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  • Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction
  • Jack Fennell
Lyman Tower Sargent. Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 146 pp. $11.95, ISBN: 978-0-19-957340-0.

Utopianism, being a topic that encompasses literary theory, philosophy, and political/cultural critique and addresses a diverse range of subjects—from music and architecture to realpolitik and activism—can appear, from the “outside,” to be a somewhat amorphous body of scholarship that does not pose many limits on its field of study. This in turn leads to a perception that anything can be discussed in a utopian context, that utopian theory is a free-for-all where no rules apply. These misconceptions are little more than annoyances to researchers within the field; however, it is to “outside” readerships that the Very Short Introduction series is addressed. Another problem inherent in the very idea of a text such as Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction is that utopianism is one of the few philosophies or bodies of theory that is likely to draw the hostility or derision of the very readership the book is aimed at.

It is a testament to Professor Sargent’s expertise, then, that he is able to produce a “very short introduction” to the field that is so comprehensive, using the framework outlined in his earlier work on the “three faces of utopianism.” Treating literary utopias in more or less chronological order, he succinctly describes the principal themes and features of Western utopian writing, from Plato to More to Kim Stanley Robinson, and then progresses to examinations of the literary utopian traditions of China, India, Japan, and Africa; also considered are the utopian expressions of various world religions, from Islam to Buddhism to Hinduism and Christianity. Sargent is honest [End Page 370] enough to mention gaps in his own knowledge—for example, he states that he has heard of early twentieth-century Islamic utopian novels but has not yet had the opportunity to read or analyze them (55–56), obliquely suggesting at least one possible avenue for future research.

While the discussion of utopian practice forms a continuous thread throughout the text, Sargent gives the topic a chapter of its own, covering intentional communities, monastic settlements, and Temporary Autonomous Zones. Though the brief history of intentional communities—including Qumran, the Kibbutz, and New Lanark, among many others—is fascinating, the crux of this chapter is the question of evaluating a community’s “success” or “failure.” Sargent outlines the debate surrounding the validity of using longevity as the main criterion for success, as opposed to the fulfillment of members’ needs or the improvement of their lives, but cautions that the internal dynamics of a community will necessarily change over time, implying a need for further debate and discussion of this issue (46–48).

One small quibble I had with this chapter (and I will admit that my problem is mainly a semantic one) is Sargent’s characterization of Jonestown, the Solar Temple, and the Maoist communes in China as “dystopian communities” (42), as it seems to sidestep the issue of intent. If an intentional community is made up of a group of individuals “who have chosen to live together to enhance their shared values or for some other mutually agreed upon purpose” (34), how can this criteria be applied to communities whose members have surrendered their agency to a single person (as happened in Jonestown and the Solar Temple’s commune in Quebec) or to communities where the majority of members have no choice but to participate (as in the Chinese communes)? Are “intentional communities” possible without intent or consent, and if so, is dystopian the most appropriate adjective for them?

Perhaps of most value to the student or researcher is Sargent’s introduction to utopian social theory. Newcomers to the field of utopian studies—this book’s target readership—will find brief yet informative entries on the works of fundamental theorists such as Plato, Bacon, Hobbes, Marx, Kant, Popper, Bloch, Polak, and Mannheim, as well as contemporary scholars, theorists, and researchers such as Jameson, Bauman, Ricoeur, Kolakowski, Levitas, and Sargent himself. In addition, non-Western utopian scholarship and philosophy are represented in references to the works...


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