Enlightenment Utopias, Fall 2014

literary thought experiments of the 17th and 18th centuries

Rabbit Holes and Shiny Objects

by Kate Eickmeyer

I haven’t decided which text to write about, but here are some concepts I’ve been thinking about:

I’m interested in the aesthetic environments (or lack thereof) in utopian texts and the implications of those aesthetics for subjectivity. Acknowledging some significant exceptions, I’m thinking about the parallels between early utopian asceticism and the current affinity for minimalistic, white- and beige-washed environments and fears of contamination from color and embellishment, or “chromophobia,” as David Batchelor puts it. I wonder if there is also something to do with the early utopian treatment of whimsy; the word “whimsy” is derived from 16th century words “whim-wham” and “flim-flam” (Houyhnhnms, anyone?); perhaps this was an appropriate moment for such terms for the extraneous and fanciful to come into being. Were lines drawn between feudalistic avarice and apolitical, innocent novelty? Or, was “whimsy” an entirely dangerous phenomenon in the context of a society where punishment was capricious and capital? Or something else entirely?

Obviously Gulliver’s Travels is chock-full of whimsy, but I’m more interested in how our expectations of exotic physical environments in the earlier texts Swift parodies are disappointed. And, while The Blazing World is so encrusted with jewels it makes the Magic Kingdom look like Bauhaus, jewels are children’s trinkets in More’s Utopia and mere rocks in the road in Candide. More and Voltaire are suggesting, of course, that the aesthetic appreciation for color and sparkle in our non-utopian world is driven entirely by the economic value of gold and jewels, with their value owing to scarcity alone. But also colorful, feature-rich physical environments are not part of the rational project, so how do these texts posit non-utilitarian environmental features as contaminants?

This idea is also tangled up with denial of subjectivity, and more recent dystopian works tend to either represent grey, colorless worlds of surveillance and oppression, or overly-embellished societies that conceal evil beneath shallow surfaces. Anxieties about frivolity, and how much of it to allow in the ideal environment, continue to prevail, along with cycles of indulgence and restraint. What is the difference between approved and unapproved types of whimsy? The Fohrmann piece, “From Literary Utopia to The Utopia of Subjectivity,” addresses the issue of subjectivity; he writes: “Utopia’s remedy is now quite simple: a new society should be created in a separated space, in which man’s inner nature is disciplined by a reason that organizes society as a perpetual recurrence of never-changing rituals” (290). Caprice and idiosyncrasy don’t fit, so their disorderly environmental manifestations don’t either.

On a separate note, is there more to make of modes of access to utopias: the portals or trials one must go through to get in or out of them, not just as a metaphor for imperialism and isolationism, but as a landscape beyond natural laws and the limits of reason? Getting to a utopia often requires travel through not only a physical portal, but also through a portal of experience caused by nature or the unknown. The shipwreck is the most common avenue in the texts we’ve read, and it entails not only the unreproducible nature of the event but also a narrative of death and resurrection in the new environment (why the resurrection component?). Animals can also be the catalyzing forces; the coneys in Rasselas show the prince the way out of the happy valley, and the bears in The Blazing World carry the empress into their society. While the requirement of accident precludes the possibility of anyone in the real world verifying the utopia and reinforces the idea of the utopia as elsewhere or nowhere, the invocation of such experiential portals renders the utopias simultaneously more exotic and more personal, or more accurately, promise such outcomes, even if they never come to fruition. The mode of access is irrational and unintended, yet the destination is the product of rationality and intention. Is there anything to do with all this?

I’m also interested in utopia and Enlightenment philosophy as “poor man’s Buddhism” per our discussion of Rasselas, as well as utopian visions of the ocean and oceanic cultures. I’m also interested in writing the paper on Cavendish and the Kabbalah.

As a somewhat tangential aside, I’ve been researching the history of immersive/themed/place-based entertainment, starting with Dyrehavsbakken, a Danish amusement park that opened in 1583 (a mere 67 years after More’s Utopia was published!). Most of what I’ve found on this subject is all about hyperreality and debunking Disney, and I think there’s more to do from the utopian perspective. I haven’t really worked out any connections to our texts so it doesn’t really pertain to this paper, but I thought I’d throw it out there in case anyone happens to be brimming with ideas or has friends in high places who might be interested in the project.

