Lecture – Utopia, Culture and Identity



The idea of setting out an ideal society that is a corrective to the ills of existing society.



Plato’s Republic - 450BC. A portrait of an ideal world of the Greek City State (Athens)


Thomas More’s Utopia - 1516

This segment of Book I is conducted as a debate among the three men on the obligations of a man of experience and integrity to play an active role in the service of country and mankind. It is identified as "The Dialogue of Counsel."

In pursuit of the argument, Hythloday proceeds to a critical analysis of the patterns of law, government, economics, and mores among European nations and, most particularly, in England. His criticisms are directed specifically at the severity of the penal code, the gross inequities in the distribution of wealth, the unequal participation in productive labor, and the appropriation of farm lands for sheep grazing.

Book I represents the negative side of the picture which More intends to create, the statement of what is wrong with "civilization" in his time. A few incidental references comparing the state of affairs in contemporary Europe with the manners and government of a nation on a remote island called Utopia leads into the discussion in the second book.

Country Life. A good deal of attention is paid to agriculture and country life, and it is explained that most of the inhabitants alternate city and country living at two-year intervals.

Cities. The number and location of the cities is specified, and the capital city, Amaurot, is described in considerable detail. The entire population engages in productive labor, thereby making it possible for them to operate on a six-hour work day. The few exemptions from farm labor or working at a trade are government officials and priests.

Officials. The leaders or government officials, chosen from the citizens of superior intelligence and integrity, are called the Philarchs and the Archphilarchs (sometimes referred to by their earlier titles of the Syphogrants and the Tranibors). The head of the government, elected by the Philarchs, is the Prince.

Occupations. Every person, with the exception of the officials and priests, practices a trade; and because of this full participation in productive labor, their needs are satisfied through a six-hour working day.

Economy. The economy of the Utopians is of particular interest. Their markets are nothing more than supply houses where everyone is free to go and take what he needs without payment. They are able to produce an abundance of food, so that they can export their surplus to foreign countries, which they exchange for gold and silver for the state treasury. There is no private property among the Utopians and they have no money.

St. Augustine's De Civitate Dei (City of God, 413–26) is frequently cited as a source for Utopia. It was, of course, well known to More. He had delivered a series of lectures on the work, as has been mentioned. More's work differs in basic concept from Augustine's, though inevitably echoes of Augustine are to be found in More.

Augustine's work set out to defend Christianity against the criticism of proponents of traditional pagan worship. It launches an attack on the pattern of immorality in Roman life under the worship of the pagan gods and offers, in contrast, the way of life taught by Christianity. His arguments are based on his interpretation of history, both Old Testament history and Roman. There is not a specific practical plan for the government of his imaginary ideal state but rather a distinction drawn on philosophical lines between two guiding principles. In the "City of Earth," the love of self holds precedence over love of God; in the "City of God," the love of God holds precedence over the love of self.


Utopia in Europe appeared in Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532) in which a section is entitled "The Expedition to Utopia." Actually the narrative in no way resembles Utopia, but there are incidental parallels. Details of the voyage from France to Utopia are in a general way reminiscent of More's account of the travels of Hythloday.

The society portrayed is confined to a monastery that is regulated in an original and thoroughly unconventional manner. All of the members are happy because, being exempt from any kind of restrictions or regimentation, they are at liberty to pursue their inclinations and encouraged to develop their special talents to their full potential.

The vogue of fictionalized travel literature, which includes, in addition to More's Utopia, such works as Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels

The City of the Sun (Civitas Solis, 1623) by Tommaso Campanella. The tale is told by a sea captain who has visited an island called Taprobane (possibly Sumatra). In that land there is community property and no use of money. There is an equitable sharing of labor, with the result that all work is finished in a four-hour day. There is also a community of women, with a scientific control of breeding. He has a plan for spreading information on all branches of knowledge through pictures displayed throughout the city on walls and in corridors of public buildings — visual aids to education for persons of all ages. Their leaders believe that the advancement of scientific knowledge is the principal key to the betterment of the race.

Francis Bacon's New Atlantis was probably written in 1624, but was not published until 1627

The goal of the common good is sought through learning and justice. The principal attention of the account is focused on an elaborate academy of science. The advancement of human welfare can best be achieved through the systematic exploration of nature via inductive reasoning. He urges experimentation to improve general knowledge and to develop inventions for human comfort and pleasure. The central institute in the capital of New Atlantis, called Solomon's House, is a huge academy which foreshadows the later creation of scientific laboratories and academies, such as the English Royal Society.

