Sunday, 9 March 2008

Just for Me.

Just some rough notes of my own thoughts on the reading and discussion of education, science and authority for my own future reference.

Education. Unsurprisingly closely related to the goals of each utopia – but can be revealing as to the author’s circumstance and secondary (or unconscious) intentions. More’s utopia cannot be understood solely in relation to restraining appetite and so minimizing pride, given his emphasis on the importance of labour and training for labour for all citizens. The economics and the education required to support the economic system are not essential to a simply Augustinian view of sin, free will and pride. Contra Goldie an explanation founded in the reception of Plato is not enough, lexis and praxis exist in reflexive, not deterministic, relationships. Resch’s view of Orwell’s struggle with accepting the full implications of both economic and intellectual egalitarianism similarly suggest a symbiosis of mind and body in utopia (and reflection between what Orwell thought he should believe and what he did believe). Down and Out in P&L useful here (Animal Farm a more effective dystopia? – cf CWB and Karl Steel over at ITM on the useful and artificially constraining otherness of the non-human – though I haven’t read it properly yet).

Science was easier to separate from education than I had imagined it would (or should) be. How unique is Plato’s desire for Philosophy as a route to justice? Many/most utopians either anti-intellectual or reserve high science for the elite (ULG asks directly whether any society can afford intellectuals). Education in most utopias has a more functional purpose in relationship to citizenship and labour. Interesting that few if any provide different educations for men and women (an essential first destabilising step for all utopian adventures is a radicalisation of gender/procreative norms).

The fear of Big Science and the need for Big Government to restrain it, is interestingly rooted by Weinberger in the works of Bacon. Read more about this – how is Bacon’s science rooted in his ideas about government (rather than the other way around as W. suggests). There is more to be thought through about the machine age. Jameson’s more optimistic view possible only because he de-materialises science – turns it into a fiction? If utopianism becomes too divorced from the possible can it’s ambiguity still work as a creatively critical space (Marin) – Never let Me Go restores the purpose?

I may have fallen in love with Robert Owen – eccentric old man that he may have become. Like Ebenezer Howard he has to be admired for getting things done. He also makes me sad that we never really dealt with the issue of property. Resch is right? It is unpalatable/ hard to understand his perspective on the dehumanizing consequences of extreme inequalities of wealth. Maybe it is a matter of scale – the introduction of a global perspective would make this seem more relevant to a contemporary audience.

Law – maybe all this reading which makes us think critically about the vocabularies of power and law that we use should come earlier in the term (though the later it comes the more sense it makes). My other regret is sidelining the medieval (not foregrounding it enough) Key’s article very useful. Not only provides a clear explanation of law, but also good for discussing continuity and change over long historical periods in the triadic relationship between law, education and family.

Stanford PE – on positive/ negative – and the current resolution in triadic relationships between agent, prevailing conditions, and becomings – shorter and more uptodate introduction than Berlin (which requires prior reading in Locke etc).

Goldie distinction between renaissance and modern (rise of sovereignty of civil law, behaviourism) useful – but not adequate given that writers (such as Morris) continue to discuss the relationship between life-long education and civil law in terms really very similar to those of Aquinas (Keys).

Anarchy – can’t think of a single utopian who is an anarchist (particularly not Annarres) – find my copy of Richard Sennett, The Uses of Disorder (1976). Annarres and Urras different only in their wealth systems not their political systems (Jameson again??). The whole book is really about consumerism (in 1974 disposable pyjamas would have seemed extremely attractive, and she must have recognised that)?

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Saturday, 8 March 2008

Article Relevant To Digital Utopia

This article, on the Times, is about Google's mapping of the real world via photography and the implications thereof.
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Monday, 3 March 2008

US seeks terrorists in web worlds

There's an article on the BBC entitled "US seeks terrorists in web worlds" which is quite interesting after the digital utopias seminar: Read more!

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Week Nine: Authority and Freedom (Friday)

Suggested readings for our last class follows under the cut.

Do people need law to make them good? What is the best state of the commonwealth? What is the relationship between utopia, communism and anarchy?

Big History

Berlin, I., 1969, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in I. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, London: Oxford University Press. New ed. in Berlin 2002, and in various places online. There is also an essay on 'positive and negative' liberty on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which updates the relevance of this essay.

Lyman Tower Sargent, 'Authority & Utopia: Utopianism in Political Thought'
Polity, Vol. 14, No. 4. (Summer, 1982), pp. 565-584.

Particular Historical Contexts
These all focus on a particular period, but are also prone to draw conclusions of their significance for ‘today’.

Robert Paul Resch, ‘Utopia, Dystopia, and the Middle Class in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘, Boundary 2, Vol. 24, No. 1. (Spring, 1997), pp. 137-176.

Michael Holzman, ‘Anarchism and Utopia: William Morris's News from Nowhere’ ELH, Vol. 51, No. 3. (Autumn, 1984), pp. 589-603.

Mark Goldie, 'Obligations, utopias and their historical context', Historical Journal, 26 (1983), 727-46. renaissance utopias

Mary M. Keys, ‘Aquinas's Two Pedagogies: A Reconsideration of the Relation between Law and Moral Virtue’, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 45, No. 3. (Jul., 2001), pp. 519-531. – medieval (More was clearly influenced by (and against) the influential thirteenth century theologian, Thomas of Aquinas).

Everything is available online.

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Week Nine: Science and Education

In week 9 we turn to the mind, and (on Monday) to education and science.

More under the cut...


What kinds of education do utopians advocate and why?
What is the purpose of education?
Who is to learn, and who is to teach?

• David Halpin, 'Utopianism and Education: The Legacy of Thomas More', British Journal of Educational Studies, 49 (2001), 299-315.
• Robert Owen, The Book of the New Moral Order, C7 (in The Reader, pp. 207-19).

• Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Realistic Utopias: The ideal imaginary societies of the Renaissance, 1516-1630 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), chapters 2, 3.

Science in utopia can be treated as a dilemma (the perfection or destruction of human nature), as time (a means of measuring progress, of shattering the present and reaching the future), as a fantasy through which we rethink and criticise the present (cyborgs and other aliens).

Science as Dilemma
Does science perfect or corrupt human nature?
Who is in control of science?
What is science?

• Robert P. Adams, ‘The social responsibilities of Science in Utopia, New Atlantis and after’ Journal of the History of Ideas (1949) [online] nota bene the date and check out the footnotes.
• J. C. Davis, 'Science and utopia: the history of a dilemma', in Nineteen Eighty-Four: Science between utopia and dystopia, ed. Everett Mendelsohn and Helga Nowotny (1984), pp. 21-48

Science as Disruption
What is the relationship between science, progress and change in Utopia?

• J. Weinberger, ‘Science and Rule in Bacon’s Utopia: An Introduction to the reading of New Atlantis’ The American Political Science Review, 70/3 (1976), pp. 865-885
• F. Jameson, ‘Progress versus Utopia, or, Can we imagine the Future’, Science-Fiction Studies 9, Part 2, no. 27 (July 1982): 147-158 reprinted in Archaeologies of the Future, part 2, chapter 4. This older article is thoroughly glossed in the thirteen chapters of part one of Archaeologies: ‘The Desire called Utopia’, culminating in ch 13.

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Building Utopia

Summary of last Friday's seminar discussion behind the cut. CWB’s article on ‘shape and story’ is a comparative history of western attitudes towards the potential for change in human nature. Like Goode (on the family) last week she traces these attitudes over a very long history, but unlike him she does not understand the ideas to have progressed or evolved in a linear or deterministic fashion. She explores the theme by picking on a single idea (the story of the werewolf) in three historical contexts from the second century, the twelfth century and the twentieth. She shows that each author was aware of a ‘tradition’ but adapted it in self-consciously different ways, with the twentieth century author being particularly eclectic and anachronistic in both commenting on and developing past traditions of the werewolf and adding in fresh ideas of her own. In that sense she provides quite a good model, different from Goode’s, in thinking about the history of ideas and the history of fiction over a long comparative time frame. Her point in all of this was to look at how frequently and with what variety (even within the single fictional tradition of the werewolf) authors within the ‘western tradition’ had written about the human body as a changing but constant element giving us an identity. CWB uses these stories to think about the relationship between body and mind in our understanding of identity (are we products of nature or nurture?) and suggests that there is a long tradition of understanding the changing body as informing our identity. This is something she has written a great deal about elsewhere – in her discussion of the bodiliness of Christian theology. Towards the end of the article she returns to the fourteenth century, to Dante, and looks at his transformation of this idea of metamorphosis both in Purgatory, but also in Paradise where the elaborate architecture of the heavenly city becomes an extension to the human form and the ultimate confirmation of the importance of ‘shape’ in narrating change. (cf Campanella?)

