Talks / Lecture
Thomas More wrote a book that coined a word and changed the world—Utopia. After 500 years, it seems as far off as ever. What is the world coming to and what can we do about it? The discussion is led by Miles Franklin award-winning author Alexis Wright, renowned philosopher Peter Singer, and leading scholars Russell Jacoby and Jacqueline Dutton. Together with Paul Barclay from ABC’s Big Ideas, they explore the role—or absence—of imagination and aspiration in how we address the vital issues confronting Australia. Are we destined for a nightmare future? Is it too late to dream?
This collaborative event was a project of the Centre for Law Art and the Humanities at the Australian National University. It was made possible with the assistance and cooperation of the National Library of Australia and ABC’s Big Ideas Unit, and with the generous support of the ANU Gender Institute, Humanities Research Centre, Peter Herbst Colloquium, School of History, College of Arts and Social Sciences, and College of Law.
Speakers: Des Manderson (D), Paul Barclay (P), Russell Jacoby (R), Peter Singer (PS), Jacqueline Dutton (J), Alexis Wright (A)
Location: National Library of Australia
Typist’s notes: inaudibles caused by diction
D: Well good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you so much all these people for being here, I’m really delighted to welcome you all tonight. My name’s Des Manderson. I want to begin by acknowledging and celebrating the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and to pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal tribe past and present.
I want to extend a welcome to everybody here on behalf of the Centre for Law, Arts and the Humanities which I direct with Professor Bonnie Hady. I want to thank in particular the ABC and the National Library without whom this event would simply not have taken place, for all their support and assistance, particularly Stuart Baines and Lindsay Noone from the Library and Paul Barclay from Radio National’s Big Ideas unit.
The ANU as many of you may know is not so much an institution as a set of overlapping ecosystems and the Centre for Law, Arts and Humanities is an interdisciplinary enterprise and I also want to – before I get carried away by the event – acknowledge the support, not least the financial sponsorship that has made possible this event and is really a testament to the ANU’s commitment to interdisciplinarity including the support of the Colleges of Law and the College of Arts and Social Sciences within CAS, the Peter Herps Colloquium in Continental Philosophy and the ANU School of History, and I also want to acknowledge and thank the ANU Gender Institute and the ANU Humanities Research Centre, both real tributes to the importance and to the value to the University of this kind of cross-faculty cross-disciplinary endeavour.
So very briefly what is the Centre for Law, Arts and Humanities? Well about the same time that Thomas Moore was starting to think about Utopia Rafael was finishing the Stanza della Segnatura in the papal apartments in the Vatican. And if you’ve ever been in that room you’ll know that each wall of the four main branches of knowledge in 16th century renaissance thought gets their own mural. There’s philosophy, theology, poetry and law. But none of them exist in isolation, all those murals, all those frescoes are in interaction with each other and this is ground zero of renaissance humanism. Rafael’s work brings into harmony the competing claims of Christian and classical thought, shows the world of letters and jurisprudence not as opposites but as complementary. Under the watchful eyes of the four disciplines on the ceiling, and stories that explore the intersection of all of these branches of knowledge, so that you have Adam and Eve at the intersection of technology and law and you have the judgement of Solomon at the intersection of law and philosophy and above all with the figure of justice casting a melancholy eye on all these different areas.
To me that room is ground zero for the Centre for Law, Arts and the Humanities and it’s a statement of law in partnership with the humanities. Law, not as a technical widget, but as part of the great stream of thought and feeling which has animated the west at least since classical times. And on the other hand the arts and humanities not as ornaments or as entertainments or as sideshows or escapes from the real work of governance but as central to its meaning, its values and its spirit. So, law and the humanities is a dialogue, a conversation, a way of thinking and learning that I think matters now more than ever. And that’s why we’re gathered here, to enrich that dialogue and connect it to our cultural landscape on the one hand and to our present concerns, urgent, necessary, some might even say desperate on the other.
So in 1516 Thomas Moore – we say the 500th anniversary but universities are very slow-moving beasts and it’s now the 501st anniversary but frankly that was not going to sell any tickets so I hope you, you know, forgive me the little charade there, the little sleight of numerical hand. But Thomas Moore for a few months turned from the business of law in government, placating Henry VIII and burning the occasional heretic, usual sort of thing, to think more about the society, what it should be like or could be like. Utopia was a literary thought experiment, the result as we’ll learn was a new word, a pun, partly no place and partly a beautiful place that came to challenge generations, indeed centuries of thinkers. Moore's Utopia invented not just a word but a whole way of thinking, part political philosophy, part science fiction. And it was a way of writing that demanded that we put aside all our assumptions about the way the world actually worked, about what was normal and natural and necessary and start again. It was a kind of intellectual ground zero and the result has stimulated texts and arguments ever since.
But what does it mean to engage in Utopian thinking? What kind of conversations does this experimental, fictional genre invite? And above all is such a language even possible anymore? Faced with the frightening challenges of the modern world is the idea of utopia even meaningful? Is it useful or trivial or downright dangerous? So to help us think big we’re joined tonight by four eminent public intellectuals from Australia and around the world, philosopher Peter Singer, renowned writer Alexis Wright, historians Jacqueline Dutton from Melbourne and Russell Jacoby from the UCLA. And to guide the conversation please welcome your host from ABC’s Big Ideas, Paul Barclay.
P: Thank you. And thanks very much to Des, the Centre for Arts, Law and the Humanities and the National Library – we’ve all joined forces with ABC RN for this event, it’s a delight to be here, it’s a delight to see such a big audience willing to come along to the theatre tonight to talk about and engage in ideas. Some time ago, Des approached me with the idea of holding this public forum, and it was in fact during the 500th anniversary that he approached me, and so I can attest to the fact that it’s not just the ANU whose wheels turn slowly, the ABC too took some time to get there, but it’s come to fruition, I’m so happy it has and Des has pulled together a tremendous panel of speakers tonight.
As Des has said I’m Paul Barclay from Big Ideas on RN, we go to air every night Monday to Thursday at 8:00. We also have a big podcast audience. I encourage you to subscribe to our podcasts, they’re fabulous. This program, this event will turn up as a program shortly on our podcast feed.
Five hundred years ago – 501 years ago I should say Thomas Moore, the philosopher, lawyer and author wrote the book and as Des says coined the word, utopia, a word that’s come to have connotations and meanings, both aspirational and pejorative. Moore wrote at a time of discovery as the so-called new world was emerging. Perhaps this was an era more conducive to imagination and utopian thinking for it is difficult I think to claim that we presently live in utopian times although perhaps there’ll be some dispute of that proposition.
Optimism it seems to me is in rather short supply at the moment, you don’t have to look very far to detect cynicism, pessimism, even despair, dystopian rather than utopian thinking seems to be more prevalent, global warming, extreme poverty, ecological destruction, cynical politics, the global displacement of millions of people. Perhaps these challenges are exactly why we need more utopian thinkers than ever before. Is it too late to dream, to open up our imaginations? I sent a cheeky Tweet just before I came here tonight where I posted where did all utopian thinkers go? Are we gripped by utopian visions? And it drew a bigger response than almost any Tweet I’ve sent out in recent times, many people questioning the assumption of my Tweet so I took some hope from that even though it is only a Tweet.
