The Party of Utopia: A Report from the 43rd Annual Society for Utopian Studies Conference

One finds everywhere today — not least among artists and writers — something like an unacknowledged “party of Utopia”: an underground party whose numbers are difficult to determine, whose program remains unannounced and perhaps even unformulated, whose existence is unknown to the citizenry at large and to the authorities, but whose members seem to recognize one another by means of secret Masonic signals.

 — Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991


I. Three Faces of Utopia, Two Faces of Berkeley

1968 WAS A MOMENT of reckoning across the country, but perhaps nowhere more than in Berkeley. UC students there had already protested war and McCarthyism in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s — and in 1964, when the school administration tried to curtail campus organizing for civil rights, the Free Speech Movement was born. In 1965, Berkeley students, unions, and churches organized the first major march to protest the Vietnam War, and in 1966, the Black Panthers officially formed in neighboring Oakland. Stop the Draft week followed there in 1967, after which its leaders, the “Oakland Seven,” stood trial for conspiracy to counsel, aid, and abet resistance to the draft. They were all acquitted the next year, and in May a “Vietnam Commencement” drew 6,000 students and faculty in support of new graduates becoming conscientious objectors.

In spring, members of Ecology Action claimed a traffic island near campus as a small park in honor of their deceased founder; the city quickly took it apart. The local Provos group held free concerts on Sundays at Civic Center Park; city threats against these, and concessions to commercial developers, set the stage for what came next: soon the university invoked eminent domain to bulldoze a block of nearby Victorian houses and then abandoned the land, setting the scene for the People’s Park battle. In August, main drag Telegraph Avenue saw rambunctious protests in response to police riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the city cracked down on the street in September.

People’s Park Annex proposed map, 1969

Meanwhile, Oakland police raided Bobby Seale’s home in February and shot and killed young Panther Bobby Hutton in April. Huey Newton went to prison for police manslaughter in September, and Eldridge Cleaver published his famous Soul on Ice. That fall, Cleaver was to guest-teach an official course on social analysis, a series of 10 campus lectures. When Governor Reagan and the UC Regents revoked accreditation in a bid to cancel Cleaver, student Yippies made a pact with the Panthers and occupied several campus buildings. As a result, Yippie leaders faced felony indictments, and Cleaver fled to Cuba. Leaders of the student government and the school paper undertook a hunger strike against racism.

Besides the Provos’ and Panthers’ efforts, community institutions thrived. The Berkeley Consumer Cooperative, active since 1939, moved to withdraw from the Chamber of Commerce, and the Liberty House store sold Mississippi handcrafts to fundraise for civil rights work there. The Berkeley Barb ran dispatches from Ram Dass’s ashram and Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, pledged solidarity with the revolts in Paris and Prague, and covered community radio strikes, experimental theater groups, and the Sexual Freedom League. Berkeley that year made a crucible of the mood in the country, and maybe the world.

It was in this general spirit that utopian studies as such began: alongside the resurgence in what Lyman Tower Sargent called communitarianism, or the life of intentional communities. In his 1967 article “Three Faces of Utopianism,” Sargent divided the subject into communitarianism, literary utopianism, and utopian social theory (he elegantly defines utopianism as “social dreaming”). Peter Fitting also points to Robert Elliott’s 1970 book The Shape of Utopia, which addressed the phenomenon of anti-utopian satires. In 1972, Darko Suvin made the case for science fiction as an opportunity to consider other realities in his “Estrangement and Cognition,” which he followed up the next year with “Defining the Literary Genre of Utopia.” SUS formed in 1975, and in 1987 the Society would launch its own journal, Utopian Studies. Fitting, now a professor emeritus of French and cinema studies at the University of Toronto, tells me, “I became involved as a way of linking my politics with my academic work, as a way of thinking about what a different society would look like.” Not surprisingly, utopian studies were socially engaged from the start. Sargent’s training was in political science, while Suvin and other early literary theorists applied a Marxist lens to their analyses.

