Utopia / Dystopia: Brief History of An Uncomfortable Duality

We are not outsiders on a tour of eu-topia. We are already subjects in dys-topia; and our only emancipatory alternative is to get going on this new trajectory.

Tom Moylan, in Step Into The Story[1]


In the title above, as in real life, there is only a thin line separating utopia from dystopia. This has been the case any time utopian ideas have fled their original placement in literature, or the imagination, to be tentatively re-rooted in some physical location. Rather than blooming into a new topos or sense of organisation, utopia typically and quickly slid into its darker mirror image: a distortion of sorts, an apparently unavoidable failure, which unveils the social critique that always lurks at the origin of the concept. Only to consider the last century —and beyond many minor utopias ‘gone bad’—  just think of fascism, communism, modernism and other -isms that sparked out of some egalitarian, mass-driven utopian impulse.

When Sir Thomas More’s Utopia was published 500 years ago, his novel was set on conceiving an ideal form of human organisation. Yet, even if such idealisation prevailed as utopia’s essential definition,[i] it should be remembered that More’s work, as that of Jonathan Swift some 200 years later, was first and foremost intended to provide a critique of the author’s current social and political arrangements. Utopia portrayed a social setting that, even if based upon slavery, was too good to be true. It designed a human order that, even if later emulated in many grand plans, was too ideal to possibly have a physical placement. Concurrently, it offered More’s commentary on the political affairs of his time, calling attention to a society riddled with crime and poverty.


Dystopia was itself born as utopia’s negation. Yet, as literary scholars discern, dystopias were not the same as the anti-utopias that, since the 18th century, were keen to scorn utopian thinking.[ii] Likewise, and contrary to popular belief, dystopia did not originate as a blooming sub-genre of post-World War II science fiction— anticipated or escorted by major literary oeuvres by the likes of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley or George Orwell.[iii] Interestingly, the first recorded use of the word rather comes from a public address to the British Parliament by the liberal philosopher and economist John Stuart Mills. Refusing to praise his Government as ‘Utopian,’ Mills preferred to distinguish the members of the Cabinet as ‘dys-topians’ — as, indeed, what they appeared “to favour [was] too bad to be practicable.”[iv]

Stuart Mill’s distinction between utopia and dystopia, like More’s coinage of the first term, was based on a subtle play of language. While having diverse etymological origins in Greek, u-topia and its close cousin eu-topia share the same pronunciation in English language. The proximity led to an eventually productive misreading of the term utopia. As probably intended by More, no-place, born from the u- prefix, became synonymous with good-place, out of the eu- prefix. By adding the dys- prefix, and its meaning of bad, abnormal, difficult or disordered, Mills aptly prompted dystopia as a counterbalance to a perception of utopia that had mistakenly gone benign. With utopia’s role as social and political critique gone awry, dystopia had to come in to reposition utopia’s “critical stance.”[v]

At the time Stuart Mills was speaking, and into the early 20th century, utopian thinking enjoyed great popularity. As attested by any quick Google search of ‘utopias gone wrong,’ an idealistic approach to utopia fuelled by industrialisation lend itself to many failed efforts at effective realisation. These attempts ranged from the initiatives of revolutionary urbanists and religious sects, to those of early vegetarians, libertarians and technological gurus, including Henry Ford and his Amazonic, pre-Depression Fordlandia, in 1927. After the earlier insights by the likes of Stuart Mills on how utopia had changed character, it took a while until the notion’s misguided lure started to fade — and before dystopia effectively started to take utopia’s place as a critical vessel more akin to More’s initial proposition.

