Comments About Utopia

And I'm back. I've brought with me the current draft of my conclusion to the paper for discourse analysis; though it's rough, and may cause contention, I post it here to see if there's any reaction at all.

The goal of this project is to examine the use of "utopia" by a few medievalists. As I note in the essay, the articles I have examined here constitute a small selection of the work having been done on the utopian impulse in medieval cultural production. The articles are drawn from a recent (Fall 2006) edition of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (JMEMS), which was entirely devoted to “essays that consider utopian dreams dreamt before or beside More’s work [Utopia]” (Ingham 480). Of the six essays published in that issue, three were on explicitly medieval topics. Karma Lochrie’s “Sheer Wonder: Dreaming Utopia in the Middle Ages” works largely with the important (though late-antique) Commentarium in somnium Scipionis (Commentary on the Dream of Scipio) by Macrobius. William Burgwinkle traces idealized communities through several crusader-era texts in “Utopia and Its Uses: Twelfth-Century Romance and History.” Daniel Birkholtz, in an essay titled “Mapping Medieval Utopia: Exercises in Restraint,” gives a close reading (quite literally!) of the mappamundi (world map) once found in Hereford Cathedral. I include as well Patricia Clare Ingham’s introductory article, “Making All Things New: Past, Progress, and the Promise of Utopia,” which sets the stage for the rest.

Taken as a whole, these essays represent the most recently available scholarly investigations of medieval utopia. I use “represent” deliberately: there have been many contributions to the scholarly conversation, as Ingham points out (480), and the present articles are but a small sample that may speak for a larger project. I have selected these essays for a number of reasons: they are all from the same journal, were written as part of a larger project, and are all in English. These, then, may not be all there is to know on the subject, but the knowledge they produce should be consistent and coherent, and can be compared with a minimal amount of suturing.

Please, if I mention you by name, and in the course of that mention say something you read as unfair, know that I don't intend you personally any harm. I'm just concerned about the state of utopian studies with a medieval bent, and I fear that a good number of people are not as vociferous as they might be.

Begin Conclusion:
We see, then, that “utopia” has a number of uses for these critics, some of which overlap and some do not. We are left with the question of whether there is such a thing as a “discourse of medieval utopia.” Recalling Foucault’s four stages of discursive formation—positivity, epistemoogization, scientificity, and formalization—what signs do these essays exhibit of having produced, become, or been produced under a science? What modes of inquiry do they produce? How do they produce knowledge of a “medieval utopian” kind?

First let us narrow down the possibilites for the state of the “medieval utopian,” using Focualt’s list as best we can. It seems clear enough that the discourse is positivized, for it has gained some independence from mainstream “utopian” thinking, has existed in some degree since at least the late 1970’s (though the part of the conversation in English has been more recent), and has enough recognition to have been made the special topic of a prestigious journal. The discursive formation seems also to be epistemic, since each critic “exercises a dominant function . . . over knowledge” (Foucault 186-7) in order to trace utopia in medieval cultural production. Can we call it a science, then? Perhaps: the discourse already has formal moves common across the articles: at some point, for example, each essay must come to terms with Thomas More’s Utopia and justify the ability to “circumvent” More chronologically. Some, like Lochrie appeal to “positive” and “negative” utopic functions—those that posit schemes for the future, and those that “foster and anticipatory consciousness” (509), respectively. Others, like Birkholz, propose heterotopias instead of utopias, or, like Burgwinkle, suggest that pre-More utopias are historical fantasies. In any case, this grappling with More would fit Foucault’s definition of “laws for the construction of propositions” (187): one must always justify one’s right to speak of the utopian as medieval, the right, as Lochrie phrased it, to “drag utopia back into the past” (494). So, then, it is a science, but it may be just past that threshold, since there is little evidence that the “medieval utopian” is “able, taking itself as a starting point, to deploy the formal edifice it constitutes” (Foucault 187). There would seem to be no “formal edifice” as such: a “science” that stresses its own paradoxical nature, that can be said to be both grounded (Lochrie, and to a lesser extent Birkholz) and rootless (Ingham, Burgwinkle), cannot have agreed on “formal” categories yet, nor may it be capable of “taking itself as a starting point.” We can say, then, with some degree of certainty, that there is an emerging “science” of the medieval utopian, one that still seeks an epistemic foothold, but has begun to generate propositions and eliminate alternatives.

Towards a Politics of Literature (Again)
Given that the science exists, what are we to make of what it says about the “medieval utopian”—that is, what are the propositions it espouses, and what are the ideological implications of those propositions? Common to each article is the notion of the utopian as a process that innovates, that cause us, in Ingham’s phrasing, to “reconfigure the familiar, to make us want it again in a new way” (488). This is a process that “begins in stupor and ends in wonder” (Lochrie 499), in which we “think we are constructing the new” where there is only the reworked past (Burgwinkle 540). These notions resonate with, on the one hand, Jameson’s statement that More’s own text “identifies those still-existing social spaces in which the new ideological values might be incarnated” (25) and, on the other hand, with Althusser’s notion that the ideological apparatus “may not only be the stake, but also the site of class struggle” (147, his italics). The theme of utopian as “innovative” not only allows critics to re-present the medieval as the site of class struggle, but it also opens up those texts to “colonization” by “modern” ideological constructions. Despite Birkholz’s observation that the medieval seems to be kept out of the utopian in order for the utopian to remain modern (591), it is very possible that in opening up the medieval through utopia, we are making it entirely part of the modern world and thus closing it off as a site of oppositional struggle. Yet this is, after all, a science still new, still wet behind the ears, and this is not to say the battle is lost.

