Review of Twoty-Twoty-Two (2022): Utopian Studies Conference

Photograph of utopian studies conference venue at University of Brighton
Conference venue: University of Brighton

The thing that took me farthest out of my comfort zone in 2022 was attending the Utopian Studies Society conference. I thought it would be nice to have a few days away to discuss all things utopian but I was wrong. I stretched my elastic too far just to get there. It was my first time travelling on my own and travelling much at all since the pandemic and having a child (both things that have tied me to home over the past few years). Having to then leave my room and attend events was so hard. This is despite my room (in student halls) being unbearably hot and depressing.

Yes, this was another USS conference in a heatwave, like the previous one in Prato, Italy in 2019 where we discussed utopia, dystopia and climate change in 40 degree heat (Celcius, folks). Just the thing to make discussions feel urgent and hopeless at the same time.

Utopia and the Plantationocene

My talk was deliberately provocative, which is something I like to do. We’re all in a room together so let’s provoke a bit of conversation. I stood up and argued that the logic of utopia is the same as the logic of the plantation. I said:

  • The foundation story for Utopia (the place) in Thomas More’s Utopia (the genre-founding book of 1516) is settler-colonist fantasy. King Utopus conquered the land of Abraxa, named it after himself, and ‘brought the rude and uncivilized inhabitants into such good government, and to that measure of politeness, that they now far excel all the rest of mankind’
  • More was not only inspired by the colonisation of North America by his fellow Europeans but contributed to the ongoing settlement of the continent. In Karl Hardy’s words, ‘Utopia clearly articulates the settler colonial doctrines of terra nullius [no man’s land], vacuum domicilium [unoccupied home], and inane ac vacuum [idle and waste] which were used by European powers to establish legalistic grounds […] for expropriating the supposedly unhabited land’
  • Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing describe how the Plantationocene – the era of the plantation and its transformative effects upon our planet – started at the same point in history. Plantations were a new form of agriculture designed by Europeans specifically for slave labour in the New World
  • More’s Utopia reflects and expresses plantation logic, just as surely as it is inseparable from the colonisation of America. Utopia (the place, the book and the genre) is about establishing systems of control to obtain a perfect outcome. Further, it imagines the means of enforcing the ways of being required to perpetuate said perfect state. The logic of utopia is the logic of the plantation

And the response? No-one challenged me. No-one even batted an eyelid. They nodded, apparently agreed, and carried on with the utopian studies conference.

Decolonising Utopian Studies

The colonialism at the heart of utopia is an open secret in utopian studies. Some scholars do, however, address it directly. On a panel titled ‘The Past and Future of Utopian Studies’, Caroline Edwards spoke on ‘Decolonising Utopian Studies’. It was undoubtedly one of the most important contributions to the conference.

Dr Caroline Edwards presenting at the utopian studies conference

She started out with a list of sources, including:

She asked why these texts and authors are not being talked about in utopian studies. And why black speculative imaginaries are not coming to utopian studies. Why are we not citing them and why should they bother citing us?

Funding Utopia

I suspect this might come down to studying an essentially colonialist genre within a colonialist institution – the university. Why would anyone exploring anti-colonial ways of being want to come towards that? Later on the same panel, Adam Stock highlighted a key obstacle for going the other way: funding. Anyone working within utopian studies on this area is trying to get funding from the very institutions that the research will criticise.

As someone on the periphery of academia, the poolside if you will, this conference made me think twice about jumping back in. Especially when Caroline Edwards talked about how adrienne maree brown (idol) could not do what she does if she was working within academia. She could not do her critical writing and thinking alongside being a doula and a poet plus do teaching and research in the form that academia demands. It made me think about what the real, important work is and where it happens. And those thoughts are ongoing.

Hey Thomas, what’s with the slaves in Utopia?

Wait, what? There still slaves in Utopia?

Recently, I stumbled across a cartoon about Thomas More’s Utopia on Existential Comics. More is telling a crowd all the good stuff about Utopia. He’s winning them over with a six hour working day and leaders chosen by the people to rule in their best interests. But he starts losing them when he reveals there’s no boozing and no fancy clothes. To spice things up a bit, he comes out with:

Wait, what? There still slaves in Utopia?
Detail from Thomas More’s Utopia
https://existentialcomics.com/comic/382

“Wait, what? There still slaves in Utopia?” It’s funny cos it’s true. Here we are, excited about this anti-capitalist, essentially communist, society, but there are still slaves in Utopia. As readers of Utopia, as in More’s book, and of utopia, the literary genre it spawned, we need to ask what’s with the slaves in Utopia?

Slaves in utopia? It’s of it’s time

The most boring cop out answer is it’s of it’s time. It was published in 1516, slaves were alright then, you can’t judge it by modern standards, we don’t have to worry about the fact it has slaves in it.