As if stalking both utopia’s successes and limits, it is only in the 20th century that dystopia “truly comes into its own,” and fulfills its role as “utopia’s shadow.”[vi] Dystopia undertakes utopia’s analytical role, with its sharper ability to see through a triumphant modernization, and eventually align with its future critique. Dystopia indeed counteracts a sort of utopian bliss, which came to fruition in 19th century Europe only because of advances in science and industrialization, but also due to a novel depletion of resources and a colonial exploitation that hints at More’s slavery model. As suggested by Fátima Vieira, dystopia followed on satirical utopia to reject “the idea that man can reach perfection.”[vii] It provided a cautionary counterpoint to a utopian optimism that, in any event, was heading for disaster.[viii]

As we see discussed in the unexpectedly fertile field of utopian studies, utopia’s role as a critical and visionary vessel for hope of a better society took a fatal blow after the mid-20th century. When the social sciences declared a shift from modernity to postmodernity, the ‘grand narratives’ that had characterized the Enlightenment were bound for an aggressive dismissal. In the Western context, ideas of permanent progress, social betterment and unstoppable technological advancement were contradicted by the rise of dictatorships, the massacre of the two world wars and the advent of the atomic bomb. This led to increased anti-utopian feelings, which specially after the political uprisings of May 68 would echo lastingly in art and architectural practices — as much as they emerged in other cultural arenas.

With expanding disbelief in utopia, the late 60s and early 70s saw an explosion of dystopian narratives in science fiction. Such marginal phenomenon could be deemed irrelevant, if it were not seen by thinkers of post-modernity as part of the ability of popular literary genres to better express society’s deepest anxieties. As Frederic Jameson put it, dystopia “obviously began to fill a palpable collective need.”[ix] It was not easy for Jameson to change his “linguistic habits” —and his leaning for utopia as the essential tool to make use of the future as a device of reform— but it was indeed apparent that dystopias were taking the role of ‘critical utopias.’[x] As much as this was a first sign of dystopia’s insinuation into mainstream culture, it also defined a certain zeitgeist.

As Jameson suggests, the “waning of utopias” was due to a mix of developments including a “weakening of historicity” and “the conviction that fundamental change is no longer possible” —but also an “omnipresent consumerism,” which indeed confounded utopian desire with consumption itself.[xi] The political lure of utopia fades as the notion is equated with the rise of a globalized free market ideology.[xii] Jameson still defends utopia as a critical method, but his language hints at utopia reverting to the terms of its darker mirror image, as if “dystopia is in reality utopia if examined more closely.” Reminding us of artistic practices of the time, he indeed speaks of a staging of “alleged symptoms of degradation” as motives of celebration and promises of “an alternate utopian future.”[xiii]

Back to the fields of art and architecture, one can affirm that the neo-avant-gardes that formed after 1968 were mostly driven by a critique of modernism’s grand narratives. This naturally included a reposition of the role that utopia had played in earlier avant-garde movements such as Futurism or Constructivism. In their reconnection to everyday culture —and in relation to Jameson’s remarks above— Pop or Arte Povera were rather anti-utopian movements. Well into today, institutional critique and other conceptual practices signalled a thorough de-assembly of many of modernity’s leftovers. Alternatively, in a field traditionally connected to utopia’s ideations, the architectural avant-gardes were defined as post-utopian —because they combined a new dystopian sensibility with a broader critical stance that eventually contributed to utopia’s general demise.[xiv]


Much before dystopia nonchalantly pervaded everyday culture, the historical shift from utopia to dystopia, as much as the terms’ increasing overlap, gained a distinct treatment within the cultural practices of art and architecture. This comprised the ‘visions’ that thrived in architecture vis-à-vis palpable dystopian realities, from Arata Isozaki’s take on Hiroshima to Rem Koolhaas’ contemplations on the growth of the generic modern city. It included Archigram or Superstudio’s Sci-fi like extrapolations on an emerging consumer society. But it also hinted at art’s political commitment to utopian revolution, from Constant Nieuwenhuys[xv] to Ângela Ferreira; or art’s reminders of how modernity’s utopias turned sour and needed urgent revision, as evoked in work by Cyprien Gaillard, Inci Eviner, or Kadia Atter —just to mention a few included here.