This proved a difficult starting point for discussing human nature and architecture in utopias, perhaps because the werewolf theme didn’t seem immediately relevant but also because in going around the table it soon became apparent that many of you didn’t think that utopias were about material change or perfection (at least not before the mid nineteenth century). As a medievalist materialist (don’t forget I started out as an archaeologist!) I was probably over keen to insist on the materialism of the middle ages. I do think that Thomas More’s insistence on elaborating at length and in great detail the domestic economic arrangements necessary for the constraint of Pride are a very distinctive part of Utopia and suggest a profound engagement in the material world and its problems which was probably born out of his experience of the city of London, as much as the monastic cloister. It may not have been his intention, but it is not surprising that so many later authors such as Morris picked up on this as a form of earthly socialism, or like Kendrick want to place all the renaissance utopians in the context of the ‘rise of capitalist modes of production’. The instrumental value he places on things such as physical labour, agriculture, the consumption of a good diet (including appropriate food for the sick) seems very high. It is difficult to imagine his utopian vision working (either as a paradox or a blueprint) without his discussion of communism and the nature of true nobility (or the importance of work).

Sam made a very good and eloquent point about the difference between Plato’s regard for the earthly city as a place for spiritual enlightenment and a post-Augustinian association of the kingdom of earth with sin and its punishment. As did Becca and Emilie in their very well-developed points about the tendency to see materialism as dystopian rather than utopian. It is an odd thing that a certain kind of Christianity rejects worldly pleasure and yet the historical church has to find a way of living in and of the world. Much debate follows about how to make the world tolerable so that churchmen and others become accustomed to debating thorny topics such as sex, war and worldly wealth and legislating extensively on them. As CWB shows there were also other traditions of worldliness which get woven into that thinking too. You could even say that she is arguing this about Dante in particular. So rather ironically, perhaps, a theology which seems to reject the body, the world and its wealth produces a culture which is constantly thinking about those same things. This is not the same thing as blaming More specifically for modern consumer culture. I am a great believer in accident, irony and the history of unintended consequences. And I have been struck over and over again this term, by the unintended (?) material success of utopian experiments (such as the Oneida silverware company or the counter-culture to cyber-culture arguments of Turner et al).

So we went on from the human body, its nourishment and labour to utopian architectural experiments. How far were they designed, like laws, to regulate, contain and discipline human nature (as Stephen explained), how far (like Dante’s paradise) to allow the human body to complete its nature. In the former camp you could perhaps put those entrenched utopias with complicated communal systems of property (like More’s again, but also Winstanley’s perhaps). In the garden cities movement you seem to have both things: space, fresh air, good sanitation and trees will help eradicate physical diseases and disabilities (such as rickets) and so build better human bodies, but (or so Fishman argues) the town plan was also designed to impose standards of bodily behaviour (by banning pubs and regulating ball games for example) from the top down. Do most built communities have an architect, very like the authors of utopian texts, ‘imposing’ their view? (But what about the Shakers?).

Some modern architects have self-consciously moved away from a top-down architectual approach, styling themselves humanist – they want to put the individual (or at least the householder) at the centre of domestic and urban design. FLW’s open-plan, kitchen centred homes rejected the unhealthy and ‘hierarchical’ un-American designe of brick row/terrace houses imported from Europe. His usonian house was to be mass-produced in kit form so that customers could design the home they wanted, rather than have a preconceived design imposed upon them. In the Broadacres project – perhaps the ultimate scheme for combining the benefits of urban and rural living - the FLW house, like the garden city, is a factory produced machine for improving human nature by access to light and greenery, but one in which the customer and his automobile is king (and FLW was almost certainly unaware of the irony in that).

In these ways a discussion of architecture can inform a discussion of law (and of the relationship between society and the individual), just as walls and boundaries can be real obstacles not just representations of legal titles.


Among many other good points I liked Phil's comment that utopian themes can become backdrops to many other things (in Nabokov) they don't always have to take centre stage.

I also liked the discussion among various of you about whether the internet was an immaterial or material space. It reminded me both of Erewhon - the society without machines which contains the memory of a heavily machined past and whose pastoralism depends on an industrial other world, and of the symbiotic relationship of Urras and Annarres.

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Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The family in the utopian tradition.

Plato’s views on the communism of wives and property can be set in the context of a desire to bring an end to internecine warfare between warring dynasties or tribes in a vigorously patriarchal society. His communism, in the Republic, applies only to the guardian class and was designed to promote love of state above self love. It was soon criticised by the so-called ‘antiutopian’ Aristotle, whose politics sought a different approach to taming and civilising the family by bringing householders into the polis within an arena of mutuality, debate and moderated criticism (the senate). Much of the politics of the late Roman empire might also be characterised as a desire to find a balance between including the wealthiest and most powerful dynasties in government but preventing their monopolistic and allegedly corrupt dominance of the state for the benefit of their dynasty alone. Within a strongly dynastic society one of the most effective ways of dominating a people was to breed: for a powerful man to have many sexual partners and many offspring. (Three million modern men are thought to be descended from the fifth-century warlord ‘Niall of the nine hostages’, and similar DNA tests are increasingly showing that the supposed great migrations of the early middle ages were normally in fact movements of relatively small numbers of men who killed off the men and sowed their seed among indigenous female populations).

More behind the cut...

The historian Kate Cooper has argued that it was in this kind of context that (prior to the official adoption of Christianity) elite Roman society eventually came to prefer monogamous marriage and to prise the virginity of brides and the chastity of marriage partners. Such family practices stabilised society, limiting tribal connections and dynastic warfare. Another solution was some form of controlled monarchy in which tribal familial affections were symbolically transferred to a royal family. By enhancing the status of women as ‘unique’ mothers and partners (but also regulating their conduct and limiting their liaisons) the bellicose and profligate tendencies of male patriarchs might be tamed. This is all rhetoric – a rhetoric through which a dualism of male and female behaviours and a relationship to each other as ‘property’ and to the state is developed. How far was a later writer like Perkins Gilman, author of the pacifist Herland, aware of the historical context of this rhetoric, how far was she using it anachronistically but in response to a comparable (or incomparable) historical context?

Even within early Christianity similar concerns are apparent. Christ famously played down his dynastic associations to his forbears (back to King David). He advocated that true followers would put their love of God before love of family, his apostle Paul diverted familial affections to fraternal affection for the church (the Church was the ‘bride’ of Christ), he advocated strict monogamy and chastity, even celibacy for converts, while the mother of Christ was a virgin whose husband was not the father of Christ. Augustine rowed back a bit from such extreme asceticism by recognising the necessity of marriage for the procreation of the church, but viewed it as strictly monogamous and chaste and gave it a spiritual meaning.

If these are the early historical contexts within which classical and Christian ideas on the relationship between sex and property were developed, how much does this context matter in their adaptation in later utopias? How aware are later writers of the historical contexts in which such ideas were forged? Does it matter if they are not aware – possibly not – but then we might ask what it is about such ideas (whether sexual or economic communism) that they found applicable in their own times, and why. Thomas More perhaps had a limited awareness. He understood the theology of Augustine, its refraction through later theologians, and its applicability to his own times (Kenyon). He probably did not understand the historical context of Plato that well – but he got his neo-platonic ideas from an historical context (Florence) in which writers were acutely concerned about the relationship between great families and the republic, plus he had experience of dynastic politics within the royal court, and (in different ways and at a different social level) within the city of London.

In thinking about the utopian genre we don’t all have to ‘specialise’ in classical or medieval humanisms – but I think this approach – of asking how anachronistic is an author’s use of certain utopian ideas, of why certain elements (such as communism) come to the fore in different ways in different utopias is useful and possible.* One reason why this is useful is because antiutopian writers have often accused utopians of anachronism. Popper accuses utopians of being enslaved to a diachronic yet fundamentally anachronistic and thus bad tradition of classical thought originating with Plato, and he dismisses this diachronic approach as a mythical, unscientific and potentially dangerous (totalitarian) misunderstanding of society and its future. Orwell has a perhaps similar point about uncritical adherence to ideology for its own sake. Goode, in his article on the family, also takes a similarly pessimistic view of what he sees as a diachronic historical determinism in developing ideas about the family and merit.

Recently anachronism has come up for debate again - are there ways of seeing anachronism as a positive, as a non-totalising source of inspiration to future goods, or perhaps (as in your offline discussion of digital utopias) a totalising vision, based on an understanding of the past (where we have come from, where we are going) is not such a bad thing after all?

When we are looking at something so often called a ‘tradition’ (“a tradition of utopian thought”) then an awareness of different kinds of anachronism and its uses and possible misuses is a useful way (a possible strategy) of thinking comparatively?

I am up for other strategies - if you want to share them.