I say wrong, wrong, wrong. We do precisely have to worry about it because slavery was never an OK idea. We need to critically evaluate our (Anglo-Euro-American) history and how it feeds into a culture of forgiving the past because ultimately we did pretty well out of it. Also, if we are tempted to be proud of a literary heritage of utopia stretching back to 1516 and make claims for the enduring relevance of this genre today, we need to look carefully at what these ideas are that are still circulating.

The abolition of private property + slaves? Squaring the circle

What’s funny about the slaves in Utopia, why it’s extra odd, is that Utopia is a radically anti-capitalist place. There’s enough of everything for everyone and citizens are socially conditioned to look down on material wealth. Gold and silver are used to make chamber pots and chains for slaves, and pearls and gems are used for children’s toys. There’s effectively no private property and yet… there are slaves. How does this add up?

I have a theory and it goes a bit like this. Colonialism.

Utopia is founded on colonial logic

In More’s Utopia, the land called Utopia wasn’t always called Utopia. It was originally called Abraxa, until King Utopus conquered and renamed the place. Good King Utopus did such a good job of civilising the natives he made the ideal society.

Not only this, but Utopus reshaped the entire physical environment to create his model of perfection. Utopia was originally on a peninsula, but Utopus ordered a huge channel to be dug to cut it off from the mainland, turning it into an island.

The sheer entitlement of these heroic acts of Utopus. They epitomise colonial logic, by which I mean the logic of dominating other people and other places in pursuit of the perfect civilisation.

With this as its foundational myth, Utopia might be anti-capitalist, but it’s still colonialist.

Colonialism is a logic of mastery

Colonialism assumes the world is divided into masters and subjects. I am reminded of Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Plumwood identifies a series of dualisms at the heart of Western thought – man/woman, culture/nature, mind/body – where the first in each of pairing is assumed superior to the second. Master/slave.

Certainly, More’s hero asserts control over nature when he turns the land into an island. King Utopus fits the category of “man”, “culture”, “mind”, “master”. And where there’s a master, there’s got to be slaves. So by this colonial logic, the logic of mastery, it makes sense that there are slaves in Utopia.

What to do about the slaves in Utopia?

Having concluded that the slaves in Utopia demonstrate the colonial logic at the very foundation of the genre of utopia, what do we do now? Despair?

No! Don’t despair, decolonise!

By which I mean, be alive to the colonialist tendencies within utopia. Call it out when you see it. And, even better, read loads of innovative anti-colonial utopias and think about alternative ways of reimagining the world. That’s what I’m doing anyway. Keep reading this blog to come along for the ride!

North America: a failing colonialist utopia?

Pandemic. Wild fires. Climate crisis. Biodiversity crisis. Rise of the far right. Sometimes, it seems like things aren’t going so well.

I heard an Indigenous viewpoint on the multiple crises facing North America (and the world) from scholar Dr Kim TallBear at the ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment) Nearly Carbon Neutral virtual conference in July 2020. It was enlightening, perspective-shifting stuff. I want to share with you some of the thoughts that have stayed with me ever since.

What TallBear believes she is witnessing in the US is “the implosion of the western colonial project”. In other words, the current crises can be seen as catastrophic consequences of settler-colonialism. Consequences of disrespecting and destroying the land and its peoples: humans, plants, animals, minerals and water. Consequences of arriving on an already occupied continent and perceiving it as an empty page on which one is entitled to design a new world.

Rutkauskas – Burned Hill. Source: http://ehc.english.ucsb.edu/?page_id=20002

Colonialism as a utopian project

Before hearing TallBear’s talk, I hadn’t recognised the utopian impulse within colonialism. But it doesn’t take much examination of the concept of “the western colonial project” to recognise it as a utopian project.

There is a dark side to utopia, and that is when one person or group’s vision of an ideal world is enforced upon others. The history of Europe in the 20th Century gives us two clear examples: Stalinism and Nazism. Through these I already understood there can be a fine line between utopianism and authoritarianism. Now I see another terrible example of utopian world-building in the violence of settler-colonialism.

For Indigenous People across the American continents, mortality rates due to disease, starvation, forced assimilation and war resulted in estimated 90% mortality rates. For my own people, the Dakota, we now have seven and eight generations of Dakota people who have lived in a Dakota post-apocalyptic world. Indigenous Peoples are still mourning, still living in scarcity, still rebuilding from the quieting of our ancestors’ worlds.

Dr Kim Tallbear

When utopian thinking can lead to genocide and apocalypse, is it only right to give up on utopia?

