Hope Against Hope: 21C Utopian Forms

Siân AdiseshiahMCRn

“Everybody want the Promised Land now” -Andrea Hairston, Mindscape (2006)

“We inhabit the bottom of a slippery slope of equation and conflation, where opposition to totalitarianism becomes opposition to utopianism becomes opposition to ideology becomes opposition to the political” -David M. Bell, Re-thinking Utopia (2017).

This panel seeks to investigate utopian functions, impulses and potentials of utopian forms in and of the twenty-first century. Drawing on a cross-disciplinary range of perspectives including Literature (Edwards, Stock), Theatre (Adiseshiah), Education (Webb) and Art (Smith), we seek to address a series of questions relating to the study of utopian forms including the potential for the integration of utopian thinking into our teaching practice. Can utopias and utopianism be repositioned, from objects of study to models of emancipatory thought and action? We are also interested in the limits of utopian thinking, how we can work through the problems embedded in its history and whether or not utopia as a textual and cultural form can be recuperated from its long association with colonisation and colonial logic.

Universities are now welcoming as undergraduates a post 9/11 generation who have grown up in the shadow of nineteen continual years of the “War on Terror”. The structure of feeling of the early twenty-first century is marked by resurgent far-right nationalism, an existential climate crisis, the far-reaching surveillance capabilities integrated into new technologies, the domination of a world economy with less numerous, but more powerful number of corporations, increasing financialisation, and the privatisation of public goods. For both post-millennial and mature students the study of utopian forms in the historical context of the twenty-first century has the potential to introduce them to the historical contingency of the present and the possibility of alternative modes of being. Yet in the current institutional context of higher education, we ought not to oversell the transformative potential of utopian studies; as Darren Webb (2018, 100) notes, “the field of critical pedagogy/radical education is heavy on bombast and the realities of the utopian classroom often fall short of the theory-heavy promises”.

Notwithstanding these limitations, utopian forms are essential tools for us and our students to affect stringent critiques of the structure of feeling of our age, to identify, and analyse what Williams termed “emergent forms”, and to begin to think about the possibilities for alternative modes of being, and changes in social relations. In our roundtable we want to raise for discussion a series of important questions, including:

  • How we can fully acknowledge and work through the role of western utopian imaginaries in the history of colonialism, while seeking to decolonize curricula within existing institutional constraints?
  • What is distinctive about utopian forms in the twenty-first century and why do they matter?
  • How are twenty-first century writers, artists, and educators using particular forms to enable utopian affects?

Dr Siân Adiseshiah is Senior Lecturer in English and Drama at Loughborough University. Her research interests are in contemporary theatre, utopianism, age studies, gender studies, and class studies. She is author of forthcoming Utopian Drama: In Search of a Genre (Bloomsbury, 2021), co-editor (with Jacqueline Bolton) of debbie tucker green: Critical Perspectives (Palgrave, 2020), (with Louise LePage) Twenty-First Century Drama: What Happens Now (Palgrave, 2016), (with Rupert Hildyard) Twenty-First Century Fiction: What Happens Now, 2013 (Palgrave, 2013), and author of Churchill’s Socialism: Political Resistance in the Plays of Caryl Churchill (CSP, 2009).

Dr Dan Byrne-Smith is Senior Lecturer in Fine Art Theory at Chelsea College of Arts, UAL. He is editor of the forthcoming Science Fiction: Documents of Contemporary Art, (Whitechapel/MIT, 2020) and is currently the Horniman Museum Art, Design and Natural History Fellow.

Dr Caroline Edwards is Senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature. She is author of Utopia and the Contemporary British Novel (Cambridge University Press, 2019). [Full bio tbc.]

Dr Adam Stock is Lecturer in English Literature at York St John University. His research interests are in utopian studies, modernism, and science fiction. He is author of Modern Dystopian Fiction and Political Thought: Narratives of World Politics (Routledge, 2019). He served as Hon Treasurer of the Utopian Studies Society 2014-2019.

Dr Darren Webb is Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Sheffield. Over the past few years he has become increasingly interested in the pedagogical practices of the ‘utopian’ educator. How does a committed utopist bring this commitment to bear on their role as an educator? Can there be such a thing as utopian pedagogy? Or a utopian pedagogue? Where and how can/should utopian pedagogy best operate? These are the questions that animate his research. He is currently working on a book for the Ralahine Utopian Studies series titled Utopian Subjectivities: Hope, Education and the Radical Imagination.

Fri 2:00 pm - 3:15 pm