(Im)perfection Subverted, Reloaded and Networked: Utopian Discourse across Media

by Barbara Klonowska (Volume editor) Zofi Kolbuszewska (Volume editor) Grzegorz Maziarczyk (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 264 Pages
Series: Mediated Fictions, Volume 8


This study explores various intersections between the traditional utopian discourse and such media as music, comic books, TV series, feature films, documentaries, fan fiction, computer games and web projects, bringing to focus the transformative role of the media used for the presentation and implementation of utopian projects. It shows both the variety of forms of expression of utopian impulses and the relocation and reinterpretation of utopia in the contemporary culture of convergence.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editors
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Barbara Klonowska, Zofia Kolbuszewska and Grzegorz Maziarczyk: Utopian Reconfigurations in the Culture of Convergence
  • Part One: Tradition
  • Artur Blaim: “Nowhere Plans for Nobody”: Constructing Utopia in Popular Music
  • Barbara Klonowska: Coming through Dystopia: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis
  • Andrzej Sławomir Kowalczyk: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!” The BBC Children’s Animation Bob the Builder, Project: Build It as an Ecotopia
  • Katarzyna Pisarska: Science, Power and Utopia in the Appleseed Universe
  • Marta Komsta: Destination – Eutopia: Nowa Huta in Polish Documentaries
  • Patrycja Podgajna: Slapstick as a Utopian Weapon in Juliusz Machulski’s Embassy
  • Part Two: Transition
  • Urszula Terentowicz-Fotyga: The City in 3D: Dystopian Past, Utopian Moment
  • Justyna Galant: The Carnivalesque Sense of the Armageddon: Richard Kelly’s Menippea
  • Ludmiła Gruszewska-Blaim: Fan Fiction and Dystopian Classics: Utopianising Disruptions
  • Elżbieta Perkowska-Gawlik: The Taming of Dystopia in Progress: A Collage of Narrative Strategies in Barry J. Gardner’s Webcomic Hyperbolic Dystopia
  • Part Three: Transposition
  • Zofia Kolbuszewska: Utopia, Affective Turn, Remediation and Transmediality: From the Dystopian Electronic World of We Are The Strange to the Utopia of the International Community Support for an Alternative Filmmaker
  • Mateusz Liwiński: Nostalgia for Dystopia: Critical Nostalgia in Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please
  • Grzegorz Maziarczyk: Playable Dystopia? Interactivity and Narrativity in BioShock and BioShock Infinite
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

Utopian Reconfigurations in the Culture of Convergence


The desire for a better existence – being and living – has been an inherent feature of human culture. As an expression of this desire, utopia “is analogous to a quest for grace which is both existential and relational” (Levitas xii-xiii). Ruth Levitas argues in Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society that an analytic definition of utopia in terms of desire generates a method of inquiry where existential and aesthetic concerns are not an end in itself, but rather point to the social and structural domain (xiii). Thinking about utopia means attempting both to imagine and make a different world. Utopian studies are mainly concerned with intentional communities that inhabit enclaves or create heterotopias even if some of those are clearly intended as “prefiguration[s] or instantiation[s] of a transformed world” (Levitas xiii).

Prefigurative practices are often embedded in social practices which, it is hoped, will transform social relations. Mundane or everyday utopianism – considered a way of fostering alternative or oppositional social practices in order to create “new, or at least slightly different” (xiii) social institutions – has recently become a focus of political attention and an object of study. Levitas emphasizes that while socialist and environmentalist politics easily lend themselves to being designated as utopian, it is important to discern the utopian character, often shot through with nostalgia, of right-wing politics, in particular at the level of the state and the global market. It thus comes as no surprise that a concept of what a good society would be and propositions how to bring ← 7 | 8 → such a society about underpin numerous social practices and most political programs (xiii).

A more holistic approach entails outlining an alternative society where abstract principles such as equality and justice are instantiated in specific social institutions, which are described as an integrated whole. A restrictive version of the holistic approach confines the term utopia to “accounts of alternative social arrangements and the lives lived within them” (xiv). Nevertheless, proponents of this narrower definition, such as Lyman Tower Sargent, also recognize a broader category of utopianism, understood as a vehicle for the longing and for anticipated redemption diffused throughout culture (Levitas xiv).

The approach which Levitas identifies as the more holistic is the cornerstone of the method of utopia that may be referred to as the “Imaginary Reconstitution of Society.” Thus understood, utopia “intrinsically necessitates thinking about the connections between economic, social and political processes, our ways of life, and what is necessary to human flourishing” (xv). The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society has three analytically separable but intertwined aspects: the archeological mode, the ontological mode and the architectural mode. The architectural mode gives utopia a literary form and lends it its sociological character. It describes institutional design, delineates a good society, and provides (partial) concrete instantiations in the case of intentional communities or prefigurative practices (xvii). The archeological mode, in turn, excavates forgotten fragments and rejected shards of political, literary and artistic accounts in order to identify absent or implicit elements of the model society underlying them and thus make this model “open to scrutiny and to public critique” (xvii). The ontological mode pertains to the subjects and agents of utopia, “the selves interpellated within it, that utopia encourages or allows” (xvii).

