Ambivalence in the Concept of Utopia

by Diana Zavaţchi


The ambivalent nature of the concept of utopia lies in the existence of two essential perspectives, a traditional one sustaining the emergence of a perfect model as a utopian structure that is hardly possible to reach, and a modern one involving the association of utopia with progress. Utopianism as a philosophical attitude presupposes the concept of a space where new paradigms can be imagined and can lead consequently to social transformation as a dynamic process sustained by human effort, and not by divine power whose involvement is not regarded. The utopian construction is meant to determine the improvement of the world as it is perceived, through an ideal representation triggered by social dreaming as a desire for change. It can be observed that the utopian philosophy employs a deconstructive approach towards the conventional perspective of the world destabilizing its norms and order so as to propose a new, fresh and improved representation.

The desire to establish a better order might be fuelled by the nostalgia for the lost paradise, which has manifested itself in various forms, from religion to ideology. The individual who aspires for change is displeased with the present condition of the world, and directs his energies and hopes to shape the future not according to a satisfying past state, but rather to his vision of happiness. However, in some cases, there is a connection between the utopian vision concerning the future and the idea of an ideal state which was possible in the past but is no longer available for the present. For example, the anarchists’ aim to revolutionize society relies on the praise for the values of primitive societies, considered to be nearer to the ideal state of innocence than the individual corrupted by civilization.

Before taking into consideration another interpretation of utopia, it is important to focus on the traditional view upon this concept. First of all, the term “utopia”- meaning “no place”- is conventionally associated with two essential concepts: perfection and consequently impossibility. The utopian representation is created as a perfect model according to which the world must be shaped. However, the success of such a model is only apparent as it cannot escape flaws, because while utopias challenge indeed human imperfection, their project cannot surpass the limitations of individuals. Take for instance the desire to dominate which is an obstacle for equality as long as individuals will submit to their instincts and compromise the existence of a society where there is a balance between the sexes. While some instinctual desires and thoughts might be repressed, they would manifest themselves in other forms that would contribute to the development of other flaws. For example, the utopia of Victorian society is based on such strict constraints of morality that the individual appeals to hypocrisy while apparently trying to suppress his desires, hence wearing a mask so as to escape the pressure of decency and common sense.

The utopian projection is not only impossible but also destructive. There aren’t clear boundaries between utopia and dystopia, hence leading to a state of ambiguity regarding these concepts. The ambivalent nature of utopia is represented by the coexistence of the fact that it regards an ideal representation of the world meant to ensure through its order happiness, and also of the fact that through its implied perfection the utopian construction involves strict rules that impose on the individual limits gaining a dystopian character. The utopia imposes a way of living and of thinking that would contribute to the good of a whole group of individuals, ignoring the needs of one individual who must sacrifice his happiness for the imagined well-being of others. So instead of focusing on the individual’s development of a harmonious connection with society, the utopia relies on restrictions and on the submission of individuals. In other words, a utopian social organization presupposes a strong government that would be based on the suppression of human nature which is regarded as an obstacle to the paradisiacal image of society. To ensure the harmony of a social construction, an authority is required to control individuals from yielding to their desires and instincts that, according to Rothstein, would jeopardize the established order; thus “the inner life must shrink, deferring to the material world” as “the human mind must be transformed”[i].

In addition, this utopian construction relies on the dismantlement of the former organization of the world. The utopia has a critical function because it criticizes the values of an ideology while offering an ideal model of the world relying on the destruction of the past, as it must be projected outside the history so that it can assure a fulfilling different, revolutionary future. The laws that condition the coherence of the initial system are questioned and then replaced by new rules meant to achieve perfection. In their aim to assure a perfect world, utopians appeal to excess, since everything is allowed to achieve their goal, often contributing to the distortion of the perception of reality. As Ernst Bloch put it, “the utopian impulse lies in the act of imagining the world around us according to our hopes”[ii]. The problem is that while utopians aim for improvement, as individuals they are subjective in their perspective concerning what is better for society.

Also, as they are based on perfection, utopias have a static character as opposed to the fluidity and dynamism of changes as long as progress is not triggered anymore because a perfect state has been reached. This is why utopia should refer to a space where finality and closure is replaced by movement and not “the death of progress and process, development and change”[iii].

