The United States of Utopia: Introduction

The United States of Utopia

By Scott Benedict

A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment

of the requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

(American Studies)

Introduction: Utopia and Grift

In the study of any nation, historians may struggle to center its base constituent, the social grouping or perspective from which all its other aspects might be explained. In the case of the United States, such a question would initially appear to be rather trivial; if there is any basic organizational formation from which the US derives its power and legitimacy, surely it would be the states themselves, or else the federal government that binds them. As the latter provided the military and political machine that could enclose and depopulate the Western expanse of its original English colonies, the stage was set for newly incorporated states to define their particular identities against a false blank slate. Thus the national mythology of the United States fundamentally became a tale of white settlers, who collectively worked very hard to ignore or expunge the contributions of others from their own historical record. Regarded from their own ignorant perspective, the ventures of these colonizing populations might have taken on a spiritual or miraculous bent, as they purported to create their states and settlements from a pure and destined soil. Indeed, it is precisely this line of religious reasoning which I want to trace in the following, for it reveals perhaps a strand even more central than the formal political manifestations of state and federation. I speak here, of course, of the logic of utopia.

Let me begin with a rhetorical question: is it any coincidence that the Western canon of Utopian literature, if we take it to begin with the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516, came into being precisely as the first wave of European exploration and colonization was hitting the Americas? Obviously, it wasn’t. As for the main causes of this correlation, I would consider them twofold. First, there was the clear appeal of many Indigenous American societies, a fact attested to by the many white settlers who would come to join them over time—including perhaps the people of that mysterious first settlement on Roanoke Island. Unfortunately, any positive appraisal of Native Americans soon came to be folded into the myth of the ‘noble savage’, another part of the colonial-ideological storybook that served to marginalize non-white peoples. While even this distorted image of indigenous society would come to have some utopian effects, we can probably find a more significant influence in the illusion of newness, pureness, and prosperity which the discovery and depopulation of the Americas created. Thus, while the actual discovery of ‘new’ societies would create the imagination of utopia in More and others, the cruelly effected possibility for settlement would create the first colonial utopias on these continents’ shores.

Speaking of the development of ‘English’ North America—that pitiful enclave which would eventually morph into the United States we know and loath—its colonial utopia often took a Radical Protestant form. In such colonists as the famed Pilgrims, we find a community of religious exiles who sought the freedom to practice their restrictive faith to its fullest potential. In their arrival to these foreign shores, I see little coincidence. Because early colonialism was a costly venture, it appealed mostly to those who were willing to risk it all. In general, these settlers were either attracted to the colony by the promise of profit, or propelled from the homeland by a religious repulsion. If we consider these two factors—greed and purity respectively—the primary motivations of the WASP colonial, then there is one clear factor that could unite them: the grift. To explain this connection, allow me a brief digression.

In almost every classic confidence trick, from the personality cult to the practice of false medicine, one is sure to find is a combination of spiritual salvation with personal profit. Whether the promised gains are supernatural in origin or merely revered as such, there is the implicit certainty that they cannot be attained or maintained except through the charismatic individual which stands at its center. And so the grift, which might be a religious commune or a multi-level marketing scheme, begins to attain the basic hierarchy that a more formal bureaucracy might be founded upon. While most of these arrangements collapse with the death or disgrace of their leaders, one might suppose that their plurality could create an entire ecosystem, with every new scheme replacing or outcompeting the last one. What would such an environment be like? Within our present context, the answer should be clear: it would be like the United States.

Here then, we come to the second hypothesis of my piece: that the history of the United States, owing to its twin origins in the search for profit and salvation, can be organized around the central principle of the grift. Indeed, when we compare this to our original conception of the US as a nation of utopias, it should be clear that the difference between these observations is not too great: all that essentially separates them is the presence of charismatic authority. Both utopia and charisma were able to prosper thanks to the peculiar environment of US colonial culture: while there was usually enough negative freedom not to prevent a new venture from setting out and forming a community, there was hardly ever enough positive freedom to prevent the desperation that pulled people towards conmen to begin with. One could easily name countless examples of such utopian enterprises throughout US history, were it not for their desperate attempts to appear like legitimate businesses, suing anyone who might suggest otherwise. But you know which ones I’m talking about.

Regardless of the particular subtleties, I hope you now understand my general intersection of the Grift, the Utopia, and the United States of America. It is this insight which will guide me throughout the following, a work which will lay out a history of this nation’s Bioshocks. Though the exact delineation of this concept is debated to this day, I take it to refer to those utopian interventions which reflected the tendencies of US society as a whole, representing some of its essential aspects in a heightened and accelerated form. Even when they tried to become something other or greater than the US, we recognize these sordid social experiments as made in America. Their founders might be considered the ultimate grifters, channeling the charisma of their individual and ideological appeal into grand urban utopias that sought to exemplify the course of the entire country, if not the rest of the world.

So, where to begin this history? Perhaps it is no coincidence that the first Bioshock, Columbia, arose at the dawn of the 20th century. This was to be an age of US hegemony, assured all the more when the Great Powers of Europe would exhaust one another in pointless imperial warfare. Henceforth, the globalizing culture of Western capitalism would be primarily directed from Washington, with its favored ideologies and perspectives as an important export product. Though the first Bioshock would pursue a paradoxical policy of imperialist isolationism—the legacy of a colonial state pretending to civilize only its ‘domestic’ territory—subsequent utopias would wholly commit to the false universalism of the new century.

Beyond this global-political tendency toward universal utopianism, there was the even more important factor of technological innovation. The Bioshocks of the 20th century were always known for being on the cutting edge of science and industrialism, experimental microcosms that could reliably attract scores of eccentric intellectuals. Their exotic locales were an immediate proof of their novelty; who could deny the miracle of a city in the sky? However, the promise of the unknown also contained an inherent danger, and the Bioshock’s technological accelerations would often exacerbate the political contradictions within each of their ideological systems. While they were established and expanded at an almost unimaginable pace, it was this very speed which would assure their ultimate downfall. Perhaps a subconscious knowledge of this fundamental instability can explain the eschatological undercurrent in each of these projects. Whether their creators suspected it or not, failure was their only option.

Finally, the twentieth century saw the true culmination of the promise of mass media, allowing for propaganda machines that far outperformed the reach of even the most ambitious premodern cultist. The dogmas which practical state-makers had been forced to dilute could now be pursued to their full genocidal potential. The Bioshocks were no exception in this quest for ideological purity, though their deleterious effects were usually more limited—or at least localized. Once again, this intense and utopian element would prepare its eventual self-destructive nature, with the dichotomies excited by the ruling classes usually preparing some kind of total internal conflict. Whether fortunate or unfortunate, the countervailing tendencies of the Bioshocks were usually unable to fully capture and stabilize the central institutions of the overthrown governments, though their overall historical effects are likely as widespread as that of the original rulers. Examples of such subversive outflows will become apparent almost right from the start. 

With all this preface out of the way, I feel confident in starting my analysis of the first recognizable Bioshock: Columbia. Thus the next chapter begins, as all these histories do, with a city and a lighthouse.

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