The Racial Horizon of Utopia

Unthinking the Future of Race in Late Twentieth-Century American Utopian Novels

by Edward K. Chan (Author)
©2016 Monographs VIII, 226 Pages
Series: Ralahine Utopian Studies, Volume 17


Race and utopia have been fundamental features of US American culture since the origins of the country. However, racial ideology has often contradicted the ideals of social and political equality in the United States. This book surveys reimaginings of race in major late twentieth-century US American utopian novels from the 1970s to the 1990s. Dorothy Bryant, Marge Piercy, Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler and Kim Stanley Robinson all present radical new configurations of race in a more ideal society, yet continually encounter an ideological blockage as the horizon beyond which we cannot rethink race. Nevertheless, these novels create productive strains of thinking to grapple with the question of race in US American culture. Drawing on feminist theory and critiques of democracy, the author argues that our utopian dreams cannot be furthered unless we come to terms with the phenomenology of race and the impasse of the individual in liberal humanist democracy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Race and the Subject of Utopia
  • Chapter 1: Utopia, America and Race
  • Chapter 2: Race, Democracy and Corporeality
  • Chapter 3: Accounting for the Remainder in the Imagination of the 1970s Utopian Subject
  • Chapter 4: Mourning the Individual Self: Octavia Butler and the Haptic Utopia in the 1980s
  • Chapter 5: Simulating Multicultural Utopia: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy in the 1990s
  • Conclusion: The Racial Horizon of Utopia
  • Epilogue: After 2000 and Multiculturalism as Nightmare
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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Where to begin? Perhaps with my parents who enabled me to pursue graduate study in such a ‘nonpractical’ field of study. John Michael and Jeffrey Tucker oversaw the original manifestation of this project and guided me in numerous ways at the University of Rochester. A reading group sponsored by the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender and Women’s Studies was also invaluable for critique and support in early stages of the project. To my colleagues and friends at Kennesaw State University and Aichi University, thanks for creating a collegial space within which to work. Many thanks to the Ralahine Utopian Studies book series and especially Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini for supporting this publication, and Tom for indefatigable enthusiasm for the project and pushing me to improve my thinking and writing. Naomi Jacobs was incredible for her copyediting but also her invaluable advice on the content as well. Thanks also to Christabel Scaife, Jasmin Allousch, and all the staff at Peter Lang for their patience and support. Finally, my wife Yuri Hashimoto endured and took care of me during the final stages of the project.

Copyright permissions:

Excerpt(s) from Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, © 1976 by Middlemarsh, Inc. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. ← vii | viii →

An earlier version of Chapter 3 of this book originally appeared in Utopian Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, entitled ‘Utopia and the Problem of Race: Accounting for the Remainder in the Imagination of the 1970s Utopian Subject’, © 2006 by the Society for Utopian Studies. Used by permission of The Pennsylvania State University Press.

← viii | 1 →

Introduction: Race and the Subject of Utopia

During the 2008 US presidential election, I happened to be living in Japan serving a one-year guest professorship. Although I dutifully cast my absentee ballot for Barack Obama, I was convinced that the United States was nowhere near ready to elect a black man as president. Such an event seemed the stuff of science fiction (SF). I was, of course, wrong. As Isiah Lavender remarked, ‘Science fiction has become historical fact with the election of President Barack Obama the first African American president’.1 He went on to speculate that perhaps the ‘science fictional portrayal of a resolute and intelligent black president [in the film Deep Impact] has prepared some people for an actual black president’.2

Many Japanese people – along with many others around the world – seemed genuinely thrilled with Obama’s election: he was prominently featured in the Japanese news; his face was emblazoned on T-shirts; residents from a small town in Japan called ‘Obama’ sang his praises on YouTube. Was it because they too were tired of eight interminably long years of the Bush-Cheney regime? Or was there something more symbolic at work in the celebratory mood? After all, it took more than two centuries for the first non-white US President to be elected in a country that considers itself the epitome of freedom and equality, one hundred and forty-three years after the abolition of slavery and forty-four years after the Civil Rights Act. While the Obama campaign would most likely want to highlight ‘hope’ and ‘change’ as the symbolic machinery that won the 2008 election, there is no denying that Obama’s body – as a site where attitudes toward the racialized Other can be played out – was and continued to be a central motif, if not the central motif, for both opponents and supporters. It doesn’t take too ← 1 | 2 → much imagination to decipher the racialized codes underlying the statements and images likening him to a monkey (‘the Primate-in-chief’), the ‘birther’ movement or even the rallying cries declaring Obama a socialist (and therefore alien to American values).3 Whatever religion he professes, whatever state he claims as his place of birth, however much of a regular guy he seems, the materiality of his black body represents, among other things, something different.

