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Institute of Advanced Study

The Future of Utopia?

Abstract

While academic interest in Utopia persists, perhaps flourishes, the rest of society has decisively turned its back. It is not fortuitous that the neologism ‘dystopia,' - and it is dystopian ideas that dominate popular literature and imagination - emerged in the twentieth century. The intellectual foundations for an attack on utopianism came from the work of a coterie of largely Jewish, central European refugee thinkers such as Karl Popper, Jacob L. Talmon and Hannah Arendt. Although they fled Nazism, which was hardly utopian, they presented a convincing argument that utopianism fed totalitarianism.  This has become the conventional and scholarly wisdom. To be sure, the contemporary dystopian mindset has other sources than the arguments of Popper and Arendt. Confidence about the future - a precondition for utopian imagination - has dwindled. Perhaps imagination itself can no longer entertain a different future. Imagination itself might have its own history; it is subject to social and economic forces. To the degree that childhood sustains imagination, as childhood changes so might imagination. And childhood has changed. The physical places and spaces that once formed the bedrock of childhood have disappeared. The unstructured open play areas and time have been replaced by organized games and video consoles. With the decline of spontaneous play, imagination too may decline and with it the possibility of utopian thinking.

Insights Paper