Utopias and Dystopias

“There is a tyranny in the womb of every utopia.”
-Bertrand de Jouvenel

“As a culture, we need [utopias] to fail because that failure affirms the inevitability of the dominant economy, with its attendant violence, inequality, and injustice.”
-Erik Reece

"The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds."
-José Esteban Muńoz

A recent New Yorker article by Akash Kapur tracks a resurgence of interest in utopianism, or the idea of the perfect society. Latin for “no-place,” the name “utopia” was first used in a book by a man who fervently believed in, and oversaw, the torture of his religious enemies. Such contradictions continually attend the idea of utopia, which seems to inexorably slide into its conceptual opposite, dystopia. But does this have to be? What are the benefits of utopian thinking, and what are the limits? Similarly, what is the place of dystopian fiction—which is having quite the moment—in political thought?

Over the next four weeks, we will consider utopias, dystopias, and the ever-shifting line between the two in a series of classes and events. Our long-standing Critical Theory Reading Group will continue to meet every Wednesday at 10am at Flitch Coffee to discuss articles and short fiction. We will also be reviving our Film Studies program with a showing of the 2006 sci-fi film, Children of Men, and beginning a monthly literature class with a discussion of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

We planned this series before the election happened. However, in this time of fear and anger, it feels especially appropriate to analyze the ways one person’s idea of utopia can look and feel uncannily like another person’s dystopia. Please join us. 

12/15: Queer and Feminist Utopias
In our last class for this series, we'll dig into readings of utopia by feminist and queer scholars. We'll pair Lee Edelman's call for a queer turning away from futurity ("fuck the waif from Les Miz") with Lisa Duggan's conversation with José Esteban Muñoz--a theorist who continually called for queer futurity--about the uses of hope and hopelessness. Muńoz died suddenly in 2013. 

Reading (optional, but encouraged):
"The Future is Kid Stuff: Queer Theory, Disidentification, and the Death Drive" (Lee Edelman)
"Hope and Hopelessness: A Dialogue" (Lisa Duggan and José Esteban Muńoz)
"Vacating the Here and Now For a There and Then: Remembering José Muńoz" (Emily Colucci, The Los Angeles Review of Books)

Bonus Reading:
"Inside the World's Chicest Cult" (Marisa Meltzer on her time with a crunchy women's retreat)


12/7: Dystopias (in connection with Film Studies on 12/6)

In this class, we'll dive into dystopias. We'll begin by discussing our Film Studies showing of Children of Men, paying particular attention to its contemporary relevance. We'll also discuss a short story by Octavia Butler and a TED Talk by Alex Gendler. 

Reading (optional, but encouraged)
The Nerdwriter on Children of Men 
Alex Gendler's TED Talk: "How to Recognize a Dystopia"
"Speech Sounds" (Octavia Butler)

11/30: American Utopias
For this class, we'll consider two instantiations of American Utopias. We'll read an essay about the complicated corporate utopia that is Disneyland, as well as a piece about a Mormon millionaire trying to build an eco-utopia in Vermont. Some questions we'll ask: is there a particularly American impulse to these utopias? How do organizations (religions, corporations, etc.) shape the way we experience utopia? 

Reading (optional, but encouraged)
No Matter How Your Heart is Grieving: Disney for the Sad (Sam Thielman, The Toast)
Joseph Smith's Vermont Hometown is Being Transformed into a Modern Mormon Utopia (Jaimie Seaton, Atlas Obscura)

Bonus Reading:
The Bundy Family's Odd Mormon Connection, Explained (Jack Jenkins, ThinkProgress)

11/16: Political Utopianism and Third Parties
In our first class, we'll introduce the series with a discussion Kapur's New Yorker article. Following that, we'll discuss the heavily contested role that third party candidates played in the election, as well as how utopian thinking shapes the way we understand our political system. 

Reading (optional, but encouraged)
The Return of the Utopians (Kapur, The New Yorker)
Did Third-Party Candidates Cost Hillary Clinton the Election? (The Wall Street Journal)
How Did Donal Trump Win the Presidency? (NPR)
John Oliver on Third Parties