Levitas points out that utopian thinking as a method is less constrained by what appears to be possible at present. Because it is explicitly hypothetical, utopia is marked by provisionality, reflexivity and the dialogic mode. These features help reveal the models of society implied in existing political programs, construct alternatives, and explore what kinds of people we want to become and what forms of society will promote or inhibit the desired subjects (xviii). ← 8 | 9 →

The history of utopia as a literary genre, philosophical concept and social practice is inextricably connected with the history of media, where media are understood as technologies, devices and practices of communication as well as recording, storing and retrieving information and memory. In The Art of Memory Frances A. Yates makes a connection between utopia, the art of memory and cabinet of curiosities when discussing Thomas Campanella’s City of the Sun. A kind of encyclopaedic lay-out of a universal memory system was depicted on the walls of the ideal, utopian city in Campanella’s novel (Yates 377). The rise of the modern literary utopia is inseparably linked with the technology of print, while the invention of radio and television contributed to the bleak dystopian visions of omnipresent surveillance and total control, where the connection between utopia and retrieval of memory gives way to the dystopian practice of erasing memory and to the perverse mutability of ever re-written archives, famously exemplified in Orwell’s 1984.

Digital media increased the complexity of the relation between utopia and technology. Utopian hopes raised by the birth of the internet were soon transformed into dystopian fears of Orwellian total surveillance coupled with an explosion in the popularity of the clearly nefarious Deep Web. On the other hand, the social connectivity offered by the net makes it a potential site of ideal social relations and fosters utopian possibilities dormant in forming intentional communities as desired good societies. The construction of such communities involves both prefigurative and transformative utopian practices. Often, dystopian social relations inherent in the reality represented in films or computer games provide an occasion for the rise of an actual utopian community of fans, viewers, players and supporters.

As the editors of Mediated Utopias note, artistic utopias tend to portray either perfect, or initially only better spaces and communities, using formulaic topoi of a journey to and a visiting of a remote ideal place, a subsequent guided tour of which allows the reader to be exposed to and accept the principles of its organisation as the embodiment of perfection (Blaim and Gruszewska-Blaim 8–9). In contrast, literary dystopias, i.e. artistic portrayals of a world which the reader perceives as considerably worse than his/her one (Sargent 9) tend to avoid elaborate framing, eliminate the motif of a guided journey and start in medias res, ← 9 | 10 → privileging narrativity and action over description and explanation (Blaim and Gruszewska-Blaim 10). Thus, the differences in persuasive aims – promotion vs. warning – are reflected in the poetics of works which artistically render political ideas.

Interestingly, this poetic blueprint of fictional utopias and dystopias has changed relatively little over time. Different incarnations and practical implementations of utopian ideas variously define perfectibility and produce sometimes drastically different visions of perfect and imperfect communities. In contrast, their fictional form has proved relatively stable. The traditional artistic form of utopias and dystopias, until the 20th century, has been literature and in particular, different variants of the novel of ideas. Most classics of dystopian literature belong here (suffice to mention Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four), together with many utopian texts (News from Nowhere, Looking Backwards). However, the 20th century brings a radical change to literature’s monopoly on the artistic representations of utopia and a gradual move towards other media: primarily to film and, towards the end of the century, to other audio-visual forms: comic books, TV series, computer games and web projects. This gradual extension of the repertoire of available artistic forms of utopia and dystopia may be variously explained. Firstly, it reflects a more general broadening and diversification of forms of cultural production, in which literature becomes merely one form of artistic communication – and not even the main one at that. Artistic plurality, then, necessarily affects utopian and dystopian narratives, too. Secondly, with the popular appeal of audio-visual culture and the simultaneous growing elitism of literature, this broadening of artistic scope reflects the gradual move of utopian and dystopian fictions towards more accessible and thus more persuasively effective forms of communication. The growing democratisation of forms of cultural production makes new artistic forms an attractive and promising vehicle to reach wider audiences and promote utopian/dystopian ideas on a wider scale. Thirdly and lastly, the shift from literature to audio-visual forms can be interpreted as an exploration of new possibilities in the artistic rendering of utopian and dystopian projects, and thus not merely a challenge but also a potential opening up of new artistic horizons. The growing plurality, democratisation and inclusiveness of media, then, seems a particularly favourable and ← 10 | 11 → tempting situation for the narratives of (im)perfection whose main raison d’être, apart from their aesthetic function, is persuasion.

