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Notes on Nowhere

Feminism, Utopian Logic, and Social Transformation

Jennifer Burwell

Publication Year: 1997

Notes on Nowhere was first published in 1997. Minnesota Archive Editions uses digital technology to make long-unavailable books once again accessible, and are published unaltered from the original University of Minnesota Press editions.

The term utopia implies both "good place" and "nowhere." Since Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, debates about utopian models of society have sought to understand the implications of these somewhat contradictory definitions. In Notes on Nowhere, author Jennifer Burwell uses a cross section of contemporary feminist science fiction to examine the political and literary meaning of utopian writing and utopian thought.

Burwell provides close readings of the science fiction novels of five feminist writers-Marge Piercy, Sally Gearhart, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, and Monique Wittig-and poses questions central to utopian writing: Do these texts promote a tradition in which narratives of the ideal society have been used to hide rather than reveal violence, oppression, and social divisions? Can a feminist critical utopia offer a departure from this tradition by using utopian narratives to expose contradiction and struggle as central aspects of the utopian impulse? What implications do these questions have for those who wish to retain the utopian impulse for emancipatory political uses?

As one way of answering these questions, Burwell compares two "figures" that inform utopian writing and social theory. The first is the traditional abstract "revolutionary" subject who contradicts existing conditions and who points us to the ideal body politic. The second, "resistant," subject is partial, concrete, and produced by conditions rather than operating outside of them. In analyzing contemporary changes in the subject's relationship to social space, Burwell draws from and revises "standpoint approaches" that tie visions of social transformation to a group's position within existing conditions.

By exploring the dilemmas, antagonisms, and resolutions within the critical literary feminist utopia, Burwell creates connections to a similar set of problems and resolutions characterizing "nonliterary" discourses of social transformation such as feminism, gay and lesbian studies, and Marxism. Notes on Nowhere makes an original, significant, and persuasive contribution to our understanding of the political and literary dimensions of the utopian impulse in literature and social theory.

Jennifer Burwell teaches in the Department of English at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Series: American Culture

Title Page, About the Series, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xviii

In imagining alternatives to our present social order, discourses of social transformation express two different but related orientations toward existing conditions. The first seeks a position from which to envision a radical, qualitative break with these conditions; ...

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pp. xix-xx

I would like to acknowledge the following people for helping me at various stages of drafting this book: Christine Froula, for her initial interest in this project and for her invaluable support and feedback throughout its dissertation stage and beyond; Jules Law, for his critical comments and advice; ...

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1. Locational Hazards: The Utopian Impulse and the Logic of Social Transformation

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pp. 1-46

In Critique, Norm, and Utopia, Seyla Benhabib identifies the anticipatory/ utopian pole within theories of social transformation as that which gives us our normative grounding and sense of a moral imperative, that which allows us to make qualitative judgments and to construct an orientation toward the good. ...

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2. Turning Inward: Strategies of Containment and Subjective/Collective Boundaries in Traditional Utopian Literature

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pp. 47-86

Depending upon the point of view from which the ideal collective is conceived, the political effect of the narrative practices that support the traditional form of Utopian literature can vary dramatically. In the first part of this chapter, I examine how Utopian logic operates in traditional works of Utopian literature that express a more or less socialist agenda; ...

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3. Speaking Parts: Internal Dialogic and Models of Agency in the Work of Joanna Russ and Octavia Butler

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pp. 87-130

Possessing a disempowered position within society, oppressed groups need something more than a stabilizing of the social space that consolidates their position on the margins. The traditional Utopian goal of projecting an ideal space free from ideological conflict, however, is incompatible with the goal of exposing and exploring the contradictions and double binds that inflect female subjectivity. ...

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4. Utopia and Technopolitics in Woman on the Edge of Time

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pp. 131-164

Traditional Utopian literature relates to the novel's contemporary historical circumstances through a process of negation—contemporary society is present only as a repressed subtext, and visible only in the conceptual "antinomies" that the Utopian text attempts to neutralize or resolve. ...

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5. Acting Out "Lesbian": Monique Wittig and Immanent Critique

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pp. 165-202

To this point I have examined how the position, structure, and deployment of a Utopian "elsewhere" inflects relationships between individual subject and social body. I have discussed the connection between the traditional Utopian form in literature (with its emphasis on harmony and purity, ...

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Conclusion. Moveable Locales: Narrating Unsutured Utopia

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pp. 203-210

In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor observes that our orientation in moral space is similar to our orientation in physical space; this observation also holds true for our orientation in social and political space. Contemporary critical discourse, in particular, tends to construct social forces in spatial relations such as "inside versus outside" or "margin versus center." ...


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pp. 211-222

Works Cited

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pp. 223-234


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pp. 235-238

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About the Author

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Jennifer Burwell has taught contemporary women's literature, Utopian literature, and Canadian literature at Northwestern University and at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780816686636
E-ISBN-10: 0816686637
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816626397

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 1997

Series Title: American Culture

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American fiction -- Women authors -- History and criticism.
  • Utopias in literature.
  • Feminism and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Literature and society -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Women and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Feminist fiction, American -- History and criticism.
  • Social problems in literature.
  • Logic in literature.
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