PEDAGOGY: Utopia History

Columbia University

New York, USA

Abraham Ortelius' map of Utopia, circa 1595 | Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Ortelius' map of Utopia, circa 1595 | Wikimedia Commons

Graduate history course taught by Dr.  Marwa Elshakry at Columbia University
Spring 2014, Fall 2019

Thomas Moore coined the term utopia to highlight how his imagined, perfect society was “no place” or “no where.” Yet what he referred to, this imagined topos, had long formed vast imaginary and reasoned human geographies among many peoples and in many places

Course Description

The idea of locating the perfect society built on older notions of humanity’s origins, or, conversely, its ends. Tracing these across a number of periods and places, the seminar explores this history episodically. It looks at imagined or reasoned conceptions of the perfect society across a number of discursive traditions and textual genres. – from mythic and dialectic accounts to futurist science-fiction and revolutionary manifestos. It also explores the typically ambiguous character of utopianism, or the interplay between utopia and dystopia: either as visions of order and disorder, creation and chaos, or rise and decline. Looking at the long history of utopias, the course examines how these visions were fundamental not only for various theological and historical conceptions of time and to various, key political philosophies and movements, but also for a variety of imagined futures.

The course begins by tracing ideas of a “golden age.” It then turns to examples of eschatological and apocalyptic conceptions of time, history and humanity produced by visions of humanity’s fate “after the fall.” Much of the course will also invite students to consider the relationship between utopianism and politics writ large. Beginning with the classical and medieval ideal republic, it also examines a number of modern – revolutionary, internationalist, democratic, anarchist and socialist – political programs and collective ideals. Finally, the course ends with a few weeks that cover the more recent past: from the technocratic futurism of the twentieth century to various radical political movements of the late twentieth century and after and the many dystopias that arose in their wake.