Utopia in Dystopian Times

I taught Utopia last week in a mask, sitting opposite this year’s adventurous cohort of graduate students. It is truly strange to attempt any unpacking of a text like More’s opus in the middle of a raging global pandemic, and doubly strange for me, since I had just re-visited sections of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. We head to the English Revolution this week, to give it Christopher Hill’s framing, and examine The Law of Freedom in a Platform and the Digger movement, and we do so online, which provides its own challenges for freewheeling graduate discussions.

Another update on the course website: I can’t afford the luxury of the forum code (which wasn’t really used anyways), and so have moved to the much less expensive personal plan from WordPress. I think the core purpose of the ‘companion course’ is still fulfillable without it, but any potential interaction between this year’s class and folks reading along with us might need to happen on some other platform. I’m certainly approachable over on Twitter if readers wish.

This pandemic moment, and the larger (and largely atrocious) political context in which it began, has made it very difficult to write, not just about utopian thought, but generally. Even small blog entries feel like blood from a stone, and I wish everyone struggling through that process well right now. It’s really tough when life proves more dystopian than fiction.

Mid-Semester – ‘Looking Backwards’

We have had a productive six weeks so far in the ‘Hopeful Tomorrows’ classroom, and we’re edging towards the later nineteenth-century dawn of formal ‘science fiction’ this coming Friday, with Edward Bellamy and certainly next week when we hit H.G. Wells.

From my perspective the course seems to be working well as designed. We’re about to see students submit their first assessment efforts, and of our group of six at least three have opted to write creatively (to design their own small utopian fiction). I am very much looking forward to that, and to seeing which traditions and which sub-genres of utopian thinking they gravitate towards. I get the sense in 2019, in these days of smoke and anxiety, that students are drawn to increasingly dystopian themes. We are not doing Orwell or Huxley (and perhaps we really ought to be), but in our discussions of everything from More to Shelley students have been latching on to the terrifying prospects of total societal conformity and unbridled scientific ambition at least as frequently as they have identified visionary subjectivities or ‘plans for hope’. It’s perhaps not unexpected that a course about the most ‘hopeful’ of genres is also one which also investigates the bitter disappointments that genre is always addressing. I’m personally hopeful that the creative writing exercise proves a revelation for our group, it is entirely new to all of them.

An Open Access Graduate Course.

We’re doing something slightly different with this online course. It isn’t ‘massive’, it doesn’t pretend to revolutionise digital educational resources, and the aim is not to transform it into some kind of larger product or service (ala ‘Google University’ or FutureLearn).

Interactions will be pretty traditionally ‘WordPress’ in their look and feel. Anyone can make a comment on the week’s content, under ‘Course Content & Resources’, subject to approval. The MA students in the classroom can then choose to interact with the larger community of interested participants. Eventually, the MAs can choose to share their own creative and historical work on here, and people can discuss it. All of this activity will be monitored and moderated by the lecturers. No matter what level of engagement ends up being the norm, the site’s resources, readings, downloadable extracts, and linked content are free to all comers.