"Stately Designs": On the Architechtonics of Utopias

By Rodden, John | The Midwest Quarterly, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

"Stately Designs": On the Architechtonics of Utopias


Rodden, John, The Midwest Quarterly


Literary critics have often been unable to appreciate the complexity of utopian tradition, or to account for its enormous popular success, whereas rhetorical critics have seldom given it systematic attention. Utopias are, however, rhetorical works--with "stately designs"--and sometimes "statist" designs--on the world. The failure of literary critics to respect utopian literature stems from enduring modernist assumptions about the nature and function of literature--the high value placed on epistemological complexity, stylistic intricacy, careful plot development, dynamic and rounded characterization. Utopias, however, make direct appeals to readers' emotions.

This essay explores how those appeals are crafted as it explores the rhetoric and aesthetics of utopian literature. My immediate concern is with the architechtonics of utopias--their "stately designs," i.e., the structural designs of these linguistic "states of mind" and the critical problem of distinguishing among interpretation, evaluation, and reputation.

My title for this essay owes partly to Jane Tompkins's important book Sentimental Designs (1989). Great literature, according to the traditional canons of literary modernism from Arnold through Eliot, Leavis, and the New Critics, has no designs on the world. Tompkins's book is an insightful study of the sentimental novel, in which she shows how a nineteenth-century domestic novel like Uncle Tom's Cabin, appealing directly to readers' feelings via melodramatic devices, persuaded readers to change their hearts and minds on the slavery issue. Uncle Tom's Cabin certainly did have de signs on the world, and the ways in which it helped revolutionize race relations and North-South relations are still being felt today.

I shall return to these conceptual issues of aesthetic value, but immediately here I want to note that no genre of writings has greater designs on the world than the utopia, what I might term its "stately designs." The very word "utopia," translated from the Greek, means "no place." But the coinage was also a pun by Thomas More, with "eu" meaning "good." So the utopia is "the good place that is no place," and the challenge of utopian thinkers is to persuade you that their "no place" is preferable to your someplace.

A utopia is an ideal community that is deliberately constructed by its designers. It is not a Gilligan's Island or a Fantasy Island. It is a political community. The utopian genre emerges from and is directed to an immediate historical and political context, and it attempts precisely to redesign the political order: it is written for the age, not for the ages.

For example, Bacon's New Atlantis, Harrington's Oceania, Condorcet's Esquisse, Bellamy's Looking Backward, and Skinner's Walden Two--not to mention anti-utopias like Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four have all had a profound influence on world events. The New Atlantis served as the direct inspiration for London's Royal Society, Oceania influenced the conception of the U.S. Constitution, the Esquisse was printed in several thousand copies by Robespierre in an effort to link Condorcet's vision with that of the Jacobins, Looking Backward actually launched a political party (the Nationalists), and Walden Two (like earlier utopian communitarian experiments) has been the model for numerous postwar communes. Nineteen Eighty-Four, of course, is the best-selling political novel of all time, and its early postwar role in McCarthyism and in shaping the West's view of the Soviet Union was immensely significant. All of these are "books that have changed the world," in the title of a famous 1935 survey of influential books conducted by Charles Beard and John Dewey.

The enormous reception and impact of these works is precisely why we should attend to them. Rhetorical critics have had much to say about such issues, though they have not typically been influential in shaping literary or philosophical canons. Indeed the neglect of these works is largely a casualty of critical attitudes that equate aesthetic merit with non-argumentative discourse and "transcendent" subjects. …

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