The first official conference took place in 1976 on a small campus in upstate New York. Attendees shared 17 papers, dealing mostly with social thought and action, and visited local Shakers and Sufis. For the decade that followed, attendance would hover around 45 people — then it would climb, hitting a high of 180 in Montreal five years ago. Mike Cummings, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, hosted an early conference in Denver in 1979. He remembered it to me as “a great occasion that included three practical-utopian field trips to the intentional community Sunrise Ranch, near Loveland, Colorado (an international center of the worldwide Emissaries of Divine Light); to a solar-powered business, school, and CU-Boulder dormitory; and to an urban-planning workshop. We provided free lodging at faculty and student homes for all who wanted it.”

At the 43rd annual Society for Utopian Studies conference in Berkeley, I found myself among scholars from five continents and 20 countries. Attendees included faculty from such varied institutions as the UC Berkeley Architecture Department’s College of Environmental Design, the CUNY Center for Worker Education, Yale, Israel Tech, and King Saud University, as well as a handful of SF writers who weren’t academics, and some printmakers who were. I’ve had the Society on my radar for a while and knew that its members shared my research interest. But being quite accustomed to ambient anti-utopianism, I was happily surprised to learn that here “utopian” was not an insult, nor merely a subject of critique; in fact, it was praise. This had the almost surreally freeing effect of removing the rhetorical armor I carry to protect my project in daily life.

The conference themes tend to correlate with their locations, and this year’s focus was “Disruption, Displacement, Disorder.” Perhaps the content is no surprise, as earlier utopian idealism around internet technology has turned to dystopian dysphoria over the truth of profit-driven outcomes. Some presenters discussed utopianism in current topics like Burning Man and tiny houses, while dystopian content leaned on web-related mayhem like data-mining, racist trolling, and the miasma around he whom I shall not name. Attendees discussed the origin myth of an open-source meritocracy, the way ever more “personal” technology serves ever-increasing social control, the white cyber-nationalism so enmeshed with social media as to be almost posthuman — and how “smart cities,” considered a sustainability goal by bodies including the UN, lend themselves to possibilities for a newly dystopian future. One scholar at the conference pointed out that tech leaders are advocating for socialist measures like universal basic income to prepare for “singularity,” suggesting some inverted utopian potential for the future.

The first day of the conference, I went to a terrific panel on Aquarian utopias, perhaps the variety nearest my heart. Among other things, local professors discussed the history of People’s Park and Ohlone Park (formerly People’s Park Annex), right there in Berkeley. It wouldn’t have been hard to coordinate field trips to those sites, or to bring in members of the cohousing communities I covered last year, some of whom I’m sure would have been interested. The Oakland Morehouse, a longtime polyfidelity community, appears in a linked directory and has offered public lectures around town in the past. Berkeley and Oakland are also still home to quite a few worker co-ops and cutting-edge experiments in sustainable design, as well as all kinds of holdovers from the free speech and antiwar movements — all topics under discussion in panels, but none materially present at the conference. Though it’s a geographic area a few of us knew well, many attendees didn’t, and some were on their first visit to the region (particularly those outside the Society’s “old guard”). The group had never met there before.

In early 2017, far-right activists and black bloc protestors made the campus a stage for a series of violent conflicts, and in September, weeks after the deadly Nazi rally in Virginia, student group Berkeley Patriot announced a “Free Speech Week” to feature some of the same speakers. After failing to sign their contracts and pulling out of campus venue reservations, the group canceled its events one day before, still costing the school nearly $1 million for security. Yet, some positive changes have happened in Berkeley. Last year, the school undertook a major survey dealing with campus sexual assault, held a conference on saving indigenous languages, and opened a path-breaking universal locker room. A local election brought in officials from the city’s fast-growing Asian contingent, and the UC hosted a summit assessing progress and failures since the nationwide riots of 50 years before. When ICE staged East Bay raids early in the year, residents closed ranks to resist them, and when the campus administration announced plans to build on People’s Park, it was to house the park’s homeless. While the town has grown much more expensive and the students more focused on STEM careers, my grandpa who lived there as a pastor, my dad who lived there as a student, and my brother who lives there and works in a shelter agree that, at heart, it’s the same town.

