IAS 31408 - Between Heaven and Hell: The History of Utopian and Dystopian Thought

This advanced, interdisciplinary course examines the historical legacies and contemporary relevance of utopian and dystopian thought. Stretching from Plato’s Republic through Thomas Moore’s Utopia and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, all the way up Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and the “cyber-utopianism,” as Evgeny Morozov has called it, of Silicon Valley today, utopian thought is a vast and varied phenomenon. Its aspirations have informed philosophical and political treatises, mobilized social movements, and borrowed deeply into popular culture. The same could be said for its shadow discourse, dystopianism, which in the current age of global warming, refugee crises, and a resurgent neo-fascism, has gone from being the purview of science fiction to the stuff of newspaper headlines. The eerie contemporary relevance of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale is a case in point. Highlighting the ways in which utopian and dystopian works have expressed both our highest hopes and our basest fears—about society, technology, and the environment, among other things—this course shows how speculative thought interacts with real-world contexts and consequences. It will demonstrate how utopian and dystopian ideas more often reflect this world than the one that is to come. Students with interests history, literature, and philosophy, as well as those interested in any of the social movements that have been connected to utopian and dystopian discourses—such as progressivism, feminism, anti-racism—are encouraged to attend.
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