In Search of the Universal Utopia, by Gry Ulstein

In Search of the Universal Utopia “Utopia is not universal,” writes Krishan Kumar in Utopia and Anti-Utopia (1987); “It appears only in societies with the classical and Christian heritage, that is, only in the West” (Kumar 19). Kumar’s statement might seem difficult to counter, as the bulk of utopian studies would confirm it: the utopian canon began with Thomas More and as a literary genre indeed appears to “belong” to the “Western” canon. But in the last decade particularly, new thinkers within the field of utopian studies have challenged Kumar’s view. Barnita Bagchi, expressing a growing contention among contemporary utopian researchers, disagrees with Kumar when she writes in The Politics of the (Im)Possible (2012): “‘utopia’ has become more than a word or a culture-specific term; it is not limited to Europe or Eurocentric writing and thought. If More had not invented the word utopia, we would still have had the notion with us” (Bagchi 2). Viewing utopia as a global notion rather than a “Western” invention with fixed historical and geographical coordinates opens up the utopian landscape and broadens the scope of Utopia as a literary genre. The first 2013 issue of the journal Utopian Studies is also dedicated to investigations of “Utopias from Other Cultural Traditions.” In the introduction Jacqueline Dutton and Lyman Tower Sargent point out the necessity of widening the concept of utopia in order to “provide not just a retrospective western context to utopia but also a diverse cultural context that encompasses representations of ideal spaces from other cultural traditions” (3). The “retrospective western context [of] utopia” is the tendency in utopian studies to refer back to canonical utopian narratives by such thinkers as Plato, Virgil, Augustine, and More, and remain solely within the boundaries of this canonical tradition. Of course, the “Western” utopian canon should not be set aside as unimportant, for that is far from the case, but the tendency, as many contemporary researchers in the field of utopian studies are pointing out more frequently, quickly becomes Eurocentric and reductive when it ignores utopian thought from other cultural traditions. Two influential definitions of utopia project the canon-favouring tendency to which Bagchi, Dutton and Sargent refer – and so these indirectly (perhaps also involuntarily) support Kumar’s claim that utopia is not universal. In The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature (2010), Fatima Vieira traces the chronology of utopia as it has developed in literature from Thomas More’s coining of the term in his Utopia in 1516 to contemporary times. She concludes that utopia can be defined “essentially as a strategy […] for the questioning of reality and of the present”, a “programme for change” and “reorientation” at different levels of society (Vieira 23). Frederic Jameson famously redraws the boundaries of utopian thought and form in Archaeologies of The Future (2007). There, he shows that the political scope of utopian narratives is not to be found in the expression of utopia as content, but rather as a representation of that which is beyond society’s limits; “making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment […], and that therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively” (Jameson xiii). Utopia, according to Jameson, “serves a vital political function today which goes beyond mere ideological expression or replication” (232). Both Vieira’s and Jameson’s definitions are intriguing because they focus on aspects of utopianism that underline its elusiveness, its wide scope, and its intangible nature, but Jameson, like Vieira, focuses exclusively on the “Western” model of utopia to inform his definition. Nonetheless, they both dress utopia in a more abstract cloak and thus reflect the overall contemporary contention about the structure of utopia – if not its origins. In other words, Jameson and Vieira’s respective, politically oriented classifications of utopia appear to coincide, and according to them, “representation” and “reorientation” of reality are key terms in the current understanding of utopia – not far from Bagchi’s “notion”. Broad and inclusive as the definitions seem, however, the concept of utopia still becomes narrow and reductive if it exclusively deals with utopias from Eurocentric cultural traditions. Zhang Long Xi is optimistic with regards to the intertranslatability of utopia in his paper “The Utopian Vision, East and West”, where he also joins in the definition game and writes that utopia is “essentially the concept of a secular paradise, the imaginary model of a social theory”, and moreover; “translatable across the gap of cultural differences” (Xi 17, 1). Again, the need to add a chain of further sub-defiinitions (instead of stopping at “secular paradise”) is evident, even as the proclaimed intertranslatability thus is made more complex. As Bagchi states, the “utopian and dystopian mode is a site of paradoxes” (5). And in being open to the paradoxical qualities of utopia, the boundaries set by the “Western” canon may be easier to dismantle, but the urge and difficulty to find one, universal definition of utopia remains. In a much earlier issue of Utopian Studies than the one cited above, Sargent underlines the problem of defining utopia, and he investigates its categorical complexity by tracing its