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Aspirations for a better—even a perfect—society have existed throughout history. Utopias have been imagined in intricate detail by, among others, philosophers, poets, social reformers, architects, and artists. Gregory Claeys, a leading scholar in the field, surveys the influence of the idea of utopia on history, literature, art, architecture, and religious and political tho Aspirations for a better—even a perfect—society have existed throughout history. Utopias have been imagined in intricate detail by, among others, philosophers, poets, social reformers, architects, and artists. Gregory Claeys, a leading scholar in the field, surveys the influence of the idea of utopia on history, literature, art, architecture, and religious and political thought. Central to his exploration of ideal worlds are creation myths; archetypes of heaven and the afterlife; new worlds and voyages of discovery; ages of revolution and technological progress; model communities and kibbutzim; political and ecological dystopias; space travel and science fiction. The most significant utopias throughout history—whether envisaged or attempted—are covered, including visions of the ideal society in Asia, Africa, the Arab world, and the Americas, as well as the ancient and Western worlds. Complete with a wealth of photographs, paintings, engravings, maps, documents, posters, and film stills, as well as comprehensive notes and a bibliography, this volume is a compelling and insightful exploration of the rich diversity of the utopian imagination.


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Aspirations for a better—even a perfect—society have existed throughout history. Utopias have been imagined in intricate detail by, among others, philosophers, poets, social reformers, architects, and artists. Gregory Claeys, a leading scholar in the field, surveys the influence of the idea of utopia on history, literature, art, architecture, and religious and political tho Aspirations for a better—even a perfect—society have existed throughout history. Utopias have been imagined in intricate detail by, among others, philosophers, poets, social reformers, architects, and artists. Gregory Claeys, a leading scholar in the field, surveys the influence of the idea of utopia on history, literature, art, architecture, and religious and political thought. Central to his exploration of ideal worlds are creation myths; archetypes of heaven and the afterlife; new worlds and voyages of discovery; ages of revolution and technological progress; model communities and kibbutzim; political and ecological dystopias; space travel and science fiction. The most significant utopias throughout history—whether envisaged or attempted—are covered, including visions of the ideal society in Asia, Africa, the Arab world, and the Americas, as well as the ancient and Western worlds. Complete with a wealth of photographs, paintings, engravings, maps, documents, posters, and film stills, as well as comprehensive notes and a bibliography, this volume is a compelling and insightful exploration of the rich diversity of the utopian imagination.