As Des has said we have a great panel of experts with us tonight, I’m going to jump straight into it and I thought I’d start with you, Russell, and start in fact with Moore himself. So Moore wrote the New Island of Utopia in 1516. Remind us who was Moore and what was his idea of a new island of Utopia, just briefly?
R: Well Thomas Moore you know we don’t completely understand Thomas Moore because he had two lives, both as this theologian and a defender of the faith which led to his untimely death and yet as someone who had this idea about a place which stands in some contradiction to his own life but it’s part of the fascination that he did have this idea. He’s not the first to have it but he gives it a term which is with us today and it’s a vison of a world which I think in many ways we would not like and we wouldn’t like the structure of it you know get up 5 in the morning, who wants to do that? On the other hand it has ideas I think about even consumerism, about leisure, about tolerance which are very much ideas which remain unrealised in our time. And that’s the stuff which resonates at least to me across the centuries. It’s not so much the details about the dinner, who speaks first at the dinner? Thomas Moore tells us you know the elders will speak first.
P: So the ideas and concepts in that book, now 501 years old, remain relevant today?
R: Oh absolutely, I mean there’s ideas about hunting, there’s ideas – yes, about consumerism you know that we shouldn’t work to produce junk basically you know that gold, he says, was worthless you know why we value it, it does nothing. We need useful stuff and we shouldn’t be working to produce junk. I mean there’s –
P: Was his book considered important at the time that it was released?
R: Well that’s a good question you know it was written in Latin so it was originally for the literati with a restricted audience so it gradually was translated into the vernacular. I don’t – I think as they say in Hollywood it has legs you know it lasted unlike many others so I don’t know it had an initial huge impact –
P: And as you said Moore himself said he wouldn’t want to live in his utopia, raising the question of utopia that you don’t want to live in which sounds rather counterintuitive.
R: Well I think everything about Moore is counterintuitive and that’s part of the charm of it, I mean he led a life, which he did. As Des mentioned he pursued heretics and yet in Utopia there’s tolerance for moon worshippers you know put the two together. In this sense it is an active imagination and an act – you know which is transcending his life and his own beliefs which makes it you know that much more interesting, that he could express these ideas while his own life stood in contrast to them.
P: Peter, you told me beforehand that it’s been a long time since you’ve cast your eyes over Moore's New Island of Utopia so I won’t interrogate you too deeply but I understand that on his island his Utopians didn’t hunt or slaughter animals but they did eat meat. That’s a paradox, can you talk to that for us?
PS: Well it’s not so much of a paradox because what happens in Utopia is that the citizens of Utopia don’t eat meat but the animals are slaughtered by their slaves you know you might say oh, there’s slaves in Utopia, that doesn’t sound so good –
P: That’s exactly what I was going to say.
PS: So the slaves are criminals as I understand it and the reason that the citizens don’t slaughter animals is that that would kind of desensitise them, that would degrade them and corrupt them and make them you know harden them so you leave that to those who I guess are already degraded and corrupt and hardened, the criminals. And Moore doesn’t think about the fact that oh well, we’re consigning these animals to be killed, handled by the dregs of society, the hardest, the most cruel so presumably the animals are going to suffer more than if the citizens themselves who are more sensitive had actually killed them so that’s far from Utopian in my view.
P: But nonetheless the Utopians didn’t eat meat as part of his vision, what was that all about?
PS: No, I don’t think that –
P: They weren’t vegetarian.
PS: They were not vegetarians, no. It describes in fact markets at which meat is sold so I think they do –
R: They were gluten-intolerant.
P: So, Jackie, it’s important to note that when Moore was imagining his Utopia it was the time of the so-called new world, wasn’t it? It was a period of discovery, discovery in inverted commas I should say, of the new world and it invoked all sorts of possibilities. What were people in the old world of Europe imagining about this new world? What are some of the utopias they were inventing?
J: It’s a fascinating time when we’re looking back at the early voyages of discovery as you say, this voyages of exploration out into the new world and when we look at Thomas Moore's book, the first part of his book is actually a critique of British society at the time whereas the second part of the book is a travel narrative, really, it’s a travel narrative to the Island of Utopia at a time when other Europeans were travelling to the new world and discovering all sorts of things that could not necessarily have been imagined had they not seen it with their own eyes. So the Island of Utopia really did fit into a paradigm of extraordinary sites that the current voyagers were discovering.
The other thing that was happening at this time of course is colonialism, the expansion of the European empires and we must also recognise that Thomas Moore's Utopia was a colony, it had been colonised by the Utopians so it is a celebration of a country, an island that has been made to be inhabited by a chosen people and that the indigenous inhabitants of this island were removed from that island. So this is a story that we’ve seen before, we’ve heard before and even in the Utopian world of Thomas Moore we see some similar kinds of undercurrents that we might not look upon so – with such kind eyes today such as slavery, colonialism and other elements –
P: Yes, that’s why I mentioned in inverted commas the new world because it is code for colonisation that follows.
P: Australia was imagined as a type of Utopia by the Europeans before they even knew that it existed. Is that right?
J: Yes, exactly, this is the area of research that I’ve worked on I suppose the most in terms of Utopian studies and I’ve been fascinated by the fact that for about four centuries Australia was imagined by Europeans before it was really actually known. So one of the first Utopias written about Australia was written by a Frenchman by the name of Gabriel due Fanye in 1676 and it was called the Southern Land Known and it was a projection of the Australian continent, the southern land – it wasn’t known as Australia at this stage – and it was inhabited by hermaphrodites. So this is really that idea of inversion, the southern land is the inversion of what is happening in Europe, it is a place of hybridity, monstrosity, it is a place of otherness, extreme otherness that cannot really be reconciled with the European understanding of the world. Of course this idea of the Antipodes had been part of the world view since Ptolemy, since Pythagoras, since antiquity but it came back in the renaissance and continued throughout really four centuries, I think, of writings about Australia from Europe, this idea that Australia was an inverted Europe.
P: A kind of mysterious and almost unknowable place.
P: It’s interesting that they would project – what made them project the hermaphrodite idea onto Australia? Is it just the product of a fertile imagination?
J: A very fertile imagination, a very fertile imagination. A century later another French writer, Retif de la Bretonne, at around about the same time that Cook was arriving in Australia alongside some other French explorers as well, of course, Retif de la Bretonne wrote a book called the Austral Land Discovered by a Flying Man so the idea was that this great Australian continent had to be traversed by people with wings because it was so enormous. The idea that anything could be possible in this southern land was – made Australia a blank canvas, a Tabula rasa upon which pretty much anything could be projected and I would argue that even up until the 1980s people were projecting all sorts of strange and wonderful lifestyles and ideas and politics and educational policies, all sorts of things upon Australia. And really in the 1980s I think the world started to understand a bit more what Australia was like and started travelling here and started writing differently about Australia.
P: Just a final question on this theme, Russell, do you agree that the conditions of the opening up of the new world were fertile conditions for Utopian thinking because they did, they were conditions where the imagination was running more freely than perhaps – than current times?
R: I think in general yes, I mean – and I think – which I communicated to you earlier that there is sort of a paradoxical relationship between utopian thinking and kind of confidence about the future, we’ve discovered a new world and it sort of gave it impulse to ask utopian thinking and that we don’t have that sense nowadays, I don’t believe, but yes, I would think that there is a connection there.
