Utopia, utopianism and dystopia

Based on Lyman Tower Sargent’s The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited (1994), utopias are often considered dreams of a better society. This imagined society is not necessarily perfect, but intended to be ideal, at least significantly better than the society that the author (and usually the reader) of the utopia lives in. Utopias are not only literary texts, as utopianism also appears in the forms of political ideas and intentional communities. Gregory Claeys in his latest book argues that “utopia is important to everyone. It sums up humanity’s highest aspirations and defines our best selves” (2022, p. 15). He also argues that “utopia is a condition of social stability in which happiness derives from various sources, and not merely bodily pleasure” (p. 39). The first chapter of Utopianism for a Dying Planet is a most complex attempt to define the elusive concept of utopia, and it culminates in the following:

“Utopianism is the projection of both imagined and real ideal groups which embody the feeling of belongingness. Formally it is expressed as literature, theory, or intentional community. The functions of utopia are to represent a necessarily unattainable state of betterment, which always recedes before us but provides us with critical alternatives to the present (…). In its content it promotes an enhanced sociability defined by friendship, neighbourliness, acquaintance, communality, and solidarity, commencing with an attitude of benign neutrality but aspiring to stronger and more egalitarian, but still consensual, bonds” (p. 73, emphases added).

Adverse images of fictive societies, that is negative utopias or dystopias have been getting more and more popular both in fiction and on the screen. Historically, dystopia is the product of utopianism (this is why we talk about negative utopias), yet a contemporary reader or spectator, considering the profusion of dystopian narratives and the scarcity of positive utopias, might easily believe that it is to the contrary. In the light of present-day popular culture utopias appear as positive dystopias, rather than the other way around. But the precision in descent is not a central issue. Most scholars today consider utopias and dystopias to belong to the same kin because of their structural similarities, rather than being in an antagonistic relationship. Such negative images of fictive societies, or dystopias, often portray dictatorships or totalitarian states, as they express the need for civil liberties and democratic patterns in a negative fashion, through the depictions of fictive societies lacking these values. These fictive societies (the most famous of them being George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four) confirm the importance of democratic values in an indirect way, offering analyses of non-freedom, of how non-democratic patterns produce structures that inhibit the possibilities of human flourishing. Dystopias usually present a threat, and in this way it, attain social functions of warning or cautioning against dictatorial efforts; the paradox of dystopia is that the depiction of an abominable situation, by way of contrast, highlights the value and importance of democratic patterns. Dystopian works tend to thematise the basic constituents of human freedom by showing a fictive society that lacks such constituents. This way they make some basic elements of human freedom visible – such elements that under democratic conditions often remain invisible. (For more on utopia and democracy, see my earlier post)

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