The politics of the future, 1880-2080

Course Material 2020/21

Political thinkers have long sought to imagine better worlds. The most famous texts in the Western tradition include Plato's Republic and Thomas More's Utopia, the latter of which gave this style of thinking a name. This course explores the modern utopian tradition. It examines accounts of the future produced in Britain and North America from the 1880s to the present. Combining work in literature, political theory, and intellectual history, the course encompasses both utopian and dystopian visions, as well as recurrent attempts to produce a social science of the future. To do so, we read a sample of important utopian/dystopian speculative writings - from William Morris and H.G Wells, through George Orwell and Ursula Le Guin, to Margaret Atwood and William Gibson - as well as theoretical literature on the nature and value of utopian thinking.

The course proceeds in a broadly chronological fashion. It is divided into 3 broad periods: 1890-1925; 1925-1970; 1970-the present. Each concentrates on two main themes (though it is important to recognise that these are cumulative, each building on the previous sections).

Section I traces the intellectual and imaginative impact of Darwinism and debates over possible socialist societies. Section II focuses on attempts to make sense of totalitarianism and nuclear war. Section III turns to the potential of bio-technological transformation and of environmental catastrophe, culminating in discussion of Artifical Intelligence and the possible emergence of post-human beings. Particular attention is paid to the gendered and racialised dimensions of future visions. Throughout the course we will reflect on three broad themes: how writers - whether novelists, philosophers or public intellectuals - (1) imagined alternative social, political, and economic structures; (2) reimagined the self in relation to new technologies and forms of political association; and (3) debated the possibilities and the value of thinking about the future. The course is not intended to be an exhaustive survey of modern utopian thought; rather, the aim is to identify and explore the most significant foci for writing and thinking about the future.