Thursday, 31 January 2008

'English Revolution and Utopia' Preview

One further thing, Utopians.

Tomorrow I'm performing a brief presentation on the English Revolution and its relevance to our topic of Utopias. I will be paying particular attention to the wonderfully-named Gerrard Winstanley, because he seems like an interesting chap, and got my attention. This should hopefully give a bit of historical context to the style of utopianism which Winstanley espouses, providing an example of the interaction between political developments and the utopian thoughts of contemporaries.

The main thing is, I will publish my notes for the presentation in the form of a blog post after the seminar, so you needn't frantically scrawl whilst I witter away. Just fight the sense of boredom which my little speech could provoke, and listen for stuff to comment on. I hope that seems like a reasonable plan.

Read more!

'Spaces of Utopia' Journal

Good evening Utopians,

just a quick note about a journal I just found online, called Spaces of Utopia. Not sure if it has been in the reading list, or even if it has been considered, and rejected for the list. At any rate, there are 5 issues of it to date, 4 of which are available via pdf here. The first issue has an article in which Gregory Claey's 'Utopian Self' converses with his 'Real Self' in the manner of H.G. Wells's A Modern Utopia. Interesting reading.

If the link doesn't work it can be found via the Library Catalogue's 'find e-journal' tool.


Read more!

Week Five

5/1 Swift Satire (Monday 4/02)

Gulliver's Travels

5/2 Industrial Age Utopias (Friday 8/02)

Butler, Erewhon

Bellamy, Looking Backwards

Morris, News from Nowhere Read more!

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

So far ...

Rather than the reflective posts I promised, here is a summary of some of the key 'set piece' questions we have discussed so far - and an indication of questions for the future:

So far ...

The active v. the contemplative life: the relationship between philosophy and politics.

The true nature of nobility (but how meritocratic is Utopia?).

The relationship between free will and law (do people need laws to make them good?). If law is necessary, who makes the law?

What is the res of the res publica? Goods in and of this earth, or in and of a greater spiritual good?

Form. How does the form in which Utopia is written (dialogue, visio, itemised and methodical list) influence its content and effect?

To come ...

The 'individual' and 'society'. A particularly false conceptual binary for many, even all 'utopias'?When and how does it ever become realistic to talk in these terms? With Aristotle or Augustine, with Rabelais and More - or not until the distopias of Zamiatin et al?

So we ought to focus on the social issues more:

  • Reproduction. Health.
  • Education. Science.
  • Property. Work.
  • Geographical location (we have touched on this).
  • Architectural form.

    How do all these means support the ends of different utopias? Do they ever become ends in themselves?

Contextual histories. This is where you need to help each other with your presentations, handouts, blog posts or other guides to the relevant secondary literature.

Historical questions. The big one, I think, is the relationship between utopianism and modernity - but that needs quite a bit more glossing.

Critics of Utopia. How, when and why does utopianism fall into disrepute? Does the very question misunderstand the essentially paradoxical and pragmatic nature of Utopia - the nowhere place?

Read more!

Tuesday, 29 January 2008


Is there a genre of utopian writing? If so what is its relation to history? Has it emerged and been developed through history, or been imposed retrospectively on the past? In either case what would we suggest as key moments in the history of the creation of a utopian genre?

Do Thomas More and his friends, in looking quizzically backward, create a genre of utopian writing that demands that we pay attention to Plato, Cicero, Seneca and Augustine but ignore the men talking in the pub (see his letter to Peter Gilles)? Or would we place the creation of the genre much, much later – even as late as the creation of a body of scholarship about utopianism in the mid to late twentieth century?

What criteria might be used to argue for or against the existence of a utopian genre? Is it necessary for utopian writers to have read each other and to be self consciously operating within a genre? Or can several writers share similar methods and goals, possibly as a product of shared or comparable historical circumstances?

Are there several utopian genres? Chronologically: does early modern utopian writing form a distinct genre within its own right – and those following Owen and Fourier another, for example? Davis and others distinguish thematic types of utopia (utopia, cockaigne, millenarianism). In essence these are questions about History and its linear (or non-linear) characteristics and about the fabrication of history as a discipline.