P: Which is not to say that the activities of Columbus etc were not problematic which is possibly for another discussion but –
P: Alexis, the Aboriginal people that the early European explorers came across were living lives that were so foreign to the Europeans there, the concept of society and lifestyle that Australian Aboriginal people were living was so different from European lives at the time, to traditional indigenous societies in Australia, would there have been a concept among Aboriginal people and Aboriginal societies of utopian thinking, do you think?
A: I don’t think so. No, I don’t think - I really don’t feel that we thought that we were living in Utopia and we had Utopian dreaming. I think the – our culture is structured differently, it’s structured around the ancestral stories, the creation stories, the creation of you know beings that still be alive and in the country and that they were more powerful than us but they tied us to them and it – and our responsibilities were to maintain that sort of harmony and balance in the country you know to traditional lands. And you know we’ve always maintained we’ve been here forever you know for you know tens of thousands of years and you know and there’s been scientific evidence just recently verifying that you know that we’ve been in particular you know areas of our country you know for those long periods of time. We haven’t moved and – because the you know we have responsibilities to those stories and ancestral dreaming and the creation – country was created and to the resting places of those ancestors who are still there you know the spiritual ancestors. And that they –
P: So it would be wrong then to look at the notion of an Aboriginal dreamtime, that ancestors are part of the land and so forth as a Utopia?
A: No, I don’t think so. I think we were realists and that we were tied to the land in a structure that’s a law structure, a spiritual structure and there was – and responsibility for the land and for each other. And to particular regions you know of a traditional country. We were talking earlier about Utopia and there’s only one Utopia I know and that’s a cattle station set up by the [Sorian Kunot] 24:05 in just the early part of the 19th – 20th century before the war. Was it –
P: About 300 Ks out of Alice Springs?
A: Yeah, about 240 Ks northeast of Alice Springs and it’s on Anmatjirra and Alyawarra peoples – that’s their country out there and it’s very nice, open – open country, nice, open woodland country and –
P: It is beautiful country –
A: It’s beautiful country, yes but see – but they – the Kunot brothers named it like a lot of men who went you know white men who went out and – to settle the country you know the big, harsh Australia and you know they gave the you know a lot of these places names like you know Mt Disappointment, Mt Despair, you know Mongrel Downs and you know name it – yeah, Mistake Creek you know up in north so that is – it was a bit of a joke you know for them but tongue in cheek that oh well you know everyone’s calling their places this despair names, we’ll call it Utopia.
P: Is that right? I’d always – I’ve been – we’ve both been to Utopia and I’d always wondered the history of that name and I’d always seen it as ironic for different reasons, actually, you know when you’re a white fella and you travel to Utopia you’re I suppose – immediately your attention is drawn to the kind of – the difficulties and there’s kind of dispossession and so on but that historical kind of explanation is fascinating, actually. And as you say it’s probably the only place called Utopia that any of us are likely to visit. Peter, should we view – is Utopianism a political or philosophical way of thinking? Or both?
PS: Well I certainly think it can be, I mean I think when somebody sets out to sketch a utopia as Thomas Moore did or many other writers they’re putting their values out there and they’re saying this is what I think a good society would be like. So to do that you have to decide what kinds of values you hold and I think that that’s - can be a useful exercise even if you know in the sense that it is nowhere, that it’s not actually going to exist but it can still be an aspiration to strive towards possibly although there’s some dangers in that obviously if in fact it’s unrealistic but it can serve as an ideal for aspects of our society that we might like to get closer to in some respects even if in other respects we know that be can’t.
P: So does it occupy a place in modern philosophical thought, utopianism?
PS: I think that there’s a sense in which it does although not under that name but many people put forward theories about how you should organise society. Perhaps a famous one would be the late 20th century American political philosopher, John Rawls, he wrote a book called A Theory of Justice, probably the best known political philosopher in the English language in the late 20th century. And he suggested principles of justice that ought to regulate society, that – principles of equality of opportunity and notably the principle that any inequalities ought to be permitted only to the extent that they actually advantage those who are worst off so in other words if by creating some incentives and allowing some people to keep more of their earnings they’re more productive and therefore even the people at the bottom of society are better off than they would be if you didn’t do that, then that’s something that you ought to do.
So there’s a sense in which that’s Utopian. Obviously it’s not Utopian in the sense of saying I’m not going to take any notice of what human nature is like because then you would just say well everybody should just share equally, you wouldn’t have to have any inequalities at all but Rawls is saying within the constraints of knowing of what will incentivise people to work more productively then this would be the right set of principles of justice to use. So there’s a sense in which some ideas of Utopia are lurking in the background of that sort of political theory.
P: In your own philosophy for example of not countenancing the slaughter of animals for human consumption, not countenancing cruelty to animals, is that a Utopian vision? Do you see that as Utopianism?
PS: I don’t see it as Utopian in the sense that it will never come about but I do think of it as Utopian in the sense that it’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future. In fact just last Sunday in Melbourne I was invited to speak at a march which was initially called the March to Abolish Fishing and I said to the organiser, isn’t that a bit Utopian to think that you’re actually going to you know by marching we’re going to abolish fishing? And he said well what I want to do is to plant the seed so that maybe in a hundred years people will realise that fish are also sentient beings, that they also suffer, that we cause a lot of suffering to them and we’re cruel to them. So you know in one sense you could say it’s Utopian to think that we’ll stop eating animals, we’ll stop being cruel to animals altogether and in another sense you could say well who knows? Conditions may change, we’ll find other things to eat, we’re already producing more plant-based foods and it’s not going to happen soon but maybe in a hundred years people will look back at the world today in which we you know reared billions of animals in factory farms and pulled a trillion fish out of the ocean and – without any humane slaughter and they will say how could people do that? You know that’s a terrible thing to do so in that sense I don’t think it’s absolutely impossible <inaudible> 29:50.
R: Yes, I just want to add that it is mentioned – there’s two books in Thomas Moore and book one is not about Utopia, it’s really a discussion between Thomas Moore so to speak who was a character and our visitor from Utopia and the whole discussion is about what should the intellectual, the philosopher do about politics? Should he - it’s only he at this point – should he enter politics? You know is it possible to change the world? And the whole book one goes back and forth about well if you're so smart and you have answers should you enter politics? And our visitor from Utopia, Rafael, keeps saying no, the state you know they just want to murder and just want to have war and if you really have answers they don’t want to hear you. And Moore keeps saying – Moore, the character – well isn’t there a way to enter politics and sort of influence the state? And good old Rafael says no you know again the state doesn’t want to hear it and they go back and forth and I mean that’s – that frames Utopia, sort of the intellectual in politics, is it possible? And even as Moore in his life sort of confirms it’s not possible, is playing with this idea you know which is an oldest idea around you know sort of the philosopher in politics, how is it possible? Is it possible? And it seems to me you know we’re still with that issue you know how do you know it’s not just Utopia, I mean they discuss punishment and crime in book one. I mean there’s a whole series of very practical issues, can you enter politics and change the world?
P: Jackie, I think Peter used the term unrealistic when he was describing Utopia and I suppose in a sense Utopia is essentially unrealistic because it’s striving for something that’s almost not attainable, it’s kind of the point, really. Why has Utopianism got such a bad rap today, do you think? It seems to be a term that implies – I don’t know, naiveté or it implies idealism, an inability to actually get something done.
