Utopian Body: Alternative Experiences of Embodiment in 20th Century Utopian Literature

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2011-08-08

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Utopian literature has typically viewed the body as a pitfall on the path to social perfectibility, and utopian planners envision societies where the troublesome body is distanced as much as possible from utopia's guiding force-Reason. However, after two world wars, the failure of communism, and a century of corrupt "utopian" projects like Hitler's social engineering, dystopian societies justified on the grounds of "rational planning" fail to convince us, and the body has risen as the new locus for identity and agency, a point of stability in a dangerous and unstable environment. In this dissertation, I argue that utopian literature in the late twentieth century has identified the body as key to imagining new alternatives and re-connecting with an increasingly jeopardized sense of immediate, embodied experience. Protagonists in utopian literature looking to escape dehumanizing and bureaucratic worlds find their loophole in the sensual rush of adrenaline and instinct and the jarring rejuvenation of nerve and muscle, experiences which are much more immediately real and trustworthy than the tenuous dictates of institutions that tumble easily into absurdity and terror. Survival necessitates a raw and transformed identity that transgresses the tightly regimented boundaries of civilization and embraces the tumultuous chaos of the fringes and countercultures. Here, utopia thrives. I ground this study in theoretical and sociological texts which recognize the centrality of the body in society and the dynamic potentiality of utopian thinking, and then examine how these developments unfold in utopian literature since the mid twentieth century. The body as utopia surfaces in a variety of ways: as the longing for movement in Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano; as the creation of alternative spaces defined by embodiment in Angela Carter's Heroes and Villains and Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club; as the exuberant immersion in the modified body in Chuck Palahniuk's Rant; and as the search for perfection in a detached and corporate world in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. I conclude with an assessment of utopia in the twenty-first century, referring to Cormac McCarthy's The Road as a barometer of the grim state of utopian possibility as we head into the next century.

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