High-culture and low-culture. More seems to resolutely ignore the vernacular literature of his own times. Bakhtin makes the case for reading the French of Rabelais as a reflection of a much wider range of cultural influences of than the intellectual humanism of Erasmus and his circle. As a matter of genre where does Utopian writing fit socially – at what point does it intersect with the men in the pub?

So – these are some loose thoughts about the genre question – which will distill into precise questions (possibly with your help). Read more!

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Blog future

Starting with our most recent discussion of More's Utopia last Friday, I am not going to be posting summaries of class discussion on this blog any more. Other members of the group, now free of their dissertations, are taking charge of leading the seminars on particular Utopias and utopian projects - and it is up to them whether they choose to use the blog for their seminar and post seminar discussion or not.

I am going to continue posting. I will comment on any posts that anybody else makes (that's a firm promise!). Also I want to start using the blog to start distilling some of the comparative themes and key questions that are emerging from the module as it progresses. This is mainly because that is what I want to do. But it will also start providing a framework in which we can all identify those all important 'Questions', for our written work and assessment of the module. It would be helpful to have the insights of other people taking the module in developing these thematic questions. It is no use identifying issues which seem useful and important to me, if they do not also seem useful and important to you. Read more!

Week Four

4/1 Alternative Renaissance Utopias

Rabelais, Campanella, Bacon

4/2 Utopia and Revolution

1) Winstanley, (2) Mercier, (3) Fourier and Chernyshevsky Read more!

Monday, 21 January 2008

Cockaigne and other medieval dreams (seminar 3)

Today we took a slightly lighter approach skimming over a few texts a couple of millennia apart, focussing on some concepts which might have influenced More and indeed, later utopian imagination about the ‘limits of the possible’, the nature of the good life and how to get there.

Eden and the Golden Age. Rob started us off with a concise summary of the characteristics – abundance of food, lack of law, set in the past and beyond known natural boundaries. Rebecca noted the differences (the more modest abundance of Genesis) and that Genesis provides a ‘history’ of how mankind moved from past to the present. Phil joined in with Ovid’s account of metamorphosis – we discussed the contrasting historical agency of man and god(s). In the Biblical Eden the acquisition of wisdom was associated with the fall from grace and punished by a life of pain and hard work (symbolised by the necessity of tilling the earth). Of the other creation stories in Genesis – we also touched on the story of the flood for its utopian potential – Noah as a ‘manwithgod’ making the world anew (‘go forth and multiply’) – see Norman Cohn for the development and influence of this myth in western thought.

We skipped a millennium or so to the land of the Cockaigne and discussed its potential as a na├»ve and nostalgic dream of an age of abundance against its more likely role as a satire of lust and greed. Everybody chipped in with ideas – on the nature and purpose of satire, on who was being satirised (the Benedictines, everyman, the audience, Christianity itself- SamW.), on whether it was fun. We touched on the historical context – a time (‘14th-century crisis: a period of rapid and substantial climate change’)- when food and its supply was a particularly politicised issue and so the idea of ‘greed/lust’.

Cockaigne was an appropriate moment for a long coffee break.

We returned to the prologue of Piers Plowman – the similarity to Cockaigne and the differences. Here food was not the issue so much as money and pride (cf More and Utopia). We noticed the contrast with Genesis – work (ploughing) now not the punishment for sin but the path to salvation (think about More's attitude to work?). Stephen made a good point about the different necessity of work which I will let him explain. We noticed Langland’s strategic move from economics into politics – and that his explicitly radical treatment of law and kingship was further distanced from the real by the use of fantastical cats and rats (did kings govern in accordance with natural law – again cf More)? We noted Helen Phillips’ argument about the particular characteristics of later medieval dream poetry providing a space for a virtually-real critique of a virtually-real contemporary society. We discussed the dream as a licensing genre – a framework for narrative but also a space for achieving an altered state, mystical truth and special authority. Dreaming is a device that many later utopian writers will use. We did not make it to Shakespeare.

Some discussion of the problematic relationship between a dreaming mysticism and material wealth in lay society – the a developing preference among some elites for the devotio moderna (the ‘modern devotion’ for achieving disciplined perfection as an individual lay person living in the world). The story about More choosing the world (getting married, having children) above the cloister just before writing Utopia.

