Activating Victorian Utopias for Future Use (Research paper presentation, 16th May)

Balloons and people flying
Utopias of navigation, via Wikimedia Commons.

Is there still a place for utopian thinking in the twenty-first century? In this research paper, Eleanor Courtemanche (University of Illinois) looks back at the construction of utopia in the Victorian period, and asks how it might inform us about progressive and visionary political thinking today. Join us on 16th May, 14.00, in the Tristram Room, St John’s College.

Fredric Jameson famously argues that in postmodern capitalism, the utopian imagination has withered; it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the capitalist system. This imaginative poverty became even more pressing after the Great Crash in 2008, when it became clear how difficult it was to envision any alternative to the policies of austerity. In this situation, the hunt for utopian alternatives leads us backward, to the great wave of Victorian utopias, as much as toward the future. These hopeful stories, written between 1880 and 1910 (including Looking Backward, News from Nowhere, A Modern Utopia, and Old-New Land) envisioned audacious solutions to pressing social problems — to class warfare, mass poverty, mechanized labor, the marginal status of women and Jews. In fact, these utopias successfully predicted many things that came to pass, including universal education, social security, health, and accident insurance, and women in the workplace. In this talk I will describe some of the aesthetic, historical, political, and disciplinary barriers to recovering the progressive politics of these utopian works, balancing a historicist approach with what the V21 Collective manifesto has identified as the new “strategic presentism” in Victorian studies.

This event is co-organised between the Department of English Studies and the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies.

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