Utopian Studies, Environmental Literature, and the Legacy of an Idea: Educating Desire in Miguel Abensour and Ursula K. le Guin
Nadir, Christine, Utopian Studies
This article examines the concept of the "education of desire," which undergirds literary utopian studies' response to postmodernism's challenge to the modern utopian impulse. The analysis returns to two classic utopian texts--the work of Miguel Abensour, who coined the term "education of desire," and Ursula K. Le Guin's novel about ecological sustainability, "The Dispossessed"--to argue that the education of desire involves a more intimate relationship between desire and domination than literary utopian studies has allowed. This article not only transforms our understanding of a mainstay of utopian studies; it relates this discussion to utopian strains in environmental thought, tracing the tension between the desire for ecological sustainability and the social, political, and economic prescriptions this would entail.
Fredric Jameson opens Archaeologies of the Future with an acknowledgment that the literary value of his subject, utopian science fiction, "is subject to permanent doubt" and its "political status is structurally ambiguous." (1) Disclaimers like Jameson's are commonplace in contemporary literary utopian studies. The field's scholarship is defined by repeated defenses against the postmodernist criticism that utopian literature depicts authoritarian societies that dominate their subjects. To rescue utopia from this legacy, or to defend it from this charge, many scholars argue that modern utopian literature no longer espouses perfectible political and economic blueprints. Instead, they insist, works written in the past century and a half dwell on the most basic impulse underlying political change: the inspirational dream of an improved, alternative world. As Tom Moylan writes, utopian literature does not seek to determine its readers' visions of the future; rather, it "serves to stimulate in its readers a desire for a better life and to motivate that desire toward action by conveying a sense that the world is not fixed once and for all." (2)
Whether this scholarship marks a radical break in utopian literary production or a shift in degree remains unclear, but what is consistent is the use of a discourse of desire and desire education to articulate the transformation. Jameson's encyclopedic Archaeologies is subtitled "The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions," which comes from his description of utopia, in an earlier work, "as a kind of desiring to desire, a learning to desire, the invention of the desire called utopia in the first place." (3) Likewise, Ruth Levitas, who has been integral to the development of utopian studies as a field, opens and concludes The Concept of Utopia, her overview of twentieth-century utopian thought, by defining utopia as "the desire for a better way of being." (4) And the concept of the "education of desire" appears in her work in two capacities: as a definition of utopia and as a term from which to distinguish her calls for utopian hope. In his survey of utopian literature from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, Narrating Utopia, Chris Ferns argues that the genre's "purpose ... has become less the advocacy of specific alternative sociopolitical formations, and more the stimulus and education of desire." (5) For literary utopian studies, the desire discourse reflects modern utopias' move away from totalizing blueprints and toward open-ended, self-reflexive, provisional world-making. According to this logic, if utopian blueprints are challenged, incomplete, or ambiguous, then desire is free, desire is being educated, or one is learning to desire. Utopia, then, becomes a gesture, a feeling, or a motivation that awakens longing, and utopian literature is exonerated from claims that it seeks to dominate the imagination through a set of political rules.
This essay revisits two classic utopian texts that, I argue, suggest a more intimate relationship between desire and domination. First, I turn to the long-lost origins of the "education of desire" in the work of French political philosopher Miguel Abensour, who coined the term in 1973. …