* This is important – not everybody can or should be trying to master everything. I am a medievalist, I am always going to fall back on talking about pre-Morean times (though I am quite keen on the modern too!). I think that you should all be thinking of perhaps four utopias that you really want to specialise in, and perhaps two or three themes that are likely to come up as questions. I think we have done enough of a wide range of utopias that you will all have a lot to draw on, even from those utopias in which you do not ‘specialise’. Comparative History goes against our professional instincts: it is about knowing a little about a lot (rather than a lot about a little) and having a strategy for making some historical sense of it all.
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Sunday, 24 February 2008

Week Eight

Monday 8/1 Our last case study and first comparative discussion.

1. American intentional communities - especially Northampton and Oneida (in the Reader)

2. Comparative discussion: procreation and childrearing (reading distributed last week).

William J. Goode, ‘Family Changes Over The Long Term: A Sociological Commentary’, Journal of Family History, Jan 2003; vol. 28: pp. 15 - 30.[online]

Bryce J. Christensen, 'The Family in Utopia', Renasence: Essays on Values in Literature, 44 (1991), pp. 31-44. [online] – a prolific pro-family writer

Additional utopian text:
C. Perkins Gilman, Herland (extract in The Utopia Reader)

8/2 Comparative discussion: building and mapping Utopia
For bodiliness we can discuss anything from the human body to the perfect city to the perfect other world.

  • How do the perfect body and the perfect architecture shape the perfect individual and the perfect society?

    More details behind the cut:
  • Which utopias are focussed on physical perfection and why?
  • Are imagined systems of property designed for material/bodily perfection rather than spiritual enrichment?

For stimulating debate about the body/mind binary see: Caroline Walker Bynum's 1999 NEH Jefferson Lecture called 'Shape and Story'. It is also reprinted as the last chapter of her book: Metamorphosis and Identity (2001, rep 2005). In it she considers the European tradition of
metamorphosis (of identity and change) from Ovid to Angela Carter.

If you want a modern novel that plays on the social and political tensions between
body and soul then read Kazuo Ishiguro's, Never Let Me Go (2004).

Walker Bynum focuses on the role that stories about fantastical lands and creatures
(such as werewolves) have played in thinking about desired transformations and the relationship between material form and spiritual being, whether we are a product of nature and the environment, or of society and culture, and how do we divide the two in defining the human? (The werewolf being something that changes yet stays the same, a bit like the children in Never Let Me Go). Peripherally we have come across quite a bit of such fantasy - in the tradition of travel writing which fed into utopias, sustained it until the programmatic futuristic types took over, but then reemerged with Butler and modern science fiction.

  • How are architectural forms seen in utopias EITHER as an extension to the human body, OR as a necessary constraint (a physical expression of law) given the impossible fluidity of the human?

The monstrous as a way of imagining both the limits and the possible futures of human nature is quite hip at the moment. There is a lot of discussion of these issues over at In The Middle(though this site comes with a health-warning, it doesn't load properly on my pc at present making it difficult to use).

If you are interested in the relationship between architecture and language (in ways which has big implications for the architecture of the internet)* then you might like to look for the work of the architect Christopher Alexander. His The Timeless Way of Building (1979) or The Oregon Experiment could easily be classed as utopian texts, and have inspired several utopian built communities, but I suggest that these remain optional extras for those who are particularly interested. This link tells the story of how his Pattern Language, designed for building buildings, was adopted by computer programmers building the internet during the boom.

*Yehuda E. Kalay and John Marx, 'Architecture and the Internet: designing places in cyberspace' at First Monday

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Saturday, 23 February 2008

Digital Dystopia

As a follow up to the seminar I’d be really interested to hear you opinions on the possibly hugely dystopian implications of the digital utopia, which seem to be lost beneath the religious fervour that the internet and its innovations always seem to provoke.

To me it seems that innovation, efficiency and wealth-creation – which the internet definitely spurs on – are increasingly seen as ends and not means. You talked about the Benkler book and how he foresees everything being broken down into tiny tasks on which anyone can collaborate. Whilst this drives all of the three things above, it does so by creating ferocious competition which erodes things such as job security, pay etc. which leads to huge vulnerability and instability for the working population. This continual unease over where the money for a mortgage, school fees, medical insurance etc. surely must undermine general well-being, even if the population is richer and has increasingly breathtaking gadgets to play with. It surely also demands a level of flexibility in terms of hours and movement that totally undermines social institutions like the family, such is the continual disruption of movement and the blur between work and home.

I completely benefit from the internet; I think it’s an awesome place to find out information. I’m a huge devotee of things like Firefox etc and I believe the internet can drive creativity and greater political engagement. But the belief that anything innovative and new is automatically good, and the sort of technological determinism that seems to underpin the technology industry and its commentators, means that we are not questioning what is good and what is bad, which could lead to some ptentially hugely dystopian implications. Read more!

From Olly Fayers

I would personally like to extend my thanks to Tom and Brian for putting so much time and effort into our seminar - they really didn't have to. I greatly appreciate it, and I know others did too. I think that talking interestingly to a room full of people who could not be seen (or heard for most of the time) was very impressive on their part!

Even though a few technical gremlins surfaced, I do think it was an awesome seminar. I felt that Tom and Brian's presentations were as interesting as they were thought-provoking, and, most significantly, caused a heck of a lot of debate afterwards.

ETA: I liked this so much that I thought it deserved a post of its own. S Read more!

Friday, 22 February 2008

BIG Digital Thank You

Huge thank you to Tom and Brian for such a great seminar. There was lots of animated discussion in the room when our link broke down.

My thoughts about significant themes tying in with other ideas we have looked at:

Is collective custom and opinion (reputation) a better form of regulation than 'state' law?

The argument that systems of property have to be destroyed (material relations reformed) in order for the spiritual/intellectual capacity of humankind to expand.

The question whether freedom of information is good - should it be controlled - guarded by an educated elite? Is mass information bad (dangerous) or bad (dumbed down)?

The idea that digital utopias are different because these utopians are younger and ahead of the game as understood by their elders and betters (cf Chernyshevsky), instead of retreating from the world and its technology they are in the vanguard of new developments.

As the oldest one among you - I am sure that you all have better ideas!!! Read more!

Benkler on Humanism

Yochai Benkler writes: [My position] "is humanistic and general as opposed to political and particular" ... "the claims of human beings as human beings, rather than with the requirements of democracy or the entitlements of citienship or membership in a legitimate and meaningfully self-governed political community." (Wealth of Networks, 2006, p. 19)

I thought this drew a nice distinction over something I have been puzzling about (even though this is not Benkler's subject): the difference between utopianism and political science. It is the central concern with the nature of humanity (both body and mind as discussed here) which, however much it gets wrapped up in political science in some work, runs consistently through utopianism. I think that Bauman* is wrong to imagine all bounded utopias as blueprints for modern era state building, but perhaps there was a phase (roughly from Bacon to Bellamy) when that model prevailed, when people were more concerned with emulating Plato's Laws than his Republic? That is actually quite a short phase within the longer histories we have looked at.

* in History of the Human Sciences 2003; 16; 1 – a special issue of the journal devoted entirely to the subject of Utopias. online Read more!

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Additional Speaker on Friday

We're also going to be joined by Brian Fishman, From The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Military Academy. He is an expert on terrorist networks and will be speaking on Al-Qa'ida ideas related to Utopias and the Internet. Though there is no reading set directly on the subject it will build on the already assigned items.

Olly - Thanks for the critique of John Perry Barlow's statement. It's a point worth discussing.

Rebecca - You're right Sunstein really hit a nerve when he wrote The Daily We. I know we'll discuss this point too. Interestingly there are a number of responses (not assigned) but may be interesting to read here.

Looking forward to talking on Friday. We're still working on the technical aspects and if anyone has a lap top to bring or even a cell phone that has a speaker phone it might be useful. feel free to email me with details if you do. (teg2102 (at) columbia (dot) edu)
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Digital Utopias today and tomorrow

In the spirit of generating some questions before we meet on February 22nd I thought I'd post this link to a utopia that you may or may not have already seen. Please add questions or thoughts on modern utopias to this post and I will endeavor to respond when we meet. Read more!

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

George Orwell and 1984

Here is my presentation notes on 1984 andOrwell, apologies that it was not distributed sooner.



A quick bit on Orwell:

Born 1903 and lived until 1950, when he died of the tuberculosis that plagued him throughout the writing of 1984, which was his last novel. – indeed, it is often remarked that personal problems such as the death of his wife, sister and his ill health (all in the late 1940s, and book was published in 1949) account for the rather pessimist tone of the satire, that is out of character when compared with Orwell’s previous work.

Key influences: H.G. Wells and Zamyatin’s ‘we’, who he wrote several critical articles about in his professions as a novelist, journalist and literary critic: therefore, some interaction with earlier dystopian tradition – Aldous Huxley was his French tutor at Eton – that's quite interesting, I guess.