II. Utopian Tests

SUS members seem to have loose consensus on ideal utopian principles, which are something like mutual aid, human development, care for the earth, and freedom of conscience. Taking for granted that utopia is a worthy goal allows discussants to consider, in good faith, the major utopian questions: Does utopia require exit from society as we know it, or is it more effective to attempt utopian reforms? How do we commemorate the past without fetishizing it? Does sharing wealth and power mean sharing suffering too? Is “human nature” plastic? And, now, is plastic becoming human?

Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, 1666 (public domain)

There were plenty of discussions of canonical utopian thinkers, well-known utopian projects, and classics of speculative fiction from Thomas More’s era to present, some of whom I’ve written on elsewhere: American reformers Charlotte Perkins Gilman and B. F. Skinner, British SF authors H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley, and Israeli kibbutzim, here made into a video game. Certain heavyweights seem to come up each year, among them 19th-century socialists Charles Fourier and Edward Bellamy, and 20th-century novelists Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler. Even if like me, you’re not a reader of SF, you’ve probably felt the cultural influence of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas and Parable of the Sower. Conference favorites this year ranged from pioneering Renaissance thinker Margaret Cavendish and proto-cyberpunk author Marge Piercy to recent adaptations of Westworld and Ready Player One, and finally Kim Stanley Robinson, who read from his just-released book at the meeting.

Another premise the Utopians tend to share is that art can be a way of resisting dystopia, even with the uncertainty of making it in chaos — particularly when appropriating stale cultural tropes and transforming them into something subversive. Presenters at the conference examined this phenomenon in the work of Guy Debord, James Baldwin, Derek Jarman, and Janelle Monáe, among others. While acknowledging the current surfeit of dystopian stories, at least one presenter pointed out that in these stories, utopian vision and action are revolutionary and heroic.

Another mandate I found running through the conference was to look for the “utopian impulse,” as theorist Ernst Bloch called it. Panelists applied it to a wide range of cultural artifacts, from postwar college radio to ’80s detox diets. Though initially skeptical, I gradually came to see why this perspective mattered. Those expressing the impulse are sending Jameson’s secret signals by attempting to answer the question, “What would utopia do?” or, “How would it be?” Airwaves of our own, a nearness to nature? For Jarman, an erotic collision with our past; for Monáe, an exquisitely genderfuck future.

Senior SUS member Ken Roemer has compiled a rough statistical survey of presenters and papers over the years, and in general both tend to grow more numerous and diverse, goals on which members seem to agree. Nearly everyone I spoke to emphasized the value of SUS’s interdisciplinarity. As Roemer told me, any presenter “can’t just sling your field’s jargon; you have to make your points accessible to many fields.” But while the numbers of papers in most subject divisions — literature, technology, art, pedagogy — have increased according to SUS’s growth, member presentations on intentional communities have largely stagnated with time, and participation by intentional community members has fallen off completely.

A related issue is funding. After moving from campus centers to conference hotels and back, SUS continues its struggle to find an affordable setting with the necessary amenities. Universities often won’t cover travel to interdisciplinary conferences, especially for young faculty on the ever-widening non-tenure track. At the same time, pressure on PhD students to give papers at conferences has mounted. This makes current attendee demographics a bit of a bell curve, with students less likely to return after completing their programs. This is most clearly a problem when it comes to steering the Society into the future. One concerned member told me, “Those leaders we have now are overburdened with their own teaching and research obligations, so increasingly, it feels like less effort is put into the conference (especially promotion and the recruitment of new members). There is very little social media presence for the organization whatsoever, and the website is perpetually out of date.” At the end of the business lunch, I took what was apparently the Society’s first group photo in its 45 years. When I asked the outgoing president whether I could arrange one, she nervously joked that it was some sort of utopian test. Despite some resistance and quick escapees, many people seemed pleased to have the photo afterward, and the conference chair posted it on the group’s website (which is indeed sparse). While I’ve always found social media distinctly dystopian, I know that ongoing self-documentation is a way into the consciousness of a wider demographic — and particularly of younger scholars, the tech-oriented, and other less traditional prospective members.

