The Differences Between Utopias, Dystopias, and Heterotopias

Utopias, dystopias, and heterotopias, as concepts in both the literary and historical senses, are ultimately all created to serve the same purpose; to critique contemporary society. By asking you to imagine a different world, they allow ‘cognitive estrangement’ from reality, offering you an outside platform which grants perspective on your own everyday experience. This central similarity between these forms means their differences are more intriguing, as the utilisation of their distinct psychological frameworks is indicative of how a given society views its present and future. In this article I will explain the different perspectives that utopias, dystopias, and heterotopias take on human nature and the systems they describe that reflect those perspectives. Ultimately, I demonstrate utopia’s purpose as an opponent to test society against, dystopia as a threat for society to fear, and heterotopia as an expression of postmodern moral relativism.

Utopia as a concept is far older than dystopia or heterotopia. The term was officially coined in Thomas More’s eponymous text of 1516, but the idea stretches further back at least to the mythical city of Atlantis first mentioned by Plato in the 4th century BC. These early utopias are distinctive because they set unattainable societal goals, or at the least ones that appear insurmountable to their contemporary audiences. Importantly also these utopias are described as potential rivals against Plato and More’s contemporary societies, they exist far away, but in the same world at the same time. The audiences of these texts are encouraged to compare their own society to the fiction and thus develop criticisms of reality. The utopias are portrayed as physical rivals but more importantly as conceptual rivals to contemporary ideology. Indeed, Utopia was always intended primarily as a ‘new instrument of thought’ rather than a literal model. Since More’s work fewer and fewer utopias have been positioned as a physical rival, because the conceptual rivalry is the real focus of utopian thought.

A key element of utopia is that it is difficult to achieve. Utopias require active and ‘radical change… of physical, social, economic, and psychological conditions’, a concerted overhaul of reality. However, ever since More’s Utopia and up until the 20th century, people have viewed utopia as an increasingly achievable goal, explaining how advances in technology and reason will assist humanity in achieving this; the “New World” of the Americas in particular became a site for many literary and literal utopian endeavours. However even with modern technology utopia stands out because of its complexity as a project which requires great resources and cohesion. This is unlike dystopia and heterotopia which both invite you to believe that they are highly plausible eventualities, something that can be fallen into rather than created.

Today people generally agree with this idea and see utopia as being as unreachable as Plato saw Atlantis, but this is based in a common misconception, that utopia describes a “perfect world”. This is not quite the case, utopia is not a promise of perfection but rather of ‘perfectibility’, that society is constantly acting to diminish the evils that plague it even though its citizens ‘remain flawed by nature’. Conversely it is also true that dystopia is not a fully imperfect world and has elements of hope to contrast those of despair. However, although utopias and dystopias do not include fully monolithic societies, they do offer the idea that such a thing is achievable. Both offer a universal idea for what ‘human nature’ consists of and ascribe to the idea of a ‘herd mentality’ which theoretically can be used to shape society into either form. A heavy emphasis on social control is required by both utopian and dystopian concepts precisely because they are not describing purely perfect or imperfect realities; their ‘realistic estimate of human behaviour’ means that they must have robust procedures in place for maintaining themselves both physically and ideologically. Dystopias differ from utopias however because they are not designed as societies to be tested against, but ones to be heeded as warnings, a dark reflection of reality. If utopia is the carrot, dystopia is the stick.

Contrary to initial supposition, the physical attributes of utopia and dystopia are some of the least important aspects of those societies in terms of differentiating them. Many utopias and dystopias exist in a very similar environment, which can be interpreted in multitudes depending on the view of the creators of the imagined society. Generally, these worlds are divided into to two varieties, the technological and the natural. Utopian visions of technological societies begin with Atlantis and lead up to the modern day with a film such as Her, dystopian visions include the island of Laputa from Gulliver’s Travels or the world of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? On the other side natural utopias begin with Arcadia and lead up to the eternal gardens of Metropolis, dystopian visions including The Drowned World or Ridley Walker. These examples demonstrate how the same idea of place can be both utopia and dystopia, and indeed texts such as Gulliver’s Travels do explore the view that the same place could serve as both concepts from the perspectives of different people. For heterotopia however, the physical elements of the imagined society are considerably more important. This is because its theoretical framework rejects the utopian and dystopian principals of ideological certainty in favour of immeasurability. It passes no judgement on broader concepts which results in the physical details of its existence being what defines it.

