New England has long been fertile ground for experimental societies. One of the most influential utopian societies formed near our home in West Roxbury. In 1841, a man named George Ripley purchased 179 acres and created an “intentional community” called Creek Farm. The community, which had 120 members at its peak, drew inspiration from the transcendentalist movement and sought to create a place that honored individual freedom, focused on human relationships and the fusion of values. Due to community goals, Brook Farm grew, attracting scholars, feminists, and thinkers of that time. And although it ended up collapsing, the commune’s six-year existence was born out of a kind of radical imagination.
The idea of radical imagination is one I often think of. The expression is an invitation to see the world and its systems not as they are but as they could be. It’s a useful framework for thinking about change when conversations about the future — especially those about the fate of the United States — become cyclical. Imagination is the catalyst for everything in existence, from the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the cars we drive to the founding of our country. The idea of radical imagination takes systems and laws out of the concrete and replaces them in the abstract. When I am overwhelmed by the thought of this country and its codes, written and unwritten, I find it useful to think of the imagination in which we live.
True utopia is not possible. However, the concept of world building is fascinating. What do imagined literary societies tell us about ours? I don’t think we should all leave the city to join townships, but we could use a little radical imagination as we try to keep moving forward as a country. This week, I have some recommended readings on utopia, world-building, and reinvention.
By JC Hallman
In this non-fiction book, JC Hallman searches for real examples of utopia. The author grew up in a planned suburb in California on a street called Utopia Road in a home he says housed him but did not raise him. In the opening of the book, Hallman explains that utopias, as a rule, slip. “The story of utopian thought shines a light on the civilization that both illuminates and burns: civilization triggers utopia, embraces it – and then accuses it,” says Hallman. Using literary utopia as a framework, Hallman explores the idea of perfection and the tensions that arise between, for example, the desire to be free from existential threat and the suppression of nature. This book is rich, blending narrative storytelling with investigation and history. It’s a non-judgmental look at utopia and why experimenting with the idea matters, even if it has failed before.
By Ursula K. Le Guin
It is an anarchist utopian novel and one of many famous readings by the author. In “The Dispossessed,” Le Guin created two seemingly opposing societies. One is an advanced capitalist world. The other is an anarchist and classless civilization. The book is set around 200 years after revolutionaries were given a mining planet to live on, where they attempted to create a kind of utopia. The story follows physicist Shevek as he returns to the home planet, where he discovers that civilizations, however different, have similarities. Le Guin was a political figure and the injustices of the world around him inspired his fiction. Threads like that of an oppressed underclass and imperialism run through his work.
By Toni Morrison
Drawing inspiration from real towns founded by African Americans in the 19th century, Morrison shapes the community of Ruby. The novel is about a created utopia which is completely exclusive of the outside world, it is conservative, patriarchal and follows a strict moral code. But the all-black town borders a convent, which Morrison wrote about as raceless and freethinking. Due to the differences between the two communities and Ruby’s obsession with self-preservation, violence erupts. History is a master class in world building. In a 1998 interview with PBSMorrison said, “All paradises, all utopias are designed by those who aren’t there, by people who aren’t allowed there.”
- A poem about Alicia Ostriker’s utopia, which she explains by saying, “Of course…you can’t get there from here – even though it may seem so close.”
- This writing by Eliane Brum in Granta about her trip to Antarctica makes me think that utopia may only be possible without us.
- Self-publishing by photographer Isabel Okoro collection work focuses on a “normatopia”.