Enlightenment Utopias

By Pohl, Nicole | Utopian Studies, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Enlightenment Utopias


Pohl, Nicole, Utopian Studies


Introduction

THE INFLUENCE OF RECENT CRITICAL TRENDS in eighteenth-century studies has resulted in a renewed interest in contemporary utopias and utopianism.(1) Postmodern and postcolonial critiques have deconstructed eighteenth-century paradigms of nature, knowledge, reason, and history. Simultaneously, debates on gender, sexuality and imperialism/orientalism identify the paradoxical complexity of the Enlightenment project and reveal its fundamentally `utopian' nature. Utopias and utopianism therefore are well suited to Enlightenment inquiry and critique.

The six essays collected in this issue of Utopian Studies deepen these considerations; the primitivist utopia reveals the trappings of imperialism and colonialism in order to destabilize the utopian notion of the `noble savage'.(2) Eighteenth-century somatopias explore the various instabilities and contradictions that inhere within the notion of femininity and masculinity.(3) Micro-utopias disrupt conventional narratives and serve as a form of ideological resistance. Architectural utopias provide an insight into eighteenth-century ideas about spatial socialization. Each of the essays concentrates on aspects of eighteenth-century utopianism in ways that are designed to reveal the functionality of Enlightenment suppositions.(4)

Howard Segal and Arnold Kerson mark both the dynamic encounter between eighteenth-century Enlightenments in Europe and the Americas and this impact on eighteenth-century utopianism. Segal's article reinvestigates the notion of America as utopia par excellence. Indeed he suggests that only the Enlightenment faith and the actual economic and social investment in science, technology, reason and progress transformed the potential utopia of America into a probable one. Against common assumptions, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American settlers encountered a vast territory of uncultured land and finite natural resources, not an abundant paradise. It was the industrialist's investment in waterways, steam locomotives, manufactories and other technological advancements supported by a very distinctive credo of individualism, which emerged in the late eighteenth century that recast the wilderness into a de facto industrialist utopia. Americans "did not write treatises on Happiness or on Progress," but they converted these principles into a reality.

Arnold Kerson's contribution introduces Rafael Landivar's social fable of the beavers in Rusticatio Mexicana (1781). Part of a larger natural history project, Book 6 of the Rusticatio celebrates the collectivist society of the beaver which excels in its intricate organization of communal living, division of labor, industry, harmony, and pacifism. While Landivar was not only influenced by European contemporaries such as Buffon and Valmont de Bomare in his depiction of the beaver, and by Thomas More and Tommaso Campanella in his utopian vision of an ideal republic, he also offers an idealistic image of a "land that, with the arrival of certain idealistic Europeans, the product of Renaissance humanism, would become the logical place for a utopia that, rather than a dream, would be a reality".

Guillaume Ansart continues the investigation of Americas as (European) utopia. The texts by Voltaire, Marivaux, Lesage and Abbe Prevost address specifically the encounter between the Native American population and European settler/invaders. Two epistemic models can be abstracted from a close reading of these texts: on the one hand, the American Indian is idealized as Rousseau's noble savage--a contrast between the primitivist world of the Americas and the civilized Old World serves to demand the reversal of moral, social, and cultural degeneration in Europe. On the other hand, the primitive and untouched Native American cultures are seen as `unnatural', because pre-natural, and must be civilized under the principles of reason and perfectibility. Conquests and colonization therefore are justified as beneficial and evolutionary requisite. …

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