The medium has been a notoriously slippery category ever since Marshall McLuhan defined media as “extensions of man” (3) and included in his analyses money, clocks and bicycles, among other things. The current use of the notion is perhaps not as extensive as that suggested by McLuhan, but it is far from uniform, as it is applied to TV and the press, words and images, clay and watercolour. The medium can be construed either narrowly as “the physical means by which some system of ‘signs’ (pictographs, alphabet characters, etc.) for recording ideas can be actualized” (Danesi 2) or broadly as

a conventionally and culturally distinct means of communication, specified not only by particular technical or institutional channels but primarily by the use of one or more semiotic systems in the public transmission of content that includes, but is not restricted to, referential “messages.” (Wolf, “Metareference across Media” 14)

The word media, broadly understood, functions as an umbrella term not only for the technological means of transmission such as TV and radio that are usually associated with the term, but also for traditional arts, including literature, music and painting, as well as recently invented digital forms of expression and communication.

The medium is thus an inherently polyvalent term which can be approached – as noted by Marie-Laure Ryan – from three major perspectives: semiotic, technological and cultural. The semiotic approach tends to divide media on the basis of the codes and sensory channels they rely on into three broad families – verbal, visual and aural – corresponding roughly to basic art types – literature, painting and music. While the semiotic approach to media construes them as abstract semiotic systems, the technological/material approach focuses on the material support of a given semiotic system. This support can take the form of either a raw substance, such as clay or the human vocal apparatus, or a technological invention like print or film. Finally, Ryan distinguishes media as cultural practices to account for the fact that “some ways of disseminating information are regarded as distinct media from a cultural point of view, despite their lack of a distinct semiotic or technological identity” (Ryan 23). The press, which shares with literature the same verbal semiotic channel and the technological support ← 11 | 12 → of print, is commonly regarded as a medium in its own right and juxtaposed with other mass media, such as TV and radio.

Irrespective of the perspective from which it is construed, each medium presents its own affordances and limitations as regards the encoding of meaning. Ryan argues, for instance, that language can easily “represent temporality, change, causality, thought and dialogue,” while images can easily “immerse [the] spectator in space, map [a] storyworld or represent [the] visual appearance of characters and setting” (Ryan 19). Still, these distinctions are primarily heuristic tools because a particular medium construed in technological and/or cultural terms can allow simultaneous use of various semiotic channels, as happens, for instance, in print or film. This is also often the case with the broad family of digital means of expression and communication that goes under the admittedly contingent but widely recognised label new media. One icon of digitality, the computer, has been described as a metamedium, which “is simultaneously a set of different media and a system for generating new media tools and new types of media” (Manovich, Software Takes Command 102). On the one hand, the basic operational mode of digital media is thus remediation, “the formal logic by which new media refashion prior media forms” (Bolter and Grusin 273). On the other, they exploit the expressive affordances which are peculiar to digital technologies. These distinguishing qualities of new media – their being “digital, interactive, hypertexual, virtual, networked, and simulated” (Lister et al 13) and their reliance on numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability and transcoding (Manovich, The Language of New Media 43–66) – have allowed them to refashion older, analogue forms of communication and develop new cultural forms (from computer games through machinima to fan fiction), new ways of representing the world (immersive virtual environments and 3-D reconstructions), new relationships between subjects and media technologies (users as producers), new forms of knowledge assembly and dissemination (Wikipedia) and a new sense of time and space (the Internet as McLuhan’s “global village”), to mention but a few effects of the digital revolution.

As Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin assert, remediation is not peculiar to new media but rather the defining feature of all media: in contemporary culture each medium “appropriates the techniques, forms ← 12 | 13 → and social significance of other media and attempts to rival or refashion them in the name of the real” (Bolter and Grusin 65). Remediation, they argue, ties in with two complementary strategies whereby all media operate: transparent immediacy and hypermediacy. The goal of the former is to make the viewer forget the presence of the medium; the latter reminds the viewer of the medium. By foregrounding its distinctive features and representational capacities each medium thus asserts its position in contemporary media-saturated culture. This media rivalry is counterbalanced in contemporary culture by a twin process of media convergence, in which “multiple media systems coexist and where media content flows fluidly across them” (Jenkins 282). Diversity thus reigns supreme in the field of contemporary intermedial relations, which range from transmediality – that is, the migration of concepts and formal devices across different media – through intermedial transposition, in which one medium functions as the source of a particular structure or content for another medium, to plurimediality (Wolf, “Intermediality” 253–254). Conventionally, the last category denotes the co-presence of heteromedial signifiers within a single semiotic entity (Wolf, “Intermediality” 255); however, in contemporary media, this multiplication of semiotic channels has recently begun taking a new form, tentatively called polymorphic fictions (Dena 185) or transmedia storytelling:

A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best – so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction. (Jenkins 96)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (April)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 264 pp.

Biographical notes

Barbara Klonowska (Volume editor) Zofi Kolbuszewska (Volume editor) Grzegorz Maziarczyk (Volume editor)

Barbara Klonowska, Zofia Kolbuszewska and Grzegorz Maziarczyk work in the Departments of English and American Literature and Culture at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland. They are members of the Utopian Studies Society, Europe and co-edited Echoes of Utopia. Notions, Rhetoric, Poetics (2012).


Title: (Im)perfection Subverted, Reloaded and Networked: Utopian Discourse across Media