Perhaps the most important consideration about Orwell is his left-wing political leanings: Orwell himself in later life described himself as a democratic Socialist, which can be seen in direct opposition to Stalinist Communism, which he experienced first hand whilst fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was a supporter of revolutionary socialists rather than the Spanish Communist Party’s ploy to come to a coalition with the bourgeois parties, and their later brutal suppression of anarcho-syndicalist communes under Soviet influence hardened Orwell’s opposition to authoritarian Stalinism.

This leads into:

1984 as a critique of Stalinism:

Bearing in mind the temporal and personal context of the novel, it is clear that the text has often between portrayed as more of an explicit critique of Stalinism than as a piece directed specifically at aspects of the Utopian tradition. However, this appears to take a largely satirical form, taking developments occurring in contemporary Stalinist Russia and postulating possible situations in which they are taken to their ‘logical conclusions’ as Orwell put it. For example, the treatment of Goldstein mirrors closely the demonisation of Trotsky, but to a point in which it no longer discredits him, but acts as an emotional means of forging links in society, in the form of the two minute’s hate. In this manner, these purely provide examples of elites in totalitarian societies utilising techniques such as these to produce orthodoxy, as it has been argued that such methods as informers in the family mirror Nazism as well as Communism, and that scapegoating and the forced recanting of dissenting ideas before execution as mirroring medieval Catholicism.

(1984 does not deny the emotional power of the family, but the Party do intend to channel emotional bonds of this kind to central government through the use of Big Brother - equally, unlike Huxley, Orwell's dystopia retains the family as a means of controlling members of the Party through informants; thus the power of the state is so complete that it is even present in areas that other dystopias deal with by elimination)

In this sense, it can be argued this text is as interested in all totalitarian developments, not just limited to Stalinism. Such thinking is vindicated by Orwell’s own experiences, as his first-hand view of totalitarianism in the Spanish civil war is often seen as accounting for much of the violent imagery (ie boot stamping on a persons face from O’Brien).

Goldstein’s book itself appears to provide examples that ground the text in the contextual framework of a critique of Stalinism as a corruption of more the Utopian socialist values held by Orwell himself: Goldstein contends that totalitarianism stemmed largely from greater human awareness of the nature of society and social trends, but that this development coincided with the related possibility of genuine socialist ideas of the rejection of material inequality and the existing class structures portrayed as the ‘high, middle and low’. Therefore, this sets out to portray the development of totalitarianism governments (which in turn transformed into the political structures present in 1984) as dystopian alternatives that sprung up when positive social change was beginning to appear possible.

Critique of Present:

In addition to this, it can also be seen as encompassing explicit critiques of political and social developments in this country (ie post-war misery) and ideas about an idealised past akin to William Morris. This is shown both in developments in the novel and Orwell’s life – for instance the heavily glorified and pure description of Julia and Winston’s trip to the countryside, away from the depressing environs of the city clearly mirrors Orwell’s move from London to the Outer Hebrides to complete the book as his health deteriorated.

Equally, it is telling that Orwell set it in London rather than an existing totalitarian state: this serves two purposes:
1) to draw parallels between the drudgery of post-war existence (esp. in context of his own personal problems) and thedystopian vision;
2) To create a warning as much as a critique – Orwell himself was quoted as saying that setting (London) was motivated by his aim to highlight his fear that this society could occur not only in current totalitarian states, but even in states with democratic traditions such as Britain. This reflects Bellamy – his social organisation is meant to appear achievable in the US, and so retains many recognisable American institutions (such as the Supreme Court) - Orwell does the same, but the purpose is reversed – to make a dystopian future believable, and thus to warn against it, rather than to spur people on to try and achieve it.


On of the most prominent themes prevalent in the dystopian future presented in Nineteen-Eighty Four is that of language, and in the particular the ways in which the state attempt to utilise the perceived links between language and reality as a means of affecting the ways in which people form ideas and reactions to the rigidly imposed political and social system they find themselves in.

This is explored extensively in the state programme of ‘Newspeak’, an attempt to create an artificial language that would actively prevent its speakers from not only expressing but formulating ideas contrary to the official party line: this has a very prominent place in the text, as the hypothetical concept is practically established as an appendix to the novel.

This appears to have many contextual links with Modern Literary theory, especially the work of Whorf: that reality itself is a linguistic construct, and one that fundamentally influences our perception of events. This is also seen as a common thread with varying dystopian pieces of writing, as Walter Meyers believes this provides a key area of contrast between dystopian and eutopian creations, with the former (eutopias) favouring a regimented attitude to language, and the latter (dystopias) a belief in allowing linguistic freedom within which language can develop. This provides a key point of contrast between this and previous works we have studied on this course:

For example, there is a clear engagement with the issue of language in many works, with More’s Utopia and Gulliver’s travels being prominent examples. However, these approach language in subtly different ways: in Utopia and in the varying lands of Gulliver’s travels, languages and the ways in which inhabitants speak are utilised as reflections on the already established natures of the speaker, rather than as active constituent factors in the shaping of society.

This appears to link well with the idea of the role of human design over divine providence that appears to run through all Utopian thought: in the first extract (Chapter One of Goldstein’s book), the development of the totalitarian states are equated to a growth in the understanding of cyclical social conflicts, and greater human understanding of psychology and language clearly plays a key role in the development of ‘Newspeak’. Seen in this manner, it appears that the treatment of language in 1984 (as opposed to earlier utopian works) appears inextricably linked with this idea of intellectual human developments (rather ironically).

Technology and Progress:

As with varying other modern dystopian visions, such as Huxley’s Brave New World, there also appears to be a great emphasis on the possibilities presented by technological development. In such a way, it can be interpreted to be a presentation of the dystopian possibilities of developments of certain technologies, as compared to previous Utopian visions of science such as in Bacon’s New Atlantis or in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Much of this is presented in the State’s utilisation of technology as a means of keeping tabs on members of the inner party – the two way control of the telescreens provide the central party with a form of personal surveillance that was impossible even within systems of control that 1984 self-consciously mirrors, such as the Medieval Catholic church. Indeed, in extract 1, Goldstein’s book places great emphasis on the role of technology in allowing such unfettered state control to occur, and this links well with the idea of greater understanding of social dynamics allowing the Party to break from natural cycles of social conflict. Equally, this break from any conception of the individual and private sphere also appears to be reinforced by the telescreens, as the lack of any privacy at any time can be seen as a social tool to reinforce state loyalty over personal whims, a key idea portrayed in many previous utopias.

Yet, it can also be argued that this is not as straightforward denunciation of technological advancement as it would first appear. For example, whilst the party utilises technology for totalitarian means, it is their use of it that comes under explicit criticism by the book, unlike the technophobia espoused in Butler’s Erewhon. Indeed, as M. Keith Brooker points out, the attitude to knowledge portrayed by the party runs contrary to the conditions of technological progress, and in Goldstein’s book there are several claims that the state's resources are devoted entirely to surveillance and military technology, to keep party members in check and wage continuous war.

This technological opposition of the party is shown in the importance of the creation of a static society to the Party. For example, Goldstein’s book emphasizes the necessity of a static society for a particular elite to remain in power, in this case the upper echelons of the Party. However, this dystopian idea (that of aimless human existence with little to achieve) is belied by the possibility that there are definite aims that the Party are undertaking that represent a twisted progress to their greater aims of ultimate control: indeed, as Newspeak is as yet largely developmental in the contemporary context of the novel, the Party does appear to conceive of a day in which the formal application of coercion would be rendered unnecessary due to complete thought control, and thus a near Marxist state ‘withering’ could occur, although the remaining observation of power would be a lot different to hypothetical utopian socialism. This draws interesting parallels with the anarchist utopias considered by Morris and Le Guin as these utilise public coercion to maintain order in the face of limited legal and political frameworks. The possible future of Oceania would not even require such uncertain social methods, as citizens would be effectively engineered to follow the party line. Yet, as O’Brien mentions, there are no official laws to be broken anyway, and that Party terror is as much preventative as retributive. Thus, to a certain degree, this implies similar arguments to the self criticism of Le Guin, although it is clear that in the Dispossessed and classic anarchist utopias informal codes of conduct appear to be derived from rational human conceptions of truth (and right and wrong), as opposed to the fluid yet unchallengeable truth of the Party.

However, it is difficult to establish the ideas of the ‘book within a book’ as a genuine critique by the author of Oceania, as it is later established in extract 2 that the book itself has been constructed by the Party for their own ends. However, this itself may be equally observed as a satirical take on the monopoly of the information that the Party has, as it displays them as in control even of the information created as a means of subverting their power.

