Everywhere and nowhere: utopian possibilities in culture and society

IssueMarch - June 2002
Feature by Gareth Evans

Oscar Wilde famously observed that he couldn't look at a map without it present among the nations, while Sir Thomas More invented the word with his 1516 treatise on the ideal society, compounding Greek words to mean not a place, literally nowhere.

The small matter of geographical non-existence didn't stop More however. In fact it was a prerequisite in his picturing of the perfect island community. And ever since that first named outing, utopia has spread across the world and beyond, becoming in the process a shorthand for the dreamed-of settlement, for a territory free of want and suffering.

Setting the stage

However, labelled or not, utopian aspirations have galvanised communities, thinkers and artists across all cultures and eras: the sense that a better life can be made by first imagining it is almost hard-wired into the human psyche.

The earliest example to appear in critic John Careys informative 1999 anthology The Faber Book of Utopias, is a fragment, The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, from the Egyptian 12th dynasty (1940-1640 BC).

In many ways this and other early attempts, most notably Platos Republic, set the ground rules for areas of concern that must, to a greater or lesser degree, be resolved so that the utopia proposed has any chance of conceptual take-up. Material provision, justice, environmental interaction, gender relations, sexual activity, the impact of science and technology, the nature of leisure, freedom and the relationship between the individual and the self, should all be addressed by the utopian in question.

No surprises here: at once timeless and contemporary, they are the issues that any civilisation wrestles with. And it is of course equally to be expected that the nature of utopias changes as major social shifts occur: the seismic upheavals of the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution saw extensive utopian writings from radical, millennial groupings and Victorian rationalists respectively. But in Western societies the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romantic Era (the French Revolution in particular) and the American experiment, along with the growth of Socialism and the scientific, social and aesthetic transformations of the 20th century, have all informed the visions of their times, opening up new possibilities and attendant threats in the paradises proposed. In a real sense, all the above movements are utopian in themselves, pioneering enquiries that offer a new way of seeing, updated moral frameworks by which to gauge the question of how to live. They borrow from, adapt and revise each other as needed. Similarly, culture generally, with its remaking of the world individually or communally, is equally enabled.

Dangers in utopianism

Having lived through the last century however, we are justifiably sceptical of overarching impositions. Recent history is littered with victims of the intention to deliver an all-too-exclusive perfection on earth. From the Nazis (Hitler's Mein Kampf is chillingly utopian) to the Khmer Rouge, Stalin to American Full Spectrum Dominance, its painfully clear that one persons utopia can easily become another's hell.

Think only of numerous failed cults: the greater the dispossession, the more extreme the urgency of the vision. In such cases, the dynamic exchange between means and ends is highly dubious, as the utopian impulse is tested versus its delivery on the ground. Its often hazy on process, frequently requiring a disaster to birth the new society. Equally significant are the omissions (from ancient Greece onward favour has been for the few), the leaps of faith and sacrifice required: the bigger the leap, the more severe the strategy.

The utopian/dystopian relation is one built on the tension between desire and fear. Most utopias might fail on closer enquiry but they still offer a positive incentive to action. The best, however, do not exclude real people and actual human nature, with all its doubts and failings, and do not institute an absolute system (which ironically needs significant change to establish it but which then resists fluid, organic development).

Our personal utopias

What follows therefore is a personal selection of (mainly contemporary) works in all media that offer aspirational models and embody wishful thinking in the best sense. It ranges beyond formal definitions to track utopian traces in culture: messages in bottles, ripe with healing and encouragement, sent out on difficult seas into the damaged world.

It focuses on the positive; on believable (even achievable?) futures and is inevitably entirely incomplete and partial. Perhaps what is most enduring about the concept of utopia is that we all carry a version of it within us. It is in the striving towards its realisation that we can become fully human.

Many of the cultural utopias discussed might be set in the future but (like the science-fiction they employ) deal always with the present; and it is in that attention on the now, on what can be done in the current moment, that the finest lesson of utopia resides.

In George Orwell's prophetic 1984, the beleaguered Winston consoles himself with the image of a door opening onto a green hill, his prisoners rag of sky glimpsed through bars. He feels what we all perhaps know and what Henry Miller has described so directly, that the earth is a paradise, the only one we will ever know. We will realise it the moment we open our eyes. We have only to make ourselves fit to inhabit it.


Dystopianism in art doesn't come much bigger than Victorian John Martins epic canvases of apocalyptic collapse. Such landscapes find their positive correlative in the grand sublime of the 19th century North American landscape artists.

Contemporary environmental concerns, expressed conceptually this time, surface in Joseph Beuys's seminal work as a sculptor, teacher and activist. One of the most important artists of last century, he is crucial to the work of London social art collective Platform, whose 20 years of exploratory urban projects won them the Schumacher award recently. Its the rural landscape that walking artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton document with their ephemeral journeys (Fultons latest exhibition will be reviewed in the next PN). The light touch is also found in the contemporary canvases of the Australian Aborigines, whose dreamtime and songlines (metaphor made real) are about as utopian as it gets.