myriad (attempts at) definitions through history – coming back to “the contradictory nature of utopia” at the end of nearly every paragraph (Sargent 23). While maintaining that there needs to be categorical boundaries set in order to work with utopia as a subject, Sargent ends up – much like the critics above – in a vague, abstract landscape. Sargent himself applies the term “social dreaming” (2) for utopianism and separates this from utopia, which is “a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space” (Sargent 9). Having made this distinction makes utopia as a literary genre more tangible and easier to deal with, but Sargent returns to the abstract in his conclusion, where utopianism remains an essential “aspect of our humanity” and utopia “expresses deep-seated needs, desires, and hopes” (Sargent 28). In the chapter “Non-Western Utopian Imaginings” in The Cambridge Companion, Dutton makes one of the more convincing attempts at expanding the borders of the utopian landscape. Dutton maps the few influential critical coordinates of utopian study concerning transcultural utopian narratives, and then investigates the historical origins of such utopias in global myths and religions. She illustrates how the map of utopia has always been more globally comprehensive than utopian studies have typically recognized, and argues that, with its historically West-centred description of theory and practice, the concept of utopia may no longer be broad enough to encompass the full scope of social dreamings. ‘Intercultural imaginaries of the ideal’ may be a more appropriate and neutral term for this study of several different traditions of speculative and idealistic thought grounded in the projection of a better society (Dutton 224). There is no denying that utopia has become much more than a word, as Bagchi reminded us above; more than a culture-specific term – indeed; much more than a Morean city. But how are we to satisfactory define that which is so much bigger than its name that it eludes definition? Must we, like Dutton suggests, entertain the possibility that the word “utopia” itself is no longer sufficient to describe the great variety of utopian thought? The words used to convey the more-than-a-word-ness of utopia so far in this paper are “representation”, “reorientation”, “desire”, “hope”, “notion”, “concept”,  “secular paradise”, “social dreaming”, “intercultural imaginaries of the ideal” – all terms moreover tied to (except in Kumar) some universally complex, paradoxical, and essentially human quality. All of the words listed are also striking in their elusiveness, broadness, and numerous connotations – Sargent’s and Dutton’s respective definitions perhaps closest to achieving a satisfactory denotation. In other words, even when attempting to impose more inclusive, “universal” boundaries on utopia, it continues to resist categorization. There is a paradoxical tension between the almost utopian desire to find the right words to (re)define utopia and the resulting cornucopia of definitions, thus adding to the intractability of utopia with each new attempt. It seems useless to uphold that there is a need for one universal definition of utopia, only to conclude that utopia remains elusive and paradoxical. Instead of nailing a definition to the pages of an encyclopaedia, therefore, it might be more conducive for further discussion to simply embrace the elusiveness, and contend ourselves with the wide-ranging vocabulary that continues to be worked out and changed when thinking, talking, and writing about utopia. After all, as we know, its etymological root can be translated from Greek “eu-topia to the quite obscure, in fact, rather frustratingly and (it seems) fittingly equivocal “no-place”. Bagchi, Barnita. “Introduction”. The Politics of the (Im)Possible. Ed. Barnita Bagchi. Sage India: New Delhi, 2012. E-book. EBL Reader. Jameson, Frederic. The Archaeology of The Future. Verso: New York, 2007. Print. Dutton, Jacqueline. “‘Non-Western’ Utopian Traditions”. The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Ed. George Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Cambridge Online Resource. Dutton, Jacqueline and Lyman Tower Sargent. “Introduction: Utopias from Other Cultural Traditions.” Utopian Studies, 24.1 (2013): 1-5. Project MUSE. Web. 12.02.15. Kumar, Krishan. Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times. Oxford: Oxford UP. 1991. Print. Sargent, Lyman Tower. “Colonial and Postcolonial Utopia”. The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Ed. George Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Cambridge. Online Resource. Sargent, Lyman Tower. “The Three Faces of Utpianism Revisited”. Utopian Studies, 5.1 (1994): 1-37. JSTOR. Web. 01.04.15. Vieiri, Fatima. “The Concept of Utopia”. The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Ed. George Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Cambridge. Online Resource. Xi, Zhang Long. “The Utopian Vision, East and West”. Utopian Studies, 13.1 (2002): 1-20. JSTOR. Web. 13.03.15. About the author: I am a 24 years old Norwegian student, currently at the end of the first year of the RMA programme Comparative Literary Studies at Utrecht University. My main interests within literary studies are speculative fiction, posthumanism, and ecocriticism, and I hope to write my Master thesis on one of these topics.


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