Searching for Utopia
A UMaine scholar explores the possibilities and purpose of pursuing the ‘ever-receding horizon toward which we must travel’
Oscar Wilde once 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.”
These days, utopian–and dystopian–pursuits are all over the map. You can find them on television, in such shows as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, The Swan, even Desperate Housewives. They’re at the movies, in everything from Children of Men to The Truman Show. And you can see them all over the Web, whether in the virtual world of Second Life or an online forum about German nationalism.
For Naomi Jacobs, chair of the University of Maine’s English Department, utopias of the literary variety have shaped her worldview since the 1980s. As a young professor, new to the Orono campus, she was eager to present an article she had written about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, a novel about a utopian community. She saw an opportunity in the Society for Utopian Studies.
Sure, she had read George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, two of the best-known utopian/ dystopian works of fiction. But at the time, she never anticipated that this would become her primary research focus.
“I went and I had such a good time,” Jacobs says. “I fell in love with this group. I felt I had found my home as a scholar.”
Today, Jacobs still feels at home. She has served as the society’s president and as cochair for five conferences, including one in Maine last fall, and has received the organization’s distinguished service award for her decades of service. Since attending her first conference, Jacobs has seen the field of utopian studies grow from relative obscurity to a broad examination of philosophy, popular culture, technology, communication and politics.
“Now theoretical approaches are everywhere,” Jacobs says. “Philosophy and cultural theory have been brought into the discussion. There’s more of an interest in other media, in film, pop culture, video games and television. One of my colleagues is studying Extreme Makeover as a manifestation of the utopian impulse–of creating the perfect place.”
In other words, if you think the concept of utopia is esoteric, think again. The utopian impulse–the search for a better world, if you will–is alive and well in nearly every aspect of mainstream society, from reality TV shows to news headlines and political dialogue.
Think back to the 2008 presidential campaign. Both candidates ran on a platform of positive change, reform, transformation. Both essentially said a change will do you good.
Remember the headlines about the Yearning for Zion polygamist sect in Texas? That’s a perfect illustration of how one person’s utopia can be another person’s dystopia.
Every silver lining has a cloud, so why should utopia be any different? The very word “utopia,” coined by Sir Thomas More in his 1516 book of the same name, can be translated as either “no place” or “the good place.” Thus, it is “the good place that doesn’t exist.” It is, in a sense, intentionally flawed.
From a literary perspective, More’s Utopia is the book that started it all. And at its very heart, it is “both ridiculous and divine.” The traveler who describes the imaginary island is Raphael Hythloday, whose first name means “messenger of god” and second name means “speaker of nonsense.”
“It’s a very goofy book,” Jacobs says. “More makes a lot of silly puns, and scholars have been debating his meaning for centuries.”
Though More’s book may be amusing, it is also profound. So, too, are the ideas that have sprung up around it. In literature, Jacobs points to such authors as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who explores the concept of an all-female utopia in the 1915 novel Herland. In the 19th century, Edward Bellamy tied utopic ideals to economic efficiency. Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia describes a society organized on the principle of sustainability.
In her own research, Jacobs has explored themes of embodiment and gender roles as they relate to utopian literature. Her landmark 1994 essay, “The Frozen Landscape in Women’s Utopian and Science Fiction,” examines the reasons why many female authors set their utopias in cold, lifeless places.
“I speculated that this was happening because of the ways in which reproduction can be restraining for women,” Jacobs says. “The frozen landscape symbolizes a world in which gender doesn’t matter.”
Jacobs’ recent work has focused on the aesthetic ideal of a “natural” human body as a “common end point or limit to the utopian imagination, an untransgressable line of normalcy.” Utopian worlds may be fantastical and the backdrops surreal, but the bodies remain recognizably human.
“Everything else may have changed, but the bodies stay the same,” Jacobs says. “It seems we can’t imagine a transformation of the human, even as we seek a transformed human life.”
Jacobs doesn’t teach courses in utopian literature as often as she’d like these days, but she says her students often approach utopian constructs with a healthy dose of skepticism.
“The automatic reaction is, ‘This will never work,’” Jacobs says. “We have to talk about why that’s not the point. Utopia is a thought experiment; its purpose is to provoke us to rethink the world as we know it.”
Inevitably, one of Jacobs’ students will say, “I would never want to live in a utopia, because you can’t know what happiness is without pain.” Or “A perfect world would be boring.” Jacobs uses these “easy answers” as a jumping off point for deeper questions: Are we willing to ground our happiness in someone else’s pain? How much or what kind of imperfection is necessary to keep us from boredom?
“The point of utopia is not to create one perfect system, but rather to move us toward something better, through what’s been called the education of desire,” Jacobs says.
“If you’re talking about a system where everybody will have enough to eat, where everyone has sufficient shelter and clothing, where the planet will be protected, where people have enough freedom to express themselves, but not so much that they would be hurtful to others, most people will sign on to that.
“We can debate whether a vision is plausible, but beyond that, what would it mean if this could be achieved? What do we learn about what’s missing in our own world when we try to imagine what life could be?”
That sense of possibility–in literature, in pop culture, in life–is what keeps Jacobs and her colleagues interested. It is, as Oscar Wilde would say, what keeps utopian studies on the map.
“Today, we understand utopia as a process rather than a product,” Jacobs says. “Instead of ‘the plan,’ utopia is being conceptualized as an ever-receding horizon toward which we must travel.”
Originally published in UMaine Today magazine, January/February 2009
Image Description: Naomi Jacobs