Oscar Wilde once said, "A map of the world
that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it
leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing."
These days, utopian — and dystopian — pursuits are
all over the map. You can find them on television, in such shows as
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, The Swan, even Desperate
Housewives. They're at the movies, in everything from Children of
Men to The Truman Show. And you can see them all over the
Web, whether in the virtual world of Second Life or an online forum
about German nationalism.
For Naomi Jacobs, chair of the University of Maine's
English Department, utopias of the literary variety have shaped her
worldview since the 1980s. As a young professor, new to the Orono
campus, she was eager to present an article she had written about
Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance, a novel about a
utopian community. She saw an opportunity in the Society for Utopian
Sure, she had read George Orwell's 1984 and
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, two of the best-known utopian/
dystopian works of fiction. But at the time, she never anticipated that
this would become her primary research focus.
"I went and I had such a good time," Jacobs says. "I
fell in love with this group. I felt I had found my home as a scholar."
Today, Jacobs still feels at home. She has served as the
society's president and as cochair for five conferences, including one
in Maine last fall, and has received the organization's distinguished
service award for her decades of service. Since attending her first
conference, Jacobs has seen the field of utopian studies grow from
relative obscurity to a broad examination of philosophy, popular
culture, technology, communication and politics.
"Now theoretical approaches are everywhere," Jacobs
says. "Philosophy and cultural theory have been brought into the
discussion. There's more of an interest in other media, in film, pop
culture, video games and television. One of my colleagues is studying
Extreme Makeover as a manifestation of the utopian impulse — of
creating the perfect place."
In other words, if you think the concept of utopia
is esoteric, think again. The utopian impulse — the search for a better
world, if you will — is alive and well in nearly every aspect of
mainstream society, from reality TV shows to news headlines and
Think back to the 2008 presidential campaign. Both
candidates ran on a platform of positive change, reform, transformation.
Both essentially said a change will do you good.
Remember the headlines about the Yearning for Zion
polygamist sect in Texas? That's a perfect illustration of how one
person's utopia can be another person's dystopia.
Every silver lining has a cloud, so why should
utopia be any different? The very word "utopia," coined by Sir Thomas
More in his 1516 book of the same name, can be translated as either "no
place" or "the good place." Thus, it is "the good place that doesn't
exist." It is, in a sense, intentionally flawed.
From a literary perspective, More's Utopia is
the book that started it all. And at its very heart, it is "both
ridiculous and divine." The traveler who describes the imaginary island
is Raphael Hythloday, whose first name means "messenger of god" and
second name means "speaker of nonsense."
"It's a very goofy book," Jacobs says. "More makes a lot of silly puns,
and scholars have been debating his meaning for centuries."
Though More's book may be amusing, it is also
profound. So, too, are the ideas that have sprung up around it. In
literature, Jacobs points to such authors as Charlotte Perkins Gilman,
who explores the concept of an all-female utopia in the 1915 novel
Herland. In the 19th century, Edward Bellamy tied utopic ideals to
economic efficiency. Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia describes a society
organized on the principle of sustainability.
In her own research, Jacobs has explored themes of embodiment and gender
roles as they relate to utopian literature. Her landmark 1994 essay,
"The Frozen Landscape in Women's Utopian and Science Fiction," examines
the reasons why many female authors set their utopias in cold, lifeless
"I speculated that this was happening because of the
ways in which reproduction can be restraining for women," Jacobs says.
"The frozen landscape symbolizes a world in which gender doesn't
Jacobs' recent work has focused on the aesthetic
ideal of a "natural" human body as a "common end point or limit to the
utopian imagination, an untransgressable line of normalcy." Utopian
worlds may be fantastical and the backdrops surreal, but the bodies
remain recognizably human.
"Everything else may have changed, but the bodies
stay the same," Jacobs says. "It seems we can't imagine a transformation
of the human, even as we seek a transformed human life."
Jacobs doesn't teach courses in utopian literature
as often as she'd like these days, but she says her students often
approach utopian constructs with a healthy dose of skepticism.
"The automatic reaction is, 'This will never work,'"
Jacobs says. "We have to talk about why that's not the point. Utopia is
a thought experiment; its purpose is to provoke us to rethink the world
as we know it."
Inevitably, one of Jacobs' students will say, "I
would never want to live in a utopia, because you can't know what
happiness is without pain." Or "A perfect world would be boring." Jacobs
uses these "easy answers" as a jumping off point for deeper questions:
Are we willing to ground our happiness in someone else's pain? How much
or what kind of imperfection is necessary to keep us from boredom?
"The point of utopia is not to create one perfect
system, but rather to move us toward something better, through what's
been called the education of desire," Jacobs says.
"If you're talking about a system where everybody
will have enough to eat, where everyone has sufficient shelter and
clothing, where the planet will be protected, where people have enough
freedom to express themselves, but not so much that they would be
hurtful to others, most people will sign on to that.
"We can debate whether a vision is plausible, but
beyond that, what would it mean if this could be achieved? What do we
learn about what's missing in our own world when we try to imagine what
life could be?"
That sense of possibility — in literature, in pop
culture, in life — is what keeps Jacobs and her colleagues interested.
It is, as Oscar Wilde would say, what keeps utopian studies on the map.
"Today, we understand utopia as a process rather
than a product," Jacobs says. "Instead of 'the plan,' utopia is being
conceptualized as an ever-receding horizon toward which we must travel."
by Kristen Andresen
January - February, 2009
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