Revisiting Literary Utopias and Dystopias: Some New Genres

By Archer-Lean, Clare | Social Alternatives, Third Quarter 2009 | Go to article overview

Revisiting Literary Utopias and Dystopias: Some New Genres


Archer-Lean, Clare, Social Alternatives


Since Thomas More's first use of the word utopia in 1516 it has conjured multiple and ambiguous connotations. Utopia and its defining antithesis dystopia can be articulations of what we wish to become orto avoid becoming, an investigation of hope and the potential for transformation. Utopias can evoke dichotomies between the liberal realisation and the impossible ideal (Kumar 1991); or a contrast between the concrete and closed social plan as opposed to the impetus toward hope in the small details of various cultural contexts (Jameson 2006).

Because utopia and dystopia are impossibly large concepts this edition of Social Alternatives does not argue for a common specific definition of either. This edition simply seeks to revisit the themes of utopia and dystopia. Firstly, it focuses on literary and cultural expressions of utopianism rather than practical or political expressions, although the literary becomes a vehicle for social and political change. Secondly, this issue deviates from focus on more typical Utopian and dystopian genres such as Science Fiction (SF) to examine new contexts such as post-colonial fiction, American modernism, culture, young adult fiction, neo-Marxist aestheticism and hyperrealism. Oscar Wilde said 'Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds it to its purpose' (Wilde 1997, 25). As such, literature is a Utopian focus whereby we can assess the potential for change through creative imagination.

Utopian thinking has been criticised for masking suspect ideological certainties, for example the George W. Bush presidency has been criticised for its own Utopian and authoritarian delusions. Sheldon WoNn (2008) argues that Bush's inverted form of Utopian totalitarianism does not demand that the lives of the people are drab, dedicated to an ideological struggle (unlike mass totalitarianisms of the mid-twentieth century). But poverty is exported from the richer countries, and freedoms are sacrificed on the altar of ideological neo-liberalism masquerading as utopia. Conversely, the Utopian impetus has been viewed as absolutely necessary in the twenty-first century, to answer the "universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible' (Jameson 2007, 232).

There are multiple ways in which utopia, or perhaps more accurately in this context, utopianism has been expressed. Andrew Milner categorises the Utopian into textual (philosophical and literary) and practical, such as intentional communities (Milner 2006, 132). Another way in which we might see two different modes of 'descendency' within utopianism since Thomas More's work is the 'program' versus the 'impulse' (Jameson 2007). These two forms are Jameson's interpretation of the distinction between more traditional understandings of utopia on the one hand and Ernst Bloch's more fluid use of Utopian impulse on the other. While this edition is mostly focused on the latter, it is useful to outline the former as clarifying counter point. The program is determined by Jameson as space and the city, intentional community, revolutionary praxis and the text (Jameson 2007, 3-4). Utopian programs are defined by closure (Jameson 2007, 5). We might simplify closure, for the purposes of this edition, to a radical breach with the known, whereby the utopia (or by implication the dystopia) is independent, self sufficient, and conscious: a total vision for how life may be lived. Programs may include consciously imagined new worlds composed of alternatives to all contemporary institutions (fictional or actual) with fundamentally different forms of governance and economic structures. Program models of utopia include intentional socialist, anarchist or feminist communes such as William Lane's socialist communalist 'New Australia' colony in Paraguay, 1893-1909 (Milner 2006, 132).

Arguably, Utopian societies in SF are examples of the programmed form of utopia. Think of the highly complex new world, Annares in Ursula K. …

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