From the 1970s until today —the period that roughly corresponds to the survey of artworks found in these pages— art and architecture follow literature and film in engaging with the duality of utopia and dystopia in a radical new way. They tend to dismiss the more programmatic and naïve aspects of utopia, confront its failures, and overtly or ironically blur it with dystopia. They adopt fiction as an instrument to construct dystopian scenarios, which convey a critique of contemporary conditions even if through the logic of their own visual languages. The traditional utopian ‘attitude’ of erecting “a reaction to an undesirable present and an aspiration to overcome all difficulties by the imagination of possible alternatives”[xvi] is intensified, but dislocated to the realm of dystopia.

These practices underline a thorough discomfort that the thin line between the mirror notions of utopia and dystopia might have been finally erased. Still, dystopia incarnates a moral philosophy that is ultimately optimistic. Presenting climate change or social inequality as a near-future catastrophe, presupposes that a solution might yet be found to avoid the worst. Dystopia indeed emerged as a critical tool. The dialectics of utopia and dystopia was urged to depart its literary origins, and enter the conception of urban and everyday realities.[xvii] This wish unpredictably came true, though not curbed to cultural or design practices. Other than only being an operative method to (de)construct potential scenarios, as Jameson and others advocated, dystopia unexpectedly took over common discourse.

Be it in the media or popular culture, dystopia disturbingly turned into a banal utterance. A term that held a dark resonance, and mainly belonged in intellectual or sci-fi circles, became common fodder for the description of everyday affairs.[xviii] From its origin in an address to the first democratic Parliament, dystopia finally came to haunt the regressions of democracy as an equalizing political system. This excess of presence could even announce dystopia as too generic or trite, making it an unappealing subject for cultural practices. In this context, though, other than “being the negation of utopia” dystopia also paradoxically became its “essence.”[xix] And this duality made it newly attractive to any practice that wanted to express critical views on the current situation or its potential outcomes.[xx]

Many cling to utopia as the key with which to unlock the future to scrutinize the present. Others still investigate what utopian art means.[xxi] Yet, these positions somehow seem nostalgic and out of sync with the fast evolution of our perpetual crisis. Out of the confines of fiction and theory, dystopia’s ambiguity indeed made it the prevailing form of critical utopia.[xxii] It gained traction in real contexts, but also in the ways that art and architecture reflect those contexts. Suddenly, artists and architects —see Jordi Colomer or raumlabor—must take it into their own hands to test micro-utopias that play with an encroaching dystopia.[xxiii] Further, the use given to the utopia/dystopia binomial by artists and architects actively speaks to their role in the scheme of ‘things to come.’


As discernible in works presented here, an important sector of contemporary art –and regrettably only a smaller part of today’s architectural field – adopted procedures that one author deemed as the first steps “against today’s dystopias.”[xxiv] Many artists abandoned romantic, introspective or contemplative stances. As Hal Foster put it, they welcomed the ‘return of the real’ to their practices, accepting semi-autonomy instead of an autonomous posture.[xxv] With this transition, they adopted operations considered essential to address a condition of dystopia: “the distribution of knowledge, the recovery of memory, the access to free information, the production of critical thought, the construction of hope, and the creation of resistance.”[xxvi] Engaging directly or not with dystopia as method, artists indeed came to operate in the language that now counteracts dystopia’s real life propagation.

Yet, as hinted at in William Pohida’s paintings, is art still to be subsumed by the logics of the market, celebrity, and spectacle? And is architecture to become a service provider devoid of any intellectual role?[xxvii] Rather than pursuing utopian programs, these practices’ redemption may effectively lie in retaining the utopian impulses that Jameson has referred to.[xxviii] Today assuming the critical semblance of a dystopian, fictional apparatus, or being described as micro-utopias, such impulses are still the ones that keep us on our toes[xxix] — and raise a critical awareness where dormancy is the norm. Perhaps this is not a question of responsibility, or even of political commitment.[xxx] Perhaps this is only a question of preserving a minimum level of relevance within an increasingly materialistic, unbalanced social system.


