Tuesday, 24 January 2012

“I Never Did Like Smart-Ass Utopians”

guest post by Tracie Welser

Part 1 of 3 guest posts on Utopian Narrative

Utopia is an obsession of mine. I find literature that explores notions of a perfect place very appealing. People living peacefully and work together in harmony, who wouldn’t want to live in a place like that? Who wouldn’t want to read about that?

Apparently, lots of people. It’s a “no-place,” they say. Or “it could never work, it always fails in the real world, so why bother with it?” For some (and I’m basing this on discussions I’ve had), talk of egalitarian society causes a sort of anxiety about political correctness, or liberal guilt, or anger/concerns about the evils of Socialism.

As Pandora says to her niece in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, “I never did like smart-ass utopians. Always so much healthier and saner and sounder and fitter and kinder and tougher and wiser and righter than me and my family and friends. People who have the answers are boring, niece. Boring, boring, boring.”

The first big question seems to be, what constitutes the “perfect place,” and for whom? Is it a beautiful, unspoiled place very far from anywhere else, where perfectible dreams are possible? To Thomas More, credited with coining the word “utopia” in the 16th century, the perfect place meant a land with no unemployment, no overpopulation, no religious bigotry, and the elimination of private property (although, oddly enough, slavery was okay).

The dream of a perfect place depends on where you’re standing, the historical or cultural moment from which the dream arises. That perfect place may exist in a possible future, or in a place, or even in a past “Golden Age.”

In the U.S., the utopian ideal could be considered a founding principle of the nation and the driving force behind colonialism and westward expansion. The New World was New Eden, a collective fantasy, a dream of a better world. Never mind that the land was already occupied.

In fiction, these worlds exist as thought experiments. Narratives encourage the reader to reflect on social problems and possibly even solutions. Speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy have a way of doing that.

Utopia, then, is dreaming, yearning, for something that doesn’t quite exist and never exactly will. But is it problematic that these worlds don’t, won’t or can’t exist?

Fast-forward to modern ideas of the perfect place. Let’s dream a little bit.

What would your ideal society look like, your perfect place?

How about a society where equality is the norm for people of all races and genders and ableness of body, where inequity and violence have been eliminated?

What problems or tensions do you foresee?

Suggested Reading
Ivana Milojevic and Sohail Inayatullah, "Futures Dreaming: Challenges from Outside and on the Margins of the Western World."

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Sultana’s Dream (A non-Western utopia)

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed

(Next month: Feminist Utopias: What’s Gender Got to Do With It?)


  1. Utopia is an obsession of mine too! (Although I often tend to be drawn more to it's less pleasant sibling 'dystopia'). I love your point about context, u/dystopias are very much about the moment they're written.

    I completed my undergraduate dissertation in which I analysed early 20th century dystopian fiction from a feminist persepective, and context I feel is vital. The borders between utopia and dystopia are very close; Huxley's Brave New World is supposed to be a utopian dream realised, but it clearly isn't. 'One individuals utopia is another's dystopia' (and vice versa).

    I think the problem with a utopia is less to do with how the society is constructed; it's governments, hierarchies, economy, labour, education etc. and more to do with how utopians subsequently deal with it.

    In an almost perfect world, tiny problems are likely to be blown out of proportion. The sociologist Durkheim, talking about crime suggested that 'even a society made up of saints would have it's sinners'. Utopia might therefore breed an unfathomable pettiness in the long-term.

    I like many of the utopian principles behind Le Guin's Anarres' in The Dispossessed but I get a warm fuggy feeling when I read of the futuristic society portrayed in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward!

    For me personally equality is the greatest thing- where human stratification becomes invisible and everyone has every opportunity to live a fulfilled life.

    1. Paul, you've touched on the exact aspect of utopia that fascinates me most, the tension between the ideal (usually equality) and achievement of the ideal through oppressive mechanisms (sameness). In dystopia, the ideal is thrust upon citizens; homogeneity is dictated.

      Le Guin does a remarkable job of exploring the dangers of stagnation, or as you stated, "how utopians subsequently deal with it," with what they've made. I'll be following up on her work as well the utopian/dystopian borders in my next post.

      I'm interested in your studies on the literature; my own research examined feminist utopias in literature.

      So, in your ideal world, how would human stratification be rendered invisible?

  2. Tracie, whenever I think about making stratification invisible, I tend to explain by referring back to the medieval societies that thought left handed people were inferior or, worse still, evil. Such notions sound completely ridiculous now, but at the time it was a cause of subsequent prejudice.

    I would argue that now, handedness is a relatively invisible difference. Therefore, until it becomes ridiculous in a society to suggest inferiority on the basis of someone's gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class or ability- then such stratifications will remain highly visible. I think there are very many individuals who do not 'see' such differences, but it needs to become the widespread norm. I think the closest Western Civilisation currently gets to that kind of utopia is (possibly) Scandinavia.

    My dissertation was entitled 'Rebellion Neglect and Sex: Analysing women in early twentieth century dystopian fiction'. I looked at Ayn Rand's 'Anthem', Huxley's 'Brave New World' and Zamyatin's 'We'. I loved every minute of writing it. I did read a fascinating thesis when I was researching entitled 'Role of Women in Utopian and Dystopian Novels'. Where did you go with your research?

    1. Hmm, I see. Interesting example. Stratification, then, seems to be about meaning attached to difference, but it's more than that. The system of privilege that results from stratification is trickier. We live a world that depends on such systems (not for the better). How would this argument address class difference (and third/first world problems)? It seems useful to pull out that strand as it intersects with gendered and racial differences to manifest materially.

