Nineteenth-Century Utopianism and the American Social Imaginary

by Gerald Peters (Author)
©2021 Monographs X, 206 Pages


Religious sectarianism played a significant role in the early settlement and social development of the United States. Although historians have minimized what these societies contributed to the creation of a uniquely American "social imaginary," this era of social experimentalism drew the attention of highly influential European writers including Goethe, Tolstoy, Marx, and Weber. More recent social thinkers like Benedict Anderson, Charles Taylor, and Robert Wuthnow emphasize the importance of discourses (familial, dynastic, religious) in the creation of community. They contend that literary analysis, in particular, is critical for understanding how "social imaginaries" develop, sustain, and transform themselves. Drawing on thinkers like Marx, Weber, Dawkins, and Goethe, Nineteenth-Century Utopianism and the American Social Imaginary explores the "evolution" of the American social imaginary within these discursive traditions. Goethe, in particular, becomes a major contributor to this discussion, not simply because of his profound international influence during the period, but because he was a contemporary witness to these events. His final novel Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years (1829) depicts an emigrant society about to start an intentional community in the New World as an illustration of "cultural metamorphosis" that becomes central to understanding social development during the period. Utilizing a theoretical framework that draws on Lacan, the Frankfurt School, and post-structuralist thinkers like Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Žižek, Ernesto Laclau, and Chantal Mouffe, the author shows how communities develop within specific discursive structures and how American adaptations of these structures have the potential to create more radical and equitable democracies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction—Ubi? Unde? Quo?
  • Chapter 1. Theories
  • Chapter 2. Mythologies
  • Chapter 3. People of the Book
  • Chapter 4. American Religious Utopianism
  • Chapter 5. The Holy Family
  • Chapter 6. A Community of Weavers
  • Chapter 7. Makarie’s Cosmos
  • Index


This educational journey began in 2013 when, with the help of a University of Southern Maine Summer Faculty Fellowship, my partner Anita and I set out to visit at least a dozen different sites of former 19th-century “utopian” societies along the east coast and as far west as Kentucky and Indiana. Thank you, Anita, for accompanying me on that journey with your camera, and for keeping a detailed photographic record of what we discovered along the way. Your picture on the cover captures the essence of what I want to convey about the utopian spirit in America. I am also deeply grateful to you for reading and commenting on the manuscript. Most of all, thank you for being the “heart” of our family—Sarah, Katherine, Michael, Ryan, and Zachary—who have all contributed to the project in various ways. My appreciation Sarah for your knowledge about popular culture and Katherine for your insights into literature. Thank you, Michael, for sharing your amazing work in genetics, and Ryan, for your expertise in computer technology. And thank you, Zachary, for producing that incredible digital model of “Makarie’s Cosmos” even if the one that actually moves can’t be included in the text (“E pur si muove!”). I hope this work reflects my conviction that families in all their beautiful variation are the key to a healthy, flourishing “social imaginary.”

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I also want to thank two friends and colleagues for their ongoing support—Professor Emeritus F. C. (Bud) McGrath for reading the work in its early stages and offering valuable advice, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus Mark Lapping for his encouragement and for the trove of books and materials on the Shakers and other “utopian” communities that he bestowed on me to get this journey started.

The only in-text page citations are from J. W. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, or the Renunciants, trans. Krishna Winston (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). Where the source is not immediately apparent it is preceded by WMJY.


Ubi? Unde? Quo?

“Once upon a time, in some remote corner of the universe, which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of world history, yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet one still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened.”

Friederich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lying in an Extra Moral Sense”1

“There is, according to analytic discourse, an animal which finds himself speaking and for whom it follows that, by inhabiting the signifier, he is its subject. From then on, everything is played out for him at the level of fantasy, but a fantasy that can perfectly well be taken apart so as to allow for the fact that he knows a great deal more than he thinks when he acts. But the fact that this is the case is not enough to give us the outlines of a cosmology.” Jacques Lacan, Écrits2

The late Cambridge cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, ended one of his lectures on the “Big Bang Theory” with the statement: “We are getting close ←1 | 2→to answering the age-old questions: Why are we here? Where did we come from?”3 We are not as optimistic in the humanities. In fact, when do we even dare ask such questions anymore? The problem can be identified, at least since Nietzsche, and later, in the structural formulations of Saussure, as one of language, that words are never identical to the reality they describe, indeed, as Saussure says, that they produce their meanings within a complex system of differences “without positive terms.”4 Nevertheless, in the brilliant sunset of Enlightenment optimism, we are still expected to accept certain notions about language that we know to be highly suspect or even patently false. Of course, most astute readers realize, when they listen to the explanations of science, that scientists are not really asking (and therefore not really answering) the same “age old” questions. Indeed, Enlightenment consciousness seems to hollow out the very core of what is being asked, when we do ask such questions (and we do) in moments of crisis or despair, or just in the silence of our solitude.

