Prof. Dr. Bill Bell

Public Dreams, Private Nightmares: Utopia and its Discontents

During my residency at the Lichtenberg Kolleg in the Autumn of 2019, I propose to make headway on three chapters relating to my current project. ‘Utopia and its Discontents’ aims to challenge some of the dominant assumptions about literary utopianism, arguing for a transhistorical and transcultural form which has been both accretional in its concerns, but also highly unstable in its cultural impact, as it has moved between moments and cultures.

A number of utopian authors have traditionally been seen to deal with the Just Society. Key works — from Swift’s ironic satires, through the key dystopian interventions in the Twentieth Century, and into the present – seem to offer moral inversions of Plato and More, challenging unitary assumptions about the political State in which little or no room is left for the articulation of alterior subjectivities (the ironic ‘dis-contents’ of my title).

On the one hand, the project proposes not only to come to a schematic description of utopia as ideological tactic, both in its narrative form and as a programme for transforming the imaginations and values of its readers.  On the other, it asserts that many of the key contributors to the genre, whether wilful or not, have left hermeneutic possibilities for the construction of a host of counternarratives which have allowed for their strange cooptation.

In pursuit of this object, it is possible to trace an ongoing conversation around a set of themes that is utopianism, examining a number of perennial areas that have taken hold of the utopian imagination since More’s foundational text, not least relating to architecture and design, sex and reproduction, technology and power. These will provide the project’s focus.