Utopia as a decolonial project

The realisation that colonialism is a utopian project led me to wonder whether utopia is always a colonial project. I think there are certainly many examples of utopias with colonial logic at their heart whether they realise it or not – many most probably not. These include green utopias with benevolent creators, who nevertheless want to impose their idea of the optimum way to live upon whole cities, countries, continents, planets.

However, there is more than one way to be utopian. There is the being an architect of a superior world way, which is the potentially authoritarian, colonialist, troubling way. Then there is another way where you simply refuse to accept the conventional limits of what is possible and dare to imagine otherwise. This second way is, I think, too important to give up. In fact, it could be crucial to decolonisation.

In her address, TallBear explained

As a Dakota, who has always struggled in a world where an anti-settler state ethic seemed unspeakable, privileging the Dakota Oyate – the people and worldview – was deemed impossible throughout much of my life. Unrealistic, mythological.

Dr Kim TallBear

It is this kind of deemed impossibility that can be undermined by the second type of utopian thinking. Being utopian in this way means being alive to the possibility of things being different from how they currently are. Knowing that things could be different then puts you in a position to ask critical questions. Is this, which my society tells me is impossible, really impossible, or could it be possible after all? Is that a real boundary, or will my hand go right through it? Can I think differently to how I thought I had to think?

Radical hope

TallBear senses a “radical hope” within the multitude of crises facing the US and Canada.

I’m not celebrating what’s happening to the planet and to our non-human relatives and some of the most vulnerable humans […] but I think there are opportunities for us to think about the demise of certain intellectual systems that are incredibly violent as we are reckoning with earthly systems agitations against anthropogenic change.

Dr Kim TallBear

I agree there is hope where the demise of one worldview allows room for others, and I see the thrilling potential for decolonised utopias to rush into the intellectual space left behind.

Dr Kim TallBear is enrolled Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and descended from the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. She is Associate Professor, Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta. You can see her address in full below.

INVASION documentary

Elsewhere at the same conference, I attended an online watch party of the short film INVASION. This documentary follows members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation as they protest against the Canadian government permitting oil companies to lay pipelines across their land. The land in question has never been ceded to Canadian settlers. This film brought it home to me that colonialism is not an historical event or a time period that has passed. Colonial logic still prevails and this is why we need utopia. We need better ways of thinking, or new “intellectual systems” to use TallBear’s term.

The Way to Utopia in an Environmental Crisis

My own contribution to the ASLE conference was a paper on Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home. The paper, which you can view below, looks at how in Always Coming Home Le Guin manipulates the genre of utopia in order that the form of her book can be true to its feminist, ecological content. I also wrote an article on this subject, which you can read here.

Hello! Here’s an awesome utopian reading list.

It’s my inaugural blog post! I thought I would start by sharing my current utopia-themed reading list with you. As you will see, it’s a list of Afrofuturist, African Sci-Fi and Black Utopias. This is where I’m at right now. In this post I’ll tell you how I got to this amazing place and why I think these books are must-reads.

This list is designed to be collaborative so it was published in the Bristol Utopian Book Collective Facebook group. If you have problems accessing it let me know.

Image by John Jennings

Utopia and colonialism

Utopia has an uneasy relationship with colonialism. I say uneasy, but that’s my feeling about it. It would probably be more accurate to say it has a too easy relationship with colonialism. Take this quote from Thomas More’s Utopia of 1516, the foundational text of the genre, about how the original Utopia came to be:

Utopus, that conquered it (whose name it still carries, for Abraxa was its first name), brought the rude and uncivilized inhabitants into such good government, and to that measure of politeness, that they now far excel all the rest of mankind.

Thomas More, Utopia (London: Verso, 2016) pp72-73

I’ve written elsewhere about how the Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol in June 2020 brought the colonialist logic within utopia to the forefront of my mind. To address this I could have re-read the old utopias through an anti-colonial lens, and I might still do this one day. But what I really wanted to do was seek out Black, Indigenous and African utopias and start reading those instead.

The first thing I read was N.K. Jemisin’s How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? Since then I’ve read Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes, and I’m currently reading Paradise by Toni Morrison. If you know of any others that should be on my list, please add them to the collaborative doc, post in the comments below or contact me.

Other things I’m currently reading…

Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer

Spike Island in Bristol are currently hosting a Braiding Sweetgrass reading group, meeting monthly (online) to discuss extracts from the book. While this is far from sci-fi, I’m interested because Kimmerer explores other ways of being and relating to nature than the prevailing consumer capitalist status quo, with its insistence on defining the more-than-human world as ‘natural resources’.

Underland, Robert MacFarlane

This I’m reading for another book group. I actually suggested it myself, despite subscribing to Kathleen Jamie‘s view of the author as ‘A Lone, Enraptured Male‘, peddling an exclusive and over-privileged idea of nature. But everyone goes on about how brilliant this book is, so I’m going to give it a try.