Science Fiction Studies

#87 = Volume 29, Part 2 = July 2002

Tom Moylan

Utopia, the Postcolonial, and the Postmodern

Ralph Pordzik. The Quest for Postcolonial Utopia: A Comparative Introduction to the Utopian Novel in New English Literatures. New York: Lang, 2001. 199 pp. $53.95 hc.

Until recently, utopian literature has been considered and commented upon in a largely Western European-North American context. As a look at the conference programs of the Society for Utopian Studies in North America and the Utopian Studies Society in Britain demonstrates, however, scholars and critics are at last turning to the exploration of Utopia beyond (and in some cases before) the boundaries of Utopia’s eponymous Western origins. As well, Nan Bowman Albinski has written on Australian utopias and dystopias; Lucy Sargisson has recently completed an extensive period of research on New Zealand intentional communities; and some of us are beginning to look at Irish culture through a utopian lens. And, with his usual thoroughness, Lyman Tower Sargent has in the past few years added bibliographies of Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand utopias to his already important bibliography of British and American utopian literature; he is now turning his attention to Ireland.

Thus it is timely to see the publication of Ralph Pordzik’s The Quest for Postcolonial Utopia, for here we get an extended study of utopian writing beyond its familiar Western confines. While Pordzik makes claims about the fate of Utopia in the larger scope of postcolonial literature, he especially considers "utopian fiction written in English-speaking countries all over the world" (1) and brings our attention to the degree to which writers in countries such as Australia, Canada, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Nigeria, Scotland, and South Africa have taken up this decidedly Western form and worked with, and more so against and beyond, it in the various contexts of their own historical time and space. He then focuses on texts from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa—although he also includes some works from Africa, India, Ireland, and Scotland, such as Buchi Emecheta’s The Rape of Shavi (1983) from Nigeria, Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome (1997) from India, Eilis Dhuibne’s The Bray House (1990) from Ireland, and Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in 4 Books (1981) from Scotland. Interestingly, he does not address works from the anglophone Caribbean.

As a result of this emphasis, Pordzik’s study offers an insight into the workings of the utopian imagination in a postcolonial moment of four former white settler colonies. A larger comparative discussion can now move forward, as Pordzik’s initial work is taken up by others; as attention is brought to bear on utopian writing in the non-European cultures of Africa, Asia, and the Americas; and as the discussion extends to a comparative examination of utopian writing in languages other than English. Pordzik, however, has begun the task; and it is important to look closely at his analysis and argument.

Drawing on Wilson Harris’s The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination (1983), he employs the method of what he calls "cross-cultural comparison" and identifies a common "cross-cultural" strategy in the texts he examines. Within this framework, he chooses to work at the intersection not only of utopian and postcolonial literatures but also of postmodernism. This critical triangulation consequently leads him to privilege one tendency in utopian writing in these "new" contexts, and it also produces certain silences and gaps.

To begin his analysis, Pordzik makes the familiar assertion that the Anglo-American literary utopia has reached a point of "exhaustion," wherein its "attempts to create a radically different society based on humanist or Marxist ideals" have resulted in nothing more than "totalitarian rule—put into effect in the name of justice and equality" (4). Thus, rather than seeing the new work as yet another turn in the long road of utopian textuality, he posits a qualitative break wherein an "international culture" of postcolonial writers has written against the utopian tradition and produced a heterotopian variant that embraces a new level of literary hybridity. Working with a selection of texts that begins around 1970—such as Janet Frame’s Intensive Care (1970) from New Zealand and David Ireland’s The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971) from Australia—he characterizes this open and self-reflexive approach as one that has allowed writers to explore "the future of their respective countries from a distinctly postcolonial cross-cultural point of view" (156).

Pordzik argues that the formal conventions of postmodernity and the utopian imagination have both been transgressed and expanded by this postmodern, postcolonial, utopian kind of writing. The result is a body of work that he names as "utopographic metafiction," as it offers a "fictional strategy to disrupt the hierarchized relation between reality and fiction which dominates traditional utopian writing with its ideological bias towards social realism and the systemic closure it ministers to" (133). In these works, he finds that the utopian imagination "is much more indebted to the inexhaustible creative and spiritual powers than to any static political ideal or principle premised on a rationally conceived universe and its faith in the resourcefulness of reason, technology, and social progress" (134). On this "new imaginative terrain," he argues, the system of colonialism as well as those later systems based in concepts and practices of socialism or nationalism are exposed as coercive and rejected in favor of a "cross-cultural dialogue" that privileges a radical "otherness in a new and varied evolution of community" (quoting Harris 143).

