Contemporary Feminist Utopianism
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Contemporary Feminist Utopianism

Lucy Sargisson

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Contemporary Feminist Utopianism

Lucy Sargisson

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A new and challenging entry into the debates between feminism and postmodernism, Contemporary Feminist Utopianism challenges some basic preconceptions about the role of political theory today. Sargisson explores current debates within utopian studies, feminist theory and poststructuralist deconstruction. Utopian thinking is offered as a route out of the dilemma of contemporary feminism as well as a way of conceptualizing its current situation. This book provides an exploration of, and exercise in, utopian thought.

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Part I



I shall be arguing, in this part of the book, in favour of a new approach to utopianism; ‘new’, that is, in contrast to some of the dominant (historical) approaches which have contributed to the erection of the myth of utopianism. This myth, the ‘false’ or inappropriate view of the phenomenon, is present in many definitions and outlines of the colloquial usages of the terms ‘utopia’ and ‘utopianism’. Perusal of the reference section of any library tells us that ‘utopia’ means something along the following lines:
1. An imaginary island, depicted by Sir Thomas More as enjoying a perfect social, legal and political system…. 2. Any imaginary, indefinitely remote region, country or locality. 3. A place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs and conditions…. 4. An impossibly ideal scheme, esp. for social improvement.
This comes from the Oxford English Dictionary. The Encyclopedia Britannica provides a similar characterization, in which a utopia is described as ‘An ideal commonwealth whose inhabitants exist under perfect conditions’. This is clearly the standard colloquial view of utopia.
I shall make the mythical character of these understandings of utopianism clear later in the chapter. First, though, I should like to return to the first sentence of this chapter in order to make two important preliminary points:

  1. Not all historically previous utopias have contributed to this myth. Thomas More and William Morris are both cited later in the 9 chapter as providing utopian visions which transgress these definitions.
  2. The importance of the term ‘approach’ should be noted at this early stage. Descriptive statements perform creative acts. Naming a thing—giving a concept, idea or entity a name, description or category—is an act of creation. Descriptive, defining statements bring into being that which they (claim to) describe.
These beliefs inform my text and are informed by Derridean poststructuralism. Hence ‘approach’ is an important concept within the confines of this book: the nature of the approach taken towards an idea or phenomenon affects the eventual product of conceptualization—the concept (as conceptualized). This, if you like, is a methodological claim; and I shall be adopting a transgressive approach (or methodology) towards what I shall identify as the transgressive phenomenon of utopianism.
Utopianism, then, needs to be reconceived. At the root of these arguments are three justificatory claims which will inform the discussions below. Utopianism should be reapproached because:

  1. 1 what I shall call the standard view of utopia is fundamentally flawed;
  2. the standard view is inappropriate to much of contemporary feminist utopianism and is, therefore, unnecessarily exclusive;
  3. the new approach offered in this book is more appropriate to contemporary feminist utopianism.1
The most comprehensive study of utopian thought to be published recently is Ruth Levitas’s The Concept of Utopia (1990). Levitas states that utopianism has historically been approached in terms of one (or more) of three aspects: content, form and function (Levitas, 1990: pp. 4–5). Levitas’s scheme is a useful one, and I shall adopt and adapt these headings in order to give shape to the discussions that follow.2 This chapter will identify and assess those approaches to utopianism which privilege form and content and will identify the (problematic) implications of these approaches. Chapter 2 will look at approaches to utopianism which privilege function. Approaches of this type are cautiously supported.
Part I, then, is concerned to look behind the question ‘what do (feminist) women want?’—what are the desires and hopes and aspirations of contemporary feminism(s)?3—to the more interesting question ‘how are these desires and hopes and aspirations formulated?’ and, finally, to the root or heart of this book: ‘how can we (as political theorists, theorists of utopian studies—we, the recipients/readers/ audience) best approach these desires as scholars?’