Ubi? Unde? Quo? Why are we here? Where do we come from? Where are we going? In order to even begin to re-examine such questions, we must start with language itself and with the acknowledgment that language “produces” the socially agreed-upon “realities” within which we live. Is this merely, as Nietzsche asserts with characteristic audacity, a special means of deception? Or perhaps, more cautiously stated, is it a way of re-presenting the world so that we can live together successfully as a community? In Nietzsche’s critique, language is little more than “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms.”5 Words are basically metaphors generated by an older lineage of antecedent metaphors connected to our immediate intuitions about the world. No reality there or, if so, then a fundamentally different “reality” than scientific language can grasp. Moreover (metaphorically speaking), like that “real” universe that Hawking is describing, language forms an expanding universe of its own or, in Saussure’s words, a “system of differences” that works according to rules and processes that govern its structure (in conjunction with natural mental activities out of which these linguistic structures arise) to produce meanings.

It seems hardly plausible, then, that the specialized discourse of science that emerged out of this continually expanding system of differences should arrogate to itself the whole function of language. It would be like supplanting every other role language plays with its own narrow domain. But that is what its practitioners expect in their eagerness to keep each branch of knowing under a separate disciplinary title, as a discourse that developed in a particular ←2 | 3→phase of “cultural evolution” (another metaphor), setting themselves at the very end of this precarious evolutionary teleology. Conveniently, each discipline has its own separate drawer: you may open it if you like, you may even preoccupy yourself with its contents, but, in the final analysis, the top drawer belongs to the language of science or its demotic precursor, the language of the marketplace. Thus, if a particular way of using words does not conform to the prevailing paradigm of science, it must be relegated to non-meaning or be given a special label and put back into its drawer so that it won’t interfere with the practical business of everyday life. Such a restricted use of language not only deletes subjectivity from its equations, it denies the existence of the will to power and pleasure involved in its own motivations for doing so. And thus, in one grand gesture, it dismisses the most important function of language, which is that of linking those speaking animals who live in some far-flung corner of the universe to a recognizable social space, creating the possibility for community.

In his influential work on “Imagined Communities” Benedict Anderson traces the emergence of the national state at the end of the 18th century as a historically unique social entity that developed through the diffusion of enlightenment ideology in an era of print capitalism.6 That “national identities” could develop on both sides of the Atlantic within a span of little more than fifty years testifies to the power of the printed word, but also reveals something about the transformative, “imaginary” nature of human identity. The concept of national identity, Anderson argues, “has to be understood by aligning it, not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which—as well as against which—it came into being.”7 By “cultural systems” Anderson is referring to “the religious community and the dynastic realm” which were, of course, central to the establishment of the old order, but these systems are more difficult to account for in a study of large-scale modern societies. Drawing on Anderson’s work, social philosopher Charles Taylor concurs that although the exchange of Enlightenment ideas was of paramount importance during the period, ideas in themselves do not fully explain the formation of actual communities, which are deeply rooted in social practices and depend on the dynamic interplay of cultural and natural conditions within existing institutional and economic contexts.8 Community, Taylor argues, manifests itself in “the ways people imagine their social existence, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.”9 To describe ←3 | 4→this more nuanced conception of invisibly shared social existence, Taylor uses the term “social imaginary,” perhaps a more useful designation than “imagined community” because it shifts the emphasis from a specific group governed by an imagined structure to the shared sense of identity that exists in a community through an interrelated set of agreed-upon values, practices and beliefs.10 This shift in perspective also allows us to take into account that large-scale societies are comprised of multiple social imaginaries, overlapping in many respects (often mutually reinforcing), distinct (even antagonistic) in others, and yet, under specific conditions capable of linking together into larger (i.e. national) solidarities. Despite its usefulness, however, the concept of “social imaginary” is problematized by the indeterminacy of human identity, its essential fluidity and capacity to form new attachments and to transform itself in new and unpredictable ways. Both Taylor and Anderson agree that this distinctly human capacity to transfer allegiances from one social imaginary to another has to do with the fundamentally discursive nature of social reality. The crucial challenge for a text-based study of “imagined communities” is in understanding the enigmatic connection between social imaginaries and the symbolic structures they inhabit and in determining how different modes of discourse inform the way community identities develop and sustain themselves.

