After attending the ‘Imagining Utopia’ panel discussion at KL Literary Festival (KLLF) 2016, IGNITE’s Literature writer Kelvin Wong was motivated to dedicate an individual post to reflect on the panel discussion as it left such a lasting impact. Here, Kelvin shares his observations and the insights gained from the panel discussion on the notion of utopia.
In regards to the rising attention shed on the presence of a utopian society presented in the literary context, Gerak Budaya, a local independent book publisher, decided to hold a panel discussion during KLLF 2016 about how different individuals perceive utopia and how different literary and artistic processes are incorporated to enable us to imagine a utopian future.
First, let us ask ourselves a question. What does imagining a utopia mean? What significance does it hold? Imagining utopia is similar to imagining a different future. Perhaps, today, what we need more than ever is a new future to hold onto. Yet if we need to imagine utopia, this begs two questions: What does it mean in practice to imagine the future? What kind of future can we or should we imagine?
The panel consisted of five speakers: Jay Koh, Tina Isaacs, Zedeck Siew, Gina Yap Lai Yoong and Sabah Carrim, who was also the moderator. You can check out their profiles here.
Firstly, Sabah Carrim, the moderator of the discussion, introduced the audience to the history of utopia in literature. In Greek, utopia literally translates to ‘no-place’ and it was then coined by Sir Thomas More in 1546 for his published book entitled ‘Utopia’, in which he describes the existence of a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean. A utopia is commonly perceived as a good place, a place where everyone longs to belong to.
On the other hand, we have the complete opposite, which is a dystopia. In dystopia, it is complete mayhem and there is a fine line between depicting a utopia or dystopia. Therefore, it is salient that a clear distinction is drawn between them in order to better visualise such concepts with abstractism and subjectivity. In ‘1984’, an extremely popular dystopian satire written by George Orwell describes an elaborated dystopian society which promotes dysfunctional and inhuman morals. One of the main reasons why ‘1984’ is conveyed as a work about dystopia is due to its extensive evocation of the lack of freedom of expression through the depiction and description of radical situations.
However, if we take a closer look at the fine distinction between a utopia and a dystopia, what qualities and factors ultimately determine it? Furthermore, how can we interpret whether a situation is depicted as utopian or dystopian?
Utopia is for people who are deemed homogenised; it is for the airheads!
— Sabah Carrim
Before opening the floor to the public, the panel expressed their perceptions on utopia/dystopia. Jay Koh, an artist-curator, mentioned that the imagination that we have in our daily life is merely an initial stage of how we develop relationships between one another. Without imagination, there will not be creativity and we cannot further broaden our ideology to provide a constructive criticism on, in this case, the idea of utopia.
Additionally, when we imagine utopia and discuss it aloud, isn’t it ultimately a dystopian act? Individualism heavily affects and shapes the way we think, leading us to have different beliefs and opinions. Should there be a conflict arising due to the difference in perceiving whether a situation is utopian, will it not become a dystopian act? Furthermore, if we were to defend our views and try to convince the other party regarding our stand on the topic, are we not oppressing them?
Sabah added that there are various forms of oppression: one-to-many oppression or many-to-one oppression; there are different instances for each case. One-to-many oppression often comes in governmental form where the superiority of one party is enforced over the other mass party whereas in the latter, it often comes in democratic form where the superiority of a mass party is enforced over a singular party. Moreover, when we talk about utopia or dystopia, what really distinguishes it is emphasised and evoked by its oppressive nature. When writers try to escape from reality to the literary world, the implication is that how such an act is ultimately achieved by oppression.
Sabah further suggested that it is ironic how we seek solace in the present by deliberately going back to an idyllic past and coming back to the present to depict what a utopia is. The past should be unaccounted for, as reconstructing the past is a nearly impossible act. Instead, we should look forward to the future, where multiple possibilities and chances are yet to be discovered and taken.
Moving on to Tina Isaacs, who worked on a thesis based on the theme of post-apocalyptic literature, she claimed that utopia is only an aspiration that can never be achieved due to the human nature. To imagine a utopia, we are creating an image that can be either utopian or dystopian, and force it to happen by segmenting different types of people presented in different parts of society. Isn’t that oppressive?
Thus far, utopia has been described as an idea that is oppressive in nature, and this is far from our notion of utopia – a nearly perfect world. Does this mean that a utopia can never be a utopia? Let us consider a case: a group of people is trying to put a square peg into a round hole. Will they ever achieve their goal? Superficially, it is seen that everyone is working together with mutual intention; this is an epitome of utopia – a world where everyone is in unison. However, underlying it is ultimate chaos.
Sabah then added on how this situation reflects on the morality of times in the past. Perhaps, in a utopian society, LGBT groups are mentioned in academic textbooks so that homosexuality will no longer be viewed as a taboo or controversial idea. But, will it ever happen in the utopian society that was depicted in many decades ago? No. Historicism allows people to project their thoughts about the future by looking at laws; laws did not permit people to explicitly display homosexual content in the past but much has changed since.
The main factor that causes the difference in our opinions is that we are all too individualistic and it is best to just bring a balance. Gina said that it is because of this, she is able to create stories.
When two people have different utopias and they are put together and they clash, there is then a story. And this is how I write stories.
— Gina Yap Lai Yoong
Therefore, utopian writing opens up doors for different opportunities where certainty comes from imagination and this is important in writing. In most cases, utopian writing falls under the category of experimental literature. It belongs to the genre of horror, sci-fi and fantasy fiction.
Nowadays, there are significantly more dystopian works compared to utopian literature: an example of modern dystopian fictional society is depicted in the Hunger Games trilogy, which has caused a sensation among the youth. Through reading literary works, we are deprogrammed from the society and instead, immersed in a society which we view as either utopian or dystopian. When we do so, we are in a utopian world, regardless of the society’s nature, right?
The discussion was then wrapped up by a Q&A session where the floor was opened for questions and comments from the audience. An audience member commented that the library is viewed as a utopia as we are able to find our freedom through browsing for books freely and be able to escape from reality. However, in a library, there is a rule of being silent and it is indeed a form of oppression. So, doesn’t it conflict with the idea of a library being a utopia? The panel responded that they do not see any correlation between having to be silent in the library and the freedom experienced from reading books. The oppressive nature of being silent, in this case, has no effect.
Ultimately, a question still remains. Try to take a look at the utopian world that you imagine: how do you go about creating it and how do you sustain it? Does that world still seem perfect to you?
By Kelvin Wong