We had left little time for travel and fantasy. We looked briefly at the Hereford mappa mundi – at the mapping of Paradise – its location just within the most remote boundaries of the kingdom of earth and linked by a bridge to the last judgement/second coming.This suggests the potential dis/recovery of Eden? Other examples of such popular non-Augustinian imaginations can be found in the myth of Prester John, and in the accounts by early ‘discoverers’ of the edenic potential of the new world (Columbus)). We did not get as far as Montaigne’s cannibals. What is the significance of this desire for paradise within the limits of Christian Europeans’ discoverable world? What about monsters? If paradise is the place we came from - what has it to do with the place we are going to? Is paradise utopian at all? Read more!

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Fiction, Imagination, Truth, God, Man, Revolution and History (Seminar 1).

Phew! This was a bit of mad seminar where we ranged widely and speculatively around the subject of Utopias and its possibilities. In the next few seminars we will burrow our way more systematically into particular Utopias, but this loosely shaped start can perhaps help us distill some ways of making our histories comparative.

We can think of this blog like a letter – much like those semi-public letters that More and his friends exchanged about the first Utopia and in that tradition of literate conversation which was essential to so many early letter collections and which blogs have reproduced in the new media. In this letter I am not going to try to distill everything we said, nor am I going to write this much every week. But here is an effort at summarising some of our discussion – please feel free to chip in with your own thoughts.

The fictional and/or imaginative nature of Utopias was prominent in much of your thinking. So we tried to refine this a bit. Starting from More’s Utopia we might discern a distinct utopian literary genre in which the reader is transported to a fictional place (but not one which is so fictional as to be fantastic). This place (the topos in Utopia) it has been suggested usually lies just on ‘the limits of the possible’ (Kumar, Utopianism, 1991) – in the case of Utopia within the islands of the newly discovered Americas – and imagined alternative Utopian realities usually deal with possibilities which are one step behind contemporary intellectual discoveries in other scientific fields (Emilie asked if this was true of Huxley’s test tube babies, Olly thought it might be … I don’t know). Of course the ‘limits of the possible’ change over time– the first utopias based beyond earth are from the 17th century, and the first clearly based in the chronological earth-bound future from the later eighteenth (Mercier, 2440 (1770)). This plausibility enables utopias to be used as critiques of the contemporary world and to hold out the possibility of the hope of transforming that world. Present day ‘scenario planning’, and Futures Studies (techniques used in warfare, business and politics) may be seen as, in part, products of a tradition of utopian thought.

More’s Utopia is also made fictional by the use of two narrators (Hythloday and Morus) and the construction of Utopia within a plausible narrative of their experiences and reported conversion. This third person narrative emphasises the fiction but also its verisimilitude. It has also often been said that this third person narrative provides the author with a means of distancing him/herself from implication in the moral decisions of their characters (and so, in More’s case, from subjective implication in a utopian project), just as novels depend on historical verisimilitude to engage the reader in the moral problems of their characters. Ankersmit develops a similar point about the role of fictional scenarios in enabling the discernment of truths both within and beyond history in his ‘The Ethics of History’, History and Theory, Theme Issue on Ethics 43 (December 2004), 84-102.

If Utopian texts are plausible fictions do they inspire practical imitation? Sometimes (for example in the article you read by Levitas) scholars point out the importance of More in initiating a Utopia that is human centred: in which the transformation is achieved by humans (not by God). Utopias often have shadowy foundational figures who effect this transformation. This alleged humanist nature of utopia has led some people to equate utopianism with modernity. Zygmunt Bauman has a very effective essay in the journal we read this week which goes well beyond a simple humanist definition of modernity to think about other ways in which (in relation to the history of nations and empires) classic and concrete Utopias belong specifically to a period of history called ‘modern’.

As Historians we need to be careful about this. Do we use ‘modernity’ to define a particular historical period – say 1500-1950 – as non historians often seem to do? Or do we recognise this anthropocentric ‘modernity’ as a way of thinking about the human condition which is present in many historical contexts before 1500? In what sense is Utopia really anthropocentric at all? This problem of the medieval to modern turn is directly addressed by several medievalists – in this department you may have been taught by Pete Biller, taken his class on periods in history in term 3, or attended his inaugural lecture on ‘taking the middle out of the middle ages’. But there are so many of you in the group who have studied both the middle ages and Thomas More before (Philip, Emilie, Tom, Cat, Becca, Rebecca, Steven, Sam and so on) that I will leave you to speak on this. Let it be said that if you do take issue with the radical anthropocentric nature of More’s Utopia, or with the seriousness with which he may have intended it to be read as a ‘blueprint’ for perfection in this world (another point sometimes made by non historical studies of utopianism), then you are taking a different point of view both from some later imitators of More and from later writers about utopianism. (Incidentally Ruth Levitas has a good history of the study of utopianism in The Concept of Utopia). Was Quentin Skinner correct – we should not treat More’s Utopia as a utopian text?