Nature of Power:

A key factor in 1984’s inversion of utopian traditions and in its satirical critique of present societies is the nature of the aims of the Party. This in itself appears a departure from Utopian tradition, and even traditional critiques of Utopianism – whilst the Utopian/dystopian binary opposition operates throughout utopias of the past, all, in some manner, appear motivated by the aim to produce a fairer, or ideal society; dystopian elements of varying left-wing utopian systems appear therefore largely a practical by-product of a system that provides either too many central powers, or in the case of anarchism, a vacuum of authority. However, in the case of 1984, O’Brien makes it clear whilst torturing Winston that the Party does not operate for the common good, but for its own perpetual power. This in itself can be attributed to the exaggeratory nature of satire, as this goes beyond the public motives of Stalinism, Nazism or any other real totalitarian movement. Equally, the dual purpose of 1984 as both a critique and a warning can explain this: as Goldstein’s book explains, INGSOC and its counterparts are themselves offshoots of totalitarian movements, and as such this could be perceived by Orwell as an expression of the raw power of Oceania that lip-service to radical ideas are no longer needed.

Equally, the structure of society must be taken into account, as this is not to say that INGSOC’s ultra-surveillance and control applies to all: indeed, such repression only appears to be exercised on party members, leaving the remaining 85% (the proles) relatively free to live out their lives. This in a way appears to hark back to the Guardian class of Plato’s Republic, as the highest appear the only ones under the social control of governance. However, this comparison is extremely crude, as the state does appear to exert some control over the proles, in the shape of proletarian culture, that embodies all the perceived degeneracy of mass media contemporary to Orwell (such as pornography and tabloid newspapers); in this sense, it can be argued as almost a dual state – on the one hand the state is a meritocracy, but one that operates with ruthless adherence to party principals. On the other hand, proles live aimless lives of economic subjugation with no prospects of betterment. Are these two eventualities that are directly contrasted to Orwell’s self proclaimed 'Democratic Socialism'???

In addition to this, the proles are often seen as a key anti-socialist aspect of the book, as the descriptions of them by Winston and Goldstein portray them as base, degenerate and subject to near primal drives: they are equated to cattle. However, this is assuming that Orwell is embodied in the characters that oppose the dystopia in the book: yet, this may be making more implicit comments on the ways in which social behaviour is conditioned by the society in which a person originates: as such, these two figures, that provide the most prominent examples of anti-Party activity, are still conditioned by the Party’s portrayal of the pitiful proles. In this way parallels can be seen with Shevak in the Dispossessed, as despite opposing Annaresti isolationism, he still maintains a view on Urras that is wholly Odonion. Equally, this once more portrays the absolute power the Party possesses in 1984 once it has gained control of knowledge as well as the means of political power.
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Tom Glaisyer

Welcome to Tom Glaisyer, PhD student in communications at The School of Journalism at Columbia University, New York. Tom will be leading our virtual seminar on Friday on digital utopias. I am immensely grateful for his help and the wonderful reading list of online materials he has provided.

As a warm up, you may want to comment here. Read more!

Williams on Bellamy, Morris, Orwell, le Guin and others.

Here is a useful article discussing Raymond Williams' critique of a range of modern utopian writing from Bellamy to Le Guin. Read more!

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Comparative Themes

I hoped to give more time in class yesterday to discussing possible comparative themes for the last three seminars. I think we need to focus on relatively specific issues such as the issues of procreation and childrearing on which we will focus in the second half of Monday's class. I am sure that we will find these specific issues will expand into broader treatments of the relationships between individuals and societies.

So I am going to post a few possibilities here for you to discuss. Again I have not given these as much thought as I would like, but hey-ho, life is short! The list of rudimentary possible topics is hidden behind the 'read more cut'.

How do different utopias (and eu and dystopias) treat:

The issue of authority. What is the best state of the republic?, is utopianism the same as anarchism, is law necessary and if so who makes it, what kinds of authority are proposed instead of law, how diverse is the utopian tradition in its conception of power? Liberty? Freedom from, or to do, what?

Education, information, religion, science and knowledge. Are all utopias a form of science fiction. To what extent is perfection of the mind/soul/psyche/spirit/conscience the chief goal of utopianism. How does utopianism extend this good to all members of society. What kinds of education etc are preferable and why.

Mapping and Building. To what extent is perfection of the body the chief goal of utopianism - we might consider this at every level from the human body, through the city to the other worldly geographies of utopias. In utopia is place a metaphor for time?

These are still pretty big themes - and there must be others. In my haste to bring this together, I would welcome your refining input.
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Digital Utopias: Alternative Links

Hello everyone,
I think some of the short articles of the digital utopias reading have not been downloading properly. I have managed to find a link to Fred Turner's article on his web site if anybody else can't find it - go to and its under the 'online publications' as a pdf file. Hope this works (you might have to cut and paste the web link). Becca Read more!

Monday, 18 February 2008

Aldous Huxley - Brave New World

Aldous Huxley was born in Surrey on the 26th July 1894; he was the third son of the writer and professional herbalist, Leonard Huxley and was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, one of the most prominent English naturalists of the C19, a man known as "Darwin's Bulldog". His brother, Julian Huxley, was also a notable biologist.

Huxley was educated at Eton College and while there he suffered an illness which left him practically blind, something that was to remain problematic for the rest of his life and consequently disqualified him from service in WWI. In 1916, his eyesight sufficiently recovered, he studied English literature at Oxford, graduating with a first class honours. Following his education he taught French for a year back at Eton, where, incidentally, Eric Blair - later known by the pen name George Orwell, was among his pupils.

During WWI Huxley spent much of his time working as a farm labourer at Garsington Manor, home of the Bloomsbury Group socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell. Here he met several Bloomsbury figures, including D.H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell and Clive Bell. In 1919 he married Maria Nijs, a Belgian woman he met at Garsington and they had one child, Matthew. In 1937 Huxley and his family moved to Hollywood, California and remained in the states for the remainder of his life until he died on the 22nd November 1963.

In 1932 Huxley published BNW. By this time, Huxley had already established himself as a writer and social satirist. He was a contributor to Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines, had published a collection of his poetry (The Burning Wheel, 1916) and four successful satirical novels: Crome Yellow in 1921, Antic Hay in 1923, Those Barren Leaves in 1925 and Pound Counter Point in 1928. BNW was Huxley's fifth novel and first attempt at a utopian work.

Thinking about the historical context; a widespread fear of Americanisation had already existed in Europe since the mid-C19 and BNW, was well as his later utopian novel, Island of 1962, form the cornerstone of Huxley's damning indictment of American commercialism. It has been suggested that BNW as well as Orwell's 1984 and Zamiatin's We helped form an anti-utopian or dystopian tradition in literature, and they all have become synonymous with a future world where the human spirit is subject to conditioning and control.

BNW is set in London in 2540 AD, or as Huxley has termed it 632 AF (After Ford). The novel anticipates developments in reproductive technology, biological engineering, and sleep-learning that combine to dramatically change society as we know it. It is a utopia: humanity is carefree, healthy and technologically advanced. Warfare and poverty have been eliminated and everyone is permanently happy due to government-provided stimulation. The massive irony with all of this however is that these things have been achieved by eliminating what humans would consider to be central to their identity - family, culture, art, literature, science, religion and philosophy. It is also a hedonistic society, deriving pleasure from promiscuous sex and drug use - particularly 'soma', a powerful psychotropic taken to escape pain and bad memories through hallucinatory fantasies. Stability has also been achieved and is maintained through deliberately engineered and rigidly enforced social stratification.

BNW was inspired by H.G. Wells' utopian novel, Men Like Gods. Wells' optimistic vision of the future gave Huxley the idea to begin writing a parody of the novel, which became BNW. Contrary to the most popular optimist utopian novels of the time, Huxley sought to provide a frightening vision of the future. Huxley referred to BNW as a "negative utopia", somewhat influence by Wells' own The Sleeper Awakes and the works of D.H. Lawrence. Zamiatin's novel We, completed in 1921 has also been suggested as an influence, but Huxley stated that he had not known of the book at the time.

Although the novel is set in the future, it contains the contemporary issues of the early C20. The Industrial Revolution was bringing about massive changes to the world; mass production had made cars, telephones and radios relatively cheap and widely available throughout the developed world. The Russian Revolution, WWI and the Great Depression were also resonating throughout the world.

Huxley was able to use the setting and characters from his futuristic fantasy to express widely held opinions that were a result of the contemporary issues of the time, particularly a fear of losing individual identity in the fast-paced world of the future. An early trip to the US gave BNW much of its character. Not only was Huxley outraged by the youth culture, commercial cheeriness and inward-looking nature of many Americans, he also found a book by Henry Ford on the boat to America. A combination of the fears of Americanisation felt throughout Europe, by seeing the US firsthand and by having the opportunity to read the ideas and plans of one of its foremost citizens, spurred Huxley to write BNW with America in mind. The "feelies" are his response to the "talkie" motion pictures, and the sex-hormone chewing gum is a parody of the 'chewing gum' that we all know today, which was something of a symbol of America at that time.

