restricted access Introduction: Utopias from Other Cultural Traditions
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Utopias from Other Cultural Traditions

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In his Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times Krishan Kumar argues that “so far as I have been able to establish, nothing like the western utopia and utopian traditions exist in any non-western or non-Christian culture” (1987, 424n4), and he reiterated that position in a keynote address given to the Utopian Studies Society of Europe at the University of Porto in 2010. Both of us have argued the opposite, Dutton in “‘Non-western’ Utopian Traditions” (2010) and Sargent most recently in a chapter in his Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction (2010). Neither of us thinks that it makes sense to expect different cultures to produce precisely the same version of depictions of nonexistent good (or bad) societies. One issue that we face in attempting to challenge the dominance of a western utopian paradigm is to recognize what another culture might produce. We are well aware that after authors discovered the western genre of literature, many adopted the form of that literature, but we also contend that even within the form there are significant cultural variations and that utopias existed in many cultures before those cultures discovered the western genre.

Most of the articles in this issue originated in the sessions on “utopianism in other cultural traditions” that we organized at the Utopian Studies Society [End Page 2] of Europe meeting at the University of Cyprus in 2011. Some of the articles discuss texts that were produced well before the western genre was known in the culture; others discuss texts clearly influenced by the western genre. Yet others are concerned with the influence of utopianism on the built environment. Bringing together this diverse range of articles fulfills three principal purposes in furthering scholarship on utopian studies: reframing definitions of utopia; reinterpreting “non-western,” indigenous, and postcolonial utopias; and recognizing utopianism from other cultural traditions.

To begin with the fundamental challenge raised in the opening paragraph, we are attempting to provide a wider body of evidence to support epistemological examinations of utopia. We have already argued against the definition of utopia as confined to a western Judeo-Christian tradition. We now want to demonstrate that it is necessary to reframe western definitions of utopia in order to take into account the parallel existence of utopianism in other cultural traditions. The tight utopian frame has already been stretched back in time to accommodate pre-Morean projections of ideal spaces. There is hardly a study of utopia that does not reference Hesiod, Plato, Virgil, Saint Augustine, Joachim de Flore, and other proponents of its founding myths. Now we need to broaden the utopian frame as well, to provide not just a retrospective western context to utopia but also a diverse cultural context that encompasses representations of ideal spaces from other cultural traditions. These multiple perspectives on utopia occur both prior to the publication of More’s Utopia in 1516 and in its wake.

What effect does such an epistemological reconsideration of the foundations of utopia have on current thinking about utopia? First, it allows us to reinterpret representations of ideal spaces that have already been associated with the utopian genre but which diverge from the beaten path in terms of their underpinning worldview or aesthetic system. Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World (1985) partially corresponds to western utopian norms but also incorporates tropes that derive directly from Japanese visions of utopian shadows in the floating world of ukiyo. Ben Okri’s In Arcadia (2002) and Abdourahman A. Waberi’s In the United States of Africa (2006) draw heavily on western utopian paradigms of pastoral and reversal, respectively, but both posit a non-western view of concentrated creativity as the key to a better way of being in the world. The utopianism in Australian indigenous novels by Alexis Wright, Carpentaria (2006), and Archie Weller, Land of the Golden Clouds (1998), is inspired more by indigenous projections of community and country than by western utopian structures. In all of these [End Page 3] examples, a utopian reading of the works is enhanced by understanding the cultural particularities of the authors...