within it must turn “the whole body” and “the whole soul” (Rep., book 7, 518c). The roadmap of the Republic gives a path for everyone to follow, one which leaves the cave, the corrupt world of the senses’ illusions and errors, leading out to the light of the spirit and the incorruptible Ideas, the only things capable of producing the work of reason—in this case, a perfect social world. The toll to pay is to break with one’s senses; the social function of this is to introduce a rupture which all utopias, autarkic to varying degrees, make with existing cities.
10 This closing-off of the outside world creates the optimal conditions for a very different internal regime, one guided by the virtues of reason. Beginning with More’s Utopia (1516), these exercises sanitize living space by clearing away the medieval city—the nauseating odors of its streets, the sounds of its markets and taverns, the anarchic layout without open prospects or clear lines of sight whose congestion forces people into physical contact, jostling, and confrontation. The “closed society” (Popper 2013) clears the old sensory landscape by means of ruler and compass, imposing a new urban geometry based on circle, square, line, and right angle. The nervous stimulation and sensory excitation which, according to Simmel (2010), arise from incessant interactions in the city, risk social disorder which only measure, number, regulation, and symmetry can prevent.
Politics and morality of the senses
11 A traveler’s visit to utopia always begins with an initiation whose different stages reveal to the neophyte the organizational secrets of perfection it has attained. The degree of excellence required to constantly maintenance order demands omnipresent political control. Faithful to a Western taxonomy which has prevailed since Aristotle, the two “major” senses are dedicated to this mission. Sight makes the ideal city a panoptic space, perfectly illustrated by the famous oculus Claude-Nicolas Ledoux placed on top of the Director’s residence in the center of the Saline Royale at Arc-et-Senans. Long before Orwell’s “Big brother is watching you,” everything here “relates to the eye” (quoted in Rittaud-Huttinet 2007, 58). More had already wanted the same thing for his own utopia, where “being under the eyes of all, people are bound either to be performing the usual labor or to be enjoying their leisure in a fashion not without decency” (More 1964, 83).
12 Sight keeps watch, ensuring each person’s professional conscience and good manners and serving the security interests of a politics which is itself transparent. In The History of the Sevarambians (1677), “one sees quite through the Palace” (Veiras 2012, 193)—itself an object for the eyes of all, as in many utopias, both because of its architectural beauty and its central position in the city. This choice of transparency reflects a political aesthetic of deterrence and obedience. It guarantees the exemplarity of the political, which in turn gives the political the right to watch over its citizens, putting them under permanent garde à vue and sentencing them to exhibit and so reflect the state’s will—turning them into “citizens of glass,” to use Sofsky’s expression (2011). In a utopia, secrets are logically impossible and severely punished; everyone is invited to eavesdrop and inform on their neighbor. More builds his utopia on interlocking families and ends up building a spy-state, a Leviathan with a thousand eyes fed by information told in confidence to loved ones, those who know most about us. The state’s omnipotence is the result of an omniscient sense of hearing which gathers personal data by multiplying and disseminating radar stations all over the utopian space. Campanella’s The City of the Sun offers an extreme version of measures designed to promote confidence, insulated from the disturbing hum of rumor and deceit: magistrates, agents of power, are responsible for holding private interviews with citizens, making the society a vast confessional, a space of revelation without mystery.
13 There is a moral politics joined to this sociology of the senses, one which advocates asceticism in all things. We see why the monastery was such a source of inspiration, especially for Campanella, and why commentators were so tempted to turn monasteries into utopias ahead of time—ones, moreover, which were actually built. In spite of their fundamental differences (Séguy 1971), both share the values of frugality and abstinence. The exercise of discipline forbids the pleasures of sense and appetite which commerce, money, wealth, expense, and luxury encourage. Instead of excess and the constant longing for acquisition which satisfaction of the senses seems inevitably to lead to, utopians prefer the modest, the useful, balance, and detachment guaranteed by imposed pooling of goods and collectivization. The senses are disciplined through strict schedules, short periods of sleep, daily labor, and an education without imagination or creation; this discipline uses planning to channel the surplus, sterilizing idées fixes and blocking the return of the repressed. Just as utopia bases its order on a general status quo rooted in the infinite repetition of a social moment it considers perfect, it traps the senses in an exercise program which endlessly trains each of them in the laws of social conformity and the ideal of the pure reason, uncorrupted by the sensible.
14 Need for the senses—the service of the collective good—prevails over and even neutralizes delight in them, always viewed with suspicion and morally condemned. We should not misunderstand Fourier’s praise and defense of the senses in Le nouveau monde amoureux. His concept of “social harmony” demands that work be made pleasurable if the whole is to work well; understanding available human resources is a priority for Fourier’s psychology of work avant la lettre if it is to prescribe each person a range of functions matching their constitution. Utopia is far from the land of Cockaigne and its dream of abundance—far from the inexhaustible pleasures and sensual hedonism of the palace. But the Abbey of Thélème’s famous “Fay ce que vouldras” should not make us forget that this debauchery of the senses offered to the young is only apparent. The pleasure is neither free nor solitary: “If some man or woman said: 'Let’s drink', they all drank” (Rabelais 1999, 126). This is still a sort of exercise, a last full-cast rehearsal before the performance society demands of each individual: complete permission to yield to the sirens of the senses is given only to test one’s sense cohesion, one’s capacity to forget oneself and sacrifice oneself to the demands of the collective. The individual’s good education is also being tested; they are provisionally granted a taste of license in order to test whether their conduct is guided by moral standards, and to strengthen capacity to resist future temptations offered by the freedoms of adult life. Utopian or not, “civilization” is built in the sight of all.