Utopian Narration

by Amber Chiac

“There must always be a certain effect of hardness and thinness about Utopian speculation. Their common fault is to be comprehensively jejune. That which is the blood and warmth and reality of life is largely absent; there are no individuals, but only generalized people” (Wells, quoted in Ferns, 9-10).

For my final paper, I am interested in exploring the implications of the seventeenth and eighteenth century utopian narrative paradigm. One similarity among all the utopian narrators we’ve encountered throughout the semester is their lack of psychological complexity. The utopian story is always communicated scientifically or poetically but never with personalization. The narrator functions mainly as a mouthpiece to convey the utopian elements of society from a universal standpoint and the nuances of his/her character are unknown/irrelevant. Some questions are: Why are readers not supposed to psychologize the narrators of these utopian texts? What impact does it have when readers attempt to psychologize them? What are the ideological implications of this narrative mode?

I think there is a connection between the flat one-dimensional narrative style and the theme of nowhereness in utopian texts. I am thinking of Haraway’s argument about objectivity and the “god trick,” which is the “gaze from no where.” The “gaze from nowhere” represents the enlightenment ideal of disembodiment and transcendence, and is particularly masculine. This seems well suited to the utopian narrator who is predominantly male, and to utopia itself, which is imagined as universally desirable. This universalism, or what Wells calls “meta-utopia” opens readers to “multiple and contradictory readings” (Ferns, 9). This keeps texts open and ambiguous and allows authors to mask their intentions. This would have been especially important during the 17th/18th century because of the possibility of political and religious prosecution.

Utopias tend to have a dream-like quality and to be ahistorical (perhaps this has something to do with a utopian dream of immortality?). For example, there is always very scant information conveyed about the formation of utopian islands. This absence may suggest “a reluctance to confront the nature of the relation between the real world and the utopian dream” (Ferns, 27). Ferns argues that a sense of time is lost in utopian narratives because the utopian encounter is always positioned in the past. Since the traveller is always recounting his time in utopia, he is always detached from the experience. Also, because this experience is over, utopia is presented to readers as “whole, static,” and “complete.” Due to this “elimination of time,” there is no sense of “process” (21). In a book called Narrating Utopia, Chris Ferns describes the narrative consequences of this:

In a context where time and historical causation have lost all meaning, the concept of individual character likewise becomes meaningless. Where the birth, life, death of the individual make no difference, individual distinguishing characteristics become insignificant; in narrative terms this tends to result in the replacement of the individual by that more durable construct, the typical citizen (p. 21).

There is a lot of good information in this book but I am struggling to find other sources. Perhaps I could use Bahktin or Foucault to elaborate on these concepts. During my research, I came across Foucault’s work on heterotopias. He uses the mirror as a metaphor for utopia – as a place where one simultaneously exists and does not exist. It is like utopia because what one sees in the mirror does not really exist but it is also heterotopia because it changes the way one relates to his or her image. Looking in the mirror “you find yourself missing in the place that you are.” I think this could be relevant to my project but I need to do more research!

That’s all I have so far. Please let me know if you think there is anything worth pursuing here : )

Speciesism in The Blazing World

by Stephen Spencer

For my research project, I will be investigating the representation of animals in Cavendish’s New Blazing World. I’m thinking about this in two ways. First, there are the human-animal hybrids (bird-men, bear-men, fish-men, the list goes on), who are often made the butt of satirical jabs at experimental science (the poor bear-men, for example, whose microscopes are the object of the Empress’s lampooning). Second, there are horses, who the Empress observes in England with the Duchess, with great fascination. When she returns to the Blazing World, the Emperor has established a whole infrastructure for breeding horses. My motivating question, at the outset, is simple: why are horses a privileged animal in this text? Why are they not held to the same kind of animalistic representation (i.e. instruments of satire) that bears, fish, worms, etc. are?

