Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Surprises on a Utopias Half Unit

There is always something striking and unpredictable about teaching an undergraduate utopias course.  What has astonished me over the last couple of years is that students have enjoyed Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), which I’ve always found a grindingly dull read because of its placid, gentlemanly and systematic social exposition; and they have been deeply troubled by Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), which I had assumed that they would find exhilaratingly disorientating in contrast.  Disorientated, yes; but exhilarated, certainly not!  One member of last year’s seminar even admitted that he’d been reduced to consulting the Wikipedia plot summary for the novel. 

So I suppose we need some aspects of Tom Moylan’s definition of a ‘critical utopia’ in place before I send my trusty band of readers to wrestle with Russ this year.  There are three key dimensions here, it seems to me.  First, far from a visitor from the bad old world visiting utopia, we have a visitor from utopia, Janet Evason of Whileaway, visiting the bad old contemporary world, i.e., the traffic runs the other way round.   We therefore learn much more about the bad old world than we do in the classical utopias, and the visitor has some sort of politico-narrative mission there.  In fact, in The Female Man, there are actually two contemporary realities – one being the author’s own, the ‘Joanna-reality’, the other a slightly dystopianised present belonging to Jeannine Dadier.  The third aspect of Moylan’s definition is that critical utopias are unusually formally self-conscious, hence disorientating; I don’t suppose anyone will disagree that that’s the case with Russ’s book.

There is, however, one final narrative and political twist in The Female Man which Moylan’s generic concept does not allow for; and this is the fact that Janet Evason’s mission to the present, and indeed Whileaway itself, are both disturbingly undercut by what we might term the ‘Jael-reality’ of the text.  I don’t want to say too much about that – after all, some readerly surprises should be left somewhere in this weird and wonderful book.  May this year’s group do better with it than last year’s!

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