And yet that difference need not be negatively constructed. There is no denying that Obama’s appeals to hope and change were powerful – not just as rhetoric, but as something more visceral and simultaneously transcendent. If, as some argue, it is possible to ‘not see race’, Obama could simply be said to have triumphed because he embodied a relatively youthful optimism, and possessed a seemingly genuine smile indicating that behind the politician there really was a nice, down-to-earth, cigarette-smoking, basketball-playing guy – someone, as the media would have it, with whom you could have a beer.4 But not even Obama himself is naïve enough to have believed the invocations of a post-racial America in his own 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, when he claimed ‘There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America’. A rather less sanguine view is expressed in his 2006 memoir The Audacity of Hope: ‘To say that we are one people is not to suggest that race no longer matters – that the fight for equality has been won, or that the problems that minorities face in this country today are largely self-inflicted’.5 Yet even after acknowledging the continuing ← 2 | 3 → problems, he ends his chapter on race by imagining his children’s future in hopeful terms: ‘America is big enough to accommodate all their dreams’.6

Regardless of whether the 2008 US presidential election actually signaled a change in the way America thinks about race, it will always be of historic significance. It is difficult to estimate the symbolic impact of the first black president for a country where nonwhite politicians are an exception, where poverty still aligns itself along racial lines, where the mass media is still overwhelmingly white. And in many ways, this historic moment encapsulated the twin foci of the present book: the problem of race and the compulsion to imagine something beyond it. Of course, neither of these matters emerged for the first time during the 2008 election. In fact, they are coextensive with American history itself. From Native Americans’ first contact with European explorers to the invention of chattel slavery for blacks, countless lynchings and Executive Order 9066, which placed Japanese-Americans into internment camps, race has more than marked the American experience. But alongside these inaugurating injustices comes the hope for their end, for something better.

The project of hoping for a better future, perhaps always a feature of the human psyche, became nominally formalized as a literary genre with Sir Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516, part of the same Age of Exploration that ‘discovered’ the New World. The idea of America itself has frequently been synonymous with hope – and by extension, following German philosopher Ernst Bloch, with Utopia – on several levels: historical, ideological, communal, individual. Nevertheless, it took about two hundred years after the founding of the nation before the coexistence of multiple races was included as a substantial component in the American utopian novel. Toward the end of a century dominated by the dystopian imagination, the utopian literary genre regained life, and the 1970s marked a rebirth in the tradition of American utopian literature that carried through to the 1980s and 1990s. SF and feminist writers began to take up the genre in the 1970s, transforming the tradition in ways critics have described as ← 3 | 4 → more self-reflexive, ‘critical’, ‘unsutured’, ‘open-ended’.7 Many critics have dealt with both the generic shift and the treatment of sex and gender in these works. Yet no one has yet addressed the ways in which many of these novels also explicitly situate race within their ideal futures.

The present study addresses this absence in the criticism on utopian literature, namely, the problematics of the relationship between race and Utopia.8 The writers who provide the main focus for this study – Dorothy Bryant, Marge Piercy, Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler and Kim Stanley Robinson – try to imagine new forms of identity as a way to figure race into a utopian future. As a conceptual structure, utopia enables these writers to play around with identity as an ideological formation – inverting, controverting, revising, expanding it. They allow us to see more clearly the interval between how we do imagine ourselves and how we might imagine ourselves. Who, then – more than what – becomes the ‘subject’ of Utopia.

One thing is undeniable: something changed after the 1970s in the very form of the genre and, more broadly, in the way Utopia is figured in our cultural imagination. The change is generally characterized as a laudable opening up of the horizon of the genre. However, I will question whether these works offer a productive utopian vision of race. More specifically, what must happen, what social calculus must we use, in order to imagine a society in which racial difference is not structured in hierarchy?

Though we might hesitate to privilege SF as the genre of the twentieth century, it certainly played a central role in expressing one aspect of American culture: various forms of ‘encountering difference’. I place emphasis on the encounter because the difference that we encounter in utopian ← 4 | 5 → fiction – and in SF more generally – is not entirely disconnected from what we already know. As Samuel Delany famously observed, SF ‘uses the future to present significant distortions of the present’.9 The importance of SF for my purposes is not just its other-worldly manifestations of the imagination, nor its extrapolating prescience about what will come, nor the manifestations resulting from its subjunctive mood of what-if. Rather, the importance of SF for me is the way in which it stages our encounter with these figurations of difference. More than forty years ago, Darko Suvin focused our attention on SF’s ability to estrange the reader through what the Russian formalists called ostranenie or what Bertolt Brecht called the ‘alienation effect’, to produce ‘a strange newness, a novum’.10 Of course, a ‘strange newness’ is also found in other fantastical literatures of difference: horror, fantasy, mythology. What SF does specifically is to locate difference within a special relationship to ourselves, as an empirical emanation from our own consciousness. Thus, as Suvin emphasized, SF’s effect was unlike other forms of estrangement in being cognitively arrived at – not a magical incantation invoking the novum but instead a something-else produced rationally through the logical and empirical knowledge of the times. As such, its power could demystify the naturalized ways of thinking and talking about – indeed, living – race as well. In order to get some conceptual clarity on issues of race, we need to defamiliarize ourselves from our supposed knowledge of its inner and outer workings: we need to ‘unthink’ it. And if the problem of the twentieth century was indeed ‘the problem of the color line’ as W. E. B. Du Bois famously had it, then perhaps there is a special place for SF, among the varieties of literature, in its ability to stage the encounter with the racial other.11 For the color line is not simply a matter of race as a static object nor of race as an identity (which would lead us to questions of ontology). The problem of race is as much the problem of how it is encountered as of how it is lived. ← 5 | 6 →

