An abstract, geometric representation of a human face in red, green and gold, consisting of collaged elements and textures in shades of pink. Artists description: “The idea behind it is to ask the viewer to deconstruct, enquire, and reconstruct what is being offered, especially since 'Utopia' as a topic can be a very subjective concept.”

A Utopian Curriculum

Ibtisam Ahmed

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Illustration by Iara Silva

Part One: Introduction

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde (1891)

This is how Oscar Wilde described utopia in The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891). For him, the journey towards a better world was always a part of the human impulse, and it is in that spirit that I am pleased to offer this series with Project Myopia. Utopian Studies is often considered a niche field, but it has the potential to be a useful tool in the broader academic decolonisation movement.

Education remains one of the most significant driving forces of setting (and reacting to) socio-cultural norms, so there is an urgent need to challenge homogeneity and conservative orthodoxy. Initiatives like ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’, ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’, and ‘All In! Regularising Ethnic Presence in the Curriculum’ have all followed a similar goal in challenging the overwhelming whiteness that lies at the heart of Eurocentric academia.

These initiatives are an overdue first step in an age where the defence of structural racism, xenophobia and far-right politics remains on the rise. Utopian Studies speaks to some of the central themes present in this cause — especially equity and justice. While much of the classic utopian canon is also white and Eurocentric — thus requiring a decolonial overhaul within the field — it would be disingenuous to ignore the many marginalised voices that have used the emancipatory potential of utopia to challenge their oppression.

Using a variety of cultural, artistic and political case studies, I will be highlighting the impact and potential of understanding the world through a utopian lens. Before delving into these individual essays, however, it is necessary to understand what utopia actually means.

The Good Non-Place

The concept of Utopia is popularly perceived as referring to a perfect society. The common circumscription of the concept to naïve idealism is perhaps the reason why many view studies of utopia or a utopian curriculum with derision. But this framing is incorrect and does a great disservice to the subversive potential that the idea has. Etymologically, the term “utopia” can be traced to the eponymous fictional island written by Thomas More in 1615. Taken from Greek roots, it is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fictionality of the island nation.

The term “Utopia” is derived from “Ou” meaning “no” or “non” and “topos” meaning “place”, with the initial “Ou” also potentially being substituted for “Eu” meaning “good”. Thus, More’s Utopia is a witty double entendre meaning the good non-place. Some may view this explicit link with non-existence as further proof of the impossibility of utopianism, but that ignores the fact that More’s work is satirical in nature.

It also ignores the broader tradition of imagining ideal spaces that predate Tudor England. Plato’s Republic is an oft-cited philosophical example, and most theological practices function with the idea of a heaven or paradise as a goal. The idea of just and progressive rule reappears in a variety of times and places, such as Ashoka and Khusrow I in Asia, Aristides and Charlemagne in Europe, Ayar Manco in the Americas, and Sundiata Keita and Oba Ewuare in Africa. The concept of Utopia, therefore, taps into a broader desire that manifests itself across cultures.

Utopian Scholarship

Despite the naming of the concept in 1516 and the subsequent literary genre in the centuries that followed, Utopian Studies did not truly come into being until the 20th century. By this time, fictional depictions had expanded to include the negative sub-genre of dystopia, which are more about warning of what might happen without change. Thus, the literary and artistic utopian tradition became a means to demand better, either through describing an idealised society or warning of a nightmarish alternative. But what, ultimately, sets a utopian impulse aside from something that is just vaguely progressive or good?

Lucy Sargisson posits that the broad term of “Utopia” is a critical engagement with contemporary issues in order to envision an alternative solution, with the phenomenon being utopianism and the manifestation being utopias (2012). Within this, we find the positive sub-categories of positive eutopia and negative dystopias.

Utopias articulate a dissatisfaction with the status quo and embody an active estrangement from the system – as opposed to a passive, imposed othering. Gregory Claeys stresses that this is an inherently human longing (2011) while Lyman Tower Sargent refers to the idea of “social dreaming”, wherein we imagine different ways of arranging our communal lives (1994).

