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April 1994


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 4 Apr 1994 13:18:30 EDT
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I've spent rather a lot of time thinking about the problem of utopianism and
film in recent years. First, it might be helpful to make some basic
distinctions between technological utopianism, the belief that a perfect society
 can be constructed through both the expansion of technology (especially
technologies of production, communication, and transformation) and modeled after
 the machine (examples would be LOOKING BACKWARD or the closing segment of
 THIGNS TO COME) and social utopianism, which posits the reconstruction of
to achieve a greater degree of social equality (examples might be many of the
feminist science fiction novels which appeared in the 1960s). This distinction
has some important consequences. The technological utopian tradition, which
arose in the late 19th and early 20th century, had serious problems constructing
 plots. The standard one, which runs from LOOKING BACKWARD to JUST IMAGINE,
involves the transportation of a citizen from our present world to this utopian
 future who may learn about the changes which have occured. Rarely were the
technological utopians interested in tracing the PROCESS of change, simply in
describing the bold new world of the future. Since this is a utopia, a world
without problems, it also becomes a world without drama and often a world
without plots. It constitutes a subgenre of what Michel de Certeau calls
"spatial narratives," stories which are organized around the movement through
or the surveying of space rather than narrative causality. A key image is the
awakened sleeper on the balcony surveying future Boston in LOOKING BACKWARD.
The social utopians, on the other hand, dealt with the process of change and
often began their stories within a world which is struggling to ahcieve
utopian goals; it deals with the process of transformation within the
characters and the society by which utopia is achieved. Social utopian stories
then have access to the range of plot structures characteristic of political
fiction more generally. The shift from the Soviet montage films to social
utopian stories such as TERMINAL ISLAND or BORN IN FLAMES may not be so great
after all.
   STAR TREK struggles to maintain a ballence between these two traditions,
recognizing early on that they attracted different groups of readers and both
groups must be interested in order to produce a ratings success. ST has been
accused of rejecting dramatic conflict between its characters, a common flaw
within utopian fiction, but more often, it merges utopian and dystopian stories
 by treating the Enterprise as both a technological and a social utopian
community, which encounters and transforms dystopian worlds. A vivid example
might be the Borg episodes where the technological utopian Enterprise confrontsa
 cyberpunk dystopian future.
   So, if we recognize that literary utopian traditions rarely appear in
their purest forms in cinema, that social utopianism may allow for the
movement from dystopian to utopian worlds within a single narrative (and hence
 the introduction of conflict and plot) and that these two utopian traditions
can be mixed and matched, we can see a wider variety of films as appropriate
to a discussion of utopianism in the cinema, including some such as THINGS TO
COME, which you cite as dystopian.
Hope this helps.
Henry Jenkins