Science Fiction Studies

#56 = Volume 19, Part 1 = March 1992

Tom Moylan

Utopian Studies: Sharpening the Debate

Ruth Levitas. The Concept of Utopia. Syracuse UP Series on Utopianism and Communitarianism. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1990. $34.95 cloth, $14.95 paper.

Given the anti-utopian "common sense" that permeates the social imaginary of these "kinder and gentler" times, and given the suspicious attitudes towards utopian discourse in the reigning post-structuralist theories (ranging from the constructively critical to the cynically dismissive), the present vitality of what has become known as utopian studies may seem, at first glance, surprising. And yet, over the past three decades, as Ruth Levitas reminds us, this interdisciplinary--and increasingly transdisciplinary--project has grown in both the breadth of its attention to the "utopian object" and the quality of its intellectual engagement.

Indeed, there is now a lively intellectual space in which the question of utopia is regularly addressed and advanced. In North America since the 1970s, the Society for Utopian Studies and the Communal Studies Association have sponsored yearly conferences on utopian discourse and utopian practice; in addition, sessions on utopian matters are on the rise in the annual meetings of professional groups such as the American Political Science Association, the American Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Popular Culture Association. In Europe, the Utopian Studies Society, which grew out of a study group, held its first meeting in 1990; a highly successful international conference on utopia took place in Yverdon in June 1990; the International Congress of Studies on Utopia, which met in Italy in 1983 and 1986, will convene again in 1992; and a continental utopian studies organization is in the planning stages. Feeding into and following from such conferences, publication on utopian matters is also on the increase. Dissertations--including the Syracuse series on Utopianism and Communitarianism--are multiplying, and journal coverage is getting stronger: SFS itself has long been an important venue for writing on utopia, and the short-lived Alternative Futures (1978-81) has at last been more than adequately replaced by Utopian Studies, the new journal of the Society for Utopian Studies. Beyond these institutional manifestations, a renewed (post-post-structuralist) appreciation for the use-value of the utopian hermeneutic is finding its way into both theory and practice in areas as diverse as anti-racist struggles, green and feminist politics, liberation theology, Marxist theory, and radical pedagogy.

Ruth Levitas herself has made substantial contributions to the development of utopian studies. As a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bristol, she has taught a course on ideology and utopia for many years; and as convener of the Utopian Studies Society in Britain, she has helped build the institutional apparatus needed to advance further study. She has written on a range of utopian topics and writers, and she has especially argued for the study of utopia within sociology. In 1986, she published The Ideology of the New Right, an insightful critique of the appropriation of utopian promises within the ideological maneuvers of Thatcherism. Now, with The Concept of Utopia, she has made a major contribution to the self-understanding of utopian studies as it enters a new era of theoretical and political engagement.

Levitas begins with a familiar, and unfortunately still necessary, gesture: namely, the claim for the validity of utopia "as not escapist nonsense but a significant part of human culture" (1). She acknowledges the vitality of utopian studies and praises the rich diversity of recent work. Yet, even as she welcomes this diversity, she expresses her concern that such expansion could result in "creative disorder or debilitating confusion" (156) without a shared understanding of the concept of utopia and how it might be studied. She cites Lyman Tower Sargent's 1979 call for "some basic agreement on terms" (quoted 178) and thereby sets out to "clarify the meaning of the term utopia and provide a new definition" (2). Her aim is not the imposition of an orthodox limit to inquiry but rather a clarification that will bring "conceptual rigor" to this relatively new field.

In the context of her proposal for a paradigmatic consensus, Levitas takes on two other tasks. First, arguing that "Marxism does not have a high profile within utopian studies, any more than utopia has a high profile within Marxism" (157), she strives to remedy this double deficiency by tracing the debate on utopia in the Marxist tradition and thereby delineating the warm line of utopian Marxism which may then be made available for subsequent scholarship. As a result, she is able to confront the older liberal-humanist tradition of utopian studies, which she sees as being mainly concerned with matters of content and form, especially literary form, with a Marxist tradition that is more interested in the utopian function. This collegial confrontation leads into her second task: extending the project of utopian studies so that it not only includes the "small and friendly" studies of the micro manifestations of the utopian in literary texts or communal experiments but also considers the "large, unwieldy, and ambiguous" macro activity generated by the utopian function within the realm of political agency.