Does form represent the best approach to utopianism? The answer must be ‘no’, because approaches that take form as the primary defining characteristic of utopianism tend to assume that the form in question is that of literary fiction.4 The assumption that utopianism is a literary genre is common in utopian studies and is perhaps dominant in colloquial understanding.5 This approach, I suggest, results in an unnecessarily restrictive definition of utopianism and of utopias (constructions of utopian thought). Lyman Tower Sargent, the main bibliographer of the field, veers, albeit self-consciously, in this direction (Sargent, 1975, 1994). An early and influential definition comes from Darko Suvin (Sargent himself found this definition to be ‘by far the best’ (1975: p. 140)) and situates the phenomenon firmly within the field of literature:
The verbal construction of a particular quasi-human community where sociopolitical institutions, norms and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle than in the author’s community, this construction being based on estrangement arising out of an alternative historical hypothesis.
(Suvin, 1973: p. 132)
This definition is reached after careful and elaborate consideration of previous definitions, and I shall return to it again later in this chapter. For the present, it is illustrative of a definitional assumption that utopia—the expression of utopian thought—is a verbal construction, a literary or textual artifact. This view is, as I have said, common. Even Frank Manuel, infamous for shunning definitions, describes utopias as ‘speaking pictures’ (Manuel, 1973: p. viii). The image of the word is clearly present in this phrase, which is evocative of an image captured in textual form. A.L.Morton adopts the following as a definition for his work: ‘an imaginary country described in a work of fiction with the object of criticising existing society’ (Morton, 1952: p. 10). Krishan Kumar is even more specific; for him, utopianism belongs to the field of science fiction:
Utopia distinguishes itself from other forms of the ideal society, and from other forms of social and political theory, by being in the first place a piece of fiction. It is, using the term in its broadest sense, a species of science fiction.
(Kumar, 1991: p. 20)
Of course, these definitions do not take just the form as being the defining characteristic—they do not, in other words, approach utopianism purely through a methodological route that privileges form. Morton’s definition alludes to content, form and function. Likewise, Darko Suvin, cited above, does not approach utopianism solely in terms of form: content and function are also components of his definition. These thinkers do, however, privilege form in their various approaches. Peter Alexander and Roger Gill begin the introduction of their edited collection Utopias with this:
Utopian constructions may take the form either of a picture of an unrealisably ideal social order criticizing an existing order, teaching us lessons about organization and promoting understanding of the concepts involved, or, alternatively, of a blueprint intended to guide the actual reorganization of a society.
(Alexander and Gill, 1984: p. xi)
Here, again, we find an approach to utopianism which relies on form, function and content. Also present in this last definition is a negative and prescriptive element. For Alexander and Gill, the picture or vision which represents a ‘utopian construction’ contains an ‘impossibly ideal society’.
I shall return to discussion of content later. The point that I should like to raise now is that made by Ruth Levitas: that defining utopianism/utopia in terms of form in this way is too restrictive an approach, and one that issues in an unnecessarily narrow definition (Levitas, 1990: p. 4). This point can be illustrated by reference to the work of Ernst Bloch, who has perhaps been most persuasive in broadening the field of utopianism beyond the literary (Bloch, 1986). He finds utopianism (a utopian impulse) to be immanent in popular culture, in the fashion industry, dance, film, adventure stories, art, architecture, music and even medical science. Each of these fields contains its various Utopias—visions of a better or more desirable way of being, a desirable future or present.
Vincent Geoghegan uses Bloch’s work alongside that of Karl Mannheim (who also argues for a utopian disposition) to broaden our understanding of what constitutes utopianism. For Geoghegan, ‘the “classic” utopia (which he describes as the literary model established by More] is but one manifestation of utopianism’ (Geoghegan, 1987: p. 2). The implication here is that approaches which privilege form are mistaken, because utopianism and Utopias are expressed in many forms. Geoghegan rejects form in favour of function, which is discussed further below.
I mentioned above the fact that Levitas rejects approaches which privilege form. She is also critical of those which take Mores Utopia as their starting point. I will cite her in full on this point as her statement raises a number of other, related issues:
Some commentators take the form of Mores Utopia as a model and argue that the utopia is a literary genre, involving the fictional depiction of an alternative society in some detail. However,…depictions of the good society do not necessarily take the form of literary fictions—and indeed this form is only available under certain very specific historical conditions; is it then to be assumed that when these conditions do not exist, there are no utopias?
(Levitas, 1990: pp. 4–5)
I should like to note two of the points being raised here. The first is a concern brought up earlier by Levitas, which arises from the multidisciplinary nature of utopian studies, when she states that ‘there is a temptation to try to delimit the field [of utopia] to one’s own area of interest and set up boundaries which exclude large areas of material as not properly utopian’ (1990: p. 4). The disciplinary imperialism and exclusivity of such an approach must be resisted.6
The second point relates to another danger of a similar ilk, that of cultural imperialism and exclusivity. Because literary utopias are rare in cultures other than ‘Western’ ones, does this mean that utopianism and Utopias do not exist in other cultures? Lyman Tower Sargent makes passing reference to an ongoing project in which he is involved: studying and cataloguing the Utopias of indigenous societies (Sargent, 1994). One of the questions that he poses is ‘Are utopias, as many (Krishan Kumar most recently) have argued, a phenomenon of the Christian West or are there indigenous pre-contact utopias outside the Christian West?’ He responds:
No, utopias are not solely the product of the Christian West, but utopias as a genre of literature that has certain formal characteristics are most common in the West, almost certainly because the genre is identified with Thomas More, a person from the Christian West.
(Sargent, 1994: p. 2)
These last points can be related to something which emerges repeatedly throughout this book: that is, a concern about the function and nature of definitions and the act of defining—and, consequently, a concern about the function and nature of political theorizing. Definitions exclude that which is not the subject of the definition in question; this is their primary function. But it is possible, as I shall suggest below, that definitions may be constructed in such a way as to exclude that which should be included. A route around this problem, which is advocated in many sections of this book, is to strive for openended definitions, or, to borrow Sargent’s phrase, to seek definitions with ‘porous boundaries’ (1990: p. 5). This is a project with its own problems, which will become increasingly clear as I proceed and with which I shall grapple in the concluding chapter. The implications for political theory are methodological ones—political theory has traditionally sought classificatory systems and schemas in order to make sense of the world. A political—theoretical approach to feminist thought, for instance, divides it into liberal, socialist, marxist, radical and, latterly, black and postmodern feminisms, which are then analysed for their own differentiating ideological content. (Books of this type fill the shelves of university bookshops. Examples are Jagger (1983) and Bryson (1992).) The fact that these categories are themselves artificial constructions into which few actual feminists ‘fit’—or indeed that some people may wish to occupy more than one position, or none of the above, yet still regard themselves as ‘feminist’— is worrying. At the root of these concerns is the inadequacy of the original system of definition or classification: the approach.
To conclude this preliminary discussion of approaches which privilege form, I should like to note that many of the texts referred to in the discussions in later chapters of this book are not of the literary-fictional form. Form as literary (or other) genre, then, represents too restrictive a starting point for comprehensive analysis of utopianism.7 In making this argument it is not my intention to close debate of the fictional status of utopian thought and other manifestations of utopianism, and I shall be discussing the function of a fictional format below.8
So, whilst this book is concerned with ‘verbal constructions’ or with textual utopianism—speaking pictures—we cannot presume to define utopianism, Utopia or utopian thought in these terms. Utopia, the literary genre, will be discussed further below, but this particular manifestation of utopian thought cannot be taken as the definitional point of departure for its other forms.