The minimal amount of research that I’ve done suggests, simply, that Cavendish loved horses too much to consider them “animals” in the same way that maybe a fish, or a worm, is an animal. Her husband, William Newcastle, literally wrote the book on horses — A New Method and Extraordinary Invention to Dress Horses and Work them according to Nature… (thanks, Carrie!). I’ve only begun to skim the surface of this text (it’s pretty intense), but initially, I’m struck by a few things. First, William’s stable of horses, upon being observed by nobility in Antwerp during his exile from England during the Civil Wars, were deemed “Reasonable Creatures,” only in want of “Speaking.” This is an interesting take on the tradition in 17th century philosophy that did not consider animals to be in possession of rationality (as far as I know). Also, the horses are often categorized in terms of nationality (Spanish, English, Dutch horses), class (some horses are for princes, some for gentlemen), color, and what I’m calling right now “specialty” (leaping horses, race horses, war horses, etc.). I think my interest is in William’s taxonimization of horses — I want to put it in dialogue with Margaret’s taxonimation of humans (race, class, gender, etc.).

Of the English horse, William says the following:

“The English Horse is Less Wise than the Barb, Fearful and Skittish, for the most part; and Dogged and Rebellious to the Mannage, and not commonly so Apt to Learn: But those they call English Horses, are so Compounded of Horses of all Countries, that they always Participate something of their Sires; and so, that may somewhat alter the Case.” (58-59)

English horses are presented as somehow elect, curiously, because of their nationalistic hybridity. But, the payoff is not so noble; their elect status consists in the idea that, because of their hybridity, they are loyal to their “sire.” In short, their hybridity allows for them to be easily manage, servile. This allows them to be “useful” for all sorts of endeavors, whether it be pulling a cart or riding. I think it might be a stretch to map English horses on to English men/women (although I guess maybe one could — the English “race” as Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, French), but nevertheless, there’s a strong sense that horses have national identities, and that it shapes their phenotypic and genotypic makeup. I need to read more of this text, especially the bits about the other kinds of horses.

My early answer to the question, “why are horses not quite animals?” is that they have all sorts of use value. Unlike other animals in the animal kingdom (who, according to proto-science, succeeded each in one skill or art — think of spiders spinning webs, bees harvesting honey, etc.), horses can excel at manual labor, recreation, and warfare. I see a link between this idea of “specialization,” as it pertains to most animals (i.e. one animal, one skill) and horses (i.e. one animal, many skills). I can’t help but want to turn my focus to the human-animals, who, to me, are examples of the specialization of intellectual labor that comes along with experimental science. Is it prudent of us a society, I imagine Cavendish asking, to have a bunch of bear-men looking through microscopes, or worm-men digging through the earth, without having a larger kind of “knowledge” in mind? What will happen to intellectualism if we divvy it up into work, instead of treating it like a more humanistic tradition that necessitates a lot more reading? (late October as a grad student, the life of a bear-man suddenly seems appealing…)

Writing this has helped me to see that, perhaps, I am looking at a relationship between representations of animals and labor. I think this inquiry intersects with notions of class, race, and gender, but it’s very messy to me right now and I think the trick will be picking and choosing my spots, as opposed to talking about it all. I would appreciate any reactions or thoughts, as I fear my thinking might be a bit big at this point. Cheers!


What remains of politics in utopia?

by Brad Young

In contrast to a certain popular conception that characterizes utopia as the fantasy of an harmonious space, where all evil and discord have disappeared, I would like to explore how many utopian constructions in fact make conflict a central concern.

Whether considering the Empress of the Blazing World’s outright forbidding of all dissent, or the generally agreeable disagreements among the Utopians, or the eternal question of whether to exterminate the Yahoos in the otherwise harmonious land of the Houyhnhnms, the utopian tradition is replete with moments where contest itself becomes contested. A central question seems to be, how are we to deal with conflict in an ideal society? Elimination? Institutionalization? Relegation to private life? And alongside this, what value ought to be placed on discord and dissent? Are they an essential part of freedom? Or rather too dangerous to security and order? Furthermore, as we’ve discussed in class, is it not precisely a function of utopian texts to engender (or quell) debate about large scale social and political issues?

Any feedback on the topic would be great (in particular how to keep the focus sufficiently narrow…), but also, I’m still debating which texts I want to focus on. More seems the obvious choice. There’s so much to work with there: Book 1 is itself a debate, which contains within it other debates, e.g. the exchange between the fool as the friar, as Wootton notes, which may even be a later addition in response to the debates generated by Utopia‘s first draft (28-31 in the Hackett edition).

So I’m wondering, would it be useful to bring in Swift, since he presents a clear counterpoint? For the reasons that the worlds he juxtaposes have little to recommend them, he has a largely negative view of conflict, and seemingly little hope that debate will solve anything or produce positive outcomes. He even seems to take a dimmer view than Cavendish by suggesting that civilized Europeans’ reason only makes them cleverer in committing various atrocities (see, e.g., Gulliver’s pride in Europe’s weapons). However, while trying to not bite off more than I can chew, I’m also very interested in working with Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed since this issue of discord and dissent within utopia is front and center there. Indeed, it drives her whole story since an unresolvable conflict between the protagonist, Shevek, and another jealous physicist is what precipitates his leaving the ambiguous, anarchist utopia of Annares. Additionally, many of the chapters focusing upon Shevek’s back story consist of fiery debates between him and his friends, not unlike the tabletalk in More’s Utopia. Also, as far as I can tell from my research so far, there hasn’t been much written specifically connecting these two texts on this subject, so it seems like it could be a useful new direction.

Though this may be enough, I figured I would throw out some other interesting and possibly useful points of connection between these three texts, including the division between reason and the passions (which figures importantly in so much Enlightenment thought) as well as the role played by friendship. After reading Wootton’s discussion of Erasmus again, I found myself wondering whether Utopia could be read as More’s attempt to present a society of friends. Or, to socialize friendship.


Two Ideas for Paper Proposals: Mind/Place in Rasselas Vs. Deferred Violence in GT

by Sophia Natasha Sunseri

For my final paper, I would like to further explore Rasselas, focusing on the relationship between mind and place (throughout my reading, I was constantly reminded of the following quote from Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”). Within Johnson’s text, obtaining a broader knowledge of the external world seems paradoxically linked to retreating inward. Rasselas’ venture into the outside world, when he leaves the Happy Valley, is prefigured by “solitary walks and silent meditation” (6). His bouts of “solitary thought” and his eagerness to “retire[d] gladly to privacy” are what ultimately lead to him “picturing …to himself that world which he had never seen” (7).
The mind/place binary also comes into play when Imlac and Rasselas are discussing why Europeans are more “powerful” (21) than Asians and Africans. Imlac links Europe’s dominance to “knowledge” and wisdom (21) (and not physical prowess or might). In this instance, Imlac draws a connection between mental fortitude and colonialist expansion.
I wonder whether we could interpret the interplay between mind and place in biographical terms, based on what we discussed of Johnson’s life in class. It seems significant that as Johnson’s own mother was facing imminent death, Johnson had his protagonist flee from the Happy Valley, a Garden of Eden- type place, teeming with life. The text’s preoccupation with the mind (and reason) also seems relevant in light of Johnson’s own physical disabilities.
Another idea I had for a paper topic – wholly unrelated: exploring representations of deferred violence in Gulliver’s Travels, focusing on the Houhynmns and their inability to arrive at a definitive conclusion with regard to exterminating the Yahoos. I am particularly drawn to the formal and rhetorical functions of such representations. One way in which the Houhynms manage to seduce Gulliver –to be so persuasive—is through the repetition of deferred violence. Through these acts of repetition and deferral, Gulliver gradually becomes inculcated with the idea that the Yahoos are less-than the Houhynmns and somehow deserving of whatever violence they may have enacted against them.

Does one topic seem more engaging/original than the other?


