Splinternet/La Fantasia Tondo, by Peter D. Gerakaris ©2018. a.r.r.

The Dystopian Imagination

Instructor: Ajay Singh Chaudhary
The Workmen’s Circle
247 West 37th St, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10018

Thomas More’s sixteenth century treatise Utopia – literally, “no place” – coined the term “utopia” in its modern parlance: a planned, perfected vision of a possible society in some misty other geography or time. Over the next several centuries, More’s peculiar mix of religious discipline and egalitarian traditionalism increasingly underlined the negative connotation that the concept of “utopia” acquired. In the nineteenth century, for example, Marx would critique many other socialist thinkers as hopelessly “utopian” – moralistic dreamers with no scientific understanding of society and with no material basis for their fantastical imagined communities. In a somewhat ironic twist, today the epithet of “utopian” is hurled at even moderate social reformers who dare challenge Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum: “there is no alternative.” What has risen in the place once occupied by utopias is a nearly endless play of dystopias, a dizzying array of nightmarish visions of fear woven from the all-too-believable fabric of today. What do our dystopian imaginations tell us about our world?

In this class, students will read, watch, and examine contemporary dystopian visions across a broad range of media in relation to a contemporary, lived reality which many view in increasingly fatalistic terms. Is another world possible? How can we even begin to imagine one? Why do we increasingly dream in dystopian spectacle since the end of the 20th century? What roots does dystopian thinking have in its utopian forbearers?  During this course students will read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, watch Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, examine Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, and view Hiroshi Nagahama’s Aku No Hana [Flowers of Evil], an anime based on Shuzo Oshimi’s reimagination of the classic Baudelaire collection as a high school drama in a bleak and stagnant contemporary Japan. Our key theoretical text will be Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, which locates our crippled imaginations as a key site for the reproduction of contemporary life, alongside shorter readings from Walter Benjamin, Frederic Jameson, and Lauren Berlant. Finally, students will return to More’s classic – accompanied by two new introductions by Ursula Le Guin and China Mieville – to ask what, if anything, we might redeem from the shards of our “utopian” past for our dystopian present.

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm
July 09 — July 30, 2018
4 sessions


Registration Open

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