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.


Olly Fayers said...

Maybe I ought to clear up what I meant about the minor point concerning Brave New World. I figured that since both Aldous Huxley's grandfather, T.H. Huxley, and his brother, Julian Huxley, were esteemed biologists, particularly in the field of evolution, that perhaps some of the ideas which seem so modern in Aldous's book were already being talked about in the scientific community in the 1920s. He would perhaps have followed discourse in this field out of personal interest, and for the purposes of making his novel that bit more effective.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

Olly - I think you may be right - see here: