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The Subject of Utopia: Race and Utopia in Contemporary American Literature. Dissertation
  • Edward K. Chan, Kennesaw State University

The 1970s marked a rebirth in American utopian literature. Once feminist science fiction writers took up the genre, critics sought new ways to describe how the utopian genre was transformed. The criticism does address both the generic shift and the treatment of gender; however, many texts from this period also grapple with racial difference, which has surprisingly not inspired an equivalent critical treatment. Primarily by intervening in the process of racial signification, authors writing utopian narratives in the 1970s offer what many consider a radically alternative vision to the racial status quo of the times. Yet, their utopian visions do not get us very far from our traditional model of the subject. They still rely on the disembodiment predicated by liberal democracy and must still contend with the particularity of bodily difference, which shows up as a "remainder" in the utopian equation. To the degree that corporeality informs subjectivity, the body remains an obstacle to producing a utopian subject out of embodied difference.

What we learn from reading these utopian fictions also enriches our understanding of other texts that do not formally engage with the concept of utopia but nevertheless struggle with racial difference and try to envision how we might contend with race. In other words, utopia supplies a reading practice useful beyond the boundaries of the genre. Thus, I read Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands /La Frontera in terms of utopia. Borderlands is especially appropriate for this project because it tries to accommodate multiple levels of social difference, while acknowledging embodied difference. More interesting still is that Anzaldúa even plays on the science fiction trope of the alien.

Racial difference has always seemed to pose a particular problem for utopia, as it has for liberal democracy. Although I do not offer a solution to this contradiction or paradox, I do outline how we might begin to imagine a new utopian subject through racial difference with a "phenomenology of race." My goal is not to realize utopia or even make utopia more realistic, but rather to help us understand how we use utopia to imagine an ideal future, even if that project must, ultimately, fail.

Publication Date
John Michael
University of Rochester NY
Citation Information
Edward K. Chan. The Subject of Utopia: Race and Utopia in Contemporary American Literature. Dissertation. (2004)
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