Although there may be multiple social imaginaries, there are only individual imaginations. And it is on the basis of our individual development within prevailing systems of meaning making that any “imagined community” can exist. The relation between the imaginary and symbolic was first theorized by Jacques Lacan in his 1949 essay on the “Mirror Stage” where he describes the function of the reflexive image in the formation and function of the social “I” or ego.11 Lacan relates initial ego formation to the six to eighteen-month old infant’s specular identification with its own body image before it actually experiences its body as a coordinated totality. According to Lacan, this “premature” mental leap not only fixes the primordial “imago” on which all future “social elaborations” of the self are based, it also precipitates the experiences of alienation and anxiety about fragmentation that motivate us to become “speaking animals” in the first place. Since the mirror stage moves human identity in a “fictional direction,” subjectivity is forced to reestablish its primary image of totality within the prevailing field of socializing signifiers. Thus, we recover the images of ourselves as subjects of discourse. “Alienated into the signifying chain,” the imagination treats the signifier as if its signifieds were the same as the reality they stand in for, opening up an entire discursive ←4 | 5→network of possibilities for human intersubjectivity and the social production of “reality.” The central problematic of human identity, however, rests on an inescapable illusion: an originally specular apprehension of totality is imposed on what can only ever be reproduced temporally in language. Lacanian theory helps us to understand the psychological drive to replicate the totalizing image in the social forms we inhabit. It also helps to explain the consequential repressions we undergo in order to take our place in the community.

Taylor is careful to point out that in traditional societies, the symbolic promise of recouping a unifying social identity “is not often expressed in theoretical terms but is carried in images, stories, and legends.”12 These “mythological” elements that support social imaginaries not only incorporate the complex repertoires of images, behaviors, and practices that community members identify with, but also transmit the unifying codes that link the various social groupings within society from the smallest constituent unit to the most expanded association. Family, clan, tribe, church, city, nation, empire all replicate the same totalizing structure, reinforcing one another and making other possibilities “unthinkable.” Usually we refer to the underlying framework of meaning making that informs these social groups and links them together as “culture.” And typically, we might think of cultures as being relatively stable social imaginaries evolving over time but essentially resistant to change. In pre-literate cultures social transformation occurred much more gradually than in writing cultures, or, if at times in more rapid episodes, then as a result of natural disasters (e.g. floods, droughts, pandemics) or violent conquests, dominant themes in myth and epic narrative. Yet we can see how, even in earlier times, cultural groups were willing to take on a new social imaginary in a relatively short period when they saw the advantages for doing so, even if that meant repressing memories of the violence that preceded this transformation. Comparing the emergence of the nation with the former expansion of empire, 19th-century historian Ernest Renan states that both social entities, although different, share a certain imaginary sense of cohesion— a “collective soul, a spiritual principle” composed both of “a rich legacy of memories,” and a willingness to forget the brutality of the past that shaped it in order to promote the “desire to live together.”13 Borrowing from Nietzsche, Hans-Georg Gadamer called this selective amnesia in historical memory “effective history” (Wirkungsgeschichte) a social form of “recollection” that reveals our fundamentally imaginary relation to the past.14 Memory, in this sense, becomes associated with new patterns of remembering and these patterns are basically discursive. On an individual level, this complex process of remembering and forgetting ←5 | 6→is already at work in the “unconscious” mental activities of identification and substitution that Freud recognized in the “dreamwork” (Traumarbeit).”15 Language, as a system of codes and scripts develops out of these mental processes and appropriates them to form its own pathways. According to Lacan, the Freudian unconscious is therefore “structured like a language” with its potential for establishing and erasing experiential differences through the ordering of signifiers. Based on Saussure’s theory of language as a “system of differences without positive terms,” Lacan’s reconceptualization of the Freudian unconscious leads to the conclusion that human intersubjectivity itself is continually at play within the signifying chain and that social totalizations have no permanent external reference on which human community can be based except what is produced within a plurality of discourses as they reproduce and reconstitute themselves in their relation to one another— and to the resultant tensions and antagonisms they generate.

