Teaching Utopia Matters from More, to Piercy and Atwood

Kate Aughterson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapter


Thomas More’s Utopia will be five hundred years old in 2016, yet the genre and mode which he invented are repeatedly mis-prisioned as non-dynamic blueprints. More’s original consists of two books which act in juxtapositional dialogue: the first recounts discussions between More and friends about practical and philosophical political matters, including the topical issues of enclosures and Royal taxation. The second book consists solely of a detailed description of the politics and sociology of the island “Utopia”, by the stranger Hytholoadeus. “Utopia” thus has two originary meanings: More’s book and the island place. The dialogic frame in which the hypothetical place is imagined is “utopia”, and not the blueprint which is contained within the frame. The semantic joke buried in the Greek meaning of Utopia (no-place) posits the self-consciously serio-comic enterprise as a literary and political thought-experiment in critical analysis of the present juxtaposed against imagined other(s). More’s “invention” of the utopian genre at a moment in history when exploration and communication first became global makes it a perfect prism through which to debate contemporary cultural and literary texts for students, at a time when the global consequences of that historical moment are coalescing in economic, political and environmental crisis. “Utopia” necessitates and includes its opposites, others, contradictions. It offers an open invitation to its reader to join in. More’s original contains what became staple conventions of Utopian content: travel in space and/or time; a meeting with a stranger; representation of the other as both familiar and strange; a dialogue with the reader; and the “blue-print” for the state of Utopia. Sadly, the legacy of nineteenth-century Marxist readings of More’s work was to harness only the latter as though it existed autonomously of the dialogic work. The adjective “utopian” became a term of approbation for the left and critique for the right. The cumulative consequences of the fall of the Berlin wall, the rise of religious fundamentalism, globalisation and the economic crisis have fuelled a Western intellectual scepticism about grand narratives and idealised political projects, and the post-nineteenth century meaning of “utopia” was discredited by both left and right. Similarly, the label “dystopian” has often been used to shut down the formal dialectic between text, world and reader. Yet the silent erosion of the semantics of utopics by the political classes’ neo-liberal consensus can be exposed as precisely that if we return to More’s original text, and read through its structural complexities, its generic self-consciousness, and gain a sense of what Utopia is speaking. By returning to an origin, we can revivify the radical rhetoric of both word and genre, and rediscover its vibrancy in contemporary writing. If we are alert to how other genres evolve and change in political and cultural contexts, how have we not been to utopias? Utopian discourse is not about the articulation of a blue-print or a set of naive ideals, but a sophisticated dialectical mode of rhetorical exploration which perfectly matches the representational and cultural demands of our emergent post-post-post modern globalised culture. Naturally poly-logical because it is self-consciously open-ended and paradoxically celebratory of the possible impossible, the Utopian genre is the perfect embodiment of how generic hybridity can encompass cultural hybridity in a non-authoritarian and open way. Modern theoretical and critical discussions of both genre and the intersection of Literature and globalization (with the notable exception of Frederic Jameson) continue to ignore the radical dialogics and potential of utopian writing. For example, neither the Longman Critical Reader, Modern Genre Theory (ed. David Duff, 2000) and the Routledge reader Literature and Globalization (ed. Liam Connell and Nicky Marsh) have “utopia” in their index. Critics and publishers tend to relegate Utopian writing to fan (s/f) fiction. This chapter uses Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (now nearly forty years old), Atwood’s trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAdam), and some recent young adult fiction (for example Marcus Sedgewick’s Floodlands) to show how utopian generic playfulness in its complex and self-conscious dialogism is a vital contemporary genre and a mode of critical political debate, as well as how frequently this has been represented through female voices (even where ventriloquized by male writers). When Atwood’s work is labelled “dystopian”, we shut down the political potential of her writing’s dialogic nuances intrinsic to the utopian dialectic. As she herself has argued, her recent work is “ustopic”: using possible scenarios through fiction to enable us to conceive of political action about our world. Equally, Piercy’s novel moves fluidly between 1976 and two alternate futures, one disastrous and one ethically and ecologically sustainable: all three spaces and times work in dialogue to create a fourth space – that of the reader’s present. In both authors utopia is a process not a place: although place (here and there) is key in locating our sensibilities and intellects about the failures of our current world. There is no guarantee that humans can avoid the possible disasters envisioned in these novels: but alternative places and times act as distorting mirrors, acting in dialogue with our present to open up a space for thinking and action. Utopia is heuristic. Piercy and Atwood conceive of and construct utopia as a dynamic space between page and reader: not a blue print but a blank page on which we can write our own future.The utopian mode is an open radical genre, self-consciously intertextual and flexible in form and mode. More’s debt to the multi-voiced and moded Mennipean satire has often been remarked, and this hybridised genre (itself the product of an emergent empire) is a perfect match for the twenty-first century conundrum of glocalised identity articulation. The recently popular motif of the newly arrived disruptive stranger in contemporary fiction is a central tenet of utopian (as well as fabular and folk-tale) writing, and suggests that real knowledge of the modals of utopian discourse will enable genuine dialogic political debate about our future(s) amongst students
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTeaching 21st Century Genres
EditorsKaty Shaw
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISBN (Electronic)9781137553911
ISBN (Print)9781137553898
Publication statusPublished - 29 Sept 2016

Publication series

NameTeaching The New English

Bibliographical note

Aughterson Kate, M(i)s representing Utopia: from More to Atwood, in: Teaching 21st Century Genres, 2016, Palgrave Macmillan UK, reproduced with permission from Palgrave Macmillan. This extract has been taken from the author's original manuscript and has not been edited. The definitive, published, version of record is available here: http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781137553898


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