Key figures of historical significance that are implicit within the book and clearly at the forefront of Huxley's mind are:

Henry Ford - has become a messianic figure to the World State. "Our Ford" used in place of "Our Lord", as a credit to his invention of the assembly line.

Sigmund Freud
- "Our Freud" is sometimes said in place of "Our Ford" due to the link between Freud's psychoanalysis and the conditioning of humans, and Freud's popularisation of the idea that sexual activity is essential to human happiness and need not be open to procreation. It is also strongly implied that the citizens of the World State believe Freud and Ford to be the same person.

H.G. Wells
- "Dr. Wells" - British writer and utopian socialist, whose book Men Like Gods was an incentive for BNW. Huxley also criticised Wells for his anthropological assumptions that Huxley found unrealistic. It was clear that Huxley almost viewed Wells as a kind of 'enemy', was he asserted that BNW was "a novel about the future on the horror of Wellsian utopia and a revolt against it."

William Shakespeare
- banned works are quoted throughout the novel by John "the Savage". Mustapha Mond is also aware of Shakespeare.

Thomas Malthus
- his name is used to describe the contraceptive techniques (Malthusian belt) practice by women of the World State. Malthus has become best-known for his influential views on population growth, he famously predicted that the population of the Earth would steeply rise after the Industrial Revolution.

There are also explicit political references in the names of some of the bottle-grown citizens of the World State:

Bernard Marx
- Karl Marx

Lenina Crowne
Vladimir Lenin

Polly Trotsky
- Leon Trotsky

Benito Hoover
- Benito Mussolini and Henry Hoover

Darwin Bonaparte
- Charles Darwin and Napoleon Bonaparte

Herbert Bakunin
- Mikhail Bukanin (Russian philosopher and anarchist)

Mustapha Mond
- Mustapha Kemal Ataturk (founded the Turkish republic after WWI, pulling his country into modernisation and official secularism) and Alfred Mond (charismatic British businessman and politician - founded the Imperial Chemical Industries Corporation)

Primo Mellon
- Miguel Primo de Rivera (prime minister and dictator of Spain from 1923-1930) and Thomas Mellon (American entrepreneur, lawyer and judge)

Sarojini Engels
- Friedrich Engels and Sarojini Naidu (Indian politician, child-prodigy and freedom fighter of early C20)

Arch-Community Songster
- parody of Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Church's decision in August 1930 to approve limited use of contraception

- Native American rebel, responsible for the conflict known as Pope's rebellion (uprising of the natives against Spanish colonisation in 1680). [Pope has an accented 'e'].

BNW has come to serve as a false symbol for any regime of universal happiness; Huxley's satirical fiction has turned a future where we are all notionally happy into an archetypal dystopia.

Huxley's character Mustapha Mond himself obliquely acknowledges the dystopian sterility of BNW when he reflects on Bernard's plea not to exile him to Iceland, when he says "one would think he was going to have his throat cut. Whereas, if he had the smallest sense, he'd understand that his punishment is really a reward. He's being sent to an island. That's to say, he's being sent to a place where he'll meet the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world. All the people who, for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community life.

Huxley has endowed his "ideal" society with features calculated to alienate his audience and what makes it truly dystopian is that BNW doesn't and isn't intended by its author to evoke just how wonderful our lives could be. Nor does Huxley's comparatively sympathetic account of the life of the Savage on the Reservation convey just how nasty the old regime can be. In BNW Huxley has managed to exploit both the anxieties of his bourgeois audience about both Soviet Communism and Fordist American capitalism.

Comparisons that can be mode with other utopias -

It is notable that the society of BNW has no historical dynamic. "History is bunk". It is curious to find a utopia where knowledge of the past is banned by the Controllers, perhaps they feared historical awareness would stir dissatisfaction with the "utopian" present.

Individualism - In BNW there is no depth of feeling, no ferment of ideas, no artistic creativity, individuality is suppressed (See Mond quote above where people have got "too self-consciously individual to fit into community life")

Religion - BNW inhabitants do not worship God. Instead they are brainwashed into revering the concept of 'community' and formally the community is presided over by the spirit of the apostle of mass-production, Henry Ford. He is worshipped as a god and with the abolition of history, for the Brave New Worlders it is implied that salvation has already occurred, the utopians are static and not going anywhere.

Politically, BNW is a benevolent form of totalitarianism under ten world controllers. A government bureau decides prospective citizen's role in the hierarchy, children are raised and conditioned by the state bureaucracy. There are only ten thousand surnames, value has been stripped away from the person as an individual and respect belongs only to society as a whole. BNW then is centred around control and manipulation.

Socially, BNW is a classed society, with a 5 way genetic split, with no social mobility. Alphas invariably rule while the Epsilons invariably toil.

The role of education for Huxley in BNW is rather complex to fathom. Generally, it is a stupid society. For the most part even the Alpha's don't do anything more exalted than play Obstacle Golf, but there are a handful of Alphas who are delineated; Bernard, Helmholtz and Mustapha Mond are truly clever. John the Savage as well is articulated and with a desire to learn. But in the main the utopians are empty-headed.

Consumerism, property, ownership, these are recurring themes within the utopian genre and BNW is no different. It is a "Fordist" utopia based on production and consumption. The world motto is "Everyone belongs to everyone else", which also emphasises ideas about ownership and property. This is in particular reference to the BNWer's conditioning to be sexually promiscuous. No one belongs to anyone else. Therefore BNW is an essentially loveless society.

With regard to the family and love, both romantic love and love of the family are taboo. The family itself has been abolished throughout the civilised world. We learn that the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning was guilty of an indiscretion with a Beta-minus when visiting the Reservation twenty years ago and when John the Savage falls on his knees and greets him as his father, the director puts his hands over his ears, clearly seeing the word as obscene, he is embarrassed and in his opinion publicly humiliated and so flees the room.

The role of John the Savage is arguably the most important part of Huxley's BNW. John stands as the voice of the modern reader. He sees the hollowness of existence that results from consumerism and instead of viewing its ease as a utopia, he begs for the right to suffer his unhappiness. In perhaps one of the most important quotes in the book, he pleads, "I don't want comfort, I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin." To John all of the 'happiness' that he seems before him in the 'brave new world' is vacuous and artificial. No one experiences anything that makes us all essentially human because the state regulates experience through products such as soma. He, like the reader, sees this lack of humanity as a disturbing warning about the dangers of modern consumerism and understands that the pain and emotion of Shakespeare, nature, art and God are more real and useful than tactics to produce mindless obedience. He is, in essence, the foil to every character in the book and is the true outsider - the only one who seems to see that utopia and consumption cannot exist simultaneously and can only breed infantile dependence and thus a lack of individuality and truth. As the reader is also an outsider, having never been exposed to the bizarre culture presented in the novel, we find John's statements even more compelling and it becomes clear that even though fiction has exaggerated the potential reality - there are definite dangers imminent when consumption becomes the means to create a utopia.

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Do You Believe In Utopia?

In today's seminar, Sarah asked a couple of people 'do you believe in utopia'. I thought this is an interesting question which I would like to explore more. Does that mean 'can a utopia exist?'. Does it mean 'can a utopia be created?'. Does it mean 'is there any point in point of utopian writing, and if so, what is this point?'. I think it means, in some way, all of these things. At any rate, I'd love to know everyone's response to the question 'do you believe in utopia'. It is an interesting one methinks. Read more!

Seminar 7/1 - Some Thoughts Thereon

Good afternoon Yahoos (only kidding),

I just thought I'd post some thoughts about today's seminar, because I found it particularly enjoyable. The books we discussed were both great, and I found the actual discussion very interesting.

I very much liked the bit at the end of the seminar with the around-the-table opinions of everyone. I found it all very thought-provoking and useful. If you're interested in challenging or supporting them, here are the points I sought to make in that discussion.

  1. That I don't think utopianism has shrugged off or moved on from an association with totalitarianism. I don't think that utopian study or writing has itself been harmed or reduced because of this association, even if the practice of attempting to build and enforce a utopia on an existing society has suffered in reputation. Studying and reflecting on ideas about utopia is just as popular now as ever, perhaps more so.
  2. Contentious point: That a writing with an undeniably strong utopian element attempts to change current society in a good direction, or at least makes you reflect on it. It does this by portraying a better society that is possible to achieve. These are 'eutopias'. Similarly, some utopian writing attempts to prevent certain changes which society seems to be undergoing, or at least makes you reflect on those changes. It does so by portraying a worse society, or an equally horrible one, which could possibly result in future. These are 'dystopias'. Anything that seems ambiguous, contentious, or philosophical and is related to the betterment of individuals in society, or society as a whole, falls into the realms of 'utopia', which encompasses the above. Most texts have the ambiguous elements of 'utopia' which make all of this reading and debate so much fun; there are so many different interpretations.
  3. As sure as people will always reflect on their social situation, utopianism will always exist, regardless of how much prestige is attached to it. I don't think that utopian writing is ever likely to cease, because people will always think of issues related to social or individual betterment, which are the primary concern of utopia.