J: It’s a shame I think that the word Utopia has this kind of connotation that’s attached to it and it really did become a very pejorative term especially in the 19th century. After the French revolution there were the Utopian socialists and then the more pragmatic socialists who were after the French revolution trying to bring about change in France and influencing to some extent I suppose the political philosophies of other countries within Europe and elsewhere. This kind of pejorative connotation that Utopia has I think is one that stops us from talking about Utopia as freely as we might today. We talk about other ways of imagining a future, there’s a sort of a discourse around alternate scenario planning. It sounds a bit more boardroom than Utopianism but essentially it’s about projecting a different way of being in a particular situation. And basically behind Utopia is this desire for a better way of being in the world and this is the underpinning ideal behind Utopia and most people I think would embrace the term, Utopia, if it was simply defined as the desire for a better way of being in the world and a better way of being for everyone existing in the world and every being in the world.
P: I was going to say instead there are some people who associate Utopianism with fanatics, with Pol Pot, with Hitler, with Stalin and so on. Does that help to explain perhaps the unfortunate connotation that the word has got?
R: If you ask me it does and it doesn’t because it’s basically wrong but it’s certainly the way that people think about it. I mean I teach a course in Utopianism and then I – yes, say well let’s look at Nazism you know what’s the relationship between that and Utopia? Well the fact is zero basically, there’s no relationship unless you’re going to say Utopian is sort of any totalitarian idea but there’s no evidence in the Utopian tradition, I mean basically for all the imperfections it’s marked by tolerance and brotherhood and yes and you know these sort of values so you know why – but it has gotten tarred with Nazism and as well as Stalinism to be sure so that it’s not only the 19th century, it’s the 20th century is essentially of dystopia, it’s of Orwell, it’s of Huxley and the term comes in the 20th century, dystopia, just like Utopia, the term comes from the 16th century so it’s coming out of that. But it’s unfair basically, I think, I mean the point is to save it from that – from that kind of mixture of totalitarianism which I think it’s basically unfairly tarred with.
P: I’m glad you’ve brought up literature. Alexis, I was going to ask you about the role that literature plays in Utopian thinking, what do you think?
A: Well what’s been a problem for us mob is that there’s – right from the start, and it was interesting to hear you, Jackie, talk about that you know 400 year history of looking for this great land down here and what it might have and it just – thought maybe people were looking – we always say that the world started from here so they’re trying to find a way back and – but what’s been a problem to us is there’s been so much written about us you know about – well ideas about you know I was thinking a lot about this and a lot of Utopian ideas about what should be an Aboriginal life here. And it’s led to you know policies and laws and – which have been you know the whole history of this you know from separating people and putting people on missions, reserves and incarceration, assimilation, integration and so-called self-government – no, not self-government, self-determination, self-management and then intervention. And these are all – come from stories you know sort of – this sort of Utopian idea about what you know should be the Aborig – what should Aboriginal people be like and it’s usually to assimilate.
And it’s caused a lot of dystopia for us and I was thinking you know that you know there’s been so much written and kind of Moore's Utopia reminds me a little bit of this you know it’s like an anthropological dig you know on – not a dig but – sorry but it’s – there’s been a lot of anthropological work and historians and all sorts of professional people writing about Aboriginal people and this building would hold probably a floor of it and – of what’s been written about Aboriginal people and it’s usually based on other people’s i – you know values and judgements. And that’s - that kind of you know that sort of Utopian literature that’s you know been about Aboriginal people but it’s created this dystopia you know it – and that you know and now that – I don’t you know and all those thousands of years that we say we’ve been here and then how the culture was established and you know and how it still is, that we you know all – what’s happened in this 200 year history or more now is we concentrate on hope you know it’s not Utopia, it’s a word, it’s hope and hope’s become big in our lives you know having hope that things are going to get better and hope for us and that’s – and so that’s – from day one ‘til the day we die you know we’ve got to have hope. And so this is what I write about –
P: Yeah, it is.
A: And it’s – that’s a new word you know it’s not Utopia, it’s called hope. And – but at the same time you –
P: Well we could do with a lashing or two of hope at the moment. I was going to ask you, Peter, we live in a time, and I think about this because I’ve got kids now in their late teens and early 20s who are confronting the world of global warming that may well even threaten – we don’t know – may well threaten the long-term survival of the human race itself. We you know we turn on the TV set and we see that we’re locking up people behind razor wire who are simply trying to make a better life for themselves, we’re told that we live in fear of random terrorist attacks. Are we living in dystopian rather than Utopian times given the kind of images and the challenges that we currently face?
PS: I don’t really think we are and I think the picture that you’re presenting is one that we get from the news media because of course every act of terrorism is a major news story but what the news media don’t tell us is the enormous amount of progress that we’ve made and really important questions like reducing poverty in the world, like increasing literacy, like reducing violence and for ex – just to take that as an example, the chances of anybody living today meeting a violent death at the hands of their fellow human being is smaller than it has ever been historically, much smaller than it was when Moore wrote Utopia 500 years ago, for example.
Similarly the percentage of people, the proportion of people who cannot be sure that they’ll be able to have enough to eat for the next day or the next month or even the next year has dramatically fallen. It’s probably lower now than it ever has been in human history. So you know if someone of Moore's time had seen a world in which we have that kind of security, both personal security and food security and degree of literacy and freedom you know democratic freedoms obviously don’t apply to everyone but apply to a lot of people. I think they would have thought gee, they’ve made a huge amount of progress towards Utopia, they’re certainly not there yet. And of course climate change which you mentioned is a tremendously serious shadow hanging over all this which does I think endanger the future but for the moment I’d have to say we’ve got it pretty good, really.
P: But that’s not the public mood, is it? And it’s very hard to shift that kind of narrative away from a sense of – well this is just an opinion but from a sense of kind of despair and cynicism too, that not only are there problems, they’re problems that people feel rather negative about the prospect of them being solved.
PS: Yes, that’s true and I mean that’s partly the problem that we adapt to things that we’re used to so you know we’ve adapted to the progress we’ve made. Somebody calculated that if you looked at the reduction in poverty by – as the World Bank defines extreme poverty which is basically not having enough to provide for your basic needs – we could have had a headline every year since 1950, newspapers could have run a headline saying 130,000 fewer people in poverty today and that could have been run every day since 1950 you know would have been true. So – but you never see that headline but of course if something bad happens to 50 or 100 people because of a terrorist attack or some sort of climate disaster that’s a huge story.
PS: So I think that’s why people have this negative view to a large extent.
P: So, Jackie, where can we see Utopianism today? What are some of the examples of modern Utopianism?
J: It’s a really interesting question and I do agree with Peter that in the – in terms of the big questions that we’re facing today there is room for hope but we also see Utopianism in our everyday lives. Ideas that were considered countercultural and only belonging to hippy communities or radical people in the 1960s and ‘70s such as cohousing, urban agriculture, recycling, food – second chance at using food, car-sharing, Airbnb, couch-surfing, all of these ideas were incredibly radical and marginalised in the ‘60s and the ‘70s and it’s actually only taken us 50, 60 years – 50 years, really, to embrace these ideas as part of our everyday life, part of what we now call collective consumption or the share economy. As long as we’ve got a name for it, it seems that is appropriate to the way in which we wish to define ourselves, it seems as though we are Utopian, we are embracing some Utopian ideals but the name Utopia is sometimes not the one that we want to attach to it. And I’m just thinking back to the question that you asked Russell previously about Nazism and Communism. We don’t like talking about Communism but some of the acts, some of the ideas that we’re putting forward about sharing food and avoiding waste and sharing resources are actually quite linked to the ideals of Communism.