Levitas moves toward her definition through six chapters that survey commentaries on utopia from the late 19th century to the 1980s. She acknowledges three aspects of utopia--content, form, and function--that need to be considered within a broader perspective, but she argues that none of these necessary aspects can provide the sufficient substance for a useful definition. In her first chapter, she briefly summarizes early utopian scholarship with its concern for matters of content and form; she begins with Moritz Kaufmann's Utopias (1879) and proceeds through works by Henry Morley, Lewis Mumford, Joyce Hertzler, Harry Ross, and Marie Berneri, to the key studies published in 1952 by A.L. Morton (The English Utopia) and Glenn Negley and Max Patrick (The Quest for Utopia). She turns from this primarily liberal-humanist scholarship (with the exception of Morton) to five chapters which trace the emergence of utopian Marxist positions that focus on the question of function. Her chapters on Marx and Engels, Sorel and Mannheim, Bloch, Morris and his commentators (such as E.P. Thompson), and Marcuse are the most solid in the book. Not only do they provide useful summaries of these key theorists, but they also lead to a sharper focus on the central question of the utopian problematic.

Levitas then jumps to the 1970s and '80s and explores the ways in which concepts of utopia are "deployed" in contemporary utopian studies. She examines the Manuels' Utopian Thought in the Western World (1979), J.C. Davis' Utopia and the Ideal Society (1981), Krishnan Kumar's Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times (1987), Zygmunt Baumann's Socialism: The Active Utopia (1976), my own Demand the Impossible(1986), and Barbara Goodwin and Keith Taylor's The Politics of Utopia(1982). Here she focuses on efforts to combine the categories of content, form, and function in arrangements that more adequately specify the utopian object and offer better methods of understanding and critique. In many ways, this is the most interesting chapter, for in it she confronts some of the most recent questions and debates within the field. By the end of the chapter, however, Levitas argues that no consensus has yet emerged, and she therefore launches into her last chapter and proposes a concept of utopia that will "contain" the earlier approaches and provide a firm foundation for future research.

Levitas notes that any general definition of utopia needs to accommodate a wide variety of methods and objects, and she cautions against "rigid and narrow" formulations that would restrict the scope of utopian studies. An effective definition cannot be cast in terms of content, form, or even function because of the considerable variations in all three aspects: all three change with each historical context; and even function--which can at least be limited to activities of compensation, criticism, or change--cannot be articulated in a manner that would equally accomodate its three directions. Levitas therefore chooses to understand utopia in terms of the central characteristic of desire: "the desire for a better being" (199). To be sure, she rejects the notion of an innate or universal utopian impulse. She argues that utopia "arises not from a 'natural' impulse subject to social mediation, but as a socially constructed response to an equally constructed gap between the needs and wants generated by a particular society and the satisfactions available to and distributed by it" (182). The negotiation of that gap between needs and wants--the space "that utopia offers to fill" (189)--constitutes the most fundamental activity of what can be named as utopia: the utopian "education of desire" which "nourishes the sense that 'something's missing,' and is a necessary inspiration to social transformation" (111). From that point, variations of content, form, and function can be theorized and critiqued in terms of the specificities of their own determinate time and place.

Levitas goes on to discuss this basic definition in terms of the utopian functions of criticism and change (although in her study of utopia and the Thatcherite New Right she provides a clear analysis of a powerful instance of the utopian function as compensation). Associating desire with the function of criticism and hope with that of change, she cautions against a conflation of the two activities. The difference between them turns on the "issue of perceived possibility": "Utopia expresses and explores what is desired; under certain conditions it also contains the hope that these desires may be met in reality, rather than merely in fantasy" (191). Thus, since criticism is almost always possible, even in the darkest of times, when change does not seem to be forthcoming, the "essential" element in utopia is "not hope, but desire" (191). With this foundation in a utopian substrate of desire and criticism (which echoes the position long advocated by Darko Suvin), Levitas can all the more readily account for the persistence of the utopian in a variety of historical situations and in a variety of manifestations in both content and form. Without hope, desire and critique can easily lead to articulations that are compensatory; while with the possibility of forward motion, the emancipatory potential of utopia can be developed and deployed.

Levitas accordingly concludes with a discussion of the relationship between utopia as the "education of desire" and the "crucial problem" of political agency. Using Kumar's book as the signifier of a pessimistic assessment of the present status of the utopian and my book as the representative of a more optimistic stance (and mediating them with Goodwin's discussion of utopia in terms of political theory), Levitas skillfully negotiates a fresh position that accepts the ongoing survival of the utopian in such forms as the "critical utopia" but also soberly recognizes its endangered status in an era wherein clear paths of oppositional political agency are not readily apparent. The current problem lies not with the utopian process but "in the field where that action should take place" (197). Here Levitas is at the "edge of utopia" (198), in the darkness of our own lived moment, with an ascendant Right and with progressive forces in greater or lesser disarray. Given this context, the pressing project for utopian studies is that of clarifying just what the utopian is and then of tracing the utopian articulations through the field of political action. The real work, she argues, should not be deflected into endless debates over what object or practice is more or less utopian but rather should be aimed at linking "the study of utopia with the quest for utopia" (199)--to once again help bring about the move from utopia as desire to utopia as hope. It is at this strong point of connecting utopian critique with the "will-full action" (199) of actual political agents that Levitas's book closes...and thus opens out to the reader and the world.

