All the uneasy and sordid services about these halls are performed by their slaves; but the dressing and cooking their meat, and the ordering their tables, belong only to the women, all those of every family taking it by turns. -- St. Thomas More, Utopia1

For discording within the paternalistic orthodox Russian social system, members of the band Pussy Riot were arrested in 2012 and subsequently imprisoned. As if life were being given stage direction straight from Utopia, "... celebrity ballerina Anastasia Volochkova called for the musicians to repent publicly for their obscenity-laced performance in Christ the Savior Cathedral and be punished by cleaning public restrooms," according to Natalya Krainova from The Moscow Times2. Volochkova's blog post reads: "Церковь должна призвать их к публичному покаянию, и пусть борются за правду, начищая до блеска общественные туалеты!!!"3

The original notion of utopia, as coined in the 16th century by St. Thomas More (the patron saint of ♥LAWYERS♥), was a satire about the political landscape in Europe and in Britain specifically. In Greek, the word means non-place, or a place that cannot exist, coming from οὐ (not) and τόπος (place). Technically speaking, the word "strictly describes any non-existent society 'described in considerable detail'"4. In common usage however, the word has come to mean a society that is better than current society, or a "good place". Ironically, some time before his beheading and subsequent canonization, More even wrote about how his Utopia was not to be confused with Eutopia, the latter of which would have meant good place. Unfortunately, these words sound the same when spoken and is likely the reason for the semantic drift. This text uses the term Utopia as intended by More.

Because it is not a place, neither are there real living, breathing inhabitants of Utopia nor is there a chance that it could ever exist. As a non-place, it can neither be good nor bad. It cannot even be better than reality because it simply does not exist. This is one of the tenets of fiction in generalis and satire in specifico.

Nevertheless, the philosophical problem of society approached in More's thought experiment is a grand balancing act where individual freedoms are subverted for the higher purpose of achieving collective goals. Fulfilling these goals, such as the banishment of vice in its many forms and keeping the workforce active and motivated, ultimately required punishment for that which had been deemed to be transgressive. Indeed, to remind people of their privileged position in Utopia, a class of "others" without said privileges needed to be constructed: A slice of society visually and occupationally different. In More's Utopia, instead of putting the morally deficient in jails, they would be turned into slaves for the "good" families who:

... make their chamber-pots and close-stools of gold and silver, and that not only in their public halls but in their private houses. Of the same metals they likewise make chains and fetters for their slaves, to some of which, as a badge of infamy, they hang an earring of gold, and make others wear a chain or a coronet of the same metal... -- St. Thomas More, Utopia1

The only theoretical danger in a planned society such as that "lived" by these fictional characters in Utopia, is the danger of the unpredictable, the danger of the novum. To this end it is important that new ideas and thinking in general are kept to a minimum - if not banished entirely. This created a performance culture composed of self-censorship and party-identification. Those unable to walk the straight and narrow line of acceptable behaviour are transformed by society into slaves. This socio-structural design not only limits the ability for revolution to occur, but also manifests a dependence upon the past as a type of unifying identity and blueprint for the future: A place where everything stays as it has always been.

In his lecture in 1951, Heidegger paraphrased exactly this fear as described by Nietzsche: "As far as authentic thought and thinking is concerned, Nietzsche recognized more clearly than any before him that there was an emerging necessity of social transformation - because of the danger that the mensch living as a result of the past obstinately constructs their reality on top of the mere superficial surface of their previous existence, which enforces the application of the outermost surface of these surfaces to serve as the [confining] space within which their experience on planet Earth can be valid."6

In this sense, the irony of "utopian" thinking in its (misguided) contemporary form is that it perverts experience into dreaming about something that can never exist. This cements the mensch's position in the present as a function of everything that has ever happened - and distances the mensch's position from that which could be.

Unfortunately, the mere act of thinking about the constituency of "utopia" absolves the individual of direct, real responsibility for themselves, their planet and society; the semantic distance between lived reality and "ideality" is so great that the utopist is literally prevented from changing society. Indeed, merely thinking about a non-place depressingly confines one to the reality lived in.


Photo: Pussy Riot Meets Marcel Duchamp, Performance, Hamburg. noartcollective, 2012, courtesy the artists

  1. Utopia, Thomas More. Project Gutenberg

  2. Visited on November 20, 2015.

  3. TRANSLATION: "The Church must encourage them to [do] public penance, [to find] the [real] truth, to [polish] public toilets !!!"


  5. Heidegger, Martin. "Was heißt denken?" Vorlesung, Wintersemester 1951 / 52. Reclams Universal Bibliothek. p.40. (Author's translation.) Original: "Nietzsche sieht im Bereich des wesentlichen Denkens, klarer denn je einer vor ihm, die Notwendigkeit eines Überganges und damit die Gefahr, daß der bisherige Mensch sich immer hartnäckiger auf die bloße Ober- und Vorderfläche seines bisherigen Wesens einrichtet und das Fläche dieser Flächen als den einzigen Raum seines Aufenthaltes auf der Erde gelten läßt."

This text is published under the Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND.