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Sketches of an Attempted Present: Crafting a Utopian Plan through Historicizing Utopias

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by Courtland Quinn

Throughout history, collective groups and individual thinkers have found ways of expressing, and established methods of asserting, a “utopian impulse” — that need to dream of a better life, even when we are reasonably content. Moreover, this impulse may be the product of some instinctual principal of hope in the individual human psyche. Whether from a principle of hope or not, throughout history a desire to bring about change, to beckon in a yet-unrealized and perhaps unforeseeable future, to restructure life’s framework through social dreaming, theorizing, and criticism has produced tendencies and practices, which in time have given birth to the utopian tradition.

Utopianism encompasses a very complex and multifaceted intellectual tradition that includes both an extensive literary genre and a legacy of attempted, practical utopian movements. In 1516, Sir Thomas More coined the term “utopia” with the writing of his famous and influential work Utopia; the etymology of which stems from a combination of outopia — meaning nowhere or no-place, and eutopia — meaning somewhere good or good-place. Utopia was a place imaginary, it was true, and accordingly futile to seek out, that nevertheless existed tantalizingly on the edge of possibility, somewhere just beyond the boundary of the real. More’s stylistic form has been repeated in some of the most influential utopian writing such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, William Dean Howell’s A Travelor From Altruria, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, etc. The utopian genre, however, is not limited to this format. It has grown to encompass utopian theory, social dreaming, eutopias, dystopias, utopian satire, anti-utopias, critical utopias, and counter-utopias or conservative utopias.

In the 19th century, utopianism burgeoned in an ever-important way. Here we see the rapid development of communal societies as utopias, wherein the boundary between no-place and practical is rendered permeable — the success of which is up to much debate. Utopian socialist thinkers and theorists work simultaneously on center stage in utopian writing, and behind the scenes as the impetus, advocates and engineers of utopian movements and communities. These intellectuals include, among others, Charles Fourier, Charles Henri de Saint-Simon and Robert Owen.

Utopian theorists assert that utopian forms attempt to systematically remedy systematic problems. The parts that comprise utopian writing and movements emphasize the interconnectedness of social realities by offering thorough criticism of a system, or through displaying a complete alternative order. At the base of utopian expression is a belief in the malleability if not perfectibility of human nature. Through the proposal or pursuit of an alternative systematic social order, utopians believe that in perfecting human nature the utopias of today may become the realities of tomorrow. The history of the utopian tradition illustrates successively the interaction between the utopian author and his or her place in time and society. Utopianism continuously reacts to the environment in which it was created, which both increases its relevancy to the system it is seeking to remedy, and deprives it of an outright timeless quality. Historicizing utopianism is therefore central to its understanding.

Through a King Creativity grant I was able to travel to Scotland to research one of the most lasting, influential and “successful” attempts at a practical utopian community fashioned by Robert Owen in the 19th century at the textile mills of New Lanark. I then wrote an extensive historical analysis of this community. In addition, I wanted to illuminate the potential danger inherent in utopian endeavors, so I conducted a historical analysis that explored the utopian elements of Apartheid-era South Africa. My ultimate goal was to take the lessons learned in light of these pursuits and the complex theoretical foundation behind utopianism to envision and design my own utopian community. This final part of my King Creativity project has proven difficult, but extremely rewarding. The research opportunities that the grant afforded me have also been formative and priceless in my development as an aspiring historian.