Defining “utopia”

As I mentioned in a previous post (“Contrasting Utopias”), I was reading Thomas More’s Utopia this past week. I used Yale University Press’ Second Edition translated by Clarence H. Miller which has an afterward from Jerry Harp, a professor at Lewis and Clark College. Harp reminds the reader that most of us come to this book with a preconceived idea of what “utopia” means and reminds us that we need to understand what More meant by the word. The word is a “Greek pun”: “‘Utopia’ is the good place (eu-topos) that is no place (ou-topos).” In Latin, it’s Nusquama, which means “Nowhere” (pp. 146-147). Harp draws from this polyvalence of “good place,” “no place,” and “nowhere” the following observation:

Although the term has come to mean an imaginary and ideal place, an impractical social scheme, More’s text works in more complex ways than popular usage allows. Utopia is a nowhere that opens into new discursive spaces. Were the realm of the present and pragmatic concern to dominate entirely, we would be led into stagnation. The nowhere of Utopia—the work as well as the genre and mode of thinking—provides one way to keep consciousness on the move even though it is an impossible place.

Utopia, p. 147

With this in mind, Harp says, “We do well to read the text in more complex terms that as a blueprint to an ideal state.” (p. 147) For Harp, “Reading Utopia means entering into a dialogue, with oneself and others, that continues to this day.” (p. 153). This dialogue goes back to St. Augustine of Hippo who imagined the “City of God” as standing outside of the “City of Man” (pp. 148-150). It goes further back to Plato’s Republic (p. 155)

Harp draws our attention to one of the key participants in this dialogue, Paul Ricoeur, who links utopia to ideology—ideology being “the taking of the provisional and pragmatic for the metaphysical.” (p. 157) Harp writes of Ricoeur:

In his reading, the best function of the utopian thinking is as an antidote to ideology, for such thinking provides an opportunity to play one’s identity out and away from the prison house of the here and now. As he puts it, ‘This function of utopia is finally the function of the nowhere. To be here, Da-sein, I must also be able to be nowhere.” Utopian thought relates to identity because part of identity is prospective, who and what we desire and strive to be— “What we call ourselves is also what we expect and yet what we are not.” But ideology and utopia will not remain separate; they tend to interweve, and one issue worth further reflection is how the two function together as well as tend to tear apart, in Utopia and elsewhere.

Utopia, pp. 157-158

While Harp reminds us that utopia can’t be divorced from ideology (discussing and citing Ricoeur’s Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, pp. 310-312), I want to briefly highlight Ricoeur’s point that utopia can contrast ideology. If ideology is, as Ricoeur defines it, a categorical confusion where we claim ontological necessity when it’s unwarranted, then utopia helps us break free from our assumptions that what is now must be what is. It allows us to question our norms and taboos. It asks us to stop claiming that this or that is “natural” and ask what the world looks like if we remove appeals to nature as an excuse for inactivity. (In a sense, this is where SciFi thrives.)

But as Harp observes, and when we return to the aforementioned previous post, ideology and utopia can’t be separated. This is what the “What’s Left of Philosophy?” crew recognized: normalizing and essentializing what we know as if it must be is another form of utopia. It assumes that the reality we know can remain as it is without consequence. This line of thinking acts as if it’s based on empirical reality but it’s as fanciful as utopias-for-change, if not more. The best example may be climate change. Yes, it may be utopian to imagine this or that action, or international agreement, is going to save us (collective humanity) from this or that consequence but it’s equally utopian, probably more so, to stick our head in the sand and imagine we can go on without global disruption and dysfunction. When we advocate for static utopias against dynamic ones, we’re refusing to admit that we’re fine with the trajectories that our current ways of life may take us, and we’re masking that refusal with the justification that our contemporary ways of life are good and right and shouldn’t be changed. While this or that aspect of our current ways of life may be good, it’s foolish to act as if there aren’t things that by being changed would be better for others and in turn better for us (due primarily to our ultimate interconnectivity with one another).

Imagining dynamic utopias can be scary. For one reason, my utopia may not be your utopia. I don’t know that I would want to live in Plato’s Kallipolis or More’s Utopia. In fact, I’m sure I wouldn’t. So, there’s a risk in moving toward a world that’s imaginary and dreamy. All of our dreams may not align. Your utopia may be my dystopia. But this is true of static utopias. My comfort with the current status quo might be someone else’s discomfort; my utopia may be their dystopia. Either way, we risk making things worse while trying to make things better—whether by action or inaction. So the question isn’t so much whether the present is good or not but whether we are willing to risk the present for an even better future.