A mechanical city for mechanical men
15 The conclusion of the picture briefly drawn here is the one Fénelon gives in his Voyage dans l’île des plaisirs (1699): “the pleasures of the senses, however varied and easy they may be, debase us, and do not make us happy” (Fénelon 2015, 46). Utopia aims at happiness; it cannot encourage anything that harms it. But is this really the main reason for devaluing the senses? The fact that only two of them are chosen, and only to serve the interests of the collective, is enough to cast doubt on this. An alternative hypothesis is that utopia attacks the famous “inner citadel,” confronting the five so-called “external” senses—the citadel’s first line of defense, its best guides to the external environment, the ramparts of our physical body—before the internal senses of self-perception, consciousness, and identity colonize and shut it off (Vigarello 2014), transforming the individual into an impregnable fortress, impenetrable except to psychology’s later efforts to sound its unconscious depths. Such a view contradicts a utopian project built on the elevation of the collective and the common and—a fatal consequence—the sacrifice of the individual.
16 In The City of the Sun, the death penalty—public stoning or burning, carried out by all since there is no appointed executioner—seems insufficient. In addition to the convict’s own comprehension and assent, punishment calls for consequences justice alone cannot provide. We move from the courtroom to the operating theater; diagnosis succeeds judgment. The inhabitants of this utopia “dissect the corpses of those sentenced to death” (Campanella 1981, 99). This will help them understand the deep, hidden reasons that made the crime in question possible, which allowed it to be conceived and carried out, and why this body did not submit itself to the ideal city’s laws. Interiority is viewed as the site of the unknown, of possible subversion; exploring it uncovers the secrets behind its disobedience, and prevents such deviance from occurring in other subjects. Whether it targets the body or the mind, such investigation takes place when vulnerability is at a maximum and when any possibility of defending oneself has been lost—either at the moment of death or during sleep when, as illustrated by 1984 and many other works of science fiction, our most intimate dreams and fantasies are easily penetrated and seen through.
17 The real threat is not from outside but from the individual who can take refuge in his interiority and refuse the constraining practices which utopia, pursuing social perfection, tries to impose by forcing him to deny his human nature. This is the “absolute ideal of a culture against nature” (Marouby 1990, 71), aiming to control and possess not just the natural world but also and especially human nature. The danger lies in human nature’s increasing ability to resist as its consciousness of its own existence grows, and above all in an individuality which contains the exact opposite of utopia, that product of reason: passions, emotions, feelings, and senses. These must be analyzed as a whole because, since Machiavelli and the lessons learned from the turbulent Middle Ages, they are all associated with the dominance of the changeable, the unstable, the different, the multiple, and with vice—with the unmanageable, disorderly, and anarchic. Not even utopian socialists escape this anti-sensualism; they prefer an ascetic model of discipline and practice in the workshop, and action based on morality and reason (Bouchet 2014).
18 With utopia, history comes to rest on a rudimentary materialist anthropology which represses the passions, the emotions, and the senses in favor of the physical and intellectual needs of those it claims to obey and serve, as in Patrizi’s La città felice (1553). From this ostensibly praiseworthy goal of serving a definite, tightly circumscribed human nature, utopianism draws a political power which shields it from criticism and gives unparalleled legitimacy to its desire to produce happiness. In fact, it violates the person through its totalitarian intrusions, stripping the human of much that defines it and reducing it to a machine. Many utopians—Fontenelle, Tyssot de Patot, Gilbert, Morelly, and so on—clung, under Descartes’ influence, to a comparison between the city and a mechanism, and between man and a cog in this machine—a mechanical part with neither the desire nor the ability to conceive of humanity in its full sensory richness, in its individual and social dynamics and imbalances (Clark 1982). Utopias remind us that man has long been robotized—not by technology initially, but by efforts to subject him to the social mechanics of cold reason and to a practice stripped of the senses’ vital energy.
19 The image here is of a person without desire. Proof of this comes in the problem that managing sexuality—something that engages all five senses—always poses for utopias. All ideal cities regulate sexuality in an extremely precise, extremely strict way. Sometimes they do so scientifically; always, with a view to reproduction alone. Some opt for radical, problematic solutions. In Les aventures de Jacques Sadeur (1676), Foigny tries to control the trio of otherness, sexuality, and sensuality in one move by populating his city with hermaphrodites. In the Basiliade (1753), Morelly advocates partner-swapping and libertinism: the resulting banalization and anonymization will break down the power of the senses, and these affairs—none of them with any real content or meaning—will strengthen social cohesion. It is Sade, ultimately, in his utopic Kingdom of Butua in Aline et Valcour (1788), who demonstrates the dead end utopias necessarily get themselves into, their logical impossibility, by asking: What is the value of law and politics in the face of the power of desires and senses? None at all, undoubtedly—except that, by subordinating itself to the principle of sexual pleasure and to the pleasure of all, politics ceases to be interested in self-reproduction or the perpetuation of its own social order, which demand what pleasure cannot offer: a fixed division of roles and, above all, boundaries or, even better, opposing powers (Favre 1967).
20 In their absence, utopia condemns society to civil war and to the eventual disappearance of its objects of desire. Should we say of the utopians, then, that “their ideas had the same limits as their senses” (Prévost 2003, 935)?
There is no theoretical or empirical obligation to connect the notion of discipline to a theory of domination and political control. Discipline arises from the anthropological conviction that man is more than himself, perhaps more than he is at the moment—from the potential for overcoming which explains the allure of verticality and of hierarchical, non-political ladders.