As Henri Lefebvre has put it, “utopia has been discredited,” and “it is necessary to rehabilitate it” —if only as an indispensable incentive for change.[xxxi] With the ambiguity and critical irony that it feeds into the utopian tradition, dystopia prompts such rehabilitation — if at the expense of an uncomfortable therapy. With dystopia’s dominance equated with a “loss of political innocence,”[xxxii] we must then probe into cultural practices that make full use of the utopia/dystopia duality. That may allow us to put cynicism at bay, and help us retain a much-needed critical worldview. As Frederic Jameson could have put it, the utopian/dystopian impulse does not translate into a political program, but “it is hard to see how any durable or effective political action could come into being without it.”[xxxiii]

Pedro Gadanho, Lisboa, December 2016


This text was originally published in Utopia/Dystopia, A Paradigm Shift in Art and Architecture, edited by Pedro Gadanho with João Laia and Susana Ventura, MAAT / Mousse Publishing, 2017, Lisbon/Milan,  ISBN 9788867492800

All images by Bruno Lopes, from the exhibition at MAAT, Lisbon, Mar 22 – Aug 21, 2017.

[1] Moylan, Tom, “Step Into The Story,” in Vieira, Fátima (ed.), Dystopia(n) Matters: On the Page, on Screen, on Stage, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, p.42.



[i] In any case, utopian studies scholars constantly try to broaden the definition of utopia to comprise the various components that build up a five-century long history. As Gregory Claeys warns, one should avoid “a reductionist account of utopia which restricts usage of the term to a literary tradition, a psychological impulse, a synonym for “progress”, or an aspect of religious consciousness, belief or practice.” See Claeys, Gregory, “The Five Languages of Utopia”, in Michael D. Gordin, Helen Tilley and Gyan Prakash, (eds.) Utopia/Dystopia: Conditions of Historical Possibility, Princeton University Press 2010, p.9.

[ii] According to Fátima Vieira, dystopia indeed follows on the 18th century anti-utopian tradition, where “it was the utopian spirit itself which was ridiculed.” In this vein, the aim was to “denounce the irrelevance and inconsistency of utopian dreaming and the ruin of society it might entail.” Vieira, Fátima, in “The Concept of Utopia,” in Gregory Claeys (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p.17.

[iii] Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was published in 1932 and its ‘dystopian’ predictions include eugenics, drug- and technology-induced mass manipulation, and a State-led social class division. Huxley considered his work a “negative utopia” and professed to be influenced by H.G.Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes (1910), a cautionary tale about the rise of plutocracy. George Orwell, on the other hand picks on the characteristics of rising political systems to create the dark world of 1984 (1949).

[iv] Mill, John Stuart, Public and parliamentary speeches – Part I – November 1850 – November 1868. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1988. ISBN 0-415-03791-3. Retrieved 2015-02-16.

[v] Karl Mannheim famously redefined utopia as “a socially located critical stance,” meaning a perspective that distorts known conditions to impose an ideological view. While he reinforced the idea of utopia as a critique of the dominant ideology at any given moment, he also potentially undermined the idea that utopia had a capacity to trigger or drive effective change. In this way, right around the 1929 Great depression, Manheim could be said to be one of the early thinkers to open the way to a questioning of utopia’s role in society. (Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: An introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, San Diego:Harcourt Brace, 1991 [1929].

[vi] As Krishan Kumar explains, the affirmation of dystopia takes place only when those elements of modernity that are dystopia’s targets, such as “reason and revolution, science and socialism, the idea of progress and the faith in the future,” will “only really spread on a significant scale in the latter part of the nineteenth century.” Krishan Kumar, “Utopia’s Shadow” in Fátima Vieira, ed., Dystopia(n) Matters: On the Page, on Screen, on Stage, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, p.19.

