The colonisation of Utopia

Edwards, Steve (2004). The colonisation of Utopia. In: Mabb, David ed. William Morris. Manchester: Whitworth Art Gallery, pp. 12–40.



‘The Colonisation of Utopia’ is a long essay published in the catalogue accompanying an exhibition dedicated to the work of William Morris at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester in 2004. The exhibition was curated by David Mabb and the catalogue was edited by Jennifer Harris, Deputy Director of the Gallery.
Beginning with a reading of Georges Perec’s novel Things: A Story of the Sixties, published 1965, I examine the travails of the utopian imagination. Identifying three central themes in utopian thought – sexual liberty, material abundance and a life of ease – I argue that capitalism has succeeded in colonising Utopia. Despite this, I suggest that that the idea of utopia remains a crucial resource for thinking about the future and reject both the fashionable injunctions on utopian thought and Fredric Jameson’s attempt to repackage the concept.
‘The Colonisation of Utopia’ explores the work of two very different thinkers – William Morris and Guy Debord. In spite of the obvious differences between the English exponent of medievalism and the decorative arts and the French poet and theorist of the Situationist International, I argue that these thinkers share a productive critique of the colonisation of material abundance. I also claim that contrary to the usual estimation of the S.I., Debord has to be seen as a utopian thinker. Morris and Debord bring very different contributions to this critique: Debord’s avant-gardism is more productive than Morris’s neo-medieval organicism, while the latter’s account of work is infinitely superior to the S.I.’s ideology of ‘slacking’. Not least of all, because work is the category that will forever elude the capitalist utopia, I argue that we must return to work and Morris must be central to this project.
It has recently been republished in The First Condition No.5, 2007 with a 9 page commentary by Dave Beech and Mark Hutchinson.

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