Formulaic content

Approaching utopian expressions in terms of their content is perhaps the most common way of looking at and defining utopia(nism). The question asked by commentators who take this approach is ‘what is a utopia?’—and the answer comes in a formula that specifies the common or necessary ‘ingredients’ or criteria that a text needs in order to be defined and categorized as a utopia. Given then that utopianism is not (just) a literary genre, but given too that the subjects of this book are textual (written) utopias and utopian theory, investigation of approaches to utopianism which stress the importance of formal criteria is necessary. This ground has been well covered, though, and I shall keep discussion brief on this point.
Approaches to utopianism which take this form tend to distinguish ‘the utopia’ from other forms of ideal society. Indeed, this differentiation of utopia is the basis of most projects of definition. J.C.Davis and Krishan Kumar both adopt this approach and both identify five types of ideal society, of which utopia is only one. The first is characterized as ‘Cockaygne’, from the medieval poem ‘The Land of Cokaygne’.9 In Cockaygne desires are instantly gratified; it is a world containing self-roasting birds, rivers of wine, fountains of youth, wishing trees and ever-available and desirable sexual partners. It is a hedonistic paradise. Cockaygne privileges material and sensual satisfaction and assumes natural abundance. Its inhabitants symbolize satiated desire.
The second ideal society is said to be the arcadia: a pastoral setting of natural abundance to which are added morally or aesthetically motivated humans. Appetites in arcadia are temperately satisfied. The third ideal is what Davis calls ‘the perfect commonwealth’, a society with a prescriptive moral order, perfectly realized by all of its members. This complements but is different from the millennium, the fourth type of ideal society, in which men and women are transformed, usually for the better, by an external force. This force is a god-like figure whose strength is greater than that which it is believed is the force causing evil thoughts and behaviour.
Only the fifth type of ideal society is identified as the utopia, that in which there is ‘no invocation of a dens ex machina, nor any wishing away of the deficiencies of man or nature’ (Davis, 1984: p. 9). Rather, says Davis, the utopia creates systems which will cope with these deficiencies, systems that are recognizable as pertaining to the modern state: ‘Such systems are inevitably bureaucratic, institutional, legal and educational, artificial and organisational’ (Davis, 1984: p. 9). Utopia, says Davis, idealizes organization.
I should like to begin discuss...