Gilded Age Utopias of Incorporation(*)

By Prettyman, Gib | Utopian Studies, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Gilded Age Utopias of Incorporation(*)


Prettyman, Gib, Utopian Studies


ONE OF THE MORE PERPLEXING COMPLICATIONS facing scholars of the utopian imagination is the fact that, as Dean MacCannell observes, modern commercial culture is "more revolutionary in-itself than the most revolutionary consciousness so far devised" (12). Krishan Kumar, following Robert Nozick, uses the term "meta-utopia" to signify how America has been a "place which freely allows people to form and re-form themselves into utopian communities of diverse kinds" (81). As such America has encouraged a long history of "pragmatic utopianisms" that complicate the development of "literary" utopian expression. Jean Baudrillard, taking the same observation a step farther, insists with provocative perversity that America is "utopia achieved" insofar as it is the product of a long line of efforts to materialize utopian ideas, starting with the Puritans. "The whole foundation of America," Baudrillard observes in the spirit of Tocqueville, "is a response to this dual operation of a deepening of the moral law in individual consciences, a radicalization of the utopian demand which was always that of the sects, and the immediate materialization of that utopia in work, custom, and way of life" (75). The combination explains America's "material utopia of the way of life" and its modern consequence of "the crisis of an achieved utopia, confronted with the problem of its duration and permanence" (76-77). Observations such as these remind us that, whatever more specialized meanings we might wish to reserve for crucial political concepts like "revolution" and "utopia," we live amidst ongoing revolutions and that commercial society incorporates utopianism of the past and engenders utopianism of the future.

When we look backwards at the Gilded Age, connections between utopianism and commercial culture are tantalizingly discernable. One crucial point of connection is incorporation. Incorporation transformed American culture in the Gilded Age, and several utopian authors of the period --including the most influential one, Bellamy--placed joint stock companies, trusts, syndicates, or other versions of commercial incorporation at the center of their utopian imaginations. In the essay that follows, I examine a group of these Gilded Age utopias of incorporation with an eye toward identifying some of the major functions of incorporation in their utopian thought. My goal in doing so is to take seriously the utopian appeal of incorporation for authors of the period, despite the fact that business corporations and corporate capitalism have a long and profound history of dystopian associations for utopian thinkers in the real version of Julian West's watershed year 2000. One thinks immediately of such horrifying scenes as Gildina's life in Woman on the Edge of Time, where "Cybos," "duds," and artificially "improved" and "implanted" killers and sex slaves "belong to a corporate body" in which "Multis own everything" (300). "We embody the ideal," one cyborg explains. "Nothing inessential. Pure, functional, reliable.... None of us has ever been disloyal to the multi that owns us" (299). Piercy's nightmare of multinational corporations producing inescapable artifice and seductive high-rise totalitarianism was already well formulated by the time of Brave New World (1932), while the more overtly rapacious conquests of monopoly capitalism were common knowledge to Bellamy's audience. This awareness of corporations as dystopian thus completely pervades modern critical thought; by virtue of its monumental applicability, it has the status of common sense. But pragmatic utopianism has a similar status of common sense in American culture, and commercial culture, of necessity the most adept practitioner of radical pragmatism, has been and continues to be very successful at working this paradoxical vein. By taking seriously the connections between incorporation and utopia during the formative period of contemporary commercial culture--in other words, by consciously setting aside our critical observational certainties--we can, I would suggest, glimpse in their native environment the involuted processes by which revolutions of commerce and revolutions of political imagination inspire each other. …

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