Carrying his understanding of the interior and aesthetic valence of these texts further, Pordzik argues that this "revisionist momentum" tends toward a form of "subjective utopia" or "intopia" which, as he develops his survey of texts, appears to oscillate between the extremes of an anti-utopianism that rejects systemic, collective social dreaming and a utopianism of alterity that favors continual openness and flux rather than "embarrassingly transformative scenarios" (144, 146, 149). In Pordzik’s readings, Utopia comes about not by socio-political transformation but by "fiction-making" (150). While that fiction-making continues to foreground the development of democratic, egalitarian communities based in cultural and racial pluralism, it more fundamentally delivers an aesthetic articulation that challenges even these provisional "eutopian" achievements (those within its pages and those in the material world). Thus, a "postmodern contract" produces a "common concern" in a pan-national set of texts that celebrates "the self-authenticating powers of the literary text" as it ranks imagination over reason and initiates a "broader transculturation process within which the different writers can position their own particular views of race, gender, and identity with regard to futurity" (158, 164). The tendency Pordzik identifies and favors, therefore, is one marked by a shift from the "progressively utopian to the dialectically heterotopian" (165), and this leads him in the last words of his book to conclude that the "only factor which can in the long run change the world is the word" (173). What guides Pordzik’s work is a "cross-cultural strategy" that arises out of the claim and assertion of difference in the postcolonial world. Arising from political and cultural movements that opposed the authority not only of former colonies but also of new nations with their privileged players, this aesthetic logic of disruption and difference informs new writing that dares to imagine social spaces and horizons unfettered by hierarchical controls and power. Pordzik thus argues that a shift away from literary utopia’s realist tendency toward an embrace of the fantastic (in several forms, including magical realism) generates a new cultural energy that plays out globally among the writers of this shared literary tendency, however differently it is manifested in each of its spaces and moments. Indeed, he takes care to assert that the aim of his comparative reading is not to erase all specificity; and yet he argues forcefully for recognition of a "global culture" (based in racial and gender diversity) that has produced a body of "transnational ... fictions which, although their stress is on difference and diversity, consolidate the multitude of narratives they draw on in a strikingly new and coherent representational contract" (117).

Consequently, this complex array of work by those who are "ex-centric and un-privileged" is distilled in Pordzik’s analysis into what he sees as a postcolonial "meditation among cultures in conflict" that serves to "turn a pessimism derived from historical violence into an optimistic hope for imaginative rebirth" (125). Citing Harris, he celebrates this break from the claustrophobia of the West in favour of an "epistemological otherness" (with its echoes of the arguments of liberation theology’s epistemological privileging of the poor) that offers a "corrective gesture of dehierarchization and renewal" (130). Further, in an interesting juxtaposition with Harris, he invokes Lyotard and argues that this creative rupture produces "counter-intuitive propositions" which are "experientially impossible as well as empirically unverifiable, and which create as they work towards a different geometry of cognition new identifying spaces in the realm of utopian discourse" (131).

Not surprisingly, many of the works in Pordzik’s study reach back to the tradition of satire and adopt a dystopian rather than eutopian form in their literary quest for Utopia. In rejecting the imposed utopian locus of the colonial powers, the postcolonial writers often create dystopias that begin with the negativity of rejecting the colonial system (along with the "ignominious role of western humanism") and then move on to challenge the post-colonial nation that has replaced it (42). In the same self-reflexive spirit that runs through all these works, the dystopian variants not only interrogate the given society but also transform the literary form itself, in this case "disabusing themselves of the tragic proportions (Harris) of western dystopian thought" (130). Thus they reconfigure the classical dystopia and open up a space of hope by generating eutopian elements within the dystopian narrative (see, for example, the discussion of Nadine Gordimer’ s July’s People [1981] as creating "an open-ended utopian horizon out of the desolation of the dystopian present" [63]).

