- Novel, Utopia, Nation: A History of Interdependence
From a contemporary vantage point outside of utopian studies, the long history of utopia seems a suspicious one. No matter how productive the utopian imaginary of modernity has been, how persistent a genre utopian narrative, or in how wide a range of practices echoes of the Blochian utopian impulse can be detected, the concept of utopia stands in an awkward relationship to the dominant institutions and discourses regulating the socio-political normality of the early twenty-first century. It is the previous century, the twentieth, with its vigorous innovations in aesthetics, politics, and cruelty that is supposedly the utopian one; the twenty-first, judging at least by the culture industry, seems to be taking a pass on utopia, and is enjoying the apocalypse instead.1
But it would be wrong to suppose that the contemporary anti-utopianism, in which dullness of the political imagination has been elevated to the level of a criterion of rationality, is a unique phenomenon. The suspicion has been around for a long time, often justifiably so. In political-theoretical discourse, for example, utopia has been an easy target. There is usually no place for its impossible demands in the rationalist pragmatism of liberal thought.2 Many conservative positions are fundamentally wary of the anticipatory, untested alterity that utopia postulates as desirable.3 And at least the “classical” Marxist strain of leftist thought condemns it on grounds of both theoretical inadequacy and political inefficiency.4
So, most of the stern charges leveled at utopian projections as a form of political practice warn against the seemingly arbitrary and misleading flights of fancy immanent to utopia’s figurational mission, and against its political impotence or passive idealism. When thus criticized, and insofar as it is taken to project both a blueprint of an alternative social order and an incentive to make the transition toward it, utopian figuration is excluded from the regimes of serious political thought as a failure of [End Page 424] method.5 Consequently, one would be justified to expect that it would find a welcome place in the realm of the literary.
But here, too, it has been highly suspicious: despite serious attention devoted to the venerable early modern exponents of the genre, from Thomas More to Tommaso Campanella and Francis Bacon, and despite the fact that literary history, perhaps most notably English literary history, has been strewn with very influential texts, rare is the historiography that does not either segregate or exclude the utopian narrative tradition from the more noble history of the ‘novel proper.’ There are various reasons for that, ranging from the genealogical (utopian narrative can more plausibly be included in the longer parallel history of the romance) to the aesthetic (the literary value of utopia is “subject to permanent doubt” (Jameson, Archeologies xi)).6 In other words, it might be that utopia’s “neutralization, deconstruction, or deterritorialization of the ideological parameters of one social situation,” which “opens up the space for the construction of something new” (Wegner, “Here” 115), makes it difficult to incorporate utopia into historiographies aiming to construct relatively seamless traditions of national cultural consolidation on an equal footing with more affirmative, or at least more neutral, generic traditions. On top of that, utopian figuration escapes somewhat the jurisdiction of mimesis, modernity’s privileged representational modality.
A search, for example, of the term “Utopia” in Wiley-Blackwell’s The Encyclopedia of the Novel reveals a symptomatic state of affairs: the entry “Utopian Novel” redirects to “Science Fiction/Fantasy,” but the term itself, suggesting a wide range of utopian concerns across the history of the novel, is scattered throughout the Encyclopedia, suggesting a wide distribution of utopian themes, with the densest concentration, expectedly, under entries such as “Ideology” or “Russia (20th Century)” (see Logan). According to this and similar conceptions, which are as dominantly established as to be invisible, the novel and narrative utopia live parallel but antinomic lives. But in the many cases where they do overlap, the utopian surplus detectable in the novel is relativized as a “utopian vision” (167, 448), dimension (43) or even “yearning” (333), horizontally integrated into the polyphonic structure of the novel, just one of...