Ruth Levitas argues that utopias are how humans would live and how society would be arranged if we were freed from the constraints of oppressive (or at least limiting) structures (2011). Adding some solidity to this nebulous hope is Tom Moylan’s assertion that utopias need a “critical mass”, an appropriate number of people to make the idea viable (1986) – which can range from just one person writing a fictional utopia to a whole movement working together to enact change.

What connects these ideas is the conscious engagement with issues in order to imagine an alternative. Utopias and utopianism are, inherently, exercises in aspiration and hope. While some may view them as destinations, it is more fruitful to think of utopianism as a process towards an ever-evolving better tomorrow. Doing so, in turn, allows for specific community-based readings of utopia. Examples include David Bell’s work on class politics (2017), José Esteban Muñoz’s work on queerness (2009), Sara Ahmed’s work on feminism and immigration (2010), Ashis Nandy’s work on decolonisation and non-Eurocentric societies (1992), Maia Ramnath’s work on anarchism (2012), and Jayna Brown’s upcoming publication on Black politics and culture (2021) – not to mention the myriad creators of vibrant utopias in fiction. 

A Utopian Curriculum

Utopian Studies is, therefore, a broad field that considers an intentional attempt at speculating a different world. To create a curriculum around the idea of utopia, then, requires an understanding of the current world from which such a utopia would differ.  As marginalisation and oppression fall along multiple axes, the communal joy of emancipation takes different shapes and forms. A generic “all lives are equal” approach to utopia would be a toothless critique of the specific ways in which communities and identities are rendered precarious. It is also impossible to create a one-size-fits-all vision because different lived experiences of this world create different priorities in the construction of utopia.  In other words, different utopian visions arise from different physical and metaphorical places – the topos of the utopia, after all, cannot be ignored.

With that in mind, this series is not in any way an attempt at a comprehensive or definitive take on utopian education, but rather, aims to provide a taste of how to read and understand different types of utopian art and symbolism in the context of their creation. The essays will explore the following examples:

  • Black Panther (film)
  • Sultana’s Dream (short story)
  • Voguing (dance form)
  • Superman (character)
  • Orwell (video game)
  • The Word for World is Forest (novel)
  • The strong man (political symbol)

I have selected these cases to represent a broad range in terms of genre, form, and themes. — These include but are not limited to, Afrofuturism, eco-feminism, queer liberation, immigrant representation, the surveillance state, indigenous anti-war politics, and right-wing masculinity.

There is not much else to add here except this. Keep dreaming and imagining new worlds. And when you are done, dream then anew.

Works cited

Ahmed, S. (2010), The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press.

Bell, David (2017), Rethinking Utopia: Place, Power, Affect. Routledge.

Brown, Jayna (2021), Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds. Duke University Press.

Claeys, Gregory (2011), Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea. Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Levitas, Ruth (2011 [originally printed 1990]), The Concept of Utopia. Peter Lang Oxford.

Moylan, Tom (1986), Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. Peter Lang Oxford.

Nandy, Ashis (1992), Traditions, Tyranny, and Utopias: Essays in the Politics of Awareness. Oxford University Press India.

Ramnath, Maia (2012), Decolonizing Anarchism: An Authoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle. DK Press.

Sargent, Lyman Tower (1994), “The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited”, in Utopian Studies, 5(1). Pp. 1-37.

Sargisson, Lucy (2012), Fool’s Gold? Utopianism in the Twenty-First Century. Palgrave MacMillan.

Wilde, Oscar (1891), The Soul of Man Under Socialism. Collins.

Ibtisam Ahmed (@Ibzor) is a Doctoral Research Student at the School of Politics and International Relations, the University of Nottingham. He is completing his thesis, titled “The Decolonial Killjoy: the British Raj as a space of political utopia” in which he challenges the notion of imperialism as a benign civilising force while highlighting the radical power of grassroots anti-colonial movements. He has co-edited and been published in multiple books, journals, and websites. He is also heavily involved with queer activism in his home country of Bangladesh and in the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in the Commonwealth.

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