Pordzik’s reassessment of the utopian genre in this particular context is a significant contribution to both utopian studies and postcolonial studies (as well as to the debates on postmodernism). He introduces an intriguing range of texts, and he makes a strong argument for the social import of this new direction in utopian writing that shares the sensibility of a heterotopian imagination based in Homi Bhabha’s "borderline culture of hybridity" (7). His is also a position that needs to be questioned, however, both for what it says and for what it silences. My concern is that Pordzik’s analysis of this intertext of post-Western utopian writing (to step back from the terms postcolonial and postmodern) closes down the very specificity and complexity of the individual texts that he studies. When he argues that these works avoid "a fixed counter-position or counter-ideology" and transcend national and ideological boundaries in order to produce a radical new cultural otherness (104), he risks eviscerating and de-valuing the very cultural and political plenitude and power of this literary tendency by stepping away from and thus effacing the historical conditions and political-cultural struggles that helped to produce such works in the first place.

Part of the problem is that Pordzik falls into his own set of idealized binaries. Against the Western utopia—with its "embarrassingly transformative scenarios"—he identifies in the postcolonial utopia an emphasis on "cross-cultural mediation" and open societies that "defies easy reduction and simple comforting solutions" (149, 78, 80). In several passages, he makes the by now questionable assertion that Western utopias advance a narrative of static perfection, and he also repeats the now common condemnatory conflation of the distinct practices of totalitarian rule and totalizing analysis.1 He also tends to read all instances of nation or nation-building as authoritarian and hierarchical, to equate all exercises of armed struggle with terrorism, and generally to regard rational critique and political transformation as compromised and corrupt. Collecting these various positions within his abstract version of utopia, he thus casts a large postmodern, poststructuralist net not only over the mechanisms of the utopian imagination but also over many elements of modernity’s oppositional matrix. Rather than engaging in a nuanced critique and working with the complexities of both oppositional politics and utopian writing as each mutates in specific conditions, he opts for an overarching binary that allows him to leap from an hypostasized concept of Western utopia to an idealized postcolonial heterotopia without extensively considering the creative and political activity in between.

Thus, while he recognizes in several texts the important function of materially, historically-based movements of positionality and struggle (however provisional, compromised, or limited), he generally moves on to his preferred valorization of a post-revolutionary utopian approach produced in a framework cleansed of such location and contradiction and now operating in a global postcolonial imaginary that gives greater weight to the subjective, the spiritual, and the word. While his positive recognition of "cultural decentralization" and "cross-cultural exchange" is admirable in its rejection of the all-too-common and insidious closure of oppositional movements by friend and foe alike, Pordzik’s focus on the heterotopian variety of new postcolonial writing tends to neglect or undervalue other textual and political possibilities that might be discovered in the spaces between his antinomies of Western utopia and postcolonial heterotopia.

One category that could help to break through this binary and make sense of the various texts that fall within the resultant analytical gap is the critical utopia, which develops in the radical cultures of the West in the 1970s (where Pordzik begins his account) and which possesses many of the formal qualities and political/ethical sensibilities of postcolonial utopian writing (e.g., Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed [1974], Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time [1976], Joanna Russ’s The Female Man [1975]). To be fair, Pordzik does mention the term in his discussion of one of his texts (see 153), but he then leaves it aside in favor of the term heterotopia. While the critical utopia (and the critical dystopia of the 1990s) shares qualities of self-reflexivity and openness with the postcolonial examples provided by Pordzik, however, it also continues to work in a realist mode through a process of cognitive mapping that generates a diagnostic and critical account of the totality of the oppressive society as well as that of the resistant eutopia. Often informed by Marxist, feminist, and ecological analyses or at least sensibilities and concerned not only with the utopian society but also (in the spirit of William Morris) with the period of rupture and transition from the old to the new, the critical utopia at least offers a literary strategy that is more attuned to the process of social negation and transformation of the existing society in the name of those who are oppressed by it. My question, then, is whether in his wide-ranging study, Pordzik would also recognize a separate critical utopian as opposed to heterotopian development in his selection of postcolonial texts? Would the application of the category of critical utopia (or some postcolonial relative) to that intertext enable him to make further distinctions in his analyses, so that a continuum rather than a simple binary opposition would be discovered between the classical utopia and the postcolonial heterotopia, with varieties of a more materially-based utopian and dystopian writing discovered in the space between? My guess is that a number of the works he discusses could be read fruitfully as critical utopias rather than heterotopias (or, indeed, as other forms not yet described or named). Perhaps this would lead to a more complex set of distinctions among this body of work—distinctions that could tell us more about the individual works and the contexts out of which each emerges and to which each responds.