This emphasis on the sciences marks a major departure from More and the humanist utopians and aligns Bacon with the direction of thought prevailing in the seventeenth century. His Atlantians exhibited a love of finery in costumes and jewelry that sets them apart from the typical utopians.


Looking Backward (1888) by Edward Bellamy, American author writing in the utopian vein, presents a vision of a glorious future society. Julian West, a young, aristocratic Bostonian, falls asleep under a hypnotic trance in 1887, but through a remarkable set of circumstances, is awakened in the year 2000. His host family in this new age introduces him to their amazing society, explaining their institutions and the rationale for their system.

The new Boston of 2000, Julian West discovers, is a city of beauty and grace, with many splendid public buildings, reflecting an undreamed of prosperity; but, more important, it is populated by people who are remarkably healthy and happy. The basic reason for these conditions is that equality has been attained throughout the population. There are no more rich, no more poor.

The first lesson West learns is that all industry and all institutions are under the control of the national government, a system which, he is informed, has proved to be far more effective than the earlier one of free, private enterprise because of the elimination of wasteful competition. These enormous nationwide political and industrial institutions are structured on the plan of a military organization.

Money has been outlawed.. There is no army, no navy, no police force; there are no lawyers, bankers, or salesmen.

Education is regarded as important and is continued to age 21 for all citizens. During their years of schooling, the pupils are introduced to many trades, professions, and arts in order to discover where their talents and interests lie, to enable them to choose the vocation that will bring them the greatest satisfaction in their adult years. At age 21, everyone enters the work force, "the industrial army," where he or she will serve up to the age of 45.

Bellamy's optimism for the future of mankind is further revealed in his confidence that human ingenuity will continue to contribute inventions for comfort and convenience of mankind.

William Morris's News from Nowhere (first published in serial form in 1890, then in book form in 1891). The narrator of the novel goes to bed in his home in a London suburb one night in 1890, but when he wakes he finds himself in strange surroundings. The people he meets talk about events that occurred in the year 2001 as though they were past history.

Radical changes have transformed England both in appearance and in its social patterns. The new society is structured according to the pattern of ideal communism: no money, no private property, perfect equality for every citizen. Labour is shared by every member of the community. These are all familiar attributes of utopian societies. One of the distinctive features of Morris's plan is that labour is regarded as a pleasure rather than a necessary chore, the reason being that everyone works at a task that he can do best and consequently takes pride in the product of his labour. This essentially Medieval attitude toward the achievement of the workman turns production into something of an art, whether the product is a dish, a meal, a doorknob, or a bridge. The revival of that ancient pattern of individual workmanship has been made possible by the elimination of all but the simplest machinery. Factories have all been destroyed, and the former pattern of urban industrial crowding and squalor has disappeared. Where London used to be there is a collection of scattered villages. The age is described as post-industrial.


Fourier and the Sociological tradition of finding laws of human activity so as to launch the perfect society – France. Phalanxsteries – the Phalanx – the community


The title of Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872) is intended as an anagram for "Nowhere"; and that, it is recalled, is the translation of "Utopia."

Erewhon is a remote kingdom not on any map, which the narrator claims to have discovered in his travels.. They are governed by a monarchy, and have lawyers, judges, and prisons. They have money, banks, rich citizens, and poor.

The features of Erewhonian society that surprise the author are those that differ from the England that he knew. According to the early impressions of the travelers, the people all appear to be exceptionally healthy, exceedingly handsome, and altogether contented. Their life style is characterized by simplicity and gracious manners, Gradually, however, oddities, or what appear to be oddities to the visitor, begin to surface. Duplicity pervades every aspect of thought and action. The natives habitually profess agreement to a proposition although they do not believe in it, and their friends are perfectly aware that they do not mean what they say.


Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) offers a projection of what life on earth might become in another 500 years if technology plays an increasingly dominant role and if government control of all aspects of human activity becomes absolute. Skyscrapers will become taller, factories will become more efficient, travel will be mainly by air, diseases will be virtually eliminated, and universal happiness will be provided through elaborate sports and entertainment programs and through a happiness pill called soma.


