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April 1994


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 12 Apr 1994 12:54:21 EDT
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There seem to be multiple concepts of utopia clogging our discussion at the
moment. I had intended my original post as offering a more historically
grounded version of what the concept has meant in terms of science fiction
since Roberta's original post contained only science fiction examples.
Utopianism has been a central concept in science fiction, with the early pulp
magazines of Hugo Gernsbeck helping to set the tone for much of the subsequent
 development of the genre by popularizing the technological utopian rhetoric of
 late 19th and early 20th century middle class reformers who felt that modeling
 society more after a machine would lead to a more perfect order. Howard Segel
has written a book on the technological utopian tradition which is well worth
reading. There had been, of course, earlier versions of fictional utopias in
 philosophy, such as Thomas Moore's original UTOPIA, in writings about the New
World as a utopian space, etc. Peter Fitting argues that the social utopian
 tradition emerges in the 1960s, typically around the work of feminist science
fiction writers and focusing on changing the social order to allow for greater
 equality and diversity. I argue in my forthcoming book on STAR TREK that it
 draws on both of those traditions, while melding them with a healthy dose of
 space opera. In this context, then, I see utopianism as a specific ideological
discourse and a specific generic tradition.
   On the other hand, there is a very different tradition of talking about
utopianism within film and media studies which I also find very helpful and
which can probably cover most of the other examples, from THE WIZARD OF OZ to
 PHILADELPHIA STORY, which people have suggested. Richard Dyer has argued that
popular entertainment provides us not with an image of what utopia looks like,
 the specific concern of the genre tradition described above, but "what utopia
feels like." Dyer's model includes both narrative elements (such as shifts
within the character relations), thematic concerns (such as community), but also
 formal aspects (such as music, which can give us a sense of intensity, or
color, which creates a lushness, etc.) Frederic Jameson pushes this further to
 say that entertainment, in order to be effective, must offer a certain degree
 of utopianism (a sense of a better world that responds to the felt needs,
 frustrations, and unsatisfied desires we feel in our present world.) Further
Dyer's work in queer theory points to a utopian mode of reception within the
gay and lesbian community, a desire for texts which speak of pleasures which the
 mainstream media rarely acknowledges, a desire to imagine alternatives to the
 pain of living in a homophobic society. Dyer identifies a number of different
forms of entertainment, popular with gay and lesbian audiences, such as
 Disco,Opera or Judy Garland's musicals, which provide this utopian pleasure.
        Finally, we might identify the notion of a utopian space as the "green world"
 beyond the edges of civilization, a space characters can move into not so much
 to construct a new social order but rather to escape society's constraints
 altogether. This image of a utopian escape into a "green world" is most visible
 within the romantic comedyy tradition where characters gain psychological
fluidity by escaping from their normal social sphere, enabling romance to
resolve the irreconcilable differences between the characters and facilitating
 their marriage. See the bus trip in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT or the trip to
Conn. in BRINGING UP BABY as archtypial examples. Could the lush, green
landscape at the end of BLADERUNNER be understood in that tradition, as the
 space which allows the two protagonists to escape their fixed social roles into
 a more fluid world where the line between human and android, man and woman, may
 be less rigidly enforced and where they may then achieve a personal utopia
through marriage?
  One reason why this discussion, while productive, gets confusing is that
different posts seem to use utopia in different ways, depending on which
tradition we are evoking, and so, there seem to be few films which fit
 comfortably within the utopian genre (as Roberta first suggested and seems
 true) but that some form of utopianism is recognizable in almost all Hollywood
films (which would seem to be axiomatic for Dyer or Jameson). The same is
at the roots, I think, within debates between whether a utopian film must
have larger social categories at its roots or may be focused around individual
 characters, whether utopian films must construct an alternative social order or
 it is sufficient to show the characters escaping from a dystopian social
order into the "green world" beyond.
   I hope this clarifies rather than shuts down what is proving to be one of the
 more substantive discussions on Screen-L in a long while.
Henry Jenkins