Utopia/Dystopia: Conditions of Historical Possibility

Utopia/Dystopia: Conditions of Historical Possibility

Utopia/Dystopia: Conditions of Historical Possibility

Utopia/Dystopia: Conditions of Historical Possibility


The concepts of utopia and dystopia have received much historical attention. Utopias have traditionally signified the ideal future: large-scale social, political, ethical, and religious spaces that have yet to be realized. Utopia/Dystopia offers a fresh approach to these ideas. Rather than locate utopias in grandiose programs of future totality, the book treats these concepts as historically grounded categories and examines how individuals and groups throughout time have interpreted utopian visions in their daily present, with an eye toward the future. From colonial and postcolonial Africa to pre-Marxist and Stalinist Eastern Europe, from the social life of fossil fuels to dreams of nuclear power, and from everyday politics in contemporary India to imagined architectures of postwar Britain, this interdisciplinary collection provides new understandings of the utopian/dystopian experience.

The essays look at such issues as imaginary utopian perspectives leading to the 1856-57 Xhosa Cattle Killing in South Africa, the functioning racist utopia behind the Rhodesian independence movement, the utopia of the peaceful atom and its global dissemination in the mid-1950s, the possibilities for an everyday utopia in modern cities, and how the Stalinist purges of the 1930s served as an extension of the utopian/dystopian relationship.

The contributors are Dipesh Chakrabarty, Igal Halfin, Fredric Jameson, John Krige, Timothy Mitchell, Aditya Nigam, David Pinder, Marci Shore, Jennifer Wenzel, and Luise White.


Utopias and dystopias are histories of the present. Even before we begin to explain that sentence, some readers may feel a nagging concern, for the very term “utopia” often sounds a little shopworn. It carries with it the trappings of an elaborate thought experiment, a kind of parlor game for intellectuals who set themselves the task of designing a future society, a perfect society—following the pun on the name in Greek (no place, good place: imaginary yet positive). Projecting a better world into the future renders present-day problems more clearly. Because utopias tend to be the products of scholars and bookworms, it is not surprising that from the time of the concept’s (or at least the term’s) formal birth in the Renaissance, it has attracted quite a bit of academic attention. Much of this history is easily accessible, even second nature, to intellectual historians, and it traces the genealogy of ideal, planned societies as envisaged from Plato to science fiction. The appeal and the resonances are obvious and rather powerful: religious roots in paradise, political roots in socialism, economic roots in communes, and so on. Ever since Thomas More established the literary genre of utopia in his 1516 work of that title, much of historians’ writing on the relevance of utopia has focused on disembodied intellectual traditions, interrogating utopia as term, concept, and genre.

Dystopia, utopia’s twentieth- century doppelgänger, also has difficulty escaping its literary fetters. Much like utopia, dystopia has found fruitful ground to blossom in the copious expanses of science fiction, but it has also flourished in political fiction (and especially in anti-Soviet fiction), as demonstrated by the ease with which the term is applied to George Orwell’s 1984, Evgenii Zamiatin’s We, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Despite the name, dystopia is not simply the opposite of utopia. A true opposite of utopia would be a society that is either completely unplanned or is planned to be deliberately terrifying and awful. Dystopia, typically invoked, is neither of these things; rather, it is a utopia that has gone wrong, or a utopia that functions only for a particular segment of society. In a sense, despite their relatively recent literary and cinematic invention, dystopias resemble the actual societies historians encounter in their research: planned, but not planned all that well or . . .

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