P: Well I think you could argue that Marxism is Utopian thinking, could you?
PS: I would agree with that although Marx himself tried to distinguish Utop – what he called Utopian socialism, your French socialists like Saint-Simon and Fourier and Robert Owen in England from what he called scientific socialism. But the distinction is really I think about how you get there because the Utopian socialists seem to think that you describe the society and then people say oh yeah, that’s great, let’s do it whereas for Marx you have to go through the class struggle and the materialist story of history which tells you about how you change the economic basis of society and then you change human nature and so on. But it was still Utopian I think in the sense that he thought if you have a different you know if you socialise, nationalise the means of production then you will get radically different human beings and you’ll be able to have this idea of you know from each according to his abilities to each according to their needs. But I think that was a Utopian ideal, that just nationalising the means of production will mean you get a new kind of human being emerging and I think that’s part of the problem that you know that didn’t happen in the Soviet Union or other countries and so you had to get all of this coercion and oppression to try to mould things in and then the leaders obviously didn’t behave as egalitarians anyway so I think in that sense Marxism is profoundly Utopian.
R: It should be said that – or reminder that Thomas Moore pulled off the trick of being a saint to the Catholic Church as well as being honoured by Lenin as one of the <inaudible> 46:50 so that – I mean that’s a good thing to pull off. I think it’s true that we do live in a period – I would say we live in a period of paranoia, I mean basically, which is hard to – as Peter was saying it – I mean most of the indexes don’t substantiate it but – and I see it all the time in my students, I ask them and they have a very dark vision of the future even though I say well you know your lives are so good, I mean what – and you’ve suffered no wars or depression but you know you fear the future you know what is it? I mean you know the media is probably part of the story, though, I don’t know what the whole story is but it does seem like we live in you know I mean all the movies are looking you know are basically about how dangerous the future is, it’s this dystopian future. And I think yes, there are some counter-movers one could look at but they’re counter-movements, I mean they’re small, one could try to see them happening but basically the atmosphere is retrenchment and fear and doubt. And I say paradoxically the Utopians were confident and optimistic and we’ve kind of lost that.
P: Alexis, you spoke about hope before. I mean it must be difficult for some of the indigenous leaders in Australia to retain their hope, do you think, in the face of some of the developments and some of the issues they have to confront?
A: I just – listening to the conversation and it seems very promising and – but I think it’s all kind of in a western thing you know that you know to do these things to make you know better you know live in a place like Melbourne and – but the – I don’t know, from my understanding is there’s so many people living in sheer poverty in the world, millions and then we got you know one in every 113 people on the globe who’s a refugee who’s looking for somewhere you know or is in you know crossing you know hard lands and seas and they’re in detention camps and refugee camps for years. And so – and then we get governments you know I was reading in the paper this morning some French hope – presidential hopeful is saying that you know is going to save France from you know France for the people you know like America, you know? America for America and save it all from globalisation and seems like we got our heads in the burrows you know and we’re not looking at some of the big things that are happening in the world. I think there are big things happening in the world that are quite frightening.
PS: Certainly there are but I think still comparing this with other times, that there have you know always been a number of people who have been driven out of their land by perhaps conquerors or perhaps by drought or changing conditions so that they couldn’t produce –
A: But we’re not handling that very well.
PS: No, we’re not handling it very well at the moment but I’m saying you know and it’s a lot of people as you say, it may be 60 million people who are displaced but still as a proportion of the world’s population I think you’d find that that’s probably lower than it has been in earlier periods, that food security is greater as I say than it has been previously. So it’s a comparative judgment, I’m certainly not saying that you know we are in any kind of Utopia or that everything’s fine but – so you know people – and there are people in Australia who are in poverty certainly but they’re entitled to some social security, they’re entitled to free health care, they’re entitled to free education for their children, they’re entitled to safe drinking water, they get you know these are things that people have not traditionally had and so I still think it’s considerable progress over earlier periods in our history.
P: Peter, is human rights discourse Utopian?
PS: I don’t think the discourse is Utopian because the discourse is simply saying people have certain rights and we ought to respect them and we ought to prevent them being violated.
P: Okay, the codification then of human rights.
PS: Ah something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
P: Yeah. Which is a construct –
PS: Yeah. I would see that as aspirational rather than - I think I would call it rather than Utopian because it’s something that you set up there and you just say we can measure ourselves by how much closer we get to this by the kind of progress that we make. But it’s not exactly Utopia because even if the rights were realised I suppose you might say well, there could be other things that would fall between the tracks that are not covered by those rights. I mean it doesn’t necessarily say that everybody cares for each other, this sort of brotherhood ideal, sisterhood that Russell mentioned is not necessarily part of a human rights discourse.
P: Alexis, I heard someone the other day when an Aboriginal activist spoke of sovereignty describe sovereignty as Utopian, as a Utopian vision. How would you respond to that?
A: Well you could call it a Utopian vision because we believe in our – yeah, our sovereignty. It’s not a Utopian vision, it’s a fact and that our – we feel that we’re sovereign people, this country and that the you know and talk about you know human rights issues you know we talk about you know human rights and indigenous rights but these are issues about justice as far as we’re concerned and a longstanding battle that we’ve had with this country and you know with Australia over you know things that have – we’ve suffered for a long time. And the fact that it’s never been settled. And you’ve seen probably recently – well there’s been years that we couldn’t even say the word sovereignty in this country or land rights or treaties and you know Australia was so far behind America, Canada, New Zealand, other places but it’s been interesting how that has turned around in the last year or so where you know the government was pushing you know for our recognition in the constitution and a lot of Aboriginal people say no you know we’re sick and tired of that, we want to talk about you know we want trea – you know treaties, we don’t want this incremental sort of improvement and – or you know things be better you know bit by bit you know every hundred years or so we might get something.
But started pushing for a treaty in Victoria so now the Victorian Government are in treaty negotiations. Now that’s spilt over into South Australia where now they’ve set up a treaty commission and – or they’re in the process of setting up a treaty commission and I believe in the Northern Territory that they’re even talking about a treaty but honestly they should be talking about a whole new system of government arrangements in the Northern Territory and if any politician in the Northern Territory had any sense of decency that’s what they would be doing after the despicable way that Aboriginal people have been treated in the Territory over a long period of time by a government system that has never been reviewed or looked at, where everything that we do as a people is reviewed all the time. And we’re always accused of you know something you know of doing something wrong and everyone’s always looking at pulling back Aboriginal rights and resources and things to get over what we’ve had you know happened to us in the last 200 years.
P: Russell, I can remember when I was a young undergraduate arts student studying first year sociology I was told that the golden age of leisure was soon to be upon us and that we’d be working less which seems rather Utopian today. It did then too. But actually there’s a kind of new sense of urgency around those issues now because the rate at which the new generation of robots will displace human labour is predicted to escalate quite dramatically. This would seem to be an area where some Utopian thinking may well be needed, where we need to think about the future of work and the future of leisure.