Meanwhile, I thought some other great ideas were brought up. For instance, the idea that utopia has been scaled down and moved away from its association with the state. Also, the examples of places like 'Somewhere' in Zaragoza. It made me wonder if a eutopia which humans are still striving to create will have to be dependant on a non-eutopia (like some, but not all, of our fictional utopias). Like Becky said, Zaragoza isn't exactly an Eden-like area with abundant resources. Finally, I liked the discussion of utopias in which society constantly changed, and did not remain static. I thought this could be used nicely as a comparative theme to see how it is treated in some of the texts we looked at. I'm sure there were other good ideas, I just haven't noted them all down.

Would love to discuss these ideas more on the blog if anyone is interested. It would be nice to know what some other personal viewpoints are on this matter.

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Sunday, 17 February 2008

Week Seven

7/1 Antiutopianism , the end of History and utopianism reborn.
Zamyatin, Huxley, Orwell

Jacoby, Jameson and Bauman.

7/2 Digital Utopias and Dystopias Read more!

Saturday, 16 February 2008

SF online

I've just found a good link on the net - full online texts of the Science Fiction Studies journal. Looks like there are some useful articles - go to
Becca Read more!

Friday, 15 February 2008


So, today we discovered Shevek's Ansible, a mechanisim for the instant communication of information that can destroy all walls and, ironically, enables the IWO to triumph over Anarres.

This seemed as good a link as any to our discussion of digital eutopias and dystopias next week. But we can also make links back to earlier weeks - particularly the enduring utopian desire for education, a totalising of knowledge, a concern about human imagination and capacity for invention as central to the goods offered by society to the individual (Plato, Aristotle, More, Campanella, Bacon etc).

Thank you to Edward James for making it possible.
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Thursday, 14 February 2008

Chernyshevsky - 'What Is To Be Done?'

Hi There! Sorry this has taken some time coming. I forgot for a bit, then forgot my passward, forgot again etc. Anyway, better late than never. I hope its of some help, see you all tomorrow. Richard.

Personal Background.

Born July 28th 1828 in Saratov, major city on the Volga River in SW Russia.
Harsh realities of everyday existence fostered a rejection of the phantasmagorical and contributed to his materialism (Physical matter only reality, contrast to Plato) – Turgenev’s conclusion that C. ‘Didn’t understand poetry’ but did understand ‘Needs of real contemporary life.’
Taught Latin by father and could read in 8 languages including Greek, Hebrew, French & German.
His father was a priest and C. raised religiously, renounced there beliefs when he went to University in Petersburg but important.
Wave of Revolutions in Europe in 1848 turning point in C.’s political development and a dividing line between ‘Men of 40s and 60s.
In 1853 became Chief Editor of ‘Sovremennik’ literary, social & political magazine – appeared interested in literary criticism but only way he could express his opinion without censorship.
Thawing of oppression on Alexander II’s ascension and hope with the Emancipation of Serfs (1861) – Led to split in Russian intelligentsia, C. correctly believed that it would not go far enough e.g. Redemption payments (not cancelled till 1907.)
Eventually arrested with little legal basis in 1862 & confined to St Peter & Paul fortress for 2 years as the authorities attempted to construct a case against him.
Here he wrote ‘What is to be done?’
Exiled to Siberia, where he spent around 25 years before returning home to Saratov a few weeks before he died in 1889 aged 61.

‘What is to be done?’

Economic background provided by the co-operatives of seamstresses, described in detail.
Straightforward process, find girls with ‘Good & open’ characters, demonstrate that profits should be divided evenly between them, that decisions must be made with their consent & they should help balance the books.
Opened a bank and eventually lived in the same house, education at work
Obvious influence of Fourier eg. His ideas on collective buying and selling saving time/money. P194, ‘The first Phalanx will, in consequence of its social isolation & other impediments inherent in social experimental canton, have…special obstacles to overcome, obstacles which the Phalanxes subsequently founded would not have to contend with.’ Organisation of second shop much quicker & easier (p282) because first 5 girls from old shop.
Has been defined& tainted by its association with Russian radicals and the resulting tragedy of 20th Century Totalitarianism.
E.H. Carr – ‘Almost everything about ‘WITBD?’ is disconcerting to the modern western reader,’ eludes to egoism of central characters indeed, ‘Our Hero, then, thought of interests solely; instead of cherishing lofty & poetic dreams, he was absorbed by such dreams of love as are in harmony with the gross nature of materialism.’ P114.
C claims it will become advantageous to be good ‘The time is approaching when the wicked will see that it is against their interest to be wicked and most of them will become good.’ Mercier: ‘Good is not more difficult than evil.’ p156
Carr also labels ‘WITBD?’ a, ‘Grey, austere, humourless utopia,’ suggesting that it was informed by the prison environment in which it was conceived.
Included extract of Sunday Trip (p165) to illustrate this simply isn’t true. Food, dancing and even the more austere men are torn from their discussion and induced to wrestle and race (although did not dance.) No one made to listen.

Influence on Russian Revolutionaries.

Lenin hailed C. ‘A great Russian Socialist’ and read it 5 times.
RakhmÊtov biggest influence on later revolutionaries: A professional revolutionary (eluded to in euphemistic terms), was wealthy secret scholarships, travelled around Russia, itinerant trades (legend of strongman on barges).
Ascetic existence in St P, renounces: Wine, women & personal happiness, refuses to eat any food not available to humblest peasant (apart from best meat), tests endurance by sleeping on bed of nails.
Arranges day with mathematical precision, prolific reader, but only the important texts.
Irony that Chernyshevsky’s ascetism grew from his religious upbringing and remained after his religious beliefs waned. This in turn influenced Lenin and other Bolsheviks, who were extremely atheistic.
Furthermore, the Russian Rev as a whole was characterised by a certain religiosity and the millenarianist belief in the inevitability of the creation of a new age.
Published article by same name in Iskra (Russian Social Democrat Labour Party Newspaper) in March 1902.
Titled partly for the inspiring associations it would have had on its reader. But there was also an inner appropriateness because in this pamphlet Lenin broke with the western idea of democratic working class party and stressed the need for a group of full-time, professional revolutionary conspirators to take absolute control & guide the rev struggle.
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Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Dystopian Fiction: Ballard

J. G. Ballard's autobiography, Miracles of Life is currently the Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 and can be downloaded for the next seven days.
Although now famous for semi-autobiographical writing (such as Empire of the Sun), Ballard is a leading author in the field of dystopian science fiction.

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Stanford Philosophy

Essays on all the philosophers we have studied this term, including Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper, are included in the free online:

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Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Building Utopia: Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier

Building Utopia: Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier

Two visionary architects and pinnacles of the modernist movement of the early twentieth century, both designed ideals cities. Wright designed the rural, ultra decentralised Broadacre city where isolated homesteads were connected by the automobile through a network of superhighways. Le Corbusier took the opposite approach, also rejecting the contemporary city, but in favour of even greater centralisation and height in his Radiant city.


Lloyd Wright

Lloyd Wright was born in ‘The Valley’, a farm bought by his grandfather in rural Wisconsin and an agrarian idyll which doubtless shaped his later thinking. He was born to a strange home environment. His mother showed an extreme affection towards him and held great ambition for her son. Unfortunately she seemed to have no affection left over for her husband who grew increasingly resentful of both her and his son, leading to a deeply unhappy marriage and eventual divorce. This would shape Wright’s views that the family unit should be, central to society, but that it was vulnerable to the fracturous individual.

Wright received no formal architectural training, like Le Corbusier below –which Fisher suggests was key to their initiation into urban society and social theory as it meant “No on ever told them they could not know everything.”- but despite lack of formal training went on to produce immensely influential work and become one of the defining figures of twentieth century architecture.

He began his architectural work at the firm Adler and Sullivan after moving to Chicago, a city which completed contrasted with the rural setting of his childhood. As a sprawling urban metropolis, it was a place of both great grandeur and great social problems with its growing slums and unemployment. It exercised significant influence on him: he reacted against it, as most explicitly manifested in his Radiant City.

At Adler and Sullivan he met his mentor, Louis Sullivan, who originally recruited him as a talented draftsman and helped to unite the intellectual and architectural worlds for Wright, as Sullivan was fascinated with the role of architecture and society. Leaving the firm, Wright went on to considerable success as a regional architect designing luxurious private homes in the suburb of Oak Wood. Despite this success, he went through a period of depression, finding it all a bit too much.

