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Olio Seminar | Why We Love Dystopia

Michael Kerbow, Earth's Future

This is a 4-part seminar meeting on Monday's April 16th, 23rd, 30th, & May 7th

Before the thought of dystopias so furiously took hold of our imaginative horizons, Thomas More first imagined Utopia 500 years ago at a time when Europe was still recovering from an incredible loss of human life to the trauma of the Black Death. If we are to take literature as a form of “political unconscious,” as Fredric Jameson would have it, political interpretations take priority over all others and “[h]istory…sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis.” Therefore, we will investigate why More is integral to understanding the present state of where we are in the world we must share, given that he finds himself in the early years of colonialization and fixed in a capitalist system. 

Parallels will be drawn between More’s work and that of our present state of penal affairs, retooled and repackaged into its current iteration around 150 years after the emancipation of slaves—roughly the same number of years between the height of the Black Death and More’s UtopiaUtopia and our criminal justice system are the cumulative reactions to their respective events: the former, a physical death; the latter, a civil death. What can we learn in the aftermath of these respective traumas? Through a process of literary and experiential triangulation, we will then explore the roots of our dystopian inclinations and how this may dictate our collective future praxis, for better or worse.

In this 4-part seminar:

1. We will root ourselves in the context of More’s Utopia: a continent still recovering from the trauma of massive population loss by Black Plague; the rule of a king who was a champion of the Catholic church; the strengthening grip of capitalism; and the colonialization of human beings in the name of God and country.

2. Discussion of Book I, focusing on More’s sociopolitical critique and an homage to Plato’s imagined republic. We will begin to examine the connections between the narrative and our current sociopolitical environment—in particular, the causes of criminal behavior and why punishments are futile in the face of economic disparity.

3. Discussion of Book II and an analysis of the geography of Utopia. We will explore More’s prescriptive blueprint for future societies and how this emerged from the machinations of his lived experience.

4. Our last class will focus on why the literary landscape is flooded with dystopias and what effect this may have on our collective future.

Location: Chinatown Soup

16B Orchard St, New York, NY 10002

Chinatown Soup is a creative community advancing art, justice, historic preservation, and civic engagement in downtown New York.

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