R: Well I would agree, I mean if we’re going to have – yes, we’ve moved from taxi cabs to you know Uber and now to self-driving cars – self-driving Uber so you know exactly where’s the work going to come from, right? And I think this – one of the yeah basic issues of call it what you will, advanced industrial society is the question of labour and not only employment but unemployment and underemployment and we can’t figure it out, I might say, I mean that you know not to become too Marxist here I mean in the sense that you know as we become more productive you know increasingly we can’t find the jobs for people. And it seems to me that the Utopians, and it’s – Thomas Moore is you know has this idea about work – actually it’s not good for you, you know it’s bad for your health, it’s not good for you, you know and it should be minimised as opposed to expanded. And we – and I’m <inaudible> 58:01 we in general you know have yet to understand this. I mean we basically want more work or we want to you know give everyone work, we can’t figure out how to organise the society which has less work. And it seems that the Utopians, and it’s not only Thomas Moore, it’s Utopian socialists, it’s everyone else who sort of said you know work is not good for you, it brutalises you, it’s boring, it’s bad for your health and we need a society where it’s minimised.
P: That’s a certain type of work, though, that he’s referring to there, isn’t he?
R: Okay, yes.
P: He’s talking about labour, really, isn’t he?
R: Okay, yes, it’s a certain kind of work which is – which is and was very common however, and there was a counter-Utopian tradition and William Morris, and others, who would argue yes, there was work as creativity was good for you but that was another kind you know that was another kind of work, it wasn’t typical, it was more like you know crafts and - but there’s no doubt, I think that the question of labour and we – is the vexing issue of contemporary society and we can’t solve it. And it seems to me the Utopians and Thomas Moore too like we should work less and why? Well we’re not producing. I say you know we’re going to have less fashion already in Thomas Moore, just three kinds of clothes. Kind of boring, yes but you know we’re working less ‘cause we’re going to produce less ‘cause we’re going to need less but there’s life on the other side of work.
P: I suppose there is, Jackie, some evidence of a live simply movement, of a stripped down, living more simply movement?
J: Yes and certainly the leader of our Greens Party here promoted the idea of six hours a day working and four days a week, so I mean it’s still alive in some political parties today. And that idea of the return to Tawa, the return to agriculture, urban agriculture if you like is in line with some of these ideas about understanding the – understanding what labour is and what the contribution to food production actually means in life today.
P: I’m kind of interested in how equipped though we are for Utopian thinking now and we haven’t really spoken about any of Alexis’ actual books but it seems to me they are acts of remarkable imagination and they are about the mind’s capacity to imagine. When you ask your undergraduate students to imagine utopias, to engage in some utopian thinking what are you getting from them? Are you getting a big range of thought or are you getting quite a constrained vision? What are they capable of producing?
J: It’s a very, very interesting question and it – the results from students tends to be anchored in pragmatism and repeating a lot of the discourses – noble discourses that they have heard from public intellectuals that they admire. So there tends to be a kind of a cycle that is self-perpetuating within the imaginary of current students. Now I’m talking about students at the University of Melbourne who are highly privileged in general. I’d like to say also that utopia something that we haven’t actually spoken about or only obliquely, utopia is a western Christian construct, it doesn’t necessarily exist in all cultures in the same way so just as you know utopia today is unacceptable as a term in some circles to describe some of the things that we’re doing today utopia I would argue or the notion of the desire of – for a better way of being in the world actually does exist in all cultures and it does exist in all cultures in all times.
Some of the most poignant and radical utopias that we are seeing in literature today are coming from post-colonial societies and they are coming from a perspective that is most often projecting a dystopia but is also criticising the society that we’re living in today and sometimes proposing a different model for hope. These are the imaginaries of tomorrow, I think, this is where from Africa, from the Caribbean Islands, from Alexis Wright, we are seeing some of the most powerful utopian slash dystopian literature today. So I think that when we don’t necessarily have enough to rail against maybe we can’t imagine that great leap forward into a better way of being.
R: I will also ask my students on occasion to sketch out a utopia and they write something and I look at, I say you know this is like Obama’s America or something, it’s like you know it has cheaper higher education, cleaner parks you know little less traffic, it’s like this is utopia? This is your boldest idea? You know it’s like – I mean think of Fourier, think of these people who had these you know extravagant ideas about human relations and sexuality and now you have this yeah, that there should be yeah you know cleaner parks and you know better medical care. And I do think it’s a failure of imagination and I wonder to what degree – I mean maybe there’s other places that it’s flourishing but it seems to be declining where I see it, sometimes – maybe it’s a vitamin deficiency but –
P: Peter. What are you seeing in your students, Peter?
R: Not exactly seeing utopia but I am certainly seeing ideas of quite significant change, I mean we’ve already talked about animals and the treatment of nonhumans and the environment of course in general so there’s certainly people who have visions of quite dramatic change there. There’s also the rise just in the last decade of the effective altruism movement which is people who want to make altruism an important part of their lives but want to use evidence and reasoning to do so as effectively as possible. Basically you can say their aim is to do the most good that they can in life. Now that’s idealistic anyway, idealistic compared to more cynical generations that have said oh you know what I want to do is to get a good job and have a comfortable home and lots of consumer goodies and so on so I think there’s – I find quite a lot of idealism in my students, I wouldn’t say utopianism because they don’t necessarily think that everybody’s going to do this and that therefore we’re going to get the best possible world but they think that we can move in that direction so that’s quite hopeful.
P: And Alexis, do you see – it’s always problematic asking the author what the intention for their work is but is part of what you do as a writer of the types of books that you write about opening up our capacities for imagining and the power of stories to help us imagine?
R: I hope so. I spend a lot of time writing and a lot of time thinking and creating. I just like to let my imagination just go wild and I just keep on working over and over until it does but it – the books you know well for me you know I think the books are a good way of yeah creating dialogue or looking at an Aboriginal situation in a different way like Carpentaria, what I wanted there was something to be as authentic as I possibly could to you know by a homeland and to way we think and way we believe in things and – but also I’m learning as well and that what I’m you know and I’m hoping other people pick it up but in the way that you know all stories are important to us and nothing’s been resolved here and – but also it’s – I just lost my train of thought about this but with Carpentaria I you know wanted to show that you know how strong those beliefs are, that you know Aboriginal law is more powerful than other laws and – ‘cause our people always say you know I’ve sat in so many meetings over the years you know where I’ve heard our elders say you know our law never changes, white man’s law changes all the time.
So what does that mean, you know? And so you can spend ages thinking about that and I’ve tried to express that in that particular book and in the Swan book is like a critique about hope, what you know where does it go? And – but the books go throughout the world, they’re taught in universities and they still exist. This 10 year anniversary of Carpentaria I was told just recently and they’re going to have a –
P: To mark 10 years, wow.
R: Yeah and they’re going to build Angel Day’s house at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, that’s – and I mean that’s very nice you know if a book can live that long and it’s –
P: I look forward to seeing you there actually by the way. Look, we’ve – I feel like we’ve kind of wandered all over the place in this discussion yet barely pierced the surface so we’re going to take some questions from the floor now, I’ve got two people with mikes here and have a woman at the front who’s put her hand up but I think we’ve got mikes on both sides of the room so I’ll kind of let the microphone attendants determine who gets the microphone. Just a very quick thing, no short speeches that are disguised as questions, please.
