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The Politics and Aesthetics of Utopian Literature: From the “Golden Age” Myth to the Renaissance  

Antonis Balasopoulos

From its earliest beginnings in the Western world to the end of the Renaissance, utopian literature has developed in four primary ways: as myth about the blissful but vanished past of humanity; as prophecy about a future state of bliss, particularly in millennial visions of the post-apocalyptic kingdom of God; as explicitly posited philosophical and rationalist speculation on how an ideal or at least plausibly better city and society could be attained; and as full-blown fiction, which deploys a range of fictional speech acts. Though in certain ways its ideational origins lie in a rich interplay of topoi derived from mythic antiquity and from the Hellenistic, Roman, and early Christian cultural world, utopian literature in its most formally complex form—that of the utopian fiction—only arises in the Renaissance. In this form, which will ultimately yield the utopian novel of the 19th century, the literary utopia occupies an idiosyncratic position between realism and fantasy fiction, lacking grounding in verisimilar space or time, but also eschewing the ahistoricism and escapism of fantasy. Utopian literature has been mostly understood in terms of moral and sociological functions, ranging from its utility as an instrument of anticipation, or at least fertile speculation about the possible and desirable, to its ability to posit norms and regulatory ideals or, more negatively, its penchant for dogmatism and the abstractions of blueprint and method. A different picture emerges, however, if one considers utopias from the standpoint of how they produce social meaning—an approach that foregrounds the role of textual and semiotic factors without making ethical assumptions about the better or worse character of utopian textual worlds. At stake, rather, is the grasp of utopian literature in terms of an organizational imaginary, according to which society is something that can be beneficially re-formed and rearranged after first being critically analyzed as to its constitutive elements and institutions. At their earliest, utopias were the repository of myths about a world free from the pains of labor and the horrors of war, from greed and often from private property as well. By the time of Plato’s philosophical writings in the 4th century bce, utopian vision had become at once more modest and more realistic and technical, most prominently in its connection to social engineering. The earliest elements of playful fictionality emerge in the Hellenistic world, which incorporates the theme of travel and the element of the marvelous, often in a satirical vein. The early Christian world tends toward a divide between allegorical abstraction, particularly in elite versions of Christian Neoplatonism, and the more heterodox possibilities of divinely mediated subversion of established social forms and structures in the millenarianism of the lower classes. The Renaissance utopia, finally, emerges after Sir Thomas More’s homonymous text of 1516 as a complex synthesis and mediation between elite and subaltern pursuits, antiquity and modernity, Christian morality and scientific materialism, constituting utopists themselves as mediators and guarantors of social harmony in an otherwise rapidly changing and turbulent world.