Jack Halberstam’s Unworlding: An Aesthetics of Collapse

Jack Halberstam's Unworlding example one: Gordon Matta-Clark's Conical Intersect, 1975
Jack Halberstam's Unworlding example one: Conical Intersect by Gordon Matta-Clark
Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect, 1975. Orginal artwork held by SFMOMA. Source of image: https://aestheticamagazine.com/gordon-matta-clark-anarchitecture/

Jack Halberstam’s keynote ‘Unworlding: An Aesthetics of Collapse’ really was the absolute highlight of the Utopian Studies Society of Europe conference. But wait! You didn’t have to be there! A version of the lecture is available on YouTube so I wanted to share the details. It contains some real IDEAS about UTOPIA and I highly recommend checking it out.   

If you want to get to utopia, you can’t start from here

Halberstam opened with a huge challenge to the genre of utopia. We are limited in what we can imagine, he argued, bounded by what we know. Going forwards only carries over the problems of the present into the future. The necessary project, he suggested, is not worlding but unworlding.

The use value of utopia is often thought to be in prefiguring changes we would like to see in the real world. For Halberstam, this function is moot. There is no hope in bridging from here to the future. You must instead go back to dismantle the present.

Nothing matters

Halberstam used the art of Gordon Matta-Clark, shown above, to illustrate the creative potential of deconstruction. In carving a spiral through a building due to be demolished in Paris, Matta-Clark employed his architectural knowledge to create an absence of building. In this artwork, the artist’s material is nothing. It is art because of what has been taken away.

This work subverts the logic of capitalism, which demands things are made, possessed, consumed. As such, it also deconstructs the system we are caught in. Halberstam’s suggestion was this is a surer first step towards a new world than imagining a utopia.

Advocating for entropy

Moving ever further away from glossy utopian futures, Halberstam then set out his argument for embracing entropy. We will have to follow the logic of other lifeforms, he argued. Lifeforms that know what to do around ruination. Mushrooms, microbes, beetles all require decaying material as sustenance, and through processing what is rotten create the conditions for new life.

In discussing ruins and the marginalised lives that exist amongst, and may emerge from, them, he referenced the photography of Alvin Baltrop. Baltrop’s pictures captured the New York’s collapsing West Side Piers in the 1970s and 80s, and the gay men who cruised there.

Source of image: https://bronxmuseum.org/news/the-life-and-times-of-alvin-baltrop/

Jack Halberstam's Unworlding exampe two: pier photograph by Alvin Baltrop

Broken Earth

Jack Halberstam's Unworlding example three: The Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin

Drawing his final example from literature rather than art, Halberstam went on to discuss N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. His analysis centred the faction within the novel who want to see the end of the world, not save it. These characters are some of those who have been marginalised and exploited by the prevailing society. Halberstam drew parallels with Afro-pessimism, asserting the only way out of white supremacy is to destroy the world it has built. By implication, a utopianism that aims to repair the existing system would be a neo-colonial project.

After attending the lecture, I re-read the last two novels of the Broken Earth trilogy. I was left wondering whether the ending of the trilogy sustains the Afro-pessimist reading.

— SPOILER ALERT — Skip this section if you haven’t read The Stone Sky in its entirety!

Nassun, who had wanted to all-out destroy the world, in the end executes her mother’s plan to fix it. In the aftermath it is acknowledged that, despite the fix, the current Season will continue for some time. While it is hoped node maintainers will no longer be required, just exactly how things will work out remains uncertain.

The result is certainly an undoing, yet it isn’t total destruction. Is this a large repair job or are things are sufficiently unwound to start again?

Watch online

You can find a version of Jack Halberstam’s lecture Unworlding: An Aesthetics of Collapse online, see below.

Three quick-fire utopian book recommendations

Utopian book recommendations - cover art for The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

I wore my Just Utopias badge to a school event recently and it proved a conversation starter. On the spot, I was asked for utopian book recommendations. I can’t believe I didn’t have an answer prepared for this scenario, but there you go.