30 review for Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea

  1. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    I found this book while keyword searching ‘utopia’ in the library catalogue, as it’s one of my interests. When I got round to actually reading it, the experience was both frustrating and thought-provoking. To begin with the latter, I liked the way that Claeys dealt with defining utopia as a concept. Indeed, I’m inclined to consider the first chapter the strongest of the book and the last the weakest. In the first few pages, the problem of definition is helpfully discussed: For the term ‘utopia’ t I found this book while keyword searching ‘utopia’ in the library catalogue, as it’s one of my interests. When I got round to actually reading it, the experience was both frustrating and thought-provoking. To begin with the latter, I liked the way that Claeys dealt with defining utopia as a concept. Indeed, I’m inclined to consider the first chapter the strongest of the book and the last the weakest. In the first few pages, the problem of definition is helpfully discussed: For the term ‘utopia’ to be meaningful, it cannot embrace every aspiration to social improvement. [...] Neither can utopia be reduced to psychological impulse, dream, fantasy, projection, desire, or wish, although these may underpin its creation or discovery. [...] To provide a workable definition of ‘utopia’, then, is challenging. [...] One way of doing so is to postulate that more’s seminal text ‘Utopia’ offers a quasi-realistic account of a vastly improved society. Human nature here is not perfect, for crime still exists. Yet a more collectivist system of laws, manners, and mutual consent ensures a vastly happier and better-ordered commonwealth. We can work outwards, then, from this ‘realistic’ core definition, which seemingly places less strain on human capability and credibility, to more elusive, dreamier, less likely scenarios of greater virtue, order, and pleasure... What this discussion of definition doesn’t engage with, presumably because the author professes a distrust of postmodernism, is that utopia and dystopia are relative. A better theoretical society requires some existing society as a point of comparison. Thus some older utopias seem tiresomely sexist, while older dystopias are quaintly lacking in ubiquitous corporate and state surveillance. Lazy dystopias in popular culture are usually some variation on 'white man experiences current conditions of the poor in a failed state' (cf the film Elysium). Nonetheless, it’s a tricky challenge and the book’s definition broadly works. I liked the distinction drawn between reactionary and progressive utopias, either harking back to prelapsarian simplicity or anticipating a novel future. I appreciated the history of utopian literature from Ancient Greek to early modern times. This brought out its religious links quite effectively, albeit not in great depth - the whole book is only 214 pages. The many colour illustrations are also rather fun. The inclusion of inset boxes with extremely brief biographies was not at all to my taste, though. It breaks up the text, which made for a lack of flow while reading, and gives an undesirable air of textbook. The biographical notes themselves are so short that they could easily have been incorporated into the main narrative. It was a weird choice not to. While I’m discussing my more superficial issues with the book, I must mention my cringing when Claeys used the words ‘utopic’, ‘utopically’, and ‘utopist’. These all have a revoltingly medical sound and are utterly unnecessary; why not just use ‘utopian’? On a more fundamental level, I found that when the book reached the 18th century confusion and other weaknesses started to creep in. The structure of the book became somewhat muddled, jumping backward in time after reaching the 20th century at the end of a chapter. The analysis of the French Revolution was reductive and oversimplified. I also felt that the shift from discussion of theoretical to concrete manifestations of utopia wasn’t handled smoothly. Admittedly, a much longer book would be needed to do the topic any kind of justice. Still, I feel like it would have been better to go into depth on the literature of utopia, rather than trying to cover attempts at implementation. While these obviously had considerable impact on what was then written on the topic, evaluating the historical impact of communism in a measly chapter is practically meaningless. Moreover, this evaluation was awkwardly juxtaposed with a selection of 20th century dystopian literature, without a clear enough definition of dystopia for my taste. I am firmly of the belief that post- and apocalyptic literature should be distinguished from dystopian, as they are doing different things. Utopias and dystopias can be static or dynamic, yet their central purpose is to illuminate or satirise current society and culture by systematically exploring a better or worse vision. Post- and apocalyptic literature is not about social structures, it’s about collapse, usually into individualistic survivalism. This may seem like pedantry, but isn’t that what ‘the history of an idea’ requires? I also found Claeys’ selection of 20th and 21st century utopian and dystopian writing partial, somewhat inevitably. (The same issue arose when I read Four Futures: Life After Capitalism.) In particular, it seems bizarre that he didn’t mention Iain M. Banks's post-scarcity utopia in the Culture novels. The Player of Games is the best (of those I’ve read) for illuminating the culture and society of a communist world ruled by benevolent AIs. The final chapter was especially frustrating, as it failed to engage on more than a superficial level with questions of how utopian thought manifests in the 21st century. The possibility of utopian literature exploring a future beyond capitalism wasn’t mentioned, as if Claeys thought only dystopias are written nowadays. I’ll admit that dystopian novels are plentiful and utopian writing scarce, but it still exists. There was also an odd implication that utopian thought could only emerge from the West, despite this deconstruction of empire: We lament the fifty-five thousand dead of the Reign of Terror in France, the twenty million or so killed by Stalin, and the seventy million victims of Mao. But we more rarely recall the one hundred million or so who died under European imperialism in the 19th century alone, and the similar numbers that died during the conquest of the Americas. The great European empires were ‘utopias’ to their designers - extravagant dreams of national and personal glory, imposing order on vast populations of unwashed, heathen savages, but they were also dystopias to those who had no wish to be ‘civilised’ so violently. Again, this isn’t really elaborated upon and a summary does insufficient justice to the topic. I think this book needed a narrower scope, in time (up to the end of the 18th century, maybe) and/or subject (theoretical utopian writing only). As it is, 'Searching for Utopia' reads like its trying to be an introductory textbook and not really getting away with it. The final discursive chapter is strangely rambling and adds little to what came before. Although I found parts informative and liked most of the pretty pictures, overall it wasn’t a satisfying experience. My search for books about utopia continues. Incidentally, this is the 100th book I’ve read in the first six months of 2018. Although that wasn’t a target, the round number is very pleasing.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    It's definitely a nice overview of different utopias, but the what is tiring as a reader is the list-like fashion that the subject is dealt with. The author is just so excited to go on to the next example, and then the next example, and then the next. There is very little depth of the idea itself and how it has been developed. There is no clear line of thought or argument throughout. Good for a quick first glance at the subject perhaps. It's definitely a nice overview of different utopias, but the what is tiring as a reader is the list-like fashion that the subject is dealt with. The author is just so excited to go on to the next example, and then the next example, and then the next. There is very little depth of the idea itself and how it has been developed. There is no clear line of thought or argument throughout. Good for a quick first glance at the subject perhaps.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Avşar

