- Thinking about the future – shaping the present: What can utopias contribute
- Thomas Morus, “Utopia”: Vision eines besseren Lebens im frühneuzeitlichen England
- Umweltfreundlich und sozial stabil: Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (1975)
- Fortschritt als Verwirklichung von Utopien: Welche Utopien brauchen wir heute?
- Zurück in die Zukunft: Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888)
- Werte auf dem digitalen Prüfstand: Dave Eggers, “The Circle”
- Margaret Atwoods Klassiker The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) – neu gelesen
Utopias are designs of imagined societies that are not tied to given historical, social and cultural conditions. In everyday language the term has become ambivalent. On the positive side, utopia may refer to a vision, an ideal image, a prophetic dream, on the negative side it is nothing but a phantasma, some wishful thinking, an “unreality”. Remembering the past and imagining a better future, however, is one of the basic human traits. Many utopian dreams of previous generations have become real. For example the dream of flying. Ikarus, the legendary figure from Greek mythology, built wings to make his dream come true. He neglected the advice of his father Daedalus, who had warned him of potential dangers. Nevertheless Ikarus fixed his wings with wax and when he approached the sun, the wax began to melt and he fell from the sky. Despite many setbacks in the past, the dream of flying has become an everyday reality. The Irish lyricist, dramatist and stage author Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) saw the value of utopias when he 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. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias. (The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891)
The profile of literary utopias has changed over the course of time, and so have its scenarios and the narrative structures. Neverthelesss the questions the authors in the past asked have remained amazingly consistent.
The term “utopia” was invented more than 500 years ago by Thomas Morus, an English statesman and humanist. The standards he set with regard to the profile of utopias are still valid. There will be a few remarks on More’s book.
There has always been the impulse to make utopias happen. Nauvoo, based on Étienne Cabets’s Voyage en Icarie (1839) is an example of the difficulties that arise when utopias are misunderstood as a ready-to-use recipe for the construction of a better world.
In the course of the 20th century the focus has moved from utopias to dystopias. A classic example of the dystopian genre is George Orwell’s 1984. In his novel Orwell describes (1948) the tactics the leaders of a fictitious totalitarian state use to assert their aspiration for power. Much of it sounds familiar. Therefore a few remarks on a milestone of the dystopian genre.
Utopias and dystopias have always reacted to the challenges of their times. The example of two dystopias from different parts of the world shows how two authors of the beginning 21rst century have responded.
Thomas Morus and the foundation of the utopian genre
The term utopia goes back to Thomas Morus. It is a coinage, composed of two ancient Greek syllables, which sound the same in English pronunciation: οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”), which means “no place”. However, there might be another interpretation: Greek εὖ (“good”, “well”) plus τόπος (“place”), which means “good place”. Both together: a good place in nowhere. A few details on the structure of Utopia are helpful to understand the context from which the first literary utopia emerged.
The text is divided into two books. The first book is about a written correspondence between Thomas More and people he had met on the continent. They discuss the ills that affect their countries, e.g – with regard to England – the practice of enclosure (the enclosing of common land) and the subsequent poverty and starvation of people who are denied access to land because of sheep farming. Their conversation is also about issues such as the death penalty for theft and rulers who go into wars, which meant a huge cost to the disadvantage of the population.
The second, longer book is the report of a discoverer who pretends to have lived in Utopia. It depicts a fictional island society and its social, political and religious customs.
More about Thomas Morus:
Thomas Morus, Utopia (1516): Vision eines besseren Lebens im frühneuzeitlichen England
2016 was the 500th anniversary of Morus’ Utopia. Proponents and critics alike were bombarding the media with their comments. As an example here what a commentator from Die Zeit wrote:
Noone would like to talk of utopias today, they have lost their innocence, and nothing is more anti-utopian than the chaotic present. What has remained of the old dream energies seems to have migrated into technology, into the digital manufacturies of Silicon Valley and the biotech laboratories around the world. As busy as bees, they work to overcome the faulty old man. They call it utopia. (My translation)
And later it says:
The humanist Thomas Morus is guilty of the word (i.e. utopia); he has established the genre of utopia with his fictitious account of a perfect communist (!!!) democracy.