Through her critical survey and her definition of utopia, Levitas has constructed a helpful and provocative paradigm. However, there are at least three--related--dimensions within this paradigm that call for further development.

First, Levitas's definition requires more theoretical elaboration, especially in terms of the connections between the personal and the political. We need to determine more accurately just what this category of "desire" is, how it operates in reference to the human "subject" and within the social, and how it is affected and effected by power/knowledge relationships rooted in differences of class, gender, race, and sexuality. This is an area wherein aspects of feminist theory (such as can be found in Teresa de Lauretis's essay on "Desire and Narrative" in Alice Doesn't or in the extensive feminist studies on the constitution of the subject) can be of help.

Second, the relationship between the utopian process and its determinate forms needs more attention. Indeed, the question of form is barely dealt with by Levitas. She minimally draws on theories of textuality and discourse, especially as they can be applied to an understanding of the socio-economic realities of a (now) global capitalism based in the production and reproduction of information and in the processes of extensive and intensive commodification of both the human subject and culture. At one point, for example, she distinguishes between utopia as text and utopia as practice--i.e., "non-textual utopias" (32)--in a way that does not take into account the inevitable discursive formation even of such "social" instances as communal societies or periods of concrete utopian political activity. At another point, she goes so far as to speak in terms of "a definition of utopia not confined to texts" (168)--which again dismisses the discursive formation of utopian thought or utopian action. While I would certainly hold with Levitas to an historical-materialist understanding of the real in terms that would not reduce it to the textual or discursive, I would nevertheless maintain that the contemporary Marxist project of utopian studies requires analyses that take into account the ubiquity of the textual or the discursive as material articulators of the real. Serious attention to form need not be, should not be, attributed or abandoned either to older liberal-humanist studies that draw upon literary history or New Criticism or to newer liberal-humanist studies that have co–opted post-structuralist theories of textuality. Contrary to what Kumar asserts and to what Levitas seems to imply, form needs to be considered broadly, beyond limited notions of a literary or political textuality, as a key mechanism in the production of meaning and activity. Indeed, as Ernst Bloch and Fredric Jameson (among others) argue, utopia operates only within the social through its various forms (literary or otherwise) and therefore must be understood and critiqued in ways that examine just how the shaping operations of those forms produce the utopian process.

Third, and following from the first two areas, the role of culture and cultural politics in the production and reproduction of the social and thus in the processes of criticizing and changing that reality requires a stronger position within the paradigm Levitas suggests. Although she clearly recognizes the re-ordering within Marxist theory "away from economism" and towards a greater sympathy to "the importance of ideas (and thus utopia) in the process of social change" (157), Levitas falls short of a full account of the material force of those "ideas" and thus of the complexity of the operations that comprise the interrelated, overdetermined matrix of the economic, the political, and the cultural, as well as the coercive, dimensions of social reality. Consequently, she tends to underestimate the power of cultural formations and of cultural politics (including their utopian moments). A symptom of this is evident in her distinction between desire and hope wherein she speaks of utopian desires being met "merely in fantasy" (191): this is a formulation that tends to deny or at least diminish the effectivity of fantasy in the processes of social change. This devaluation of cultural practices leads Levitas into narrow readings of, for example, the critical utopias of the 1970s simply in terms of their role within the "counterculture" (itself a category already out of date and not sufficient to account for the complexities of that particular moment of revival in the history of the literary utopia or of oppositional politics).

This restricted view of culture, however, does not call the entire paradigm into question but rather limits or frustrates the use of it. Such a restriction could be alleviated by drawing critically on theoretical work influenced by post-structuralism while actively elaborating the linkages between subjectivity and political agency--works such as Paul Smith's Discerning the Subject (despite or indeed because of his suspicious reading of the utopian dimension in Marxism), Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, or Cornel West's The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought.

Despite these areas of insufficiency (and what paradigm lacks them?), The Concept of Utopia is a significant step forward in the field of utopian studies. Whether a reader agrees or disagrees with particular formulations and positions, Levitas's book sharpens the debate. Perhaps just as valuable as the clarifications of definition and method is her conclusion which takes utopia to the "front" (Bloch) of the social, into the space and the process of connection between the utopian and the political within the realm of everyday life. This is a timely move, especially as a challenge to the reigning anti-utopian sensibility--and also as a challenge to the conservative attack, via the threatening charges of "political correctness," on the solidly utopian projects exploring and advocating political and cultural diversity. It is this specific nexus of the utopian function and political agency that calls for more careful and engaged scholarship in these dark and oppressive times of US triumphalism and global capitalist hegemony. Perhaps now more than ever, it is time to call on the "education of desire" in order to "keep hope alive."

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