Sam G. suggested that modern utopias (in a post revolutionary age) might seem more programmatic because the belief in historical progress and the experience of revolutions stimulated the hope that transformation could be achieved in the present. Whereas Book 1 of More’s Utopia seems to offer utopia only as a form of counsel, a philosophical game, within an established state, by the mid 19th century hundreds of utopian style experiments had been conducted in the European settlement of stateless (???) America. (The 1720 constitution of the state of Massachusetts was even partly modelled on a Utopia – Oceana by Harrington (1656) – though some dispute whether this is a real utopia.) Marx and Engels toyed with (and also rejected) utopianism, but their use of social theory and history to imagine, even predict, the future might be said to have utopian elements (even if it holds back from describing the specifics of an imagined utopian future). The failed, allegedly utopian, revolutionary experiments of Stalin and Hitler were used by academic critics (eg. Popper and Arendt) to condemn utopianism and also stimulated a spate of fictional distopias (We by Zamiatin, Huxley and Orwell).

Tom warned us about giving agency to a text (Utopia) and this prompted us to talk not so much about the programmatic potential of particular utopian texts but the development of a philosophical and intellectual utopian tradition of thought which nurtured the concept of and desire for revolution. I mentioned Russell Jacoby’s example of the Bellamyites (after Bellamy, Looking Backwards, 2000-1887) who failed to establish a utopian community but succeeded in using utopian principles of public ownership to establish a safe electricity supply in Chicago, which he contrasted with the dangerous and partial supply in contemporary Boston). Jacoby’s point was that we learn from failure (Toby christened this incremental utopianism). Jacoby leads us into the postmodern reappraisal of utopianism in which writers emphasise the utopian process as being more important than the content of particular bounded utopias. Morean-type utopias, with their strong architectural sense of place and time and strict societal rules, do not fit well within postmodernism as Zygmunt Bauman discusses in this week’s journal. (Bauman is the author of a concept of liquid modernity which is mobile, global, non-static, multi-valent). Kumar suggests that the first utopian texts which focussed on the individual and their emotions were from late 18th century France, in twentieth century we can see a growing influence of psychology on utopian writing (for example in B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two) and these help move the focus of utopianism from the concept of transformation to processes, and from society or the state to the individual. This process is often expressed as dreaming and desiring radical alternative ways of being (perhaps not simply reduced to ‘thinking outside the box’ but carrying a sense of a truly transformed and altered (not just improved) state of being). One of the early intellectual pioneers of this kind of utopianism was Ernst Bloch (The Spirit of Utopia). Recent advocates include Frederic Jameson, Russell Jacoby, Zygmunt Bauman and Ruth Levitas, but watch for their influence on others (such as the medievalists Lochrie and Ingham). Expanding utopianism to focus on transformational processes also seems to be expanding our understanding of what utopias are. Dreaming, for example, has a long literary history going right back to Homer and Ovid. Since the 1950s utopianism has usually been defined as the imagination of plausible alternative realities (as we began) but if utopian processes are to be included in the tradition then maybe we should think more about the role of fantasy – of monsters and other aliens – in expanding our sense of the desirable.

This does all bring us back to Thomas More’s Utopia. His utopia is sometimes described as if it were a blueprint for the ideal society. But he was careful to call it the nowhere place rather than the good place (utopia rather than eutopia). Many Morean scholars would suggest that the first Utopia was deliberately ambiguous in its intentions. It is a paradoxical eutopia which contains its own distopia. It was designed not as a blueprint but as a philosophical game to make the reader think for themselves about the limits of the possible and the desirable (Davis, Baker-Smith, Manley). It was in other words part of a process, designed to promote never-ending reflection and reassessment – just like a blog. Read more!