Defining Utopia, part 1

Jill Dolan, professor of English and Theatre at Princeton University, defines utopia in this way:

“Utopia,” she says, “is always a metaphor, always a wish, a desire, a no-place that performance can sometimes help us map if not find. But a performative is not a metaphor; it’s a doing, and it’s in the performative’s gesture that hope adheres, that communitas happens, that the not-yet-conscious is glimpsed and felt and strained toward.”

7 thoughts on “Defining Utopia, part 1”

  1. Good quote! And a very good UU service you presented. I’d like to listen again to make sure I catch more of the nuances (I listened at work, d’oh). I think you raise some very good points about idealists trying to accomplish lofty goals. Even when everyone’s essentially on the same page, it can be very tough to actually get anything done.

    A friend at work just lent me a copy of “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin. She was quite taken with it. Have you read it?

    1. I have not read “We,” I’ll have to check it out! I should think a Russian author would have a thing or two to say about utopia/dystopia and totalitarianism.

      I’m glad you liked the message. Although I’ve done several in the past two years, it’s still weird to me that I’ve actually stood up there and had people listen to me. The topic of utopia is one I’ve been wanting to connect up with the idealism of UUism for some time, and it finally clicked in my head, like, three days before the service.

      Lofty goals are great, but I’ve watched people descend into despair when projects or just attitudes don’t gel with the perfect vision. I was trying to impart the notion that the ideal can never be attained, and that’s okay. That way, there’s always something to strive towards.

  2. I still need to listen!

    It’s interesting that Dolan uses the term “communitas,” which is a concept that I usually see paired with Victor Turner’s concept of liminality. This implies a threshold, a transition, a movement between between states, where I tend to think of utopia as a destination or an end. I guess this reinforces the performative aspect.

    I like that idea of coming together (communitas is that state of uber-equality, the elimination of status, hierarchy, difference) in the act of striving, struggling towards that utopian vision, rather than in necessarily achieving it.

    (I’m assuming she’s consciously evoking the Turner-link, since theater and ritual studies have a lot of theory overlap. And sorry to turn on the academic, but ritual studies was one of my two main theory areas.)

  3. You haven’t listened?! You busy or something? 🙂

    Yes, utopia is about moving in the direction of, about desiring, but not reaching an end. To reach and sustain a state of perfection, conditions must be solidified into rigid lines that then have the potential to become oppressive. I’m oversimplifying, but there’s the slippery boundary between utopia and dystopia.

    Now, I guess I’m going to have to dig up some Turner to follow up. Recommendations?

    1. _The Ritual Process_ is the work everyone cites, and is a pretty straightforward read for a theory book (it’s full of descriptions of Ndembu ritual). You can borrow my copy. 🙂

  4. And yes! The blurring of lines between utopia and dystopia, and the tension between the two, are what make this topic so fascinating.

    Also, I think it’s very interesting that the three of us are members of three different but egalitarian religious/spiritual utopia-seeking communities.

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