    Two things bugged me while reading. First is the books anthropocentrism. It may well be argued that the utopia itself is a human invention, however, does a book about utopia should only cover human utopias? Second is the definition of utopia. If the net we cast goes as wide as to cover the Wizard of Oz or Gulliver's Travels, what is then left out of it? What a utopia is not if it entails fantasy as well? Other than these, it is a solid account of all human beings' efforts to construct an ideal so Two things bugged me while reading. First is the books anthropocentrism. It may well be argued that the utopia itself is a human invention, however, does a book about utopia should only cover human utopias? Second is the definition of utopia. If the net we cast goes as wide as to cover the Wizard of Oz or Gulliver's Travels, what is then left out of it? What a utopia is not if it entails fantasy as well? Other than these, it is a solid account of all human beings' efforts to construct an ideal society, which is impossible because of its relativity, whether through religion, ethics and/or income equality. I especially liked the Ideal Cities chapter.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ultracrepidarian

    There's not much narrative in this history, as it reads more like a chronological catalogue of all the works that fall under the author's definition of "Utopia", which according to him is a narrative that tries to show a realistic way towards crafting a better society. The introduction and conclusion are where his voice shines the most, while in-between, he serves more as a tour guide towards the history of what utopian literature has been, throughout the millennia. While there isn't a very stron There's not much narrative in this history, as it reads more like a chronological catalogue of all the works that fall under the author's definition of "Utopia", which according to him is a narrative that tries to show a realistic way towards crafting a better society. The introduction and conclusion are where his voice shines the most, while in-between, he serves more as a tour guide towards the history of what utopian literature has been, throughout the millennia. While there isn't a very strong emotional narrative here to hook the reader throughout, the book more than makes up for it with a comprehensive, if shallow, look at an idea that's popped up again and again over the centuries, which is impressive in terms of scope alone.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Artur Coelho

