Transgressive Utopianism

Essays in Honor of Lucy Sargisson

by Raffaella Baccolini (Volume editor) Lyman Tower Sargent (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection XII, 262 Pages
Series: Ralahine Utopian Studies, Volume 22


In 2014, when Lucy Sargisson was promoted to professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, at the University of Nottingham, she became the first and, so far, only, professor of utopian studies. This choice symbolized the centrality of utopianism to her life, thought, and educational practice. In three books, each in their own way groundbreaking, a fourth book co-authored by one of us, and in important articles, her work falls into four primary areas: political theory, feminism, environmentalism, and intentional communities, with much of her work intersecting two, three, or even all four. And in all her work, she brings the lens of utopianism to bear on the subject and, in doing so, illuminates both utopianism and the subject at hand. The volume honors Sargisson’s contributions to the field of utopian studies, with contributions by Ibtisam Ahmed, Raffaella Baccolini, David M. Bell, Suryamayi Clarence-Smith, Chris Coates, Elena Colombo, Davina Cooper, Rhiannon Firth, Ruth Levitas, Sarah Lohmann, Almudena Machado-Jiménez, Dunja M. Mohr, Tom Moylan, Robyn Muir, José Reis, Lyman Tower Sargent, Lucy Sargisson, Simon Spiegel, Maria Varsam, and Laura Winter.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword: RUTH LEVITAS
  • Utopian Literature
  • Lucy Sargisson: Becoming (a) Utopian
  • “What isn’t living dies”: Utopia as Living Organism in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time: SARAH LOHMANN
  • A Quantum of Hope? J.M. Coetzee’s (Post)Colonial Dystopia Life & Times of Michael K
  • Bleak Bodies: Genetically Engineered Women in Louise O’Neill’s (Anti-)Utopian Patriarchal Satire Only Ever Yours
  • Entangled Utopianism in the Anthropocene
  • Literary Utopianism and Ecological Literacy: JOSÉ EDUARDO REIS
  • Intentional Communities
  • On Being Studied: A Utopian Remembers
  • Auroville: An Experiment in Spiritually Prefigurative Utopian Practice
  • Film and Television
  • The Utopia of the Holy Land. The Zionist Propaganda Film Land of Promise as Utopian Text
  • “Trial and Error” – Mediating Estrangement in the Quest for Utopia in The Walking Dead (2010–Present)
  • Teaching
  • Utopia, Pedagogy, and Care: A Conversation
  • Gratitude for a Utopian Friendship
  • Responses
  • Afterword
  • The Strangest Place: Thoughts on Being a Guest at Your Own Funeral, or “Regrets, I Have a Few”
  • Lucy Sargisson’s Publications
  • Editors
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

←viii | ix→



Lucy: warmth sheds light

on different paths towards

a better future.

It is a pleasure to be invited to write a foreword to this Festschrift for Lucy Sargisson which has been compiled to mark her early retirement from her post as Professor of Utopian Studies at the University of Nottingham. She is, I think, the first, and possibly the only, person to be awarded that title, and it is well-earned. Although her academic career has been shorter than some, she leaves an impressive legacy and has played a key part in the development of utopianism as a field of study. One part of this, the most public and most obvious, is a body of writing. Her first book, Contemporary Feminist Utopianism (1996), was based on her PhD thesis and quickly became a key source for feminist work in the field. This early work combined political and social theory, and the explication of complex texts, with literary analysis. That vision was broadened further over the years, bringing sometimes marginal themes of feminism, ecology, interpersonal relations as well as questions of property relations into the mainstream of utopian analysis. Her last major book, Fool’s Gold? (2012), widened her scope further. In looking at expressions of utopianism in the twenty-first century she encompassed architecture, robotics, computer gaming, sexual identity, and intentional communities as well as utopian and dystopian literature.

Most utopian scholars have focused on one of three areas of utopian expression – political thought, literature, or intentional communities. The increasing influence of Ernst Bloch on anglophone utopists following the translation of his book The Principle of Hope in 1986 encouraged a broader ←ix | x→field of study. Sargisson’s work, however, was distinctive because she did not simply extend the application of a theoretical lens to new arenas. Rather, the intervening years between these two major interventions had included extensive direct fieldwork on intentional communities both in Britain and in New Zealand. This fed into two other books, Utopian Bodies and the Politics of Transgression (1999) and Living in Utopia (2004, with Lyman Tower Sargent), as well as a series of articles. Her interviewing and observational skills, as well as her analytical approach, proved to be formidable. That kind of fieldwork, especially when undertaken alone, is extraordinarily demanding. It requires from the outset a capacity to secure trust and establish rapport very quickly – both to get access to communities at all and to find out anything worthwhile. It necessitates the ability to sustain that rapport and convey acceptance of the other, while at the same time maintaining a critical distance. Such fieldwork skills (or soft skills, or social skills) can only be taught to a limited degree because they depend fundamentally on the underlying disposition of the person. Sargisson’s habitual mode of inhabiting what Martin Buber termed the “I-Thou” relationship underpinned the sheer quality of her fieldwork, as well as infusing all her work with a kind of dispassionate critical sympathy.