While I see some original members taking the long view of what the Society has been, what it is, and what it could be, I also see a common temptation in the group to accept the status quo. After all, SUS is already a professional highlight for many of its members; the scores of presentations provide bountiful food for thought, and people within the group have a happy history together. Most of those in attendance at meetings are tenured professors who can pay for comfortable rooms, and whose institutions will subsidize the conference and membership fees that cover the Society’s basic costs. The group could easily fall prey to the well-known utopian hazards of privileged complacency and organizational myopia.

But utopia requires more engaged maintenance to remain intact. This means reducing costs: offering free lodging again, arranging airport carpools, replacing catering with communal meals, strategic use of A/V equipment, waiving fees for community presenters, and soliciting more volunteers in place of paid facilities staff. The Society currently awards a travel grant each year, but perhaps there’s a way to pool travel funds and offer more grants on a sliding scale, according to need. I’m not sure what kind of restrictions might apply around fundraising, but that seems to me a promising possibility. With these options in place, bringing in new members could go a long way toward bolstering group capabilities.

III. Acting on the Impulse

One well-known sometime member of the Society is critical theorist Fredric Jameson, who continues to sit on the journal’s editorial board. In his essay “Varieties of the Utopian,” from his book Archaeologies of the Future (2005), Jameson builds on the “three faces” to suggest a different way of sorting utopian manifestations. He argues for two basic categories: the utopian program, which refers to closed systems marked by totality (intentional communities, revolutionary praxis, literary utopias), and the utopian impulse (for instance, political theories and reforms, and cultural hermeneutics). The necessarily future-oriented utopian impulse was the subject of Bloch’s book The Principle of Hope, a central text in US utopian studies since its translation from the German. Jameson points out that manifestations of the utopian impulse, as we see in utopian aesthetics, can transmit a utopian desire without requiring separation. He sees this as an asset, since separation implies otherness.

Yet I see a paradox here. Jameson acknowledges when discussing the utopian literary hermeneutic that “the loss of (bourgeois) individuality is certainly one of the great antiutopian themes,” and I believe that remaining in the safe realm of the utopian impulse (theory, reform, aesthetic study) betrays this antiutopian attitude. I think personal separation is exactly what we cling to when we refuse to join utopian programs. Indeed, when I asked longtime SUS members whether they had belonged or hoped to belong to intentional communities, one cited her desire for privacy and said she was “thoroughly bourgeois that way,” and another told me he was “too individualistic” for daily responsibilities to people outside of his nuclear family. I think abstention from utopian programs also forecloses on the future-orientation necessary to the utopian impulse, because it allows us to remain in our familiar harbor of sufficient comfort and correctness, rather than launch into new horizons where we suspect we may be uncomfortable, and may even find ourselves wrong.

One person attending the conference was a practicing communitarian: the guest of honor, best-selling science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson (himself a former student of Jameson’s).

Village Homes, Davis

Almost 30 years ago, Robinson and his young family moved into Village Homes in Davis, California. Robinson has managed the household while his wife has continued her work as an environmental scientist, providing lots of rich detail for daily life in the Mars trilogy. Designed in the 1970s as a model for eco-friendly community living, the subdivision is home to about 1,000 people, many more than most cohousing developments. As in cohousing though, Village residents own much of the property in common and unbounded by fences. They practice community agriculture on shared plots of land, bio-swales irrigate the gardens, and most of the neighborhood’s trees grow fruit. Homes face north and south in order to optimize passive solar intake all year, and cars only come as close as cul-de-sacs running behind the houses. The Village has a school and a community center, where residents hold potlucks and their many committee meetings.

