Problems in Utopia from the Thames Valley to the Pacific Edge
- 428 Downloads
Over a century after its first formulation in A Modern Utopia (1905), H.G. Wells’s notion of a ‘kinetic utopia’ remains a productively unsettling concept. For even today, our default position in thinking about the literary genre of utopia is to envisage a finished society, one which is organised on principles so perfect (in its author’s view) that once brought into being, it will never have to change again, but will just keep trundling along merrily and stably towards infinity. And we are likely at once to bridle at such a static generic model, to feel that a frozen perfection of any kind will in the end (or even a good deal sooner) turn out to be more dystopian than utopian, and any potential interest we might have had in this genre of writing, any impulse to open-mindedly explore its riches, thus finds itself frozen at source. It is therefore still deeply important to hear Wells affirming so forcefully, on an early page of A Modern Utopia, that a satisfying twentieth-century utopia ‘must needs differ in one fundamental aspect from the Nowheres and Utopias men planned before Darwin quickened the thought of the world … the Modern Utopia must be not static but kinetic, must shape not as a permanent state but as a hopeful stage, leading to a long ascent of stages’.1 Utopias as self-transformation: this slogan at once quickens our readerly pulses, prompting us to look for stray hints of such kinetic possibilities in the canonical utopias of the past and to demand them in the practice of more recent utopian writers. I suspect, too, that the notion of a kinetic utopia is even more scandalous than Wells himself realises in this work. For as the above quotation clearly shows, he expects kineticism to work in a single direction, upwards as it were, towards ever-greater measures of social improvement and happiness. Such a buoyant outlook, however, undercuts the semantic and political richness of the ‘kinetic’, constrains it in the very moment of Wells’s invention of it, and we must therefore also invoke another formative and profoundly unsettling moment in A Modern Utopia: its inclusion of a chapter on ‘Failure in a Modern Utopia’. That heading is another salutary shock to our conventional, lazy thinking about this genre: how can utopia—the genre of human perfectibility—contain ‘failure’, is this not a perversely oxymoronic formulation? Wells tackles this objection in the chapter itself, but I want here to radicalise his notion of failure, to take it further than he does himself by letting the full force of his other crucial idea of kineticism play upon it. For if utopias are indeed capable of self-transformation, why should this process only operate unidirectionally, towards ever greater achievement? Why can it not go the other way, towards uncertainty, instability and crisis rather than success, even in the last analysis towards failure itself, so that we would then be talking not about the manageable thought of ‘failure in utopia’, but about the altogether more unsettling possibility of the ‘failure of utopia’?