There are two other aspects of Sargisson’s legacy which also rest in no small part on these personal qualities: her role in the institutional development of utopian studies and her work as a teacher. The Utopian Studies Society was set up in 1988 at a conference in New Lanark. Although there already was a Society for Utopian Studies with an annual conference based in North America, transatlantic travel was very expensive and travel funds especially in UK universities almost non-existent. There was a need for an additional network for European scholars. That initiative was swiftly followed by the fall of the Berlin Wall and a political and intellectual climate quite antipathetic to utopianism. For some years, the society limped along with occasional newsletters and one-day meetings, and without widespread access to email. By the late 1990s, communications were easier, and the approaching millennium produced a more sympathetic political and intellectual climate. The Society was relaunched in 1999 with a residential conference at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. At this critical juncture, Sargisson organized two conferences at Nottingham, in ←x | xi→2000 and 2002, and Utopian Studies Society conferences have been held annually throughout Europe ever since. She also, in this period, served for some years as Secretary of the Society. The depth of her contribution went beyond the sheer hard work of undertaking these tasks at a key point in the development of the Society. The manner in which she did so was marked by wisdom, warmth, openness, and inclusivity, and did much to establish the culture of Utopian Studies conferences in the following years. And, like others who were part of building the field over the last twenty-five years and more, I came to value those qualities in her as a friend as well as a colleague.

The legacy of all academics lies in large part in their influence on students – an influence that is often slow-burning and not obvious even to the students themselves. But teachers with Sargisson’s combination of humane warmth and clear perception are rare, and she has always had an evident concern both for their personal welfare and their intellectual development. And I have had the privilege of meeting and hearing some of her graduate students give their own conference presentations and make their own ongoing contributions to utopian studies. That several of her students have chosen to honor Sargisson by contributing to these chapters speaks for itself.

←0 | 1→



In 2014, when Lucy Sargisson was promoted to Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, at the University of Nottingham, she became the first and, so far, only Professor of Utopian Studies. This choice symbolized the centrality of utopianism to her life, thought, and educational practice. In three books, each in their own way groundbreaking, a fourth book co-authored by one of us, and in important articles, her work falls into four primary areas, political theory, feminism, environmentalism, and intentional communities, with much of her work intersecting two, three, or even all four. And in all her work, she brings the lens of utopianism to bear on the subject and, in doing so, illuminates both utopianism and the subject at hand.

Political Theory

Sargisson was trained as a political theorist, earning her doctorate at Keele University in 1996, and a concern with issues of both political theory and politics can be found throughout her work. In her first book, Contemporary Feminist Utopianism, she introduces the idea of a “transgressive utopianism” within political theory, and this concept permeates the rest of her work. In her last book she characterizes transgressive utopianism as stepping “over boundaries that order and separate,” thus “renders the boundaries meaningless and/or emphasizes their porosity,” and by “crossing boundaries and showing them to be porous [it] creates a space where previously there was none. In this space, new and different ways of relating to the world can be practised” (Sargisson, Fool’s 21).

But she is well aware that utopianism is not accepted by many political theorists; and in one of her earliest articles, “Contemporary Feminist ←1 | 2→Utopianism,” she said that “Utopias and utopianism add creativity to political thought and activity – as well as being critical of the status quo, they express desires for something different and better. They explore alternatives” (Sargisson, “Contemporary” 272). Also, in an abstract for an article from 2013, referring to the study of politics, she wrote,

This article offers a controversial argument, namely that a utopian approach adds something valuable to the study of politics. I develop this position by showing how utopian fiction and experimentation can contribute to a recent debate in environmental politics: the call for a democracy that “includes nature.” I argue that a utopian approach has limits – for example it cannot provide all the answers or offer blueprints for a perfect world – but that it can create spaces in which to imagine a different and better political relationship. Simply put, a utopian approach can shift the parameters of what is conceivable. (Sargisson, “A Democracy” 124)

In this statement she makes a point that she and other scholars regularly make, that utopianism should not be equated with perfection. Sargisson stresses this most strongly in her essay, “Religious Fundamentalism and Utopianism in the 21st Century,” in which she notes that religious fundamentalism’s “attachment to perfection […] permits a malign form of utopianism to propel religious actors into a politics of ‘divinely sanctioned’ violence” (269).

