Utopias: Retrospective and Prospective

Utopias: Retrospective and Prospective
Thomas More, Utopia, 1516. Hand-tinted illustration.

The 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia in December 1516 has provided scholars with a fitting opportunity to revisit this classic work. Social critique, biting satire, or political philosophy: however one interprets More’s original text, concepts of utopia as both no-place and the good place, and its various derivations (e.g., dystopia, anti-utopia), have played a significant role in Western socio-political thought across the last five centuries. In this seminar, panellists will comment on utopias past and present to offer some thoughts on common themes and questions which have characterised the complex use and appropriation of utopian discourse over time. Tania Colwell will start by reviewing More’s Utopia, positioning it in its early modern context and identifying key themes that would be a touchstone for both a new form of literary genre and pragmatic social and political enterprises for centuries to come. Benjamin Huf will explore the nineteenth-century marriage between bureaucracy, the social sciences and statistics, and new modes of ‘clockwork’ governance, knowledge and control. This commentary will give a modern twist to traditional utopian imaginings by uncovering a history with newfound salience in our present age of ‘big data’. Russell Jacoby will offer some reflections on studying utopia today. He will ask what undergirds utopian thinking over the centuries and why it has declined. He will consider what remains valuable in More.

Following a response from legal scholar Desmond Manderson, the floor will then be opened up to discussion with the audience on the role of utopias and their derivations in the past, present and future.

Tania Colwell is currently lecturing in medieval and early modern history in the School of History. Her work explores the intersection between literary production and identity formation through the lens of manuscript and early print culture. She has published articles on an array of interdisciplinary topics, including most recently in Early Modern Emotions: An Introduction (2017), and is co-editing a volume on Women and Work in Premodern Europe: Experiences, Relationships and Cultural Representation for Routledge.

Benjamin Huf is a PhD Candidate in the School of History. His research explores the invention of 'the economy' and the state's production of economic subjects in early nineteenth-century British imperial governance. He has presented papers on a wide range of topics in Australia and the United States.

Russell Jacoby teaches in the Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of seven books from The Last Intellectuals and The End of Utopia to Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present. He is completing a book on diversity in the age of Americanization.

Desmond Manderson is one of the world’s leading scholars of law and the humanities, whose work addresses a wide range of disciplines including history, philosophy, music, literature and the visual arts. He is director of the Centre for Law Arts and the Humanities at the ANU.

ALL WELCOME - please direct enquiries to Benjamin.Jones@anu.edu.au or Annemarie.McLaren@anu.edu.au

Date & time

Wed 29 Mar 2017, 4.15–5.30pm


McDonald Room, Menzies Library, ANU


Tania Colwell
Benjamin Huf
Russell Jacoby
Desmond Manderson

Event series


School of History


School of History


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