Au: My name’s Jeanette Congdon, thank you all for your contributions. I’m a retired librarian and part-time grandmother now. I’d like to ask Professor Singer in particular, we’ve all seen many attempts to sanitise war and I was intrigued by Russell’s comment that war – that young people haven’t experienced war when in fact even in the United States thousands of young people have come back in body bags from recent wars in Iraq and so on and maybe when George Bush sent the forces into Iraq it was a vision of Utopia that he had in mind, maybe not but the question I have, Professor Singer, is last – during the last week we’ve seen this big pickle of our own Defence Minister answering questions in parliament about whether or not Australia as one of the coalition partners was responsible or involved in the murder of the civilian people, the 200 civilian people I think it was in Mosul. Why would a Defence Minister go to such lengths to distance us from responsibility for something that we’ve signed up to and sign up to every time, murdering people in foreign countries?
PS: Well I think that –
Au: This specific case is what I’m interested in.
PS: I think to say we’ve signed up to murdering people is putting it a little too sharply. I suppose what we’ve signed up to is participating in a conflict in which it’s inevitable that civilians will be killed and there is a doctrine that says that we must try to minimise civilians, we should not target them directly but it’s you know it’s acceptable that a certain number of them will be killed as a result of if you like the unforeseen and undesired side effect of hitting certain military targets.
Now I think this is a doctrine that can very often be misused, misapplied and there’s a question of the priorities here so it certainly happened – you can go back to Iraq and Afghanistan, there are many other cases before this recent one where it does seem as if the coalition to which Australia did sign up put such a high priority on saving the lives of its soldiers, be they Americans or Australians or whatever, that it’s clearly prepared to risk the deaths of large numbers of civilians in those countries and I suspect without obviously being privy to any details that you know are not known as yet, that that’s what is going on here. It could have just been a careless mistake or it could have been that you know apparently there were some genuine targets, there were some ISIS soldiers in this area but there would have been perhaps greater risk of the coalition’s casualties if they hadn’t done what they did but of course there was a great risk of civilian casualties. So I think that that’s what’s going on here, there’s the devaluing of the lives of the others as compared to the lives of our own. It’s not that we’re deliberately intending to kill them but we don’t place enough weight on trying to avoid killing them that we’re prepared to take greater risks with our own people.
P: Okay, another question at the back.
Au: Good evening and thank you. I’ll try to keep this to a question, I promise. I guess the question is do you see people with a disability as having a role in I guess a Utopian vision or let’s say a healthy, rich and vibrant society and can you comment on that I guess idea given we’ve talked about animals and other components of Utopianism in a sense?
PS: Is that another question to me?
P: Is it directed to anyone in particular?
Au: Well I guess Professor Singer but anyone, please.
PS: So I suppose you could imagine that in a complete Utopia there might be ways of learning what causes people to have disabilities and then maybe parents would choose not to have people with disabilities so that’s a possibility. Now some people would say well in that case you lose something from society, you lose a certain kind of diversity, a certain kind of caring but my view would be that if you did have that knowledge that parents ought to have that choice and indeed of course in many respects we do have that knowledge now through prenatal diagnosis and the overwhelming majority of parents when they have a prenatal diagnosis of a serious condition or even a condition that’s compatible with quite a good life like Down’s syndrome, the overwhelming majority do decide to terminate the pregnancy so I wouldn’t want to prevent that, I don’t think any Utopia, you would remove that right of choice from parents in those situations. And therefore it may be that with greater knowledge there would be fewer or even no people with disability, that’s a possibility but you could certainly imagine where that was not the case, you didn’t have the knowledge and people with disabilities were welcomed and given the best possible lives.
R: Can I just – on behalf of again Thomas Moore, I mean there is a little part in his Utopia where he talks about disability in fact and again he’s you know several centuries ahead of his time, I mean he basically says the Utopians sort of ridicule those who make fun of people with disabilities. And there’s a place in Utopia for those who are disabled in certain ways. It’s not a crucial passage but it’s in there as well and so there is a sense of yeah differently abled people have a place in Utopia.
P: And I suppose in a Utopian society we make better accommodation for the integration of people with disability and we've seen certainly that occur for example with building design and accessibility over recent times as well.
R: Yes, I suppose that’s fair enough, sure.
P: Okay. You’ve got the mike so you’ve got the floor.
Au: A historical question for Russell and that is you briefly mentioned about Thomas Moore who wrote this book, Utopia, and then also that Thomas Moore played a role in governing England at the time and you mentioned I think something about – well I’m interested in the question of whether he thought of his own Utopia as something that he should aspire to as a ruler or was he just a hypocrite and said I want it to be like this but I can’t do anything about it? Or what was his vis – what was his relationship to his own book in terms of his own governing of England?
R: Well that’s the $64,000 question, I mean we don’t know.
Au: Do you have some <inaudible> 16:49?
R: I mean you know Thomas Moore writes the book, Utopia, he’s in the book as a character, Thomas Moore, he has you know he develops the Utopia. At the end Thomas Moore ends and says this is ridiculous – I mean the character, Thomas Moore when he hears the story says this wouldn’t make any sense, he said that society wouldn’t work which he just wrote so –
P: So is it a satire?
R: Well a satire of what? I mean part of contemporary England, okay but I mean we don’t know the answer, really, of how he put these two parts of himself together. But I don’t think that’s so unusual in the history of art and writing, that people play two different roles, that you know that Thomas Jefferson you know has slaves and writes the Declaration of Independence. You say well how do those two things go together? And the answer is we don’t know, actually.
Au: But surely he must have been led to some extent by his own aspirations?
R: Okay but – yes and I say book one was a discussion about the philosopher in the state and in some sense Thomas Moore <inaudible> 18:02 argument with himself like you know should I enter into government service? You know can one change the world that way? And you know he’s not a great lesson I’d say in that regard.
J: Can I just add that Erasmus and Thomas Moore knew each other and Erasmus thought that Thomas Moore was quite a jokester, he was actually kind of making some jokes in his Utopia as well so there was a humorous aspect to it and one example of this humour is in the wedding rituals in utopia. The gentlemen and the bride and groom to be must appear to one another naked in order to reveal everything that is on offer here for the wedding ceremony and after the wedding. And this was very, very different to the way in which Thomas Moore led his life if – according to his biographers he was really quite a chaste man and it certainly was considered to be a little bit of a joke shared with Erasmus as well.
R: Yes but to say it was a joke, I mean like all jokes it could have a serious intent.
J: It could have a grain of truth, yes.
R: And in that sense you know jokes you know have a message. Yes, he was a jokester but –
PS: And you could say it’s another respect in which you got a lot closer to Utopia, I mean hands up married people here who did not see their partner before their –
P: Okay, we have a question at the back.
Au: Thank you, I was wondering if you could comment on Utopia in a very like explicit temporal sense? Is it always a future-orientated concept and are there prohibitions or taboos around talking about or situating utopias in the present or in the past because I noticed in today’s panel there was a lot of hesitation about really embracing the present as a Utopia or the past as a Utopia and I wondered if you could speak a little bit more fully on the idea of Utopia as existing solely in the future.
P: Good question.
