Skip to main content

University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Global Utopias Project Resource Guide

Utopia: Definitions and Shifts in Meaning

Explicitly utopian texts like Thomas More’s original Utopia only scratch the surface of this world of ideas and practices, which include imagining perfected societies or golden ages (or the dystopic results of such visions and attempts); creating alternative and experimental “intentional communities”; building political, social, cultural, and religious movements; but also the huge variety of everyday practices that challenge the conditions of the present with what a philosopher of utopia has famously called the “utopian impulse”—including in popular culture, literature, art, architecture, music, advertising, consumption, and more. Utopia is global also in involving the movement of people, ideas, and goods across many boundaries; envisioning a transformed “new world”; challenging (or idealizing) global systems such as colonialism; and offering local alternatives to globalizing structures and relationships.

-from the Global Utopias website

Utopia Definitions

From online Oxford English Dictionary:

1.

  1. With capital initial. An imaginary island in Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516), presented by the narrator as having a perfect social, legal, and political system.
  2. With capital initial. Any imaginary or mythical place (without implication of perfection), imagined as existing in some remote location on earth. 

2.

     a. An imagined or hypothetical place, system, or state of existence in which everything is perfect, esp. in respect of social                  structure, laws, and politics.

     b. A real place which is perceived or imagined as perfect.

3. A written work (now esp. a fictional narrative) about an ideal society, place, or state of existence.

4. A plan for or vision of an ideal society, place, or state of existence, esp. one that is impossible to realize; a fantasy, a dream.

Further Definitions and Conceptions of Utopia

“A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.”

--Oscar Wilde, “Soul of Man under Socialism,” 1891

Utopia “ventures beyond” the “darkness” of the present, discovering not the “impossible” but the “not-yet.”

--Ernst Bloch, Principle of Hope

“Ramarajya, the Kingdom of God, the sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority.” “Whether Rama of my imagination ever lived or not on this earth, the ancient ideal of Ramarajya is undoubtedly one of true democracy.”

--Mahatma Ghandi

Utopia is “the determined negation of that which merely is,” pointing “to what should be.”

--Theodor Adorno

Utopia is “not a floor-plan” of the future, but a “source of disruption” of the present.

--Fredric Jameson, Archeologies of the Future

“Utopia is most authentic when we cannot imagine it,” for we are “imprisoned in a non-utopian present.”

--Jameson

Utopia is a “desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present,” “to feel that this world is not enough,” to “disrupt the tyranny of the now,” to feel “an openness” to possibilities that are still hard to imagine.

--José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia

Utopia challenges “straight time”: history as linear, with “no future but the here and now of our everyday life.”

--Muñoz

Helpful Reference Sources