    As utopias, prometendo libertação das dores contemporâneas, contêm em si uma forte semente totalitária. Uma utopia social implica sempre um consenso entre os indivíduos para que ajam de formas semelhantes e se conformem a um ideal comum, o que dá a estas ideias um carácter paradoxal: propostas libertadoras de constrangimentos das realidades contemporâneas que implicam submissão. Claeys traça em Searching for Utopia uma história alargada desta ideia transversal à humanidade, centrando-se por nece As utopias, prometendo libertação das dores contemporâneas, contêm em si uma forte semente totalitária. Uma utopia social implica sempre um consenso entre os indivíduos para que ajam de formas semelhantes e se conformem a um ideal comum, o que dá a estas ideias um carácter paradoxal: propostas libertadoras de constrangimentos das realidades contemporâneas que implicam submissão. Claeys traça em Searching for Utopia uma história alargada desta ideia transversal à humanidade, centrando-se por necessidade (a existência de uma forte tradição literária) no pensamento ocidental. O autor procura ser abrangente, focando as evoluções das utopias desde a tradição greco-romana das eras de ouro, olhando para ideários não ocidentais, e mostrando um desenvolvimento explosivo de ideias utópicas desde que a idade da razão suplantou a tradição judaico-cristã no pensamento. É a partir daqui que o conceito se expande para propostas imediatas, que muitas vezes foram tentadas na prática, dando à utopia um carácter interventivo que não estava presente em eras anteriores, onde se ficava por nostalgia por eras passadas ou aspiração espiritual a um mundo imaterial pós-vida. O autor olha com atenção para as utopias científicas, quer as decorrentes da história da ciência quer os voos imaginários da ficção científica, e mostra o que pode acontecer de errado quando uma ideia utópica toma conta de uma nação através de retratos críticos do sangue escorrido nas implementações de utopias comunistas. Este livro encerra-se numa nota deprimente, nesta era em convulsão em que perante os enormes desafios sociais e ambientais e uma descrença nas utopias anda no ar um ideário de desespero perante a potencial desagregação da civilização humana. No entanto, se há algo que as utopias nos ensinam é a ter fé na possibilidade de um futuro, apesar de as tentativas de o prever geralmente não corresponderem ao que a passagem do tempo nos traz.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    Following on from my enjoyment of fiction, particularly We by Zamyatin, Brave New World and 1984; I read this for inspiration for a literary bibliography. The book is well researched, mostly a philosophical analysis, but sure enough within the text gave me ideas of which other fictional works I would like. Although it could be improved with a complete bibliographical list of fictional works at the back, nonetheless it covered pretty much what I wanted and expected.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jason

    A gloriuosly illustrated historical overview of the idea and attempted practice of Utopianism. With many topics discussed, but not in much detail, and informative biographical snippet sidebars, this book is a fine jumping off point for those interested in further exploring Utopia.

  8. 5 out of 5

    SA

    Kind of your standard museum book; beautifully designed, wonderfully laid out with images and paintings. Claeys does a fine job discussing utopia as a concept and how it has been treated, and in the tail end of the book goes into it's opposites. I enjoyed it, but it belongs on a coffee table. Kind of your standard museum book; beautifully designed, wonderfully laid out with images and paintings. Claeys does a fine job discussing utopia as a concept and how it has been treated, and in the tail end of the book goes into it's opposites. I enjoyed it, but it belongs on a coffee table.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Martin

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ido

  11. 5 out of 5

    Timothy Stephens

  12. 5 out of 5

    Drew

  13. 5 out of 5

    Samuel Hilton

  14. 5 out of 5

    Eve

  15. 4 out of 5

    Pam

  16. 5 out of 5

    Matej Bunta

  17. 5 out of 5

    Nancy LaPietro

  18. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

  19. 5 out of 5

    Nihidea

  20. 5 out of 5

    Emilija

  21. 4 out of 5

    Gian Ciacci

  22. 4 out of 5

    Henrik Åslund

  23. 4 out of 5

    Tanja | Rejsen i litteraturen

  24. 4 out of 5

    David

  25. 5 out of 5

    Drew McGregor

  26. 5 out of 5

    David H.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Arne

  28. 4 out of 5

    Philip Hughes

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ece

  30. 5 out of 5

    John R Naugle

    As individuals, we all labor to "feather our nest" and in special interest groups and in various ages of the past there have been efforts expended to nurture the ideal of everything working in harmony; Utopian. This book looks good. As individuals, we all labor to "feather our nest" and in special interest groups and in various ages of the past there have been efforts expended to nurture the ideal of everything working in harmony; Utopian. This book looks good.

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