Saturday, 1 March 2008

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.


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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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