As to the relationship between utopias and their realization the media commentator writes:
Both worshipers and despisers believe to this day that Morus’ Utopia is an instruction for the creation of a better world. This is wrong. The book is merely a fantastic piece of literature and it consists of two parts: a brute account of the English society of the 16th century and an adventurous travelogue.
The questions Morus asked are still relevant today: Should there be private ownership? Is social equality desirable? Can a society produce enough goods if nobody has to strive for individual profit? Are there heads of state who do not – out of self-interest – provoke wars and exploit their subjects? Questions amazingly modern. The answers Morus gives are however limited by what progressively minded people of his time in early-modern Europe were able to imagine.
The fragile relationship between literary utopias and attemps to make them come true: Étienne Cabet’s Voyage to Icaria (1839)
Image: A Bird’s-eye view from hill, across water to Nauvoo.” Engraving of Nauvoo, Illinois, ca 1855.
Nauvoo is a settlement in the west of the US state of Illinois on the east bank of the Mississippi River. The place was originally called Commerce, but the Mormons gave it the name Nauvoo, which might be phonetically close to a Hebrew word for a „beautiful place“. In 1845, the Mormons decided to leave the place and settle further West in order to escape persecution. A group of French settlers around the „utopian socialist“ Étienne Cabet bought the place to establish an ideal settlement based on communitarian principles developed in Cabet’s novel Voyage en Icarie.
Icaria has its name from Icarus, the son of Daedalus in Greek mythology, who, contrary to all warnings, tried to realize his dream of flying. Cabet’s utopian novel is about a young English nobleman, a certain Lord Carisdall, who had heard that there was, in a remote part of the world, a small community that fulfilled many criteria of an enlightened ideal state: money and internal trade do not exist. Everyone contributes by his or her work to a pool of resources, from which everyone can draw if there is need. Icaria is no pastoral idyll: It’s a modern state, based on a modern machine culture, combined with a progressive social policy. Cabet had illustrated the core of his social philosophy in an elaborately designed symmetrical arrangement of mottoes.
The core concept is the common good (le boneur commun). The term comes from the French Declaration of Human and Civil Rights (Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen). There it says that the government is set up to ensure the respect for the natural and inviolable human rights (la jouissance de ses droits naturels et imprescriptibles). Cabet regarded his “Icarian communism” as a democratic continuation of the French revolution.
From Utopia to Dystopia
The term dystopia derives from Greek dys– = bad and tópos = place. The origin of the term is attributed to John Stuart Mill, who used it in 1868 during a speech he gave in the British House of Commons to describe the British policy in Ireland:
It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them (i.e. the supporters of the Irish land policy) utopians, they ought rather be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.”
Mill was inspired by Thomas More’s novel Utopia.
George Orwell’s 1984: Dystopian Classic of 20th century
A classic dystopian novel is George Orwell’s 1984. The British author (1903 to 1950) tells about a totalitarian state that is ruled by a single political party. In his novel (published in 1948) Orwell describes measures that the party uses to convince people of their goals. They use, for example a language policy, the so-called “new language” (“Newspeak”), an artificially modified language, which is to gradually replace the previous language (“Old Talk”). Core concepts had to be redefined: A few examples from party slogans: “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery” and “ignorance is strength”. Accordingly the past had to be “straightened” so that it corresponded to the present: “Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past, “says Orwell.
In dystopias there are always dissidents. In 1984 it is Winston Smith: he feels not at one with himself and with his girlfriend Julia, in which he thought to have met a like-minded companion. His convictions made him suspicious to the goverment, he is targeted by the state authorities, imprisoned and subjected to torture and brainwashing. In particular by O’Brian, whom he had initially thought to be a member of the opposition, but who ultimately revealed himself as a high-ranking party member and an undercover spy.
It’s only when he is exposed to extreme torture in the dreaded “Room 101” that his resistance is finally broken. Fixed to a stretching bench und under the strains of electric shocks, Winston sacrifices the last thing that remained of his original self: his love for his girlfriend Julia. Winston’s story ends with a daydream: in a public event, he tearfully and gratefully confesses his love for the “Big Brother” who had helped him win the battle against himself. Then he is hit by a bullet.