Without such mediation between his stated extremes, I think that Pordzik gives up too much. Leaping to the subjective and the aesthetic and setting aside phenomena such as Marxism, armed struggle, strategic essentialism, the nation, and rational thought and praxis seems a dangerous project in a world that is in the process of once again undergoing deep sociopolitical change as the corporate and military forces of capitalist homogeneity endeavor to co-opt and control the very diversity and democracy that Pordzik values. Stressing a radical but abstracted openness and not engaging with actual processes of gaining and holding power (in the name of difference but also of democracy, justice, and ecological sanity) in this current period threatens to overlook one of the key places in which a concrete utopianism operates—that is, within the very processes of transformation themselves and not in some ideal that rises above these difficulties into the subjective and spiritual (important as those are).

A related difficulty in Pordzik’s scheme lies in his choice of a cross-cultural analysis that jumps rather quickly from a specific locality to the realm of an alternative global culture (however welcome and empowering that dream of an anti-capitalist global reality of diversity and difference). When reading his treatments of particular novels, I wanted to know more about the specifics of the historical contexts wherein such works were produced and received and with which they most immediately engaged. Too often, Pordzik’s reading proceeds almost exclusively at the level of the formal signifier and links up with others in his chosen texts without taking time to ground each in its own location and position. Thus, by privileging these postmodern, postcolonial utopias as they advance a global pluralism while distancing themselves from specific historical conditions and struggles, Pordzik is in danger of making his critical argument more amenable to the reified "liberal pluralism" asserted in the "millennial dreams" of a globalizing economy and culture that simultaneously denies and co-opts the very diversity and difference that gives rise to such writing in order to produce a new docile (albeit cosmetically diverse) subject of planetary capitalism.2 By celebrating difference in such an aestheticized manner, Pordzik may well erase the very pleasure and power of radical difference in all its lived contexts.

All such cautions aside, this is an important book. With it, Pordzik brings utopian studies into the realm of the postcolonial. He thereby gives us many new texts and contexts to consider, and he has established a basis for what can only be a useful and enlightening debate about the fate and future of utopian writing. He especially casts fresh light on the recent trend toward dystopian writing as he identifies the shared strategies of the critical and postcolonial dystopia as they have evolved over the last thirty or so years. Here, I want to end on a positive note by observing that Pordzik sees in the postcolonial dystopia what Raffaella Baccolini sees in the critical dystopia: both forms challenge not only the world outside but also the tragic quality of the dystopian tradition, and both "maintain the utopian impulse within the work" and thus "allow readers and protagonists to hope by resisting closure" (Baccolini 18).


1. On the continuing importance of the diagnostic category of totality as opposed to totalitarian thought or rule, see, among others, Jameson, Moylan, Smith, and Suvin.

2. For a critique of liberal pluralism, see Gordon and Newfield; on "millennial dreams," see Smith. See, as well, the argument made by Anu Dingwaney and Lawrence Needham.


Baccolini, Raffaella. "Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katherine Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler." Future Females, The Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction. Ed. Marleen Barr. Boston: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. 13-34.

Dingwaney, Anuradha, and Lawrence Needham. "The Difference That Difference Makes." Socialist Review 26.3-4 (1996): 5-47.

Gordon, Avery F. Gordon and Christopher Newfield, eds. Mapping Multiculturalism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996.

Jameson, Fredric. "Cognitive Mapping." Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. 347-60.

Moylan, Tom. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Boulder: Westview, 2000.

Smith, Paul. Millennial Dreams: Contemporary Culture and Capital in the North. London: Verso, 1997.

Suvin, Darko. "Two Cheers for Essentialism and Totality: On Marx’s Oscillation and its Limits (As Well as on the Taboos of Post-Modernism)." Rethinking Marxism 10.1 (Spring 1998): 66-82.

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