The Philosopher of Utopia: Ernst Bloch – his ‘Geist der Utopie’ (1918) (Spirit of Utopia) He explores the will to utopia via his horror at the conditions that are emerging in post WW1 Germany. His idea of utopia is as the ‘not yet’ – we are called by or hope for a better world that is to come – we await this.

For Bloch, hope permeates everyday consciousness and its articulation in cultural forms, ranging from the fairy tale to the great philosophical and political utopias. For Bloch, individuals are unfinished, they are animated by "dreams of a better life," and by utopian longings for fulfillment. The "something better" for which people yearn is precisely the subject-matter of Bloch's massive The Principle of Hope, which provides a systematic examination of the ways that daydreams, fairy tales and myths, popular culture, literature, theater, and all forms of art, political and social utopias, philosophy, and religion -- often dismissed tout court as ideology by some Marxist ideological critique -- contain emancipatory moments which project visions of a better life that put in question the organization and structure of life under capitalism (or state socialism).

Bloch urges us to grasp the three dimensions of human temporality: he offers us a dialectical analysis of the past which illuminates the present and can direct us to a better future. The past -- what has been -- contains both the sufferings, tragedies and failures of humanity -- what to avoid and to redeem -- and its unrealized hopes and potentials -- which could have been and can yet be

Fashion, grooming, new clothes, and how we make ourselves appear to others exhibit the utopian potential of transforming us into something better. Perceiving the utopian potential of advertising, Bloch recognizes that it invests magical properties into commodities, which will produce allegedly magical results for the customer. "Shop-windows and advertising are in their capitalist form exclusively lime-twigs for the attracted dream birds" To be sure, the promises of advertising and consumer culture are often false promises and often produce false needs, but their power and ubiquity shows the depth of the needs that capitalism exploits and the wishes for another life that permeate capitalist societies.


Key conceptual themes emergent:


The Socio-political

Dialectic of Freedom and Control: Utopia seems to propose that we find freedom from current circumstances in a visionary structure of rules, geographies, shared common experience = equality (communism)


Equilibrium and Dis-equilibrium: Utopia removes us from the viccisitudes (the ups and downs) of a relatively unpredictable life to one of predictable stability – things go round and round – the homeostatic – the idea community.



The Spatial

Utopia as architecture: arche = to govern. Mot utopias bar Bloch’s tend towards structural wholes and in the case of Corbusier they literally are. Unite d’habitation

Iannis Xenakis: In this urban proposal, 5 million inhabitants are housed in a single megastructure, a hyperbolic paraboloid of more than 3000 meters high and 50 meters wide. Images of Cosmic City


Utopias have usually taken us from now and here to the undiscovered country beyond – the no-place in which all things are possible – fantastical places – utopias are often a kind a travelogue.




The temporal: for Bloch Utopia is about the temporal – about the ‘not yet consciousness’ – the way in which hope as an inner spirit unfolds in time in response to the changing material circumstances of life and therefore has a revolutionary function as permanent critique of the ‘now’.





Modes of lived experience: the everyday (the quotidian) Utopia is a projection of a) the self and b) of commodities and c) how (b) can transform (a)


At the level of capitalism, we covet certain kinds of goods in that we imagine our lives – forms of life as being improved – going to a better state – on the way to utopia. But to help us do this we have advertising and shiny shops. They interpret the look of the commodity such that the commodity is reified – it stands out, shining towards us in all its loveliness as a temptation so that I we had ‘this’ we would be shiny.


And this can be extended to body transformers such as cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, clothes…


The projection of an image of self mediated by commodity fetishism wherein he fantasy is not from oneself but from the already given version of the look offered by the advert and so forth.




The economy of Utopian desire: what is the time of desire? Is a dog just for Christmas or not. Law of diminishing marginal returns – it is perfect today but not three days from now! So I want another thing.




Dreaming and flightpsychoanalytical aspects: utopias are dreams of a better worlds but in so regularly being about new geographies/non-existent ones but ones that with a good will might be built, we have a wish – a realisation of an unconscious drive to take flight from the here and now and be part of a different spatio-temporal environment.


Therein our not only will our ‘identity’ our way of being be given the conditions for renewal  as a radical difference, but we will also be a part of reciprocal culture that will nurture the possibilities of maintaining our new identity.


Of course at all moments of the 24/7 info cycle the media are offering us the dialectic of utopia and dystopia – the horrors of the world and the lifestyles, cultures and things that  will alleviate them