We easily accept reality,
perhaps because we intuit that nothing is real
The immortal , JORGE LUIS BORGES

How to draw a cartography of utopias?; How to recognize its displacements in the imaginary and its potential for social transformation?

A first aspect that is obvious when we reflect on utopia is its paradoxical and borderline character as if it were a notion that seeks to avoid any fixed categorization. In the history of ideas, the utopian genre has not ceased to be reissued through multiple stories that project ideal cities and imaginary journeys, adopting various supports for its circulation, from political theory to literature, from philosophy to social practices. of resistance.

Geometric hells for some, subversive fictions for others, apparently nothing further from consensus, utopia is constituted as a journey between dissimilar categories, a permanent transit in which different theoretical and micropolitical fields intersect.

When we seek to characterize utopia through the various theoretical approaches that have made it their preferred domain, we find ourselves faced with an enormous dispersion of our object. Indeed, what are we talking about when we refer to utopia?

Our interest, far from seeking unity in the utopian object, will be to follow the trajectory of utopia in the reflection of some authors who have been interested in approaching it from different theoretical perspectives. Rather than elaborate on a univocal definition, this reflection will address issues related to the circulation of utopias in the imaginary, taking into account the controversies that it raises, seeking, in a general way, to open new research perspectives to the sociology of collective dreams.


A significant number of authors group utopias as a series of works that, starting with the inaugural work of Thomas More, or even before, are oriented towards the description of imaginary cities that question the organization of collective life.

For these authors, the utopian story can be considered as a particular genre. Utopia projects a series of social worlds that question the conventional ways of exercising power, using strategies such as fiction, irony, and the dramatization of present society. 3 In this sense, we can affirm that it is a genre that articulates the ethical-political and fictional fields, since the work of utopia, as we will see, will be characterized by experimentation and the implementation of new logic in everyday life. Social.

A second understanding will recognize utopias as systems of thought that escape the order of the society of their time. 4 Utopia is revealed here from its link with the epistemological and imaginary fields, emphasizing its ability to cause a break with our conceptions of the world and with our representations of reality.

The two inputs can converge, leading us to visualize the utopian object in a double dimension: ethical-political and epistemological. The reflection on utopia, thus conceived, will lead us to consider that our systems of representation of the real –and also of the unreal– could have consequences on our imaginary of power and in our possibilities to intervene in a social order that appears to us. as not livable.

However, since its inception, utopia has sparked controversy, which in the opinion of some may be related to its ambivalent character. Georges Duveau reveals in utopia this great component of ambiguity. He affirms that it is precisely this contradictory and polysemic dimension that would give Moro's work its celebrity and would have constituted utopia in a motor of emancipation in different times and contexts. For Duveau, it is possible to speak of utopia as a genre equivalent to myth, since it constitutes a more or less symbolic fable for different times and peoples, less naive and more individualized, linked to a more adult stage of social life (Duveau, 1961). 5

Claude Dubois also emphasizes the contradictory character of the notion, which is expressed in the very genesis of the word utopia: on the one hand, utopia means the country of nowhereand on the other, eutopia means the country where it is good (Dubois, 1968: 8). In the first case, its fantastic and unreal character is insisted on, in the second its ethical and political demands (1968: 8). Thus, utopia would be confronted with a kind of pre-social individualism: "It is the dream of a city dweller dissatisfied with his city who projects a city organized in another way. It is the dream of integrating the individual into society" (1968: 6).

Mannheim, for his part, in his now-classic work, Ideology and Utopia (1952), proposes to approach the question of utopia by taking as a starting point the sociology of knowledge. For Mannheim, despite the apparent common origin of the two notions, utopia and ideology are distinguished in the effects that both have on reality. The ideology is harmoniously integrated into the thought of its time, unlike utopias, which tend to break the existing orderIn this understanding, a state of affairs is utopian when it is in disagreement with the state of reality in which it occurs (Mannheim, 1956).