All utopias are currently fiction, but some of the most notable have been written thus. Yevgeny Zamyatin's hugely significant dystopia We (1920), with its surgical removal of imagination, raises the ultimate threat creativity faces. Its the latter that engages readers directly in Argentinian Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch (1963), a multi-layered comedy of manners in which the chapters can be experienced in effectively any order. This attentive reader engagement provided the model for Sandinista cultural policy in Nicaragua.

Meanwhile, Ursula K le Guins beautifully rendered Always Coming Home (reprinted 2001) follows in the honourable tradition of feminist utopias like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1979), offering an encyclopaedic analysis of an anarchistic tribal community in the future Pacific Northwest.

Citywise, Italo Calvino's lyrical Invisible Cities (1972) engages instead with dreamlike versions of urban potential, while Richard Jefferie's Victorian After London (1885) finds green solace in London's erasure.


Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto is perhaps the definitive history-changing example here (while not forgetting the Bible, Koran and their like, offering final paradises through the return to a pre-Fall Eden) and this vital essay underpins the highly significant and clear-sighted bodies of work by John Berger and the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano: both passionate, analytical and committed.

Red-green political possibilities are lucidly and lyrically examined in Jeremy Seabrook and Trevor Blackwell's The Politics of Hope (1988; see also texts by Murray Bookchin and Rudolf Bahro).

For highly controversial but essential thoughts on the long-overdue rights of animals read philosopher Peter Singer.

Film and television

In Hollywood especially, film seems to be a medium better suited to the spectacle of dystopian meltdown. Think of the long tradition of science-fiction, at once prescient and satirical, from Things to Come to Songs from the Second Floor via Blade Runner, Brazil and a clutch of `70s eco-thrillers like Soylent Green, Silent Running and Logans Run.

However, positive visions of resistance often emerge from these and even television has managed to explore the Gaia theory in the magnificent anti-nuclear drama Edge of Darkness. Elsewhere, Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov's unique portrayal of his traditional culture in The Colour of Pomegranates shows the utopian tendency to revisit a past golden age in the (timeless) present. More recently, Godfrey Reggio's breathtaking meditations Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi take on contemporary global structures from a deeply considered, visually startling perspective.


Explicit cultural practice informs current activism now in a way unseen since the mid `60s. From the carnival of the anti-roads protests via Mayday to Artists Against the War, art is seen as both tool and partial solution. The medium is the message and its not a luxury but a way of embodying possible futures.

The intentions of these global resistance networks are of course fundamentally utopian, but this is perhaps most effectively realised where need is greatest (the Brazilian Sim Terra landless movement) or where culture directly informs theory and action such as the writings, collected in Our Word is Our Weapon (2001), by Subcommandante Marcos for the Zapatistas.


Crossing boundaries through aural pleasure is a great approach: listen to the yearning tunes of Romanian Gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks, singing of the hard paradise of the open road, if you're unsure. Jazz in its origins and improvisatory approach is a thrilling example of the group and individual working together for the greater tune.

But music has always offered utopian transport (from Bach to the Bhundu Boys), and is unequivocally the most directly inspiring medium. Anthems provide the clearest evidence (how about We Shall Overcome or The Internationale?) but classical works like Shostakovich's magnificent 7th siege Symphony also qualify.

Performance and theatre

If, as they claim, drama is conflict, then paradise is hard to stage: (theatrically) great when fought for but dead on its dramatic feet once secured. That said, the `60s in particular saw an explosion in utopian performance as rigid censorship structures crumbled and playwrights like Peter Handke, David Rudkin, Howard Barker and Edward Bond have all written prolifically towards the light while acknowledging the foundational dark of the times.

Peter Brook is perhaps the worlds most adventurous director, rigorously investigating the social uses of theatre, from carpet shows in Africa to a nine-hour staging of Hindu epic The Mahabharata. Very differently, Australian performance artist Stelarc is working towards a hybrid future, in which human and machine are intimately conjoined in harmonious shared purpose.


Perhaps the great medium of personal hope, poetry can also offer radical, communal encouragement. Major work is pre-served in the anthologies The Penguin Book of Socialist Verse (1970), Poetry of the Committed Individual (1973) and Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness (1993). Both Shelley and Blake stand out for their visionary and aesthetically innovative reading of the revolutionary Romantic era. Chilean Nobel prize-winner Pablo Neruda's massive work Canto General (1950) documented the history of an entire continent (one especially open to utopian schemes, as it was perceived to be a blank slate by arriving Europeans).


There are 3000 titles listed in British and American Utopian literature 1516-1985: An Annotated Chronological Bibliography, including utopias conceived around lotteries and genetic manipulation. Michael Tuckers Dreaming with Open Eyes: the Shamanic Spirit in 20th Century art and Culture (1992) is a path-breaking overview of visionary trends, while This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment (edited by Roger S Gottlieb, 1996) is a superb anthology of writings with global reach.

Topics: Culture, Utopias