Such conclusions are, of course, central to post-structuralist thinking whose conceptualizations of the sheer lability of social identification were captured early on in the Lyotardian image of “clouds of sociality,” a metaphor that already embodies the problem of formalizing the changeability of its constituent particulates.16 Nor can we overlook the Bourdieuan conception in “Distinction,” in which these nebulous social strata turn out to be projected unities constructed out of the signifying particularities of taste and value.17 Such “atomistic” conceptions of social reality are also reflected in Ernesto Laclau’s and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, a work that deconstructs the essentialist notion of social class and theoretical frameworks that rely on it.18 Yet such radically heterogeneous conceptions of social identity present their own unique difficulties, forcing us, for one, to contest the available conceptual approaches, indeed, to rethink our indiscriminate usages of nouns and verbs in order to maintain a conscious distinction between the “asymptotic” universes of the objective world and the signifying systems that allude to it. And here, the aforementioned thinkers agree about the insufficiency of objectivizing language in accurately capturing the multiplicity and fluidity of human identity in a truly historically specific way. It cannot tell us with any degree of accuracy how individual imaginaries are invested in a complex network of meaning making in order to construct the “illusions” of social identity and unity. It cannot reveal the invisible (i.e. “natural”) forces (tropaic or apotropaic) around which new identity formations collect. It cannot predict at what point the individual investment in such illusions of totality acquires a ←6 | 7→necessary stability or tell us at what cost (i.e. degree of social distinction, discrimination and institutional repression, forms of socially-constructed illness, acceptable levels of violence, modes of scapegoating, etc.) such a stability can be maintained.

That an epoch celebrating dispersed particularities should be characterized by Foucault as “Deleuzean” also reminds us of such key concepts as “nomadology” with its suspicion of any foundational hermeneutic and its “utopian” emphasis on perspectival multiplicity, on using the materials at hand to construct conclusions that are, at best, provisional shelters on a not-yet-determined journey.19 Indeed, the Foucauldian notion that authorial identity itself is a contested site, the work of the “author” constituting a “node within a network” of signifying pathways that lead to other texts and to an array of discursive identifications, calls into question the very project of writing in relation to the proper name and to textual proprietorship.20 If it is not possible to represent social groups from an unassailable position of stability or with sufficient accuracy or predictability within a “mechanist objectivism which considers classes as transcendent subjects,” how is it possible to talk about human identity at all? Even Laclau’s and Mouffe’s replacement of the concept “subject” with the term “subject position,” Slavoj Žižek avers, becomes troublesome since it continues to imply a certain self-conscious fixity of identity that runs contrary to the mutability of both social and individual life. This is not something that can be rectified by a redoubled effort of objectivity—a narrowing of focus, for example, or a reduction of terms. Quite the opposite; it should, in fact, require an expansion of language, one capable of attending to the different uses of language with greater particularity, one that embraces a much richer conception of interdisciplinarity, and one that places literature and fine arts on an equal footing with the social and physical sciences. For Laclau and Mouffe the inadequacy of the study of society stems from a persistent (and often deliberate) misrecognition of what language does, a terminal overvaluation of objectivity resulting in a confusion between reference and referents, between linguistically constructed ideas and the realities they allude to. Hence, the problem of understanding the dynamism of social change or the instability of perspectival identity within that dynamic field becomes continually displaced by equivalent (i.e. equally erroneous) models.


X, 206
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. X, 206 pp., 2 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Gerald Peters (Author)

Gerald Peters earned his Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. He is Professor of English at the University of Southern Maine, where he teaches courses in ancient literature, autobiography, critical theory, and the novel. His research interests include various "discourses of self-determination" ranging from diaries and travel journals to confessions, autobiographies, and the Bildungsroman. His publications include Diary of Anna Baerg, 1917-1924; The Mutilating God: Authorship and Authority in the Narrative of Conversion; Autobiography and Postmodernism; and Rereading Goethe, Rethinking Culture.


Title: Nineteenth-Century Utopianism and the American Social Imaginary