J: Sure, I can say a few words about it and I’m sure others might have some ideas as well. Utopia in the beginning, Thomas Moore's Utopia, his term, was not in the future, it was in the present. Well it was in the immediate past, wasn’t it? It was a trip to Utopia in the immediate past. In 1770 the first Uchronia was written by Louis-Sebastien Mercier who set his novel in the year 2440 to be precise and it looked a lot like England at the time. But it was a futuristic utopia, a Uchronia and from that point on people started to imagine more and more often a utopia in the future so it really was something that came into being I suppose because the spaces of the earth were exhausted, the spaces had been discovered. Interplanetary travel was not necessarily in the imaginary at that stage but of course we have seen interplanetary utopias in more recent times. That’s where Australia is so interesting because in 1770 Australia still seemed like a place to be discovered for the Europeans and so that’s why I think Australia remained a site for imagining utopia for much longer than many, many other places did.
Does that answer some – oh the utopias in the past is a really interesting question because quite often in a futuristic utopia we will see a comparison between a future utopia that actually looks a little bit more like a dystopia to many of us and then there’ll be a society that exists outside this perfect harmonious – apparently perfect ideal place and it’ll be a return to the earth, it will be a return to agriculture, it will be a return to this kind of nostalgic Arcadian notion of harmony with nature. And so within futuristic utopia sometimes we have that utopia set in the past so it does sometimes exist within our imaginary within the literature and certainly I think many of us have nostalgia for the past and for a simpler life and that has become part of our imagining for a time when we might not work so much.
P: But in terms of the future have the futurists become the new utopian thinkers, Russell, perhaps?
R: Well it depends what you mean by the futurist. There is a - art move in the futurists but I think basically the short answer – I won’t give the short – is no, no, the – there is a technological dimension to much of the – that kind of futurism which I don’t see really as part – I mean it is less to do with yeah leisure and love and human relations, it’s more to do with a world which is you know technologically more advanced.
P: ‘Cause like there were the cyberutopians, weren’t there?
R: Okay, yes so I mean – so is utopian? Is that a vision of the future? You know my cell phone doesn’t work here, it’s such a pleasure you know like this is better, not having you know so I’m not sure that the futurists – if you mean this technological vision is really utopian vision.
P: Okay, we’ll take another question.
Au: It seems to me that you can actually construct an argument and given the recent events in America with the rise of Sanders and Trump that – and to a lesser extent and Le Pen and I’ve forgotten the name of the Dutch chap but the rise of these extremist right or left movements, particularly the rise of the right movements, could almost be regarded as a – expression of a utopian idealism, certainly in terms of their support as they’d regard it as being fulfilling the ultimate expression in which humanity can be about. I realise this is not Moore's version of Utopia but it’s along those lines. I was just wondering if they can make some kind of comment on that.
R: Well I mean I would disagree. I mean again if you say that Utopia means virtually anything, I mean any plan, any idea then sure then yeah, then Trump or Marie Le Pen you know are Utopian but if you say what is the relationship between them and their ideas to the Utopian tradition then you have to say it’s zero, there’s no relationship. I mean the ideas of nationalism, of racism, of whatever I mean don’t really have any resonance in the Utopian tradition so that I mean to say that they’re Utopians, that seems to me distorts you know what the Utopia is about and it’s using it in a very – I mean it’s said all the time but I don’t think it’s historically accurate to say that they’re Utopian. I see no real intersection between them and the Utopian tradition.
Au: What about Sanders?
R: The what?
R: Oh Bernie, oh. I mean that’s - I mean yes, he’s coming from a slight – he’s – I mean - but between Bernie Sanders and Trump it’s a different world and you could say yes, he’s coming out of a socialist tradition which has links to the Utopian tradition which we’ve said I mean in that – yes, you could see something there. But if you’re talking about Trump and Marie Le Pen and the rise of nationalist and populist movements I don’t see them as Utopian.
P: One more question at the back and then I’ll get Des to wrap up proceedings.
Au: This is probably a good question to end on, actually. The term Utopia, why do you think it has lasted so long? Is it something to do with each generation being able to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes and reinterpret it and reimagine it and reinvent it? Why do you think the term has endured?
R: Well I think it’s an excellent question and I think if you look at Thomas Moore it’s five centuries old, it reads well, the book one issues about intellectuals and politics is totally contemporary. Book two, it’s not totally contemporary but it’s raising issue about – yes, about leisure, about labour, about tolerance and even – yes, even about hunting and you know and animal life. It’s raising issues which we haven’t resolved and it’s you know we can’t accept it all but it’s – we haven’t answered the issues that raise this and it reads well.
J: I have a little quote. I knew I brought my notebook up here for a reason, I can never quite remember the whole quote. It’s from Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism. He says a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at for it leaves out the very country at which humanity is always landing.
P: And that is indeed a perfect point to end on. Well done.
P: And I’ll just hand back to Des who’s going to tie all of these ends together and summarise this magnificently, Des.
D: Thank you, I you know to paraphrase Mark Twain, I think, a Latin joke is no laughing matter. I mean I guess I come out of this with a sense that the point of Utopia is not to find answers but the kinds of questions that are asked and the demand that it places on us to leave behind our conventional thinking. I think I’d want to emphasise that Utopia is not just idealistic, that is that in Moore's Utopia and generally there’s a concern not just with paradise for example but with the structures and institutions of a society and how that changes people and that actually makes it quite grounded in the world, quite concrete in lots of way and not really just an unanchored kind of dreaming. I think this temporal question is incredibly interesting, actually and I guess the shift that Jackie points to between Utopia as a place and then Utopia as a time in the future is to me a very significant movement in how we think about it and says a lot about how we relate ourselves to it and how optimistic we are of finding that place. And I think that – I guess I think there’s a real distinction to be drawn. I think the world at least is full of Utopians and futurists but they’re really quite different, the Utopian wants to change the world in order to fit our needs, the futurist wants to predict the future in order to adapt ourselves to it. Those are entirely different ways of thinking about how we relate to the environment and about how we relate to the future.
Well I mean the Centre for Law, Arts and Humanities is committed to an interdisciplinary thinking which is equal parts imagination and scholarship and I think – and it’s – at the same time speaks to both the wider community and an academic constituency and I think tonight’s event is a perfect example of the importance of that partnership, the importance of those dialogues and that relationship. At this point again I want to thank the ABC and the National Library for their enormous support in allowing this event to take place, a big hand in particular to Paul Barclay and we do look forward to hearing the final result on RN in the months to come so thank you very much to Paul. It’s also the first fruits of a collaboration not just between the ANU and Australian cultural institutions in Canberra but between the Colleges of Arts, Law and Social Sciences and I want to thank the offices of the Deans of Law and Arts and Social Sciences, the Peter Herps Colloquium in Continental Philosophy, the ANU School of History and two great university-wide initiatives, one of the oldest humanities centres in Australia, the Humanities Research Centre, and one of the youngest interdisciplinary initiatives, the ANU – the ANU Gender Institute for their immeasurable help and support.
I want to thank in particular the four participants here on the stage with Paul for their vital contribution. From the University of Melbourne, Jackie Dutton, from UCLA and all the way from Los Angeles only yesterday, Russell Jacoby, from the University of Melbourne and Princeton University simultaneously, Peter Singer, and Miles Franklin award-winning author, Alexis Wright. Please thank them all.
P: And lastly and most important I want to thank you all very much for coming and making this a night to remember. And I want to leave you just with the two most important questions that Thomas Moore asked all those years ago about the new islands of Utopia, quare and quam, why and how.
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