Thus, for Mannheim, utopia implies a rupture with the established order: "The orientations that go beyond reality will be designated as utopian only when, by taking action, they manage to destabilize the things that reign at that moment" (Mannheim, 1956: 124). 6

Paul Ricoeur, following Mannheim, draws parallels between ideology and utopia. A first difference, according to Ricoeur, has to do with the fact that utopia is a declared genre that emerges in fthe irst work, that of Moro, who forges the word in 1756. This implies that utopia is, henceforth, an author question. Thus, we will speak of the utopias of Saint-Simon, of Owen, etc., while no proper name will be linked to ideology. From that moment on, utopia will be claimed as a literary genre that inspires a form of complicity in the reader, who is inclined to receive utopia as a plausible hypothesis (Ricoeur, 1997).

From this perspective, it is possible to verify a difference in the attitude with which we approach the two phenomena. Our approach to an ideology will often be done with the weapons of criticism, that is, with a demystifying intention. On the contrary, utopia will use the rhetorical procedures of fiction as a literary strategy to persuade the reader (Ricoeur, 1997).

For Ricoeur, utopia is also characterized by its great dispersion, since not allow itself to be reduced to a single central meaning, it appears to us rather in the form of specific utopias. Utopias are scattered not only in what refers to their projects and their contents but also in their intentions. Thus, we are faced with a plurality of individual utopias, difficult to bring together under the same name. However, this dispersion appears delimited by the permanence of certain concerns and the recurrence of certain themes, such as family, property, consumption, social and political organization, religion, etc. The author invites us to understand utopias in their free variation instead of seeking their coherence in a principle of non-contradiction.

Alain Pessin also notes this characteristic of dispersion of utopias but, like Ricoeur, highlights a certain unity of what he recognizes as the utopian experience: "The same images, the same themes, the same concern for believing in a rediscovered social harmony (Pessin, 2001).

We will retain certain characteristics of utopia from this first tour that will help us deepen our understanding. In the first place, the great component of ambiguity and contradiction that leads us to think of it as a border genre that concerns the literary, philosophical, and political fields. Secondly, we will take into account its effects of rupture with the order, which allow us to distinguish it from ideology. Then, we will highlight its dispersion, an aspect that invites us to explore utopias in their discontinuity and proliferation. Finally, we will consider the action of utopia on our imaginary of power, inquiring about its ability to introduce us to novelty and social experimentation. 7


When analyzing the different genealogies of utopia, we often find ourselves faced with the question of the relationship between utopia and the totalitarian order. Certain authors recognize utopias as a collection of ideal cities obsessed with planning and order. This perspective, recognized as anti-utopian, is contested by other authors, who defend the subversive effects of utopias on the social imaginary and who see totalitarian or at least totalizing effects in the anti-utopian position that seeks to discredit the utopian spirit.

This controversy returns us to our initial warning, according to which utopia must be understood in its complexity and polysemic character. For this reason, it seems crucial to us to address the question of the totalitarian ghost that haunts the discourses that circulate around utopia. From this, we propose to investigate the question of the relationship between utopia and order.

The theme is present in Mannheim when, alluding to utopia as something unrealizable, he points out that it is only unrealizable from the point of view of a given, already existing social order. To the author: "Every time allows the birth of ideas and values ​​in which are contained, in a condensed form, the unrealized and unfulfilled tendencies that represent the needs of that time" (Mannheim, 1956: 135). Utopia can operate as a source of transformation; however, it is born within a given order, always to give rise to a new order: "The existing order gives birth to utopias that break it, giving it the freedom to develop in the direction of the next existing order" (Mannheim, 1956). Thus, in the Mannheim definition, Although utopias contain elements that do not belong to the dominant thought of their time, they do announce the order to come. Utopia seems, then, to rest on an infernal paradox, since it emerges in the context of an order as a tool of criticism and subversion, but is condemned to install itself as a new order.

Ricoeur will also explain to us that all utopias are ultimately prey to the problem of authority. They tend to show how we could be governed by something other than the State because each State is the heir of another.

It is in this perspective that the anti-utopians are situated, for whom the dream of utopia is the expression of an obsession with the planning of human life through organization and obligation.