So, what would I recommend to someone completely new to the genre? Where is the ideal starting point for utopia?

This is highly subjective and I would love to hear other people’s suggestions (pop them in the comments below!). But these were my quick-fire utopian book recommendations, and I stand by them.

1. & 2. – Ursula K. Le Guin

I think the best introduction to utopia is through Ursula K. Le Guin. For Le Guin, utopia isn’t about building a colony on Mars or even seizing control and doing a better job of running things here on Earth. Her utopias are about finding a dynamic balance, where everything is always mindfully changing, shifting and compensating, but not striving towards anyone’s fixed idea of progress or perfection.

Le Guin’s books suggest we can think outside of whatever structures we happen to be living within. She’s the author behind the much-shared quote:

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

So, my first utopian book recommendation is to read Ursula K. Le Guin. And, without apology, my second utopian book recommendation is… to read Ursula K. Le Guin.

The Dispossessed

Shevek lives in an anarchist-communist community on Anarres, a barren moon-like planet. His community separated itself from the rest of civilisation living on Urras, Anarres’s capitalist sister planet. However, Shevek is a brilliant physicist and in order to see his most important ideas come to fruition he needs to travel and work between the two worlds. To do so he must challenge the dogma surrounding the foundation of his own community and avoid being used by both sides as a political pawn.

The Dispossessed is interplanetary, extraterrestrial and undoubtedly sci-fi. However, for readers new to utopia (a subgenre of sci fi) there’s nothing too weird to get your head around. Unlike, say, Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, where everyone shifts between genders and being genderless. It is also a traditional novel, unlike Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, which is a collection of snippets about a fictional society, including stories, plays, poems, recipes, drawings and music. Both The Left Hand of Darkness and Always Coming Home come highly recommended but I think The Dispossessed is the best starting point.

A Wizard of Earthsea

The first in the Earthsea cycle, this book follows Ged, a young magician. He is incredibly powerful but is yet to learn how to control his magic powers, and his ego. In attempting to prove himself superior to another, older, student of magic, he accidentally releases a shadow-creature. It’s then up to him to travel across Earthsea and destroy the beast he set loose.

A Wizard of Earthsea isn’t a utopia at all but it is an introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin, who is a utopian. The book is suitable for children (probably about 11+ to read alone, a little younger if being read to). It has proved formational to many, including other writers including Neil Gaiman and David Mitchell. Bearing in mind I was asked for recommendations at a school event, I had promote this one. The more minds, young and otherwise, that discover Earthsea, the more hope there is for us all.

3. The Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin

In a world seemingly ironically called The Stillness, earthquakes are commonplace. Occasionally there will be a quake strong enough to set off a ‘fifth season’, a kind of nuclear winter outside of the usual spring, summer, autumn, winter.

Amongst the inhabitants of The Stillness are people known as orogenes, who have the power to both quell and start quakes. They are feared and, if not killed on discovery, ostracised to an educational facility where they are trained to be of use to society.

The Broken Earth trilogy follows one such orogene as she questions and relearns her place in society during a fifth season, and grapples with whether the world needs to be destroyed before it can accommodate everyone fairly, including orogenes.

The trilogy is a fantastic read, and it’s not just me that thinks so. Each instalment won the Hugo Award for Best Novel (voted for by readers) in the year it was published. It’s full of utopian themes and ideas, including the notion that the status quo is not inevitable. The way things are is not the way they’ve always been, and it isn’t the way they always will be either. Everything is subject to change, and that brings about the utopian possibility of things being different, and better.

In our own world where the climate is breaking down, racism is systemic and the far right seems to be on the rise, it’s increasingly obvious that tinkering around the edges is insufficient. As such, The Broken Earth trilogy is a utopia for our times. We may need to relearn our history, and allow our current world to be destroyed. But when a world is rotten, why save it? The best thing to do might be to start again.