Or is it? For another feature these articles share is their movement away from a direct political engagement with utopia. Both Ingham and Burgwinkle establish a reading of utopia as “paradoxical” which they leave unresolved, a move that leaves “utopia” as a free-floating signifier in Ingham (e.g. 485) and a figure of the eternal present in Burgwinkle (e.g. 553). Birkholz proposes in the end not utopia but heterotopia, a discursive formation that, as he admits “has its essence in difference, a taste for the multiple . . . [that] is effectively utopia’s opposite” (613), a bricolage of utopias that, like Birkholz’ definition of utopia, may itself be “unbuildable.” Even Lochrie “does not wish to suggest that medieval utopia can rescue our culture from its degraded sense of utopia” (445), although she does posit that the medieval utopia might foster a greater understanding of the utopian as “anticipatory consciousness” (509).

Thus, although medieval utopia carries with it the potential to establish ideological alternatives, to perhaps challenge ideology dialectically by returning it to a past made new, few medievalists have seemed willing to admit this. Although I cannot be sure, I suspect the reasons are largely ideological: consciously or no, a general trend exists in medieval studies to shy away from overtly political readings so as to preserve the integrity of ideological apparatuses. Recall that, for Althusser, the educational Ideological State Apparatus is the one that modern states most rely on for their ideological deployment and reproduction. For better or worse, that function can lie at the heart of any academic work: as “professional ideologists” (Althusser 155), our job is to reproduce the conditions of ideological production, to “treat consciousness with the respect, i.e. contempt, blackmail, and demagogy they deserve, adapted to the accents of Morality, of Virtue, of ‘Transcendence,’ of the Nation, of France’s World Role, etc.” (156). The pessimism inherent in Althusser’s phrasing may not be surprising—he is, after all, a Marxist describing the bourgeois state—and it may well be deserved. The academic who reproduces the sort of knowledge that is needed for bourgeois ideology has done only what is necessary for their job: they need not go further. Presented with Utopia, the academy may embrace it, or it may reject it, or—worse luck—it may commodify it, making it ideologically neutral.

This should not be. Medieval studies has often been the site of ideological struggle: it has, at times, represented the best and worst of Europe’s past: now the hope of English Church, now the scourge of the “Enlightened” mind, now the shiniest beacon of the Romantics. Yet, as Allen Frantzen has noted of Anglo-Saxon studies, medievalism fell into a period of philological omphaloskepsis in the 19th and 20th centuries, in which it was resistant to theory and withdrew from the job of cultural critique and production. Although scholars of the High Middle Ages were the quickest to embrace literary theory and cultural studies, the field is still (even nearly two decades after Frantzen’s book) largely dominated by formalist tactics that do not, in the end, produce readings that matter. As Franzten argues, “it is the connectedness of Anglo-Saxon studies that matters, not their age”(226). One might say the same for medieval studies broadly: the field must be connected both to its multiple pasts and to its potential futures. This, then, should be the use of utopian studies: not just to say such-and-such is utopian, certainly not just to say such-and-such is the source of or analog to More’s book, but to say that these things can incite the utopian function today, here and now. Given the position of “the medieval” as a body of texts and artifacts that lie outside the sphere of the modern world—however much we discover the “origins” of that modern world in those sources—we should use that space as the ideological enclave that it represents.

I wish to stress that I am not accusing the particular authors of these studies of being apolitical; indeed, I know that several of them are politically strong, and that some branches of medieval studies are not only theoretically strong but engaged in the social here-and-now. But it doesn’t often seem that way, and the exciting thing about the science of “medieval utopia” its hope: the utopian function in medieval texts provides an opportunity to critique present structures of power through discourses that preceded—and perhaps even those that gave rise to—the “modern” age. Since “utopia” is a term that carries with it the potential for such a critique and such change, it seems a shame to be tentative about its use.
It is crucial when dealing with a theory that is still barely a science, still largely what Althusser would call descriptive (136), that we do not allow ourselves to fall into the old habits of the ideological state apparatus. The precise point of any utopian study should be not only discovering the status and function of utopian imagination at a given historical moment, but also, where possible, to re-energize the utopian potential. That is, faced with a moment of hope in the past, it is the duty of the critic to see that moment forward into he future. To do otherwise is to freeze hope into the past, to mark it as the “once was” instead of the “not yet.” Hope , it is said, springs eternal, but in order to spring at all it must not be held down.


Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. Monthly Review Press: New York, 1971. 127-183.

Birkholz, Daniel. “Mapping Medieval Utopia: Exercises in Restraint.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36.3 (Fall 2006): 585-618

Burgwinkle, William. “Utopia and Its Uses: Twelfth-Century Romance and History.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36.3 (Fall 2006): 539-560.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. 1969. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Press, 1972.

Frantzen, Allen. Desire For Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1990.

Ingham, Patricia Clare. “Making All Things New: Past, Progress, and the Promise of Utopia.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36.3 (Fall 2006): 480-492.

Lochrie, Karma, “Sheer Wonder: Dreaming Utopia in the Middle Ages.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36.3 (Fall 2006): 493-516.