A fundamental problem faced by scholars researching the history and functioning of societies is the fact that their object of study cannot be recreated in a laboratory, to replicate events and test hypotheses on causes and effects. A political regime, a development model, a society’s relationship with the biosphere are systems too vast and complex to be artificially created or replicated.
But not if we move into the realm of the imaginary, and let ourselves be conducted in hypothetical experiments described by speculative and fantastic imagination. Exploring worlds located in a temporal and/or geographical elsewhere, utopian thought has isolated, changed, introduced determining factors in the systems of collective organization and in the relationships between humans and environment, and has observed the consequences.
October the 15th 2020, as a corollary of Guido Abbattista’s prolusion at the Collegio Fonda in Trieste, I will offer some remarks on the relationship between utopia and history, understanding utopia in all its semantic ambiguity – thought device and literary genre – and understanding history as a culturally constructed framework, as the seat of causal mechanisms, informed by a temporal flow that, in modern Europe, gradually became secularized and unidirectional.
I will look at the relationship between utopian thought and history through a series of examples, that will allow me to propose and argue an interpretative thesis: utopia, far from being the creation of a-temporal and immobile models, abstract and detached from history, is a process of conceptual construction intimately linked to the processes of temporalization and acceleration of history that characterised the modern era in Europe.
Utopia therefore offers us a privileged point of view from which the way in which we culturally construct history becomes evident, it is a device that reveals the implicit assumptions in the ideas of historical time that inform the reconstruction and narration of the past.
I prepared a list of essentials to put in my suitcase for this journey:
Companions and general introductions
Gregory Claeys, Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011).
Gregory Claeys, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
J. C. Davis, “Utopianism”, in The Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450-1700, ed. by J. H. Burns with the assistance of Mark Goldie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 329-344.
Steve Mentz, Erin M. Gallagher, “Utopian and Dystopian Literature to 1800”, Oxford Bibliographies, last modified 20 September 2012, doi: 10.1093/OBO/9780199846719-0082.
Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979)
Lyman Tower Sargent, Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Essential readings on Eighteenth century utopias
Bronisław Baczko, L’utopia. Immaginazione sociale e rappresentazioni utopiche nell’età dell’Illuminismo, trans. Margherita Botto and Dario Gibelli (1978; Torino: Einaudi, 1979).
Gregory Claeys, Utopias of the British Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
Reinhart Koselleck, “The Temporalization of Utopia”, in id., The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts trans. Todd Samuel Presner et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 84-99.
Nicole Pohl, “Utopianism after More: The Renaissance and Enlightenment”, in The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, 51-78.
Darko Suvin, “The Shift to Anticipation: Radical Rhapsody and Romantic Recoil”, in id., Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 115-144.
Societies and Centers
Histopia (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, 2016-. https://utopia.hypotheses.org/histopia)
Ralahine Centre for Utopian Studies (UK, University of Limerick, 2003-, https://ulsites.ul.ie/ralahinecentre/)
The Center for Thomas More Studies (USA, University of Dallas, https://www.thomasmorestudies.org//index.html
The Society for Utopian Studies (USA, 1975-, https://utopian-studies.org/)
Science Fiction Studies (1973-), https://www.depauw.edu/sfs/index.htm (also on JStor)
Spaces of Utopia (2006-2014) https://ler.letras.up.pt/site_uk/default.aspx?qry=id05id174&sum=sim
Moreana (1963-), https://www.euppublishing.com/loi/more
Utopian Studies, ed. Nicole Pohl (1987-) https://www.psupress.org/journals/jnls_utopian_studies.html (also on JStor)
Palgrave Studies in Utopianism (2017-)
Ralahine Utopian Studies (Peter Lang, 2007-)
Archives and Special Collections
Arthur O. Lewis Society for Utopian Studies papers, Pennsylvania State University, https://libraries.psu.edu/findingaids/2373.htm
Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy, University of California, https://library.ucr.edu/collections/eaton-collection-of-science-fiction-fantasy
Utopian Studies Collection, St. Louis Mercantile Library, University of Missoouri-St. Louis, https://www.umsl.edu/mercantile/collections/mercantile-library-special-collections/special_collections/slma-133.html
SF Archival Collections Wiki, crowd-sourced by librarians
SF Archival collection, Googlemap maintained by The Eaton Journal of Archival Research in Science Fiction
Decolonising Utopia Resource List, parte di Utopian Acts, Birkbeck University, https://utopia.ac/resources/decolonisation/
Global Utopias Project Resource Guide, Illinois University Library, https://guides.library.illinois.edu/c.php?g=417947&p=2848553
Pre-1950 Utopias and Science Fiction by Women: An Annotated Reading List of Online Editions,https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/_collections/utopias/utopias.html
Digital History projects
Stephen Duncombe, Open Utopia, https://theopenutopia.org/ (More’s Utopia electronic edition and much more)
Lyman Tower Sargent, Utopian Literature in English: An Annotated Bibliography From 1516 to the Present, University Park, PA: Penn State Libraries Open Publishing, 2016 and continuing, doi: 10.18113/P8WC77, https://openpublishing.psu.edu/utopia/home
Utopia, thematic section of First X, Then Y, Now Z: Landmark Thematic Maps, Princeton University, https://lib-dbserver.princeton.edu/visual_materials/maps/websites/thematic-maps/theme-maps/utopia.html
Utopia 500, https://www.utopia500.net/ (a project bringing together scholars and collectives working on utopia, lead by CETAPS, Centre for English, Translation and Anglo-Portuguese Studies (University of Porto and University Nova de Lisboa)
Wikitopia, https://www.openwikitopia.org/ (collective writing project on wiki platform)
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