Monday, July 27, 2009

reading Utopia

Utopia / by Sir Thomas More. First published in Latin in 1516

"Well, the island is broadest in the middle, where it measures about two hundred miles across. It's never much narrower than that, except towards the very ends, which gradually taper away and curve right around, just as if they'd been drawn with a pair of compasses, until they form a circle five hundred miles in circumference. So you can picture the island as a sort of crescent."
"Aircastle is built on a gently sloping hill-side, and its ground plan is practically square. It stretches from just below the top of the hill to the river Nowater, two miles away, and extends for two miles and a bit along the river-bank... Right up to the town, and for several miles beyond it, there are strong tidal currents which change direction every six hours."

"The streets are well designed, both for traffic and for protection against the wind. The buildings are far from unimpressive, for they take the form of terraces, facing one another and running the whole length of the street. The fronts of the houses are separated by a twenty foot carriageway. Behind them is a large garden, also as long as the street itself, and completely enclosed by the backs of other streets. Each house has a front door leading into the the street, and a back door into the garden. In both cases they're double-swing doors which open at a touch, and close automatically behind you. So anyone can go in and out- for there's no such thing as private property."

More's description of Utopia starts with a detailed description of the (non) site and continues with an account of Utopos's manipulation of the peninsula to detach from the mainland and form an island. This first act in the making of Utopia is acknowledging the natural surrounding and situating in relation to it. An island as a self contained parcel can be fully controlled as a closed system. In More's Utopia, a perfect order (and therefore happiness) is achieved due to absolute control over all variables. Every person is accounted for, through the position of the Stywards whose job is to make sure no one is idling, while they should be working for the benefit of the community. all cities are built according to the same plan, all houses are identical, all Utopians wear the same dress. Utopia asserts only one plan as the right one. Under this plan, all must be equal, and to achieve that, similar. Utopia is the ultimate experiment in control, it allows no re-organization, self identity or free-will. In a non compromising world of no change, Utopia and Dystopia are two sides of the same coin.

Was More genuinely envisioning Utopia as the ideal society? Or was he using it to criticize his own society? Could Utopian thought be used as more than a rigid (unrealizable) system of rules? I would like to believe it can act as a vehicle of change, allowing people to envision a better way of life. However, in a (post) post-modern world Utopia must become a different thing altogether. It must incorporate contradicting visions, complexity and evolution. Perhaps 'Heterotopia' is a more fitting term, since it speaks of an 'other-place' or 'places of otherness', as opposed to 'Utopia' which is a 'non-place'.