Utopia and dystopia are twins, born at the same moment from the shared ancestry of social critique. Although remembered as the first modern attempt to systematically imagine an ideal society, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) began with a stark portrait of a Europe torn apart by war and crushing poverty, with the shocking prediction that if the enclosure of farmland continued, soon sheep would be eating people. This horrifying prospect made it urgent to look for an alternative, which More sketches out as an egalitarian, communal society of shared property.
More’s utopian hopes were balanced by his dystopian fears, with a new sense of human agency in the making of history leading to possibilities both hopeful and dire. In the half-millennium since More wrote, countless others have trodden both paths, painting scenarios of either earthly paradises or human-created hells.
The equipoise More achieved has been lost in our own era, in which our fantasy life is overburdened with dystopian nightmares and the utopian impulse is only faintly heard. In his 1994 book The Seeds of Time, the literary theorist Fredric Jameson mournfully reflected that “it seems to be easier for us to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness of our imagination.”
Jameson saw this cramped, blighted imaginative inability to conceive of positive systemic change as one of the hallmarks of postmodernism. The past few decades have proven him prophetic, as the dystopian imagination becomes ever more dominant in our culture. [Continue reading…]