Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities, by Howard P. Segal

July 12, 2012

Utopianism is in a bad way. Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany and Pol Pot’s Kampuchea are regularly disinterred as terrifying examples of humanity’s attempts to actualise ideal societies, with North Korea an absurdist reminder of inglorious pasts. John Gray’s Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007) unrelentingly, if hyperbolically, branded utopian thinking with the mark of religious fanaticism, and even utopianists get defensive. Editors of the recent Existential Utopia: New Perspectives on Utopian Thought, for example, ask whether there is any conceptual or practical space for utopian thinking “in a world marked by a chronic utopian outlook”. Not surprisingly, they find reason to prosecute the case for utopianism.

So, too, does the historian Howard Segal in Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities. Segal brings considerable scholarship and experience to bear, particularly on the historical intersections between technology and utopia. His capacious knowledge is integrated further in this book’s illuminating footnotes. He is particularly strong on utopian thinking and action as attempts to find and implement practical solutions to actual problems. This, he argues, constitutes the principal value of utopias, suggesting that “they should be played back upon the real world rather than be held up as crystal balls”. And he makes a telling criticism of utopian scholars who privilege the Western tradition of utopian thinking over that of other cultures. Brief accounts of utopianism in places such as Latin America, Japan and India hint at alternative traditions that scholars could explore profitably.

Given the immense amount of material that might be covered, selection and emphasis are critical factors in such a book. Segal covers several continents and many centuries, addressing key texts and thinkers, and while others might deal differently with the major figures or works, the book supplies impressive coverage and thoughtful interpretations. That said, he focuses most regularly on the US, clearly his area of expertise. This emphasis would be unproblematic were it not for the occasional jarring parochialism. So, while the book touches on Latin America, Japan and India, all these combined receive less space than the Maine Yankee Atomic Power Company. Presented as a “case study” (the only one in the book), this section traces the rise and fall of nuclear power in a small US state, apparently a test case of a utopian scheme undermined in the real world. But Segal gives too much space to a subject that people outside Maine would consider irrelevant. The chapter on “The resurgence of utopianism” addresses, among other things, failed education initiatives at the University of Illinois and the University of Maine. Even at only a few pages, the treatment of these programmes is overly long. As a consequence, Illinois’ James J. Stukel and Maine’s George Connick are given more attention than H.G. Wells.

One possible reason for the neglect of Wells is that he wrote science fiction, which Segal largely dismisses as “escapist fantasies”. Oddly, he lauds the campy popcorn of Star Trek, while provocative authors such as Ursula Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson and Margaret Atwood barely warrant a mention. Their summary treatment registers compelling areas of utopian writing not fully explored here - not that these areas could be covered comprehensively, given the scope of utopian thinking, writing and action. Segal must make choices, and if we sometimes disagree with his emphases, this fluent and substantial account activates precisely the sort of critical engagement that explains the enduring attraction of utopias themselves.

Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities
By Howard P. Segal
John Wiley & Sons, 304pp, £55.00 and £19.99
ISBN 9781405183291 and 183284
Published 19 April 2012

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