What makes 1984 timeless is that it starts from the most effective lever of power: the fear of the ruled. “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else,” says party leader O’Brien:
Freedom means the freedom to say that two and two are four. If this is the case, everything else is self-evident. Forever. Irrefutable. We thought. We hoped. What we wanted. We clung to it. … And yet we had to get to know situations, where two and two could just as easily be three or five (…)
In one of the last scenes of the film version of 1984 (Director: Michael Radford, 1984) O’Bian tries to persuade Winston that a four could easily be a three or a five. (“O’Brian: Freedom and reality (2+2=5)”)
Utopias and Dystopias in the 21. Century
Utopias and dystopias always respond to the challenges of their times. In the 21st century, the challenges are – in keyword terms – globalization, digitization, social inequality, a world-wide acting terrorism, the climate change, the unprecedented migration of refugees, to name a few. The first dystopia mentioned here is about digitalisation and the totally transparent and hence totally maniputable individual, the second dystopia is about Egypt in the near future that is internally driven apart due to a bad cooperation between national and international powers.
Dave Eggers, The Circle (2013)
At the center of Dave Egger’s novel The Circle is a fictitious Giga corporation based in California, which has purchased the business areas we know from service providers like Google, Twitter and Facebook. It offers free use of its services which promise to make life easier, more comfortable, safer and more social. The range of services expands rapidly. The stake is high: In order to benefit from the various offers, the users have to reveal information about their private lives. This may include having video cameras installed in their apartments which survey them night and day or to wear bracelets with mini-monitors which record and transfer information on their physical condition. The company prospers. There is no lack of creative ideas. One character in the book, an employee named Francis works on a project, ChildTrack, which uses implants to track children. If a child goes missing, the authorities will know immediately where to find him or her.
More about Dave Eggers, the Circle:
Werte auf dem digitalen Prüfstand. Dave Eggers, The Circle (2013)
Egger’s interest is the interface between transparency/surveillance and privacy. The fictional media group uses linguistic obscuration tactics reminscent of Orwell’s “Newspeak” in 1984: “Secrets are Lies”, “Sharing is Caring”, “Privacy is Theft”.
Are there in Egger’s novel characters who actively stand for the protection of privacy? There are dissidents, but either their impulse is too weak, or they lack the power to prevail. Annie, head of the department of customer service does not withstand the stress when details of her inglorious family history became public. Her body fails and she falls into a coma. Mae’s ex-boyfriend, Mercer, a firm opposer of the Circle and its monopolization of information from the start, when he comes to realize that his little refusal gestures do not work, tries to escape the surveillance terror by fleeing into what he thinks to be an unmapped territory. He is localized and commits suicide. Ty Gospodinov/Kalden, one of the “wise men” and chief visionary of the project comes to realise that his initially well-meant idea opened the door to totalitarianism. He is ready to destroy his own work but does not find confidants who are willing to assist him. When his scheme is dicovered, he is eliminated.
The scenarios described by Eggers in The Circle were soon overtaken by reality. In 2013 the news of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the sprawling data collections of the state news services were published. The Social Media received an unprecedented response: Whereas, in 2010, Facebook still recorded 2,127 employees with sales of USD 1.97 billion and a net income of USD 606 million, in 2016 the company grew to 17,048 employees in 2016 with sales of 27, USD 64 billion and a net profit of USD 10.2 billion. (Wikipedia)
Ahmed Khaleb Towfik, Utopia (2008)
Image: London graffiti, near the corner of Blackall and Ravey Sts., photographed on 24 December 2008 by mermaid99.
Utopia (Arabic 2008, English translation by Chip Rossetti 2011, German translation by Christine Battermann 2015) is a dystopian novel by Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Towfik, who tells the story of a divided society in the near future.
Egypt in the year 2023. The rich and powerful live in “Utopia”, an area separated from the rest of the Egyptian territory. Situated at the seafront it is guarded by American Marines. The “Others” are trying to simply survive, cut off from water, energy and medication. Behind the walls of the luxury colony, fenced off from the world outside, the youngsters are bored. Only “hunting” seems to give them the longed-for thrill. They enter the squalid districts where the poor live, stalk one of the “Others”, and return with a body part as a trophy which they then have embalmed. A young man and his girlfriend want to experience this kick. But their trip to the neglected areas of Cairo proves more dangerous than expected.