[vii] Vieira argues that, following on satirical utopias, the dystopian sub-genre is “didactic and moralistic,” which makes it align with a certain Victorian attitude that prevails by the end of the 19th century. However, as this scholar advances, dystopia “wants to frighten the reader and to make him realize that things may go either right or wrong, depending on the moral, social and civic responsabilities of the citizens.” Fátima Vieira, “The Concept of Utopia,” ibidem, p.17.

[viii] For Vieira, the emergence of dystopia is closely associated with “man’s incredulity at its own nature during the 20th century,” namely considering totalitarism and the fact that scientific and technological progress was instrumental “in the establishment of dictatorships,” rather than “impelling humanity to prosper.” Thus “utopian ideals seemed absurd; and the floor was inevitably left to dystopian discourse.” See Vieira, Fátima, “The Concept of Utopia,” ibidem, p.18.

[ix] Jameson, Frederic, in Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, New York: Verso, 2005, p.198.

[x] As Jameson points out, Tom Moylan first proposed “critical dystopia” as a negative cousin of Utopia that retains positive conceptions derived from utopian ideals. Jameson notes the blooming of critical dystopias, “from satiric exaggerations of our current world to the most grotesque distensions and extrapolations of what the persistence of money and commodification holds in store for us in the far future.” Jameson, Frederic, ibidem, p.230.

[xi] Frederic Jameson, “Utopia as Method, or the Uses of the Future,” in Michael D. Gordin, Helen Tilley and Gyan Prakash (eds.) Utopia/Dystopia: Conditions of Historical Possibility, Princeton University Press 2010, p.24.

[xii] As Jameson puts it, “the last gasp of a properly utopian vision, the last attempt at a utopian forecast of the future transfigured, was a rather perverse one: so-called free-market fundamentalism as it seized the moment of globalization.”, ibidem, p.23.

[xiii] Idem, p.42.

[xiv] David Pinter argues that “the antiutopian or postutopian rhetoric of Jacobs and many other critics of modernist planning visionaries” were “among the reasons why, at the level of urbanism as well as of a wider political debate, it is commonly held that the concept of utopia has waned.” See Pinder, David, “The Breath of the Possible: Everyday Utopianism and the Street in Modernist Urbanism,” in Gregory Claeys (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p.208.

[xv] In his writings, Constant proposes a basic task of art as “the liberation of social life, which will open the way to the new world.” He then adds that “any real creative activity” must “have its roots in revolution.” See Nieuwenhuys, Constant, “Our Own Desires Build the Revolution”, in Cobra, #4, Amsterdam: 1949, p.304.

[xvi] See Vieira, Fátima, “The Concept of Utopia,” ibidem, p.7.

[xvii] For instance, Nicola Minot-Ahl argued that “the definition of dystopia, and by extension, of dystopian fiction, needs to be broadened to include urban realities,” specifically as a counterpoint in the field of urban design to a notion of “uncontrolled, self-interested speculation,” which could “produce political horrors that can at least compete with the edicts of a totalitarian state.” Minott-Ahl, Nicola, “Dystopia in Vanity Fair: The Nightmare of Modern London,” in Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 2 (September 2009)

[xviii] See Gadanho, Pedro, “Bem Vindos ao Futuro 2.0 (Utopia vs. Dystopia)” in shrapnelcontemporary.wordpress.com, published 23.01.2014, retrieved 2016-12-13.

[xix] As Gregory Claeys reminds us, “one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia.” See Claeys, Gregory, “Three Variants on The Concept of Dystopia,” in Fátima Vieira, Dystopia(n) Matters, ibidem, p.15.

[xx] Pere Gallardo effectively defends dystopias now “seem more attractive than utopias.” This would be an effect of the current crisis, manifested “in periodic bouts of fear about world economy.” Yet, in a scenario that “has become immensely more complicated,” such crisis is seen only as “the tip of the iceberg of a much deeper crisis of values and social structures” See Gallardo, Pere, “Dystopia is You,” in Fátima Vieira (ed.), Dystopia(n) Matters: On the Page, on Screen, on Stage, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, p.38/39.

