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Utopia In Tofu: Simon Amstell's 'Carnage'

Updated: Jul 25, 2019

By Niall Walker

"I have written and directed a film about veganism. I'm sorry."

It is hard to think of too many modern day counter-cultures as derided as Veganism. Characterised by those on the right as a temporary fad without appreciation for the Hobbesian realities of existence, and by those on the left as a white bourgeois cause celebre which disingenuously attempts to align itself with more pressing emancipatory movements, it remains almost universally taboo to raise its concerns in polite discourse.

This is what Simon Amstell does, and, moreover, on that paradigm of mainstream cultural conversation, the BBC. His mockumentary, Carnage, is in every sense a Swiftian satire. It incites laughter only to challenge more strikingly the ethical impulses of its audience, and it constructs an alternative reality only to castigate more savagely the horrors of our modern society.

For Carnage – and the word adopts a biting contextual double entendre – is visibly ubiquitous. Amstell’s film spells this out obliquely: that we are butchering, raping and maiming other living beings at an unprecedented level; but more than this, the devastating consequences of our carnivorous glutton are becoming more an more evident. Footage of chronic obesity, climate disasters and epidemics are intersected with the fetishised objectification of animal flesh and milk in popular culture. The film’s acerbic juxtaposition of the two only reaffirms their interconnectivity.

Just as we can envision apocalyptic destruction through our present material situation, so too can we envision harmony.

An eye-watering manifesto

From this abjection, however, Amstell diverges from much mainstream fiction in not evoking the pastiched genre of dystopianism. This is not a satire which follows the analysis of Black Mirror, or Margaret Atwood, or any of the infinite fictional pronouncements of our post-Trump demise. Amstell claimed that Carnage was originally conceived of as a manifesto, and behind the often eye-watering comedy, the film’s polemicism remains its piece de resistance.

The definition of this Utopian piece is all the more effective in its relative novelty. Utopianism was thought to be dead at the feet of post-modernism, which sought to deconstruct all grand narratives of modernity’s distinctiveness. That dystopia arises from a similar sensibility has been ignored, for it remains a fictional space within which our masochistic reactions to societal inadequacies can absolve us of guilt.

We may as a species be destroying ourselves, but at least the Dystopian writers can mark themselves out as prophets, as those who saw the apocalypse on the horizon.

But this form of tragedy belies the truism it inversely affirms: that just as we can envision apocalyptic destruction through our present material situation, so too can we envision harmony.

3D-printed utopia

Amstell’s future is replete with images of communal amity, from the polyamorous youngsters frolicking in a field, to the more hard-hitting community group trying to deal with the grief of their former actions. What we see lies antithetical not only to our present culinary practices, but to the personal relations of modern neoliberal society, which continues to strip away such community spaces, and promote instead a hyper-consumptive individualist identity.

This provides the context for this modern re-emergence of the Utopian genre. The economic conditions which drive modern Capitalism are undergoing a historically unprecedented transition. The potential of 3-D printing, bio-engineered food and automised labour is the potential for an end to poverty, resource exploitation and the subjugation and oppression which it causes.

In Carnage, this new context of modernity is visualised sardonically, in the VR headsets and nut cheeses of Amstell’s utopia. The expansion of these new methods of production do not just extend to our cultural luxuries. The care, agricultural, service, medical, and construction sectors are all on the cusp of revolutionary transformations. With it, the need for arduous human labour is relinquished. It is a context of astounding possibility: so astounding, that it may even eradicate the oppressive nature of human’s historic relationship with other living beings.

Carnage is a comedy in the truest sense of the term. It is a conflict which carries within it the potential for resolution, not just of its imagined world, but of our reality too. What is reflected in its fiction is an ideological movement too significant and sizeable to not now also be considered a reality. Something is growing here, and as the film articulates, it cannot be confined by the terminology of veganism. But it has the potential to free us all.


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