The forms of Utopia

As a form for imagining beyond what we know to something better, Utopia allows us to consider the structure and experience of our present lives as well as the different ways life could be lived. Karl Mannheim’s widely influential Ideology and Utopia (orig. 1929) offers a helpful framework for considering the late twentieth-century utopian novel, because it captures some of the popular usage of the term ‘utopia’ to imply both a distortion of reality and a revolutionary rhetoric.12 Mannheim’s formulation of the ideology-utopia ‘instrument’ (as Louis Wirth terms it in his Preface to the book) is considerably a propos, because it responds to the problem of multiple worldviews as they struggle for dominance. Mannheim was specifically concerned with the status of social scientific knowledge at a particular point in German intellectual history. However, his instrument still proves useful for examining ‘difference’ as the manifestation of contradictions between the worldviews of particular social groups.

Mannheim situates ideology and utopia as the two poles of a spectrum that maps the distortions of ‘reality’ created by a particular social group’s collective unconscious. Both ideology and utopia reflect the unconscious ability of both dominant and oppressed groups to distort reality by not seeing certain facts in the ‘real condition of society’. For Mannheim, ‘ideology’ is the distortion that pushes toward social stasis, while ‘utopia’ is the distortion that seeks social change. Furthermore, utopia must have a truly revolutionary dimension, rather than simply gesture beyond the ordinary:

Every period in history has contained ideas transcending the existing order, but these did not function as utopias; they were rather the appropriate ideologies of this stage of existence as long as they were ‘organically’ and harmoniously integrated into the world-view characteristic of the period (i.e. did not offer revolutionary possibilities). As long as the clerically and feudally organized medieval order was able to locate its ← 6 | 7 → paradise outside of society, in some otherworldly sphere which transcended history and dulled its revolutionary edge, the idea of paradise was still an integral part of medieval society. Not until certain social groups embodied these wish-images into their actual conduct, and tried to realize them, did these ideologies become utopian.13

Mannheim’s formulation represents something of a shift from contemporary usage, in which ‘utopia’ is associated with the other-worldly as a fantastical construct of ‘no place’. His definition has the virtue of connecting Utopia to its revolutionary potential, and thus erasing completely the pejorative characterization of ‘utopia’ as an unrealistic wish or desire. In order to qualify as utopian for Mannheim, ideas must engage with and then at least seek to transcend the existing order – in his words, utopian ideas must be ‘situationally transcendent’.14 The utopian mentality arises when the worldview of a non-dominant group conflicts with the worldview of the social group that represents the existing order. The ideas of the non-dominant group are able to become situationally transcendent because their interests do not fully match up, and are often at odds, with the dominant group’s. Such is the case with the writers I treat in this study. When dealing with issues of race (and gender) they express situationally transcendent views on how race could operate in a utopian society.

Because he avoids the rhetoric of oppression, Mannheim helps us to see that utopia, generally considered, always implies social change, but it does not always designate the liberatory impulse of oppressed groups. As a literary example, Edward Bellamy’s utopian vision in Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1888) does not emanate from an oppressed position and, although its call to social change demonstrates a democratic humanitarianism, it does not necessarily speak for an oppressed group – nor does it try to.15 ← 7 | 8 → Speaking for an oppressed group is one important feature of the critical utopia, something it borrows from the longer tradition of the feminist utopia (extending back through Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mary Bradley Lane, and Margaret Cavendish).

Bloch, perhaps the premier twentieth-century philosopher of utopian desire, names this ability to imagine the something else ‘anticipatory illumination’, which art and literature (including popular cultural forms) can exhibit. For Bloch as for Mannheim, this utopian function of art and literature calls our attention to ideology, and more specifically to what Bloch calls the ‘surplus’: that which cannot be entirely covered over by ideological formations.16 In a conversation between Bloch, Theodor Adorno and Peter Krüger, Bloch reads the desire to fly in fairy tales as evidence of the inability of technology to completely fulfill human desire.17 The ‘residue’ that the desire to fly points to is the surplus that exists beyond the limits of ideology. The desire to fly reveals one form of utopian desire; a similar residue is also at work with the desire for true racial equality. This latter desire points to something outside the current ideological framework of our social and political thinking about race, centered on the abstract citizen of democracy. What this tells us is that we have to interrogate the limits of this social Subject. The late twentieth-century utopian novels discussed in this book all take up this interrogation. ← 8 | 9 →


VIII, 226
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
race gender usa
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. VI, 226 pp.

Biographical notes

Edward K. Chan (Author)

Edward K. Chan is Associate Professor of American Studies at Aichi University in Nagoya, Japan. His research and teaching interests include twentieth-century US American literary, film and popular culture, with a special emphasis on race and transnational perspectives on US American culture.


Title: The Racial Horizon of Utopia
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