[xxi] For a short but incisive analysis of this sort, see Noble, Richard, “The Utopian Impulse in Contemporary Art”, introduction to Nobel, Richard (ed.) Utopias, Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery, London / MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachussets, 2009.

[xxii]As such, dystopia retains some of the fundamental functions of utopia, namely as “a map for avoiding less desirable outcomes.” In the case of utopia, and using the example of “extreme social inequality,” Gregory Claeys describes these functions in terms of “the avoidance of plutocracy, the limiting of inequality, and the management of common resources for the common good.” Utopia would thus stand for “goals proven to be worth attaining and preserving,” but which political systems such as capitalism or communism failed to deliver. In this sense, for Claeys utopia would remain “a defensible concept, provided we limit it sufficiently.” Gregory Claeys, ibidem, p.15.

[xxiii] These micro-utopias align with the notion that grand utopian blueprints were “replaced by a focus on a slower but effective change of the present.” As Vieira suggests, utopia “reshaped its nature and, by emphasizing its pragmatic features, came to be associated to the idea of social betterment.” Thus, “utopia is now asserted as a process, and is incorporated in the daily construction of life in society.” See Vieira, Fátima, “The Concept of Utopia,” ibidem, p.22.

[xxiv] See Baccolini, Raffaella, “Living in Dystopia,” in Fátima Vieira (ed.), ibidem, p.45.

[xxv] See Foster, Hal, The Return of the Real, The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, MIT Press, London / Cambridge, Massachussets, 1996.

[xxvi] See Baccolini, Raffaella, ibidem, p.45.

[xxvii] On the notion of a field of architecture torn between the service industry and a cultural role more akin to art practices, see Gadanho, Pedro, “Architecture, Networked Cultures and How to Make the Most of Them,” in MAJA # 70, Tallin, Dezembro 2011

[xxviii] For Jameson, utopian programs are “totalities, whatever their scale; they are symbolic of a world transformed, and as such they must posit limits, boundaries between the utopian and the nonutopian.” In contrast, the utopian impulse “necessarily deals with fragments. It is not symbolic but allegorical; it does not correspond to a plan or to a utopian praxis; and it expresses utopian desire and invests it in a variety of unexpected and disguised, concealed, distorted ways.” See Jameson, Frederic, ibidem, p.25/26.

[xxix] On the ability of keeping one alert, aware, and prepared for change, Gordin, Tilley and Prakash remind us that “utopias and dystopias by definition seek to alter the social order on a fundamental, systemic level. They address root causes and offer revolutionary solutions.” See Gordin, Michael, Helen Tilley and Gyan Prakash, Utopia/Dystopia: Conditions of Historical Possibility, Princeton University Press 2010, p.2.

[xxx] Jameson points that “as a political slogan, the banner of utopia has been passed to the critics and the enemies of free-market globalization.” But it also became “the unifying rallying cry” of “those varied new political forces who are trying to imagine how another world might be possible.” The author adds that the utopian. impulse and its uses of “alternate futures” does not hold “a political program or even a political practice.” Nonetheless, for Jameson this “prospective hermeneutic” is political when it reawakens “unused organs of political, historical, and social imagination that have virtually atrophied for lack of use.” Jameson, Frederic, ibidem, p.23, p.42.

[xxxi] Lefebvre, Henri, quoted in Latour, Patricia and Francis Combes, Conversation Avec Henri Lefebvre, Paris: Messidor, 1991, p.18.

[xxxii] For Gallardo this corresponds to the fact that “nowadays very few individuals still believe in the possibility of devising a perfect society given the huge number of variables, their obvious instability and their proven imperfections.” Gallardo, Pere, ibidem, p.39.

[xxxiii] Jameson, Frederic, ibidem, p.42.