The narrative is structured along the predator-prey-motif. This allows author Towfik both to address the issue of inequality and to take on the role of a neutral observer. The book has two narrators: The sections narrated by the Utopian carry the title “Predator”, Gaber’s are captioned “Prey.”
The Utopian describes his daily routine in a laconic style that illustrates the monotony of his life:
I wake up. I take a leak. Smoke a cigarette. Drink coffee. Shave. Fix the wound on my forehead to make it look terrible. Have sex with the African maid. Have breakfast”.
He goes on to puke on his mother’s bedroom carpet and listens, drug-induced, to “orgasm music”. The fake wound on his forehead – a decoration designed by an Israeli doctor – is to symbolize a rite of passage, the transition to the adult age.
The Utopian manages to get out of Utopia on a bus full of Others heading home after a day’s work in the houses of the rich. With him is Germinal, a girl from his clique and his occasional sex partner. They watch a woman in the hope to get a souvenir: Uncovered by a hate-filled gang of Others they themselves become the prey.
Garber, the second narrator, is 30 years old. He rescues the two and takes them home to live with him and his sister Safiya until they can find a safe way to bring them back to Utopia. He doesn’t really know why he took this step. But he he knows is that they should experience how it feels to live outside their safe and protected enclave.
The world of “Utopia” is an exaggerated twenty-first century Egypt, recognizable in the gap between rich and poor, the crumbling of government services, the privatization of space and resources, the anger at the cooperation between the Egyptian, American, and Israeli governments, and a diffuse yearning for revolution. One of the strongest aspects of the book is its depiction of the frustration of the young men, both rich and poor, who have run out of options. Both parties suffer from the debilitating feeling that their lives are the meaningless.
In his review Sholto Byrnes wrote:
Towfik’s novel is bleak and his characters are almost without any redeeming qualities. It is also utterly compelling. … a miniature masterpiece.
Utopia conveys a frightening portrait of a divided society without morals and scruples, on either side. A constructive answer is not in sight: Neither the Utopian nor Garber have a solution at hand. Towfik’s comment:
I do not broadcast messages because that is like writing an article. You have to read between the lines of my work…
However he writes:
(T)he dissolution of the middle class, which, in any society, plays the role of graphite rods in nuclear reactors … if it weren’t for them, the reactor would explode. A society without a middle class is a society primed for explosion.
We need utopias
The 21st century requires a rethinking and reorienting.
Dystopias are easier to write than utopias, wrote Kim Stanley Robinson, himself author of utopian novels, you only have to take the headlines of the news, put them together to a collage. (“A Real Joy to be had. Kim Stanley Robinson Interviewed by Terry Bisson.”)
More about utopias today:
Fortschritt als Verwirklichung von Utopien: Welche Utopien brauchen wir heute?
But as a dystopian author you need more than a plot. You need characters who deliver the role attributed to them convincingly, you need a narrative dynamism which makes the storyline appear plausible, you need a fresh style that motivates readers to read on.
Today utopias seem to have slipped off into private life. A little bit of a better world here, a little bit of a better world there: I separate my packaging waste carefully, I buy organic products, I donate a few euros for children in need in Africa, I try to control my resentment against the thousands of illegal immigrants, I’m fine.
The literary utopia is a flexible genre. It does not reflect reality one-to-one. It can open different time frames, can tell about the past by flashbacks and can tell about the future by flashforwards. It can combine different between point of views (POVs) and it can switch between them without prior notice. It is an exciting genre for young literary authors who are concerned.
Knipphals, Dirk. “Des Internetkritikers neue Kleider: Dave Eggers neuer Roman ‘Circle’“. taz.de.
Lobo, Sascha. “Abschied von der Utopie: Die digitale Kränkung des Menschen.” Frankfurter Allgemeine: Feuilleton (11.01.2014).
Morozov, Evgeny. “Wir brauchen mehr intelligente Dörfer.” Frankfurter Allgemeine: Feuilleton ( 07.07.2014).
Robinson, Kim Stanley, interviewed by Terry Bisson.” “A Real Joy to be had. In: Kim Stanley Robinson, The Lucky Strike, PM Press 2009.
Sloat, Warren. “Looking Back at ‘Looking Backward’: We Have Seen the Future but It Did’t Work.” The New York Times (January 17, 1988).