To understand why heterotopia is different like this, we must understand its inception out of the real-world events of the 20th century. Initially dystopia, “utopia’s twentieth-century doppelganger” was born in the context of the destruction wrought by the first and second world wars, alongside the great depression and other such calamities. It is a concept more of ‘a utopia that has gone wrong’, rather than a deliberately malicious creation. In this manner it far better reflected the historical realities of the time, in which people saw a decline in the “progress” of the past decades. Dystopian visions, based on societal inequality and division, were devised deliberately as direct responses to utopian visions built on co-operation and cohesion which were seen to have failed. However ultimately people found that dystopia, despite its promises, was not brought about in the manner it was thought to and thus the later 20th century notion of heterotopia was born in line with the many other post-modern theories.

Heterotopia is described as the only one of these three concepts that “truly exists”, a society that is neither good or evil, but is merely there. Indeed, whilst utopic and dystopic fiction follow traditional methods of mythical storytelling by clearly marking themselves outside of the audience’s space and time, heterotopic fiction often does not. Utopias and dystopias are set at a time or place different from our own because they want to indicate that their description is not yet a reality but could be if people acted upon them. Heterotopias can or might be set contemporaneously because they are not describing anything which they inherently want achieved or prevented.

This is not to argue that utopia and dystopia are attempts to escape from reality because they are set outside of contemporary time, exactly the opposite is true. Utopian and dystopian visions are in fact more applicable to reality than heterotopic ones despite their greater removal from it. By necessity of design ‘genuine’ utopias and dystopias have far clearer concepts and moralities which allow them to make direct criticisms and endorsements of practices analogous to contemporary society. This has been true ever since More’s Utopia in that ‘it is almost the definition of utopian work that it should be contagious’; such narratives make a person consider “how can I make this happen?” or “how can I stop this from happening?”, imparting a sense of urgency and agency. More’s text itself has remained influential for so long precisely because of its continued relevance and in how it ‘elucidates the relationship between liberal and totalitarian politics’. Conrariwise, heterotopia is steeped in such ambiguity that it is far harder to draw simple directives from it.

However, it must also not be misinterpreted that heterotopia is simply the grey-area middle ground between utopia and dystopia, in fact it is a rejection of such concepts outright. Both utopia and dystopia argue for a world that sits on a moral scale which can be adjusted between better and worse; there is the possibility of change. Heterotopia argues that there is no scale, that things don’t get “better” or “worse”. In this respect heterotopia is a more pessimistic narrative to adopt than dystopia, because it suggests that there is little point in attempting to change the future, whereas dystopia acts as a prerogative to do so. This moral relativism is also integral to a further way in which heterotopia diverges from utopia and dystopia, in the importance it places on individual factors over systemic. Utopias and dystopias are based on the concept that overarching superstructures and ideas have the power to dictate the direction of society, heterotopias contrarily suggest that no one force has the ability to gain dominance over others or drive change in a particular direction.

The value in assessing these forms of imagined society is that they tell us about the people and culture which created them. Ultimately all utopias, dystopias, and heterotopias are created with similar intent, but their method varies to cater to their contemporary audience. Utopias worked as imagined rivals to spur on development, but when people believed they might genuinely achieve utopia and found it crashing about them, dystopia was born as a warning to overambition. Finally, heterotopia has been created as a response to the non-formation of either dystopia or utopia. It is a relativistic framework for understanding change as neither inherently leading to good or ill.  

Author/Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

Date of Publication: 08th of May 2019

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