Wednesday, 16 January 2013

2013 New Year, New Utopias

Utopias is back, but it is different. It is two years since I last taught this course and my department now does things differently. The course is a module in comparative history and these now carry less weight than they did: only 20 credits (instead of 40), only one class per week (instead of two), only one procedural essay and one exam essay (instead of two). So half the time and half the content. As this is one of the modules I most enjoy this is a big shame and of course I haven't halved the content but I have compressed it - and I am still fretting over some of the things I have left out (such as digital utopias, non-anglophone utopias and science fiction). And the field trip to Utopia!  Shame, I hear you cry. I agree.

Still it is good to be back - and the students are brilliant.

The other change is that my University now requires that we use a Virtual Learning Environment for all our teaching. So everything is online - but within a closed environment that it is accessible just to those registered on the module.  I fear that this means that this blog won't get the use that it did before. There is probably a natural limit to how many social media sites we can keep up to date. And that is another shame, because one of the best thing about this blog was the way it allowed us to engage with utopianistas who were outside our class and our University.

So I will enrol the new group of students as bloggers, and sit back and wait and see what happens. Read more!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Or not the end ...

....... a new exhibition at the British Library

Out of this World

Read more!

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Digital dystopias and the end of Utopias

Yesterday we had our last class. This year it was a kind of postscript in which we considered cyberutopias, which seem to become more dystopian with every passing year that this module runs (familiar, that?).

Many, many thanks to Tom and Brian for such a fantastic, almost-entirely-glitch-free, skype performance from Washington DC. It was very stimulating. Too much to take in and digest in one sitting. The whole discussion of cyberutopias and their dystopian potential is clearly becoming more complex with each passing year.

I, personally, was interested in how different their approach was from mine. They were much more focussed on politics (on the whole) than I have been - but then Brian summed it all up with his comments about Utopia as a 'process rather than a place'. That is indeed a very familiar theme throughout the module - and I think that although many of the utopias we have studied may have failed in some ways or seemed impossible in others (whether ethically, logically or in material practice) - as a process they were critical in sustaining creative new ideas for new futures. Perhaps to see the political potential of Utopia you have to live in it, it has to be in your own present and future and not in the past. Read more!

Anti-utopianism and comparative history.

A really good discussion (and excellent presentations) in class last week.

We considered:

1. the ideas of the three critics of utopia, their relationship to each other and the context of their thought.

2. The extent to which other modern (late nineteenth century) utopian texts were engaging in similar ideas. The use of force, the limits of logic and reason (More, Swift, Butler ...), varieties of socialism, problems with historicism (Morris after all goes 'backwards' into the future, so does Butler) and so on.

3. Whether utopias were guilty as charged ...around the three topics of historicism, negative liberty (or pluralism) and totalitarian ideology.

4. Finally we used Popper especially, but also Arendt, to think critically about comparative history. The rejection of diachronic history (and preference for synchronic history) is central to Popper's liberal pluralism - it has swept all before it? One thing to follow up is the idea that Popper was drawing on new scientific methods (Einstein's overturning of Newtonian physics) and transferring this relativism into the social sciences and humanities (cf role of new science in More, Bacon or Butler's utopian methods).

5. All of this produced quite a lot of discussion about whether either More or Morris fitted into the anti-utopian conception of Utopia, or not.

Image from Don Sull's blog: Karl Popper's experimental theory Read more!

Monday, 14 March 2011

Architecture and the Internet

I was struck by slide 27 of Tom's digital utopias presentation by the similarity between the organic, non-hierarchical, architecture of the web and the organic plan of New Earswick.

The link is directly through humanist inspired architecture and especially the work of Christopher Alexander - an architect and writer whose works were influential in the development of computer architectures and programming languages in the 1960s and 1970s. Without him perhaps there would be no wikis - so wikipedia seems like the most appropriate source here:

Read more!

Friday, 11 March 2011

Digital Utopias, 2011. Generously provided by Tom Glaisyer

Image from Smartblog
BEFORE class please consider the following:

What features of the internet and our use of it might be said to have been created as a result of utopian values?

  • In relation to education and science?

  • In relation to property?

  • In relation to the family and government?

DURING class please be prepared to discuss:
  1. Does a digital environment support the creation of new utopian communities?
  2. How does the virtual revolution inform our understanding of the relationship between utopia and dystopia?

If you click on the label 'digital utopias' in the right hand column of this blog you will find many fascinating resources. 

Once again Tom Glaisyer has worked his magic with more links and an updated list, many of contemporary relevance:


A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace:

The Dot-Communist Manifesto:

The Right to Read, Richard Stallman:


Malcolm Gladwell, Why the revolution will not be tweeted:

Patrick Meier responding to Gladwell

part one:

part two:

Rasmus Nielsen responding to Gladwell,

Tom Glaisyer and Shawn Powers, For Middle East democracy, send in the geeks


The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov:

Jaron Lanier,


Michael Wesch, The Machine is using us,

& an Anthropological Introduction to Youtube,

Eben Moglen's, Freedom in the Cloud talk:
and transcript
(This talk inspired the Freedom box,
 and Diaspora

Tools (websites of)

Open WRT,

Open BTS,

TOR Server,

Mesh Potato,


Read more!

Medieval Dreaming

Jessica Barr, Willing to Know God. Dreamers and Visionaries in the Later Middle Ages (2010) Read more!

Monday, 28 February 2011

from ‘the penetratingly visionary to the psychically unhinged’

Hobsbawm on utopian socialists in How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism 1840-2011

and comments on Morris and more.

Read more!

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Justice, fairness and the big society: merit v aptitude

BBC4 are broadcasting a special season of programmes and debates on this theme. They include a series of Harvard lectures by Michael Sandel. This week he looked at the work of the influential modern political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) to ask:

What's a fair start?

Much of it dealt with the question at the heart of the passage we read from Bellamy's Looking Backward: how should society reward labour and encourage it? Should we be rewarded for the quality of our work, for the effort/time we put into it or simply for trying our best? Utopian communities had clearly struggled with this. Bellamy's answer was to design a system which was NOT a meritocracy. Instead it was a society in which people could develop according to their diverse aptitudes but would be rewarded equally since all would try their best out of honour and love of nation (the ultimate brotherhood).

'Aptitudes' (and lifelong education) were also at the heart of the intended reforms of the state education system in Britain after WWII in the Butler Act of 1944. However only part of the intended system was ever put into practise. (see picture here:

Next Tuesday Sandel's lecture is on Aristotle and the Good Citizen Read more!

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Marx, Bellamy and Utopia, by Samuel Haber

On the distinction (or otherwise) between socialisms and utopianisms

Samuel Haber, The Nightmare and the Dream: Edward Bellamy and the Travails of Socialist Thought

Login required

He concludes: "Socialism may even come to America but - to paraphrase an American politician and wit - if it comes to America it will most likely be called anti-socialism." (p. 440) Read more!