Shapes of Utopia (Kenneth Roemer)

Nature and Goals of the Course:

Shapes of Utopia examines relationships between concepts of radically better (or worse) imaginary worlds and forms of expression.  “Very Selective Exploratory Investigations” would be an appropriate subtitle for the course.  I make no pretense of offering an overview of utopian literature. (See the course packet for definitions of utopian literature.)  Our study of utopian expressions is limited: (1) by my emphasis on American literature and culture, and (2) by the focus of the course: I selected print or electronic texts — or experiences in the cases of historic intentional communities, museum exhibits, World Fairs, Disney World, Celebration City, Ave Maria, and our possible visits to White Hawk and the Gaylord Texas Resort — that suggest various forms of utopian expression rather than a “representative” survey of utopian literature.  Despite the focus on America, we do study British, European, Middle Eastern, and Classical texts, though (unless you count my comments about Tokyo Disneyland) no Asian and no African or South American texts are included.

To some degree the course has a chronological organization.  We begin with ancient oral narratives and conclude with the Internet.  The more fundamental organizing principles relate to genre, authority, “intent” and degree of self-reflexivity.  We move from texts that were often viewed as sacred and not to be questioned, to texts and experiences that offer clear divisions and choices between much better and much worse worlds, to satiric and ironic visions and critiques, to ambiguous and even multi-genre utopias before we reach the Internet.

Students will leave the course with an increased knowledge of utopian expressions, of how form shapes meaning, and of how readers, viewers, and participants shape form and meaning.  They will also become acquainted with major research and critical resources.  Since 1975, Utopus Discovered, the newsletter of the Society for Utopian Studies, has provided current bibliographies. It is currently available online at (Select “scholarship.”)  Since 1990, the Society’s journal, Utopian Studies, has offered articles, bibliographies, and a substantial book-review section.  The articles include retrospective evaluations of the scholarship.  The Society hosts an annual conference. Information about the conference, the publications (with a searchable index of the journal), and student membership rates is available at the Society’s Web site:  This site is also has an excellent list of other Web sites related to utopian studies, as does a New York Public Library Web site:

Click here for the full syllabus.

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