Yes, life in community means many meetings, constant engagement, a commitment to take care of business together rather than subcontract and outsource. But I believe the utopian impulse is false without our action. We needn’t live in the best of all possible worlds, or even agree on what that would mean, to behave as we would if we did. I don’t expect SUS members to all go off the grid or move into group housing, but inasmuch as the organization itself represents a utopia of utopians, we ought to prioritize a reintegration of other perspectives and fellow travelers into our fold.

Many presenters at the conference stressed the crucial multivalence of utopia: for instance, the value of intersectional solidarity between movement groups at key moments throughout the last century (labor, postcolonial, students). Earth Abides predicted in its 1949 fable of the wilderness retaking Berkeley that over-specialization by humans would make us ill fit to survive major change in our global environment, and a number of scholars at the conference argued that greater sustainability requires the best of both city life and the wild. Whether scholars of medieval philosophers, 20th-century city planners, or contemporary science fiction writers, attendees emphasized the position that no one faction can define a sufficient utopia, that even built structures must be adaptive, responsive, evolving; that privileging scientific progress from the Enlightenment onward has proven to be our undoing, and that if we are to survive, we will have to work together in new ways. In her contribution to Scraps of the Untainted Sky (edited by Tom Moylan), Naomi Jacobs connects her past experience in the Society to the feminist literary utopia, which is “decentered, fragmentary, multi-vocal, contradictory, and perhaps not coincidentally, collaborative.” Bringing changes to the Society might be messy, but it will generate new energy for outcomes we can’t yet see.

It’s no secret that privatization on all fronts was the capitalist imperative of the late 20th century. I believe that the most treacherous success of neoliberal hegemony has been our cognitive privatization. When I was a labor organizer, my biggest task was to help people see their seemingly private struggles as collective. As at least one scholar at this meeting pointed out, utopianism calls on us to reframe shared desires as collective rather private. I would assert that rather than eclipsing a diversity of knowledge and experience, re-collectivizing requires us to treat multiplicity as a strength rather than a conflict, even when it means accepting ambiguity.

Awardee Phil Wegner posited in his speech at the conference that what makes utopian fiction different from science fiction is the added element of love — and that love needn’t be romantic, but it directs us to search for truth, and see through others’ eyes. It might seem strange to imagine Platonic love as a factor in a professional context, but a longtime member told me that people joining sometimes say they’ve “fallen in love” with the group.

As it turns out, the Society is a welcoming community, perhaps even a utopian one. Member after member I surveyed afterward, regardless of when they had joined the organization, told me things like, “I’ve made lifelong friends,” and, “People at SUS are just lovely.” Longtime members also shared personal experiences in front of the entire group that would be hard to imagine discussing at other scholarly conferences: recovering from hip replacement surgery, being initially denied tenure. Multiple people expressed that because members share a project and care about each other, SUS is immune to many of the problems with academia: it’s collaborative rather than competitive in ethos and style, proudly eclectic and hybrid rather than increasingly narrow and hyper-specialized.

What I haven’t expressed here is what happened after the conference. Sargent, the field’s most senior scholar, read my essays within hours, and shared his reflections. Professors I’d only met at lunch allowed me to read unpublished drafts of their work, and invited me to stay with their families. Others, who hadn’t made it to the conference, took time to share their experiences with me in detail and patiently answered many questions. Officers and award-winners from the Society shared excitement about my work in progress. A panelist whose talk I’d especially enjoyed personally introduced me to the subjects of his work, so that I might write about them as well. Another brainstormed with me about advancing a shared research interest. Many people asked if I would return to the meeting the next year.

I hardly have words for how radically different this has been from my usual experience (is there a stately synonym for “mind-fuck”?). I couldn’t remember the last time people treated my ideas with so much appreciation: in my literary life? Certainly not. In my work as an organizer? Not really. In graduate school? Not then, either.

Only in utopia.


Bonnie Johnson is at work on An Atlas of Utopia, an essay collection about intentional communities.