Utopian Literature: Delusional Distractions or Essential Revelations (Kenneth Roemer)

Nature and Goals of the Course:

This is a particular type of selective survey of utopian literature.  It begins in a rather traditional way, posing questions about how concepts of “utopia” and “utopian literature” have been defined and used, and by offering a brief historical overview.  (See the course packet for a selection of brief and two extended attempts to answer the defining question by modern scholars and a variety of non-scholars as different as Confucius, Dostoyevsky, Mr. Rogers, and Oprah; for the history overview, see Kumar’s selection in the packet).  Each major section of the course also uses a traditional organizational device: chronology.  This is appropriate.  Utopian literature is a literature grounded in dialogue.  Authors often respond to earlier writings.  Hence to understand the context of a particular work, it is often useful to know what preceded it. Finally, the course’s focus on utopias of
the “Western World” is also traditional. What makes this course different from other traditional surveys is its arrangement on a spectrum beginning with forms of expression that were not to be questioned and ending with utopias that question themselves.  To be more specific, we begin with visions of better worlds that depend upon divine authority and then move on to utopias (religious and secular) that sometimes do allow alternative viewpoints (e.g., dialogue forms) but clearly imply that one alternative is much better than the others.  We next examine satiric works (from light hearted to freightingly dystopic) that either present their vision of better worlds indirectly or ironically or even as frightening warnings that emphasize the dire extrapolations of the worst in the present.  The course concludes with discussion of utopias that offer representations of better
worlds that offer “answers” but also pose questions about alternative forms of utopia and even questions about the possibility of imagining utopia, while still maintaining that utopian speculation is a crucial means of understanding the past, present, and future.

Students who successfully engage in class discussions and complete the readings and in- and out-of-class written assignments should have a awareness of the nature and importance of some of the most significant American, British, and European utopian works and should be able to articulate orally and in writing their views on (1) how utopian concepts have been defined,  (2) some of the most important issues raised in the utopias (e.g., economic and gender equality, impact of technology, environmentalism, the nature of happiness, individual vs. communal identity and responsibility), and (3) the importance of variety of the utopias suggested by the spectrum indicated above – how this variety suggests different forms of authority for utopian expression and different forms of readers attitudes about and responses to utopian literature.

Click here for the full syllabus.

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