Utopian Thought in George Eliot’s Middlemarch

by Elissa Myers

I am interested in the concept of utopia as a restrictive environment in which in order to achieve a certain ideal of perfection, the standards of a few are effectively mandated and difference is therefore suffocated. I think this idea could be usefully applied to the concept of the home that is visible in George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch.
My analysis of Middlemarch would center on the home that Tertius Lydgate , a promising young doctor and a stranger to town, and Rosamond Vincy, his materialistic, naive wife, build together.
Their home can be considered a utopia in that though both Rosamond and Lydgate aim high in their choice of each other as sexually and socially desirable mates and their attempts to achieve a higher class status than they have at the novel’s beginning, their individual utopian impulses are contradictory, precluding their chance of sustaining a happy home. Rosamond’s tenaciously espoused idea that “the good life” is obtained through membership in a certain class causes her to spend much of Lydgate’s meager salary on rich furnishings for their home and to disapprove of his (to her mind) undignified position as a doctor. Lydgate’s marriage thus makes impossible both his pride, as he is forced to beg his friends for money to support Rosamond’s lifestyle, and his professional ambition, as he is forced to become a gout doctor to make more money, abandoning the more idealistic work he previously did with the poor.
This central conflict between the two–the impossibility of Rosamond’s being happy as a woman of status, while Lydgate remains happy as a doctor to the poor–stems significantly from their gendered socialization, and the fact that that socialization seemed to aim primarily at upward mobility. Rosamond has been inculcated with a desire for upward mobility from a young age, believing that nothing but the best quality household goods and clothing will “answer.” Furthermore, as a woman, she understands marriage as, to a large extent, to be about the establishment of the home, and the beautiful, highly-valued things with which it is adorned.
On the other hand, Lydgate has been taught from a young age to value the surface-level beauty (which Rosamond has in spades) as the best quality in a woman. He has also been taught to value marks of status as enabling him to establish a reputation among his clients, and thus, to continue to be an effective breadwinner for his family. It is this duty to his gendered role as breadwinner that causes him to take on Rosamond’s excessive requirements for happiness as his responsibility. Therefore, Rosamond and Lydgate’s happiness is made impossible by idealized, yet narrow conceptions of the ideal home as a gendered space rich in material comforts.
I would also like to look at the material objects in their home, such as Rosamond’s copy of the popular periodical, the Keepsake Annual, as well as the couple’s piano in order to see if such objects reinforce the utopian aspects of the home. Perhaps in the instance of the Keepsake, women are depicted in very normative ways? And the piano certainly reinforces the home as a gendered space, as women are usually the ones requested to play and sing at parties.
To complicate this idea, I would also like to look at the relationships of Will Lladislaw and Dorothea Brooke, and Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, who end up much happier than the Lydgates. I think examining their relationships will illustrate that Eliot thinks happy homes are created through both much less narrow gender expectations, and lifestyles in which money is not used to mindlessly acquire material goods, but is instead distributed to the poor, or used to make investments that yield simple joys over time (i.e. farm animals, which give milk, eggs, and the satisfaction of hard work).
Though I have read one essay discussing the economics of Middlemarch, I think my analysis would be uniquely pertinent to the field of Victorian Studies, as it presents an interpretation more grounded in material history–an approach which, though it is very popular, to my knowledge, has not been taken before with regard to this novel. Ideally, I would like to say that Eliot owes a literal debt to the genre of utopia–that perhaps she read Thomas More or (even more likely) that she read Gulliver’s Travels in her studies (which are known for being much more in-depth and philosophical than what most women were allowed to pursue). I would then try to find evidence in her letters, which I believe are easily accessible, that she might have seen some similarities between Middlemarch and famous utopian narratives, or that her philosophy might at least have been affected by utopian though. I think this would also present something new to the study of this very important novel, as I have never seen Eliot’s and More’s (or Swift’s) names linked.
My goal with this paper is to try to mesh the concept of utopia with a classic of Victorian literature in order to produce something unique (but pertinent) that I can present at a Victorian conference or publish in a Victorian journal. My biggest anxiety, however, is that this audience might not understand my rationale for meshing these two topics. To that end, it would be very useful if y’all could give me feedback on how convincing this proposal is, and/or suggestions as to how to make the connection between the fields of Utopian Studies and Victorian Studies more visible to readers.

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