      My area of research for my master's thesis was called "Fantastic Visions: On the Necessity of Feminist Utopian Narrative." I examined the political and theoretical usefulness of Gilman's Herland, Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Gearhart's The Wanderground, Butler's Parable of the Sower and Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing, as examples of works from different periods.

  3. I completely agree, stratification is certainly more than that, I tend to use that simple example as a starting point; society used to see left handedness as an issue and, for left handed people, it was something that limited their access to opportunities. It's a very simplistic example, but when I'm trying to explain the invisibility of differences that have been normalised by our society I think it (kind of) works.

    In this scenario, class would either cease to be something that is relevant- society becomes more meritocratic, or classes are valued equally. This latter option might hint at a society where capital such as money, culture, education etc is not as valued. Perhaps community, friendship, honesty and hard work has equal or greater value.

    If this invisibility was realised then there might not be 1st world/3rd world problems, merely 'human problems'. Still, I think this is quite a functional way of looking at a future society, and it would clearly appear dystopian to some people.

    I find myself agreeing, in the most part, with the studies which suggest that happiness in a society can derive from a closer economic parity between those at the top end of income and those at the bottom. Again, I think that Scandinavian countries have this to a greater extent than most other countries.

    Herland is one of my favourite books, and one of the first utopian novels I ever read. I am perpetually stunned (in a good way) that it was written at the time it was written... and from the same author as The Yellow Wallpaper, such is the contrast.

    With 'The Dispossessed', do you think the society of Anarres would have been as utopian if they didn't live in such comparatively inhospitable environmental conditions? If they had the resources of Urras would they be as happy?

    1. While I respect the spirit of what you're suggesting, I'm not sure I completely follow. An equitable society is the opposite of a class system; it's difficult for me to imagine a system in which "classes are valued equally." Unequal value is the very definition of class structure. The desire for equal respect and value for different kinds of work (and the other resources you mention) makes sense, though.

      Regarding Anarres and hardship, I think the environmental conditions represented a challenge to socialist ideals, and Le Guin used the world to show how those ideals could be applied even (or especially) in the harshest conditions. Citizens managed resources and labor for the benefit of all, even if it meant everyone had to do with less. I don't think this hardship and struggle to survive was synonymous with happiness, it was fair application of principles.

      I think if they'd had the resources of Urras, Odonians still would have worked to preserve them and distribute them fairly. Odo was imprisoned for suggesting that such a society was possible on Urras.

  4. Firstly, class equality is just a possibility of my idea of utopia, certainly not a given, and nor would it be an underlying principle. Ideally class would simply cease to be, society would be far more meritocratic. However, I'll give examples of where I'm coming from regarding the concept of class equality.

    Firstly, look at the class principal behind Brave New World. There is stratification, but no class wants to be like the other. Even the 'superior' Alpha's are bred to be suggestible, each class is just part of the machine. Looking at that kind of society externally, all classes are equal in that they all have a vital part to play. It rests on context again; those inhabitants of World State certainly feel they are utopian, it's only the reader and the protagonist dissenters who see it as a dystopia.

    In HG Wells The Time Machine it is the Eloi who are perceived as being evolved from the upper classes and the Morlock's from working class. Analysing the text however arguably indicates that it is the Morlocks who are superior in that society, although from a contemporary perspective the Eloi arguably have a better day-to-day existence (well, most of them!).

    If this was a purely sociological discussion I'd be far more inclined to consider class equality as an impossibility, after all, any future society will have to inherit societal prejudices. Class can be (and has been) considered in a variety of ways, but if it had to be included in a utopia (a “no place”) then surely it's not hard to imagine that equality, or universal mutual respect, is a possibility.

  5. Surely we can be more ambitious for a "perfect" utopia than this? Let's do away with stratified classes that need any kind of equal treatment; let's do away with meritocracy in favor of true equality; let's do away with division of labor and overspecialization and instead let people work toward the common good to the best of their ability and desire in a range of ways so that they can work without boredom, without alienation and compulsion, and without judgement or ranking.

    What I love about the utopian genre is that we can play with it, we can invent a society in which one or a few chosen imperfect elements from our own are fixed, and we can make the world still fun, still lively, still involve conflict and struggle (otherwise what sort of a story would it be?), and still be imperfect, evolving, open to improvement, and interesting. The people of Anarres recognized (at least after Shevek and his circle reminded them) that revolution is a process, not a static solution. Unless you recognise the potential for dystopia in your utopia, and keep working against it, it's not a perfect society at all.

    For this reason I never understand people who say either, "I don't like this utopia" or, "A utopia would be boring". In a way each criticism is the explanation for why the other is invalid. A science-fictional dystopia is usually not the worst of all possible worlds, it's a future in which one or more elements already present or threatened in our own society are exaggerated or brought to fruition. It's a terrible world, but it could always be worse (and better); without both these possibilities there'd be no conflict, no adventure, no hope. I think the same is true of a utopia.

    I guess what I'm saying is, I'd personally remove the "perfect" from the definition of utopia, and replace it with something like "better".

    1. Very succinctly stated. Both the example of Brave New World and The Time Machine show the impossibility of equal classes.

      In the post, I asked, "what is your perfect society?" Admittedly, this is a trick question, at least in application. Utopia is a moving target, an unachievable ideal. In fact, if the ideal is reached and becomes static, repression creeps in (as Le Guin illustrates so well in The Dispossessed).

      As you've said, "revolution is a process." But the ideal provides a vision to strive towards.