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Exploring the Utopian Impulse

Essays on Utopian Thought and Practice

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Edited By Michael J. Griffin and Tom Moylan

Exploring the Utopian Impulse presents a series of essays by an international and trans-disciplinary group of contributors that explores the nature and extent of the utopian impulse. Working across a range of historical periods and cultures, the essays investigate key aspects of utopian theory, texts, and socio-political practices. Even as some critique Utopia, others extend its reach beyond the limits of the modern western tradition within which utopianism has usually been understood. The explorations offered herein will take readers over familiar ground in new ways as well as carry them into new territories of hope and engagement.
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Technological Utopia/Dystopia in the Plates of the Encyclopédie

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← 120 | 121 → GERALDINE SHERIDAN

The utopian vision and tone of the text of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1751–1765) undoubtedly fit with Lyman Tower Sargent’s category of “utopian social theory” (21): the philosophes had little doubt that social progress would go hand in hand with scientific progress, and would be brought about by the kind of rational intervention in history best exemplified by the Encyclopedic undertaking itself. This included, I will contend, a free-market utopianism, contrary to Sargent’s assertion that “the explicit position of those advocating a free market is anti-utopian” (21). Here I am particularly concerned with the Encyclopédie’s collection of some 2,800 plates which constitute, along with the Descriptions des arts et métiers by the Royal Academy of Sciences on which they were modeled, the most important visual record of the world of the worker in Old Regime Europe (Recueil de planches).1

Diderot’s conviction that his work would help to bring about a new era of peace, happiness, and prosperity was based, to a significant degree, on the attention lavished on the trades and crafts. Why the Encyclopedists’s lofty aspirations crystallized around the creation of objects, and what we now refer to as the field of technology, is an interesting question; and in particular we may ask how their concerns were transposed (and, at the same time, transfigured) in the visual medium of the copper-plate engraving.

The word “technology” came into use in the period which concerns us...

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