For Gilles Lapouge, the utopian city designates "a chained world, a cruel state, an algebra of social life" (Lapouge, 1975). In Lapouge, utopia would be located at the antipodes of nature, which is an expression of waste and chance. The utopian seeks a perfect, unalterable, and incorruptible nature. His perfection is that of equations: "The utopian, austere and disciplined, configures the worlds that reproduce without change through the centuries" (Lapouge, 1975). In the utopian universe portrayed by Lapouge, nothing happens no accident, no mistake, no dispute, no war. Contrary to a historical city, the utopian city is born in a single instant, without childhood, and without old age; it cannot be improved because it suffers from the misfortune of perfection. utopia, like this,

In a similar perspective, Claude Dubois proposes to summarize the contradictions of utopia in the binomial humanism/dehumanization: a dialectic of the fall that, in the name of human dignity, introduces a new man from a dehumanizing mechanism. The human being becomes the only gear of the ideal city (Dubois: 1968). For Dubois, utopia is based on its relationship with systematic thought, both abstract and absolute: "Utopia makes us enter a totalitarian group because the best of systems can only be absolute" (Dubois, 1968: 14). This closed world is inseparable from the idea of ​​perfection.

Placing himself in a socio-historical approach, but no less pessimistic regarding the scope of utopia, Jean Servier visualizes the utopia/order relationship, understanding utopia as a will to plan for the future. For Servier, this is constituted as the search by the bourgeoisie for a future ordered by man through the reestablishment of the rigid structures of the traditional city (Servier, 1967). For this author, most the utopias, far from having a transforming effect on the historical-social order, seek to reestablish the stillness of the maternal womb. They try to recover the immutable country of the myths of all civilizations (Servier, 1967: 346), presenting themselves to us as dreams born of the feeling of discontent of the human being thrown into the world (Servier, 1967: 26). Thus, utopia is constituted, according to Servier, as the search for happiness on Earth, for paradise lost and finally rediscovered. It appears as the negation of the world and its conflicts, offering the world the image of a perfect society.

Answering these interpretations of utopia as totalitarianism, immobility, and obsession with planning, a good number of authors see in these anti-utopian readings a literal and extremely restrictive vision. 8

Taking this controversy into account, we consider it essential, to deal with the relationship between utopia and order, and to understand utopia in its complexity and multidimensionality. Indeed, the question of the totalitarianism of utopias is often questioned from the traditional categories of political rationality; however, utopia seems to have its own interpretation keys.

A reading of utopias –philosophical, literary, and practical– cannot ignore their strategies, which are often irony and fiction. Claude Dubois himself reminds us that the utopian genre concerns an illusion, which is often a conscious illusion. It is this very thing that explains the ironic and humorous tone that the creator of ideal societies often acquires. These do not exactly propose a future, but another order, situated in another time. A world in which things are not what they seem to be (Dubois, 1968: 55).

Interpreting utopias solely as totalitarianism would mean leaving in opacity all the richness and complexity of the utopian genre to fix it in a certain immutable truth. Utopia, a wandering and nomadic genre, seems more likely to be analyzed in its movement than in its immobility and its totalizing effects.

However, for an analysis of the utopian imaginary, it seems essential to take this debate into account and examine in greater depth what links utopia with totalitarian forms.

For the Marxist geographer David Harvey, the relationship has to do with the question of closure. The materialization of a utopian space, Harvey tells us, requires a closure, and any closure, however temporary, implies an authoritarian act. What Foucault considers as a "panoptic effect", 9 through the creation of spatial surveillance and control systems, is also incorporated into utopian projects (Harvey, 2000).

For the author of Spaces of Hope, in the history of all utopias realized, the issue of closure is present as a fundamental and inevitable phenomenon. Consequently, if alternative models of society are to be put into practice, the problem of closure cannot be avoided indefinitely. The closure, like the construction of any project, contains its own authority, since by materializing a project we are annulling, in some cases temporarily and in others permanently, the possibility of materializing others.

The confrontation between the utopian dream and authoritarianism must, consequently, constitute a central knot in any policy that attempts to revive utopian ideals (Harvey, 2000: 191).


To touch a dream, what I need
are two new eyes to see...

When we project an alternative world and society, this space of alterity created in the imaginary is built from elements of our social and political reality, intervening simultaneously in the space of reality. In this sense, utopia asks us about the limits between the real and the unreal, between facts and invention. Ruyer defines the work of the utopian as an axiological trompe-l'oeil (Duveau, 1961). However, we can recognize there one of the strategies of utopia, the one that plays with our categories of reality. Utopia destabilizes our hierarchies between the real and the imaginary, showing us the strange character of all reality.

Summing up, we can say that one of the effects of utopia has to do with showing us the present