Utopia and dystopia

Crook, S.A. (2000) Utopia and dystopia. In: Browning, G., Halcli, A., and Webster, F., (eds.) Understanding Contemporary Society: Theories of the Present. Sage Publications, London, UK, pp. 205-218.

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[Extract] Students of utopianism frequently raise the prospect of the ‘death of utopia’(see Goodwin and Taylor, 1982: 48; Kumar, 1987: 381; Manuel and Manuel,1979: 801). Recent commentators generally conclude that utopia is not dead but transformed. In Holloway’s (1984: 180) formula, for example, it may have ‘slipped out of the atlas onto the drawing board or into the government white paper’ at some point during the nineteenth century. Those who canvass the possibility of the death of utopia generally maintain that if it came about, some important dimension of our capacity to imagine alternatives to the present social order would be lost. This chapter argues a rather specific version of that case as it bears on the relations between utopianism and academic social theory. In doing so, it excludes from consideration a range of topics that are important in their own right: the development of fictional utopias and dystopias in the twentieth century, or utopian and dystopian strands in ecological and animal rights literatures, for example. The argument has two main elements.

First, Marxist and sociological variants of social theory emerged in the nineteenth century out of a rather specific adaptation of utopian themes. They offered orientations to a future that could be understood as the working-out of principles already present, if hidden, in the existing order. So, for Marxism, the embryo of the socialist future is located in the social resources mobilized by capitalist production and in the organized practice of the working class. The twin legacy of this adaptation of utopianism for contemporary social theory is a reluctance to think of the future as significantly ‘open’ outside fairly narrow limits and a studied, pervasive abstraction in such reflection as takes place on alternative futures.

Second, to extend Holloway’s diagnosis, at the end of the twentieth century utopia has moved off the drawing board and out of the whitepaper into the fabric of social life itself. In their modern sense, utopian thought and practice require that an alternative order can be conceived as single and unitary, as a whole way of life. In turn, this requires that the present and corrupt order to which utopia is an alternative can also be conceived as a whole. But the present order is one that absorbs into itself critiques, alternatives and escapes: it is heterogeneous rather than homogeneous, multiple rather than singular, incomplete rather than finished and clearly circumscribed. As a result, utopia is simultaneously nowhere – in no total alternative to the total extant order – and everywhere –in computer games, cults, communities and lifestyle magazines.

The chapter is divided into three sections. ‘Utopias’ explores the dimensions of modern utopianism. ‘Utopia, anti-utopia and dystopia in radical social theory’ develops the first element of the argument. ‘Everywhere and nowhere’ explores the second element of the argument, tracing the ways in which utopia is woven into the fabric of contemporary life and experience.

Item ID: 14313
Item Type: Book Chapter (Research - B1)
ISBN: 978-0-7619-5925-0
Keywords: sociological theory
Date Deposited: 29 Aug 2017 01:33
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1608 Sociology > 160806 Social Theory @ 100%
SEO Codes: 97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society @ 100%
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