EN 4241  Utopias and Dystopias

2011/12, Semester 2

Professor Rajeev S. Patke



General issues concerning utopias and dystopias


Topics for seminar discussion

1  Husserl’s idea of Lebenswelt (Life-world): "science is a human spiritual accomplishment which presupposes as its point of departure ... the intuitive surrounding world of life, pregiven as existing for all in common." (The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, 1936/54)) 

We can use the notion of Life-world as a way of understanding what fictional narratives in the sf genre do when they invent imaginary world-systems: each a totality comprising linked features which activate & deploy human energies in specific ways to create, sustain and change specific institutions through which the life of individuals and societies is lived in the physical world.

Link: Literary Encyclopedia

Link: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:


"Husserl's notion of lifeworld is a difficult (and at the same time important) one. It can roughly be thought of in two different (but arguably compatible) ways: (1) in terms of belief and (2) in terms of something like socially, culturally or evolutionarily established (but nevertheless abstract) sense or meaning.

(1) If we restrict ourselves to a single subject of experience, the lifeworld can be looked upon as the rational structure underlying his (or her) "natural attitude". That is to say: a given subject's lifeworld consists of the beliefs against which his everyday attitude towards himself, the objective world and others receive their ultimate justification. (However, in principle not even beliefs forming part of a subject's lifeworld are immune to revision. Hence, Husserl must not be regarded as an epistemological foundationalist...

(2a) If we consider a single community of subjects, their common lifeworld, or "homeworld", can be looked upon, by first approximation, as the system of senses or meanings constituting their common language, or "form of life" (Wittgenstein), given that they conceive of the world and themselves in the categories provided by this language.

(2b) If we consider subjects belonging to different communities, we can look upon their common lifeworld as the general framework, or "a priori structure", of senses or meanings that allows for the mutual translation of their respective languages (with their different associated "homeworlds") into one another."



• Outer world of nature: astronomical – ecological – biological

• Inner world of the individual & interpersonal relations: psychological/psychic - social – sexual/fraternal/familial

• Outer social world: communal - cultural – spiritual/religious - political – juridical


  Novelist                      Dominant idea                                                      Changes in the Life-world

Miller                                        the human will to knowledge                                 transformations in the "life-world"; mutations in life forms

Burgess                                    freedom/control                                                    coercive violence by & to the individual

Dick                                         alternative history                                                  (if Japan had won World War II)

Ursula Le Guin                         An alternative biology                                            (if the human experience had feminine and masculine experiences built into it)

Atwood                                    a world changed by pollution                                 how social and sexual relations would alter


The plot of each novel in a dystopian narrative can be described (without too much over-simplification) as a dialectical progression:

Freedom  –  Control  –  Consequence

We could think of each speculative/SF fictional world as the answer to an immanent question (i.e. a question latent rather than manifest), or a specific resolution to a problem that has more than one resolution, such that the reading of the novel can be made to indicate what the question or problem might be. To infer that question or problem is to get a hold on the likely reasons why a creative imagination creates a specific kind of "life-world".



(more to follow)





Last Updated  10 January 2012