13 February 2011


Michael D Gordin, Helen Tilley and Gyan Prakash (editors). Utopia/Dystopia: Conditions of Historical Possibility. Princeton University Press, 2010.

Utopia, the good place which is no place at all, and dystopia, the utopia gone wrong, still haunt our imagination, despite their official exorcism from modern culture. These essays cover a range of utopian imaginings, often in the form of petty utopias, ranging from urban design to preserving archives.
Many of the topics discussed here lie outside the areas of interest of Magonia, but some have more relevance. The one closest to our concerns is the study of the Cattle Destroying Cult among the Xhosa of South African in the 1850s studied by Jennifer Wenzel in 'Literacy and Futurity: Millennial Dreaming on the Nineteenth-Century Southern African Frontier'. The centre of this cult was a teenage girl who, on the basis of a visionary encounter, ordered the people to destroy their cattle and crops so that the ancestors would come back to replenish their stocks and sweep the white colonialists from the land. This is clearly an extreme example of the movements led by teenage girls who manage to rise from the bottom of the pile to be become figures of authority. It is also, surely a prefiguring of the most extreme of the modern totalitarian movements such as Pol Pot's Cambodia, with their total destruction of the urban infrastructure and population.

Igal Halfin's study of the confessions made by the victims of Stalin's purges, shows how their own continued total belief in and devotion to what had become the Communist religion made them willing to make false confessions not only for the 'good of the Party', but because their conviction that the party could do no wrong made them doubt their own memories. If the party they loved and which was the centre of their lives said they were traitors, then deep down they must be so, though they had no conscious knowledge of this. Magonia readers will note the similarity to the story of Paul Ingram who pleaded guilty to fantastic charges of child abuse because a pastor in his church told him he must be guilty, because the Holy Spirit had told the pastor so. Thus we see that the Soviet Secret Police in effect claimed discernment of spirits and a kind of telepathy which allowed them access to their victims' most secret source: "we know you better than you know yourself".

Also of interest to some of our readers is David Pinder's study of the utopia of the street which includes the role of the surrealists and the psychogeographers.

While the other essays are outside our main frame of reference, they are not without their general interest. Timothy Mitchell's 'Hydrocarbon Utopia' is of particular relevance with the present situation in the Middle East, while John Kridge's study of the promotion of the peaceful atom shows another face of modernity as utopia, while Luise White's study of white-run Rhodesia shows a 'utopia' as a retreat from modernity into a imagined imperial past.

For Marci Shore the 'utopia' is the cosmopolitan world of the Pre-First World War Vienna and Prague, before the nightmare of the Nazis and the Stalinists. Not all societies have nostalgic dreams however, for the Dalits (Untouchables) tradition and the past are horrors of the rubbish tip ghetto, and liberation is seen as coming through modernity and the transformation of society (though there are disputes as to whether this will come through some form of Socialism or through free enterprise Capitalism).

Missing of course is the vision of the grand utopia, the totally transformed world. A 'real' utopia would, I suspect, have to be very different from those of fiction or attempts to make fiction fact. Utopia as the absolute habitat is always doomed because the wilderness and entropy will always win. Planned utopias run according to an ideology or plan are by definition exclusionary and thus doomed to conflict. The true utopia in which everyone would be at home, and which would guarantee peace, freedom, bread, justice and true human dignity to all is beyond detailed imagination, as all imaginations are conditioned by the present of the imagining. All one can say of it, is that it would be a world more different from ours than ours is from that of an Iron Age Hill Fort. -- Peter Rogerson

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