My favourite literary theorist Roland Barthes once remarked that ‘Notre littérature a mis très longtemps à découvrir l'objet; il faut attendre Balzac pour que le roman ne soit plus seulement l'espace de purs rapports humains, mais aussi de matières et d'usages appelés à jouer leur partie dans l'histoire des passions : Grandet eût-il pu être avare (littérairement parlant), sans ses bouts de chandelles, ses morceaux de sucre et son crucifix d'or?’ Morris’s News from Nowhere might equally well be considered the moment when utopia discovered the object, when those rather colourless, merely generic utopian objects from Thomas More to Edward Bellamy give way to the intensely rendered object-world of Morris’s Thames valley: Dick Hammond’s damascened belt buckle, William Guest’s elaborately crafted pipe in the Piccadilly booth, and so on.
There are no doubt major benefits for utopia in this discovery of the object. The more sensuously embodied the abstract schema of your good society is, the more persuasive it and its values will appear to the reader. But there are paradoxical dangers here too. For if objects, landscape and even characters are indeed welcomely concretised and individualised in this fashion, there opens the possibility that they will acquire a thematic momentum and narrative force of their own, which may lead in directions that stray away from, or even directly challenge, the official thematic values that your utopia was trying to propound.
An ‘incarnational’ aesthetics thus proves to be a mixed blessing. It’s now hard to imagine a satisfying (or even readable) utopia without it, but it may also lead us to a view of the genre that veers close to the Marxist literary theory of Pierre Macherey: that the very fleshing out of the author’s ideological intentions – in this case, the abstract schema of a good society - in literary form may itself problematise those intentions, may revealingly expose their gaps, limits and silences. Whether or not Macherey's claim is true of literature as a whole, it certainly seems to capture the constitutive joy and dilemma of utopia as a genre, strung unsettlingly between politics (abstract) and literature (concrete) as it has been from More onwards.