According to Lucy Sargisson[iv], the standard view of utopia must be undermined and questioned, and the concept reconceived because it is flawed as it sets up boundaries which limit the conceptualization of utopianism and is restrictive for its understanding. Levitas sustains this idea by saying that the form of literary fictions such as More’s Utopia is mistakenly taken as a model, and that utopias exist outside the conditions created by these genres[v]. Sargisson further develops this idea by stating that utopias must not be approached in terms of form and content but of the function to produce systems that struggle with the deficiency of the present situation. The conventional function of utopias is based on political discourse and criticism. Sargisson associates this function with the metaphor of the mirror as long as utopias reflect a reversed image of the present situation of the world as an alternative so as to outline its flaws. This image is supposed to make individuals rethink the nature of matters from a whole different perspective, encouraging the alienation from the present and providing arguments and motivation for the action needed in order to reshape the world.

Moreover, in Sargisson’s opinion, the traditional perspective upon utopia should be replaced with the idea of progress and not of closure. This view involves the utopian thought’s more realistic approach towards the future. Instead of focusing on perfection, the utopians envisage countless possibilities to improve the world. Thus, the gap between the conventional perspective upon utopia and this more modern and flexible view can be highlighted in terms of the difference between the notions “imaginary” and “imaginative”[vi]. While according to the standard perspective, the utopia is more linked with the imaginary than with reality, the second conception of utopia links it with the imaginative process of creating hypothesis. Hence social imagination is encouraged as it is constructive and indispensable. This modern approach towards utopia is also adopted by Mannheim, as Paul Ricoeur outlines in his work Lectures on Ideology and Utopia[vii]. In his analysis of the differences and similarities between ideology and utopia, Mannheim suggests that the utopian vision is realizable and has a futuristic aspect despite its “noncongruence” with reality, while “Ideas which later turned out to have been only distorted representations of a past or potential social order were ideological”[viii].

One of the reasons why utopia is attributed a pejorative characteristic is the fact that it is misleadingly associated with dreaming, as the passive process of forming mental representations detached from reality. Take for instance Ricoeur’s analysis of the pathological aspect of the utopia seen as the lack of a “connecting point” that “exists between the ‘here’ of social reality and the ‘elsewhere’ of the utopia” allowing it “to avoid any obligation to come to grips with the real difficulties of a given society”[ix].

By comparison with the standard view, according to the second perspective, utopia is concerned with the essential steps to the improvement of the world and does not involve passivity but action. Utopia is not sustained by the urge to escape reality while being a mental construct that is excluded from history, but by the desire to actively participate in the process of changing the present situation. The utopian vision’s relation with reality involves the awareness in the limitations imposed by its proposal, and essentially in the fact that the degree of the possibility of its project determines its success or its failure. Taking into consideration the drawbacks of their ideas, utopians encourage the achievement of the best state of the world, not of the perfect one which is beyond reach.

The utopian thought is no doubt a source of inspiration for action but to what extent are the changes that it proposes better? As I have mentioned before, the subjectivity of the individual from which he cannot escape might represent a drawback when considering utopias. Each individual shapes the beliefs that he develops when interacting with the social environment, according to a standard that he himself chooses as appropriate. From all the flaws of the utopian vision outlined by the traditional view, this is the main reason why I sustain the constant questioning of utopias while appreciating their effort and quest to improve the world. A utopian society is meant to satisfy the needs of all individuals and assure happiness, but what if the initiator of the utopian project has a different view towards happiness than the rest of the individuals? And what if beneath the desire to ensure progress hides the instinct to seek one’s own pleasure? It is important to take into consideration the fact that human imperfection cannot be avoided. One can only hope to change the world without imposing on others a restricting, powerful new system that would offer one the possibility to exercise his will and that would influence others in a negative way.


[i] Edward Rothstein, Visions of Utopia. Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 12

[ii] Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope. The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1995

[iii] Lucy Sargisson, Feminist Utopianism. Routledge, London, 1996, p. 37

[iv] Ibidem, p. 39

[v] Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia, Hemel Hempstead: Philip Allan, 1990, p. 12, 30-37

[vi] Ibidem [iii], p. 40-45

[vii] Paul Ricoeur, Lectures on Ideology and Utopia. Columbia University Press, 1986, p.346.

[viii] Ibidem, p. 270

[ix] Ibidem, p. 17

Ambivalence in the Concept of Utopia

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