In a world experiencing a pandemic, ongoing economic recessions, political upheaval, and impending ecological collapse, what does it mean to think about utopia? Projects focused on outer space by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk seem to think that humanity can find its way out the hole it has dug for itself by founding utopian societies on other planets. Politicians have longed promised utopian programs of social renewal. As a researcher of utopia as a genre and a theory, the question I have in reading about such hopes is not can we achieve utopia on earth or in space—such questions are well beyond my capacity and training to answer. Instead, I’m interested in whether it is useful to think about utopia at all. Does imagining perfect worlds serve our present or our future, or do utopias simply set us up for disappointment and failure?
To think about the viability of utopian thought today, it is useful to return to utopia’s origins. The idea of a perfect place has existed for as long as humans have been thinking and writing. Works like Plato’s Republic and Ravidas’s “Begumpura” offer visions of worlds that improve upon the ones in which their authors lived. The term utopia, however, was not coined until the early sixteenth century by English humanist Thomas More. Formed by combining the Greek “ou” (no) with “topas” (place) and punning on “eu” (good), utopia etymologically means “a good place that is nowhere.” This should tell us something. Utopia, as it was originally conceived, was not understood as a real place. It was, by its very definition, a contradiction.
More’s Utopia (1516) itself is full of puns and paradoxes. Raphael Hythloday, who claims to have discovered an ideal island where people’s needs are met and all live in peace and harmony, seems honest enough in his narration. However, his name, Hythloday, means “speaker of nonsense” in Greek. This name itself calls into question the veracity of his narrative. The world that Hythloday describes is equally replete with contradiction: though it has a democratic government in which everyone is free, the island also has slaves and is quick to colonize other lands. Indeed, the birth of utopia as an early modern literary genre is closely tied to the beginnings of European colonization. The justifications for colonization used by Europeans eerily echo those of the Utopia when Hythloday says that many of the Utopians’ independent neighbors, who were “liberated by them from tyranny,” admired Utopian virtues so much that they “requested” magistrates from Utopia to come to their lands and govern them. Giving these colonizing impulses, this seemingly perfect island is not as idyllic as it seems.
The difference between dystopia and utopia is a matter of perspective. As students in my class last spring used to say, “whose utopia is it?” For the rulers of Utopia, the island’s life may have appeared equitable and democratic, but not so for its slaves. This same ambiguity pervades many other works in the genre. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella Herland (1915), for instance, depicts a feminist world run by women that also has racist undertones. Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973) dramatizes the contradiction inherent to utopia by portraying the city Omelas, whose prosperity depends on the misery of a child in the basement. The effort to achieve perfect harmony, it seems, often necessities homogenization, which, in turn, leads to the oppression and erasure of those who are different.
So where does this inevitable failure of the utopian leave us? Do we throw up our hands and forsake the hope that things might get better? To answer this question, we need first to reframe our notions of the utopian itself. I suggest (as do many scholars of utopia) that utopias were never meant to be read as templates or blueprints. To understand literary utopias or utopian political visions in this way is bound to lead us astray.
If we don’t see them as guides to the perfect life, what use might utopias have? Instead of understanding utopia as a perfect homogenous society, we might more usefully read it as a mode of cognitive estrangement. Utopia helps us view the world critically, producing wonder and disorientation, not as ends unto themselves but rather to unsettle the assumptions of the here-and-now with the suggestion that things could be different. Hence, Paul Ricouer aptly describes utopia as “a progressive counterblast to the essential conservatism of ideology.” If we understand utopia in this more capacious way—as a mechanism of transformation rather than as a perfect place—, we can more clearly see its value. Utopian visions, despite or even because of their flaws, promote reform in self-critical ways that foreground the tensions and contradictions inherent in reform itself.
A practical example of this type of utopian thinking is Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonism, a philosophical outlook that emphasizes the importance of conflicting positions. Taking issue with John Rawl’s notion of liberal pluralism, Mouffe argues that in place of a morality that seeks to neutralize difference, we should understand politics as based in conflict between adversaries who may disagree but who respect each other. Agonism might seem a far cry from utopia, but I argue that it is a vital example of utopianism as it can be exercised today: this is a form of thought that unsettles what we take for granted—that the end goal of a liberal democracy should be agreement—and helps us see that there might be different ways of envisioning the political.
Mouffe’s political theory is one example of contemporary utopianism, but utopia does not need to be confined to the ‘real’ world. Fiction is a valuable and often unrecognized bridge between the utopian and the political. Whether a Netflix series that unsettles our assumptions about the future or a novel that gives glimpses of a world that could be different, narrative fiction offers pathways for critique, a mode as vital to our world as to More’s. It’s tempting as a literature professor to use this as a chance to make a case for the value of the humanities, but this is not so much my point, at least not here. Rather, fiction is one of many possible vehicles for a utopianism that charts lines of flight to other worlds of possibility. These worlds do not have to be on Mars but instead can consist of smaller acts of reimagining what we take for granted and efforts towards change with the understanding that perfection will never be possible.
Mouffe, Chantal. Agonistics: Thinking The World Politically. London: Verso Books, 2013.
Ricoeur, Paul. Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, ed. George H. Taylor. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Alexandra Verini is a professor of medieval literature at Ashoka University. Her research interests include medieval and early modern gender, religion and utopia. She is currently completing a book that explores utopian thought developed in women’s devotional communities.
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