When he returned to work he founded of a practice in LA. From this point it was onwards and upwards: his international stature grew and grew. Recognised as a pinnacle figure in modernist architecture due to his designs and contributions to architectural criticism, he was concerned with a variety of civic projects up until his death. Of these the most remembered, and best realization of Wright’s artistic vision and urban critique, is the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier wasn’t born Le Corbusier- Le Corbusier means ‘the bat’ - but rather Charles-Eduoard Jeanneret, in a watch-making community in Switzerland. However, when he resettled in Paris in 1916 he reinvented himself as ‘Le Corbusier’, as the Parisian leader of the revolution of modern architecture. Soon after arrival he achieved great prominence amongst the avant-garde with his painting, then brilliant architectural criticism and most profoundly with his own contributions to architecture.

Like other ‘men from the provinces’ Le Corbusier identified himself with the capital and its values. He had great faith in central organisation. He shared his dislike for the city with Howard and Wright, but had quite the opposite reaction: he believed great cities should be far more dense. For example he loved Manhattan, but commented on a visit there that he thought the sky scrapers were just too small. He believed the great city should not be avoided – indeed that it was unavoidable – but rather that it must be mastered, that its potential for beauty and freedom be exploited by intensifying the elements of central organisation.

Overview of the ideal cities:

Broadacre (Wright)

  • Created at a time of his complete alienation from American society. Despite international acclaim he lost all popularity in America in the 1920s and went rapidly through a few divorce and affairs, even being briefly arrested for adultery. At the time of writing Broadacre he was unable to practice architecture, without a home, an income, his personal reputation destroyed and pursued by the law. Which he later bounced back from completley.
  • Decentralized beyond the small community of Howard to the individual family home. So massive rural decentralisation.
  • Most people work part-time on their farms and part-time in small factories, offices, or shops that are nestled among the farms. Inherited the Morris idea that people should enjoy their work, as opposed to it being a necessary evil.
  • As each isolated home was a family home, the family was central to the stability of the whole community. As his unhappy childhood made him very intimate with the forces that tear families apart, he had little faith in this institution and this perhaps undermines the stability of his community. But he believed this offered the best chance for stability.
  • Joined by a network of superhighways – which is what could so radically revolutionise the organisation of space.
  • Everyone entitled to as much land as they could use, with a minimum of an acre per person. Against rent and for redistribution of land on this basis.
  • “Wright believed that individuality must be founded on individual ownership. Decentralization would make it possible for everyone to live his chosen life on his own land,
Radiant City (Le Corbusier)
  • Level whole tracts of the centre of Paris and other major cities.
  • Geometrically arranged skyscrapers of glass and steel would rise out of parks, gardens and superhighways. Incorporate trees and open spaces within the urban metropolis.
  • Towers=the command posts of the region housing a technocratic elite of planners, engineers and intellectuals (which leads to comparisons with Plato which I’ll mention below).
  • First version of city placed the elite in luxurious apartments in the centre with their subordinates relegated to satellite cities on the outskirts.
  • Later version had everyone living in high rises.

Central themes:

Belief in progress and ‘a solution’

Both Wright and Le Corbusier, despite their very different utopian designs shared a number of similarities. The first was a belief in progress and the idea that a harmonious society between individual and authority was obtainable – that this was industrial society’s natural state. In this sense they were both very much children of the nineteenth century

“What gives our dreams their daring” Le Corbusier proclaimed “is that they can be achieved.”

Repugnance towards existing cities

They believed these cities were unfitting for the imminent new social order and that they were aberrations that needed to be overcome.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were times of immense urbanisation, which to their inhabitants was a frightening and seemingly unnatural phenomenon, with many associated problems in the form of pollution and sprawling slums.

Chicago, a village in 1840 reached 1.7m by the turn of the century. Paris grew from 500,000 to 2.5 m. London grew from 900,000 to 4.5m inhabitants.

Role of technology

Central to all this and what sets them firmly in the twentieth century is the role of technology. Despite sharing the hopes of the nineteenth century socialists they were not constrained by the traditional architectural vocabulary.

“Their ideal cities thus stand at the intersection of nineteenth-century hopes and twentieth-century technology.” (Fisher)

Wright was fascinated by the automobile, convinced of its potential to revolutionise modern life. For him it had created the possibility of new communities based on a new mastery of time and space. The rural isolation of Wright’s city is only possible through the superhighways that connect its homesteads.

Equally, the towering skyscrapers of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City are only made possible by huge advances in building techniques and materials.

In terms of style, too, they both believed – in fitting with the modernist movement – that a radical new machine age aesthetic needed to be created. Again maximising the use of new materials such as concrete whilst still sticking to ideals of simplicity evoked by Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Attempt to reconcile the individual and authority

One of the most interesting things about the architecture of both Le Corbusier and Lloyd Wright is there attempts to reconcile freedom and individuality with authority.

Lloyd Wright was deeply concerned with preserving creative individuality but “always emphasized that creative individuality must have its roots in a stable community whose values the citizen shares and protects.” He hoped to achieved this by rural decentralisation, with an unquestioning belief in the Jeffersonian rural ideal. He believed that this provided the best environment for freedom and creativity. Yet, of course, “one need not live on top of one’s neighbour to repeat all his ideas” and the socialist Robert Park has conversely argued that the anonymity of the metropolis and its juxtaposition of so many different groups and experiences makes it the natural environment for individualism.

Le Corbusier of course met the problem with a very different approach – believing in intense urban concentration and with a greater faith in the power of organisation combined with a distinct distaste for democracy. Mumford had polemicised him as “an elitist technocrat and authoritarian classicist” but whilst this is true it is overly simplistic. Fisher compares Le Corbusier’s hostility to democracy and love of authority to Plato. To Le Corbusier “The details of social planning and organisation are used to express an idela as old as the Republic: the ideal of a society ruled not by ‘opinion’ but by truth.

Unlike the Republics distrust of the artist, Le Corbusier sees the planner in the role of the philosopher-king. Only he can promote the well being of the whole, guide self-seeking individuals into accord with the larger order and bring “society into accord with the ‘cosmic laws’ of order and create that healthy social equilibrium which Le Corbusier called harmony and Plato called justice.”

Classic utopian ideal: to unite everyone on the basis of universal principles. To reconcile or organisation and individuality, authority and freedom, mechanization and craftsmanship.

The new role of design in politics

“The design itself brings the residents together into a community and directs their relationships into co-operative channels…[The plan]not only symbolizes the harmony of society, it also creates harmony. It is the fundamental level of social organisation.”

To Le Corbusier, “the plan of the city is its real constitution.”

New technology and theory of architecture allowed social space and organisation to be revolutionised by design in a way that wasn’t really possible prior to the twentieth century.

All three recognised that well-intentioned designs alone could not reform society. This is why they included detailed plans for the redistribution of wealth and power. But these were complements to the environment rrather than the entirety of the utopian solution.

“These ideal cities are perhaps the most ambitious and complex statements of the belief that reforming the physical environment can revolutionise the total life of society.”

They are most fascinating for their attempts to reconcile polar opposites: organisation and individuality, authority and freedom , mechanisation and crafts in very different ways.

Utopian influences

Socialism and belief in progress

The belief in progress and the immediacy of its realisation is what distinguishes the nineteenth century from the previous utopian tradition. It is what flowed through the work of Bellamy and Morris. This repugnance towards the existing social order and the immediacy and possibility of its overthrown also flows through the work of both these architects and at once associates them with these writers and distinguishes them from classic utopian works.

Unlike Bellamy they see the state of the urban environment as an integral part of the state of society and believe a new social order must be necessarily housed within a new environment. To them the two cannot be detached.


Wright and Le Corbusier rejected the traditional aesthetic but desired to create a machine-aged aesthetic based on Morris’ ideals of simplicity and respect for natural materials. Wright’s ideal city is very reminiscent of the reorganisation of space evoked by Morris in News from Nowhere.

Morris would have despised both designs and you can’t imagine anything he would hate more than the ultra modern, ultra centralised city of Le Corbusier. But in terms of the repugnance towards existing cities and the need to reorganise social space and reshape aesthetics as a necessary part of bringing about a new social order these designs are very much children of Morris’ ideas.

“like all reactions, they were deeply marked by the ideas that provoked them.”


Wright and Le Corbusier believed that whilst social change was integral to any better society, the environment was not just its neutral vehicle but a necessary component. Their radical ideas for the reoranisation of space and a new machine age aethetic were only made possible by technological advance and set them at a meeting point between nineteenth-century hopes and twentieth-century technological innovation.

Frank Lloyd Wright, The Disappearing City (1932) (First lays out his ideas for Broadacre)

Frank Lloyd Wright, The living city (1945)

Frank Lloyd Wright, The natural house (1963)

Le Corbusier [1887-1965], Towards a new architecture (1946)

Robert Fishman, Urban utopias in the twentieth century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier (1982). This is the best overview I found and has a great introduction.

George R. Collins, ‘Visionary Drawings of Architecture and Planning: 20th century through the 1960s’ in Art Journal (1979)

The powerpoint with pics of the ideal cities can be downloaded from:

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