And in her “Why Utopias Matter,” she says that utopias “always gesture toward a better way of life, and a better way of being. As such, utopias provide points of inspiration, aspiration and debate. They permit us to imagine how our world can be better and this is the first step towards changing” (53). And the last phrase makes another point about her work, and her educational practice; she was always concerned with betterment, with changing the conditions.


Probably her best-known work is her first, Contemporary Feminist Utopianism, and her concept of “transgressive utopianism” is widely cited by others, including many of the authors of the chapters in this volume. Her ←2 | 3→other works concerning feminism applied her understanding of utopianism to issues within feminism. In “Why Feminism Needs Utopianism,” she said that “Reading feminist science fiction and utopian novels can […] help us pick our way through the mess academic feminists have gotten into, and to think more clearly about some difficult issues that face women today.” And she went on to say, “Utopias also help us think seriously about difficult things. Often, they contain complex theoretical models and debates, that most of us might not ordinarily think about on a day to day basis,” concluding that “utopias are inspirational. [… T]hey inspire and facilitate a change in the way we think about the world” (53, 54, 55). Also, in “What’s Wrong with Ecofeminism?” she argues that “what’s really wrong with ecofeminism is that it denies its full potential. Ecofeminism is utopian in all senses of that term and it fails to acknowledge and exploit this” (52).

Intentional Communities

Sargisson’s second book, Utopian Bodies and the Politics of Transgression, focused on environmentalism, in large part through research on and in intentional communities in the UK. And from the time that book was published to her last two articles, “Lived Utopianism: Everyday Life and Intentional Communities” and “Swimming Against the Tide: Collaborative Housing and Practices of Sharing,” she regularly published articles on intentional communities, always based on empirical research.1 And these last two articles reflect two of Sargisson’s interests within intentional communities, how people within such communities organize their lives and housing.

Her third, co-authored, book, Living in Utopia: New Zealand’s Intentional Communities, combined archival research by Sargent with Sargisson’s research based on visiting intentional communities throughout New Zealand and interviewing the people living in them. In addition to the ←3 | 4→material present in the book, Sargisson used her research to illuminate specific questions regarding intentional communities in “Justice Inside Utopia? The Case of Intentional Communities in New Zealand” and “Surviving Conflict: New Zealand’s Intentional Communities.” In the first, she explores the use of consensual decision-making in egalitarian communities, and in the second she analyzes how the unusually long-lived intentional communities in New Zealand have managed internal conflicts that have torn other communities apart.

Her “Strange Places: Estrangement, Utopianism, and Intentional Communities” is an important study that scholars of both utopias and intentional communities need to incorporate in their work. In it she applies estrangement as used by Darko Suvin in defining utopia to intentional communities. She argues that estrangement “performs similar functions inside intentional communities as it does with utopia by facilitating critical distance and group coherence.” At the same time, she notes, “estranged relationships are complex and difficult” and pose serious problems for the people living in community (393). “Friends Have All Things in Common: Utopian Property Relations” might be thought of as a case study of the issues raised by estrangement. In it she compares two communities in New Zealand, Centrepoint and Riverside, with the former an example of everything that can go wrong in a community and the latter an example of a community founded in 1941 that is still going strong.

In 2012 Sargisson published an important article on cohousing, “Second Wave Cohousing: A Modern Utopia?” Within the cohousing movement, there is a deep divide between those who identify cohousing with intentional communities and utopianism and those who vehemently deny any connection. Sargisson explores the divide among those living in cohousing communities in North America and concludes that it accurately reflects the reality in that the people are “comfortable with the values of mainstream culture but seeking a better way of life for their members” (51). And in her last article she argued that collaborative housing or cohousing “offers a viable alternative housing model based on ideas about sharing” (“Swimming” 145).

←4 |


As noted above, Utopian Bodies and the Politics of Transgression is concerned with environmentalism through the study of intentional communities, but particularly Findhorn in Scotland, that are trying to create a sustainable lifestyle. In “Sustainability and the Intentional Community: Green Intentional Communities,” Sargisson gives an overview of specifically green communities discussing how they have been both overrated and underrated politically and in academic debates. She argues, though, for their importance as examples of what people can do who are willing to experiment with their own lives. Here and in “Imperfect Utopias: Green Intentional Communities,” she makes the point that all such communities fall short of their own goals. In “Politicising the Quotidian,” she focuses on such failures by examining six UK communities that are doing just that while also trying to act as exemplars of a more sustainable life.


XII, 262
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XII, 262 pp.

Biographical notes

Raffaella Baccolini (Volume editor) Lyman Tower Sargent (Volume editor)

Raffaella Baccolini is Professor of British and American literature and gender studies at the University of Bologna, Forlì Campus. Lyman Tower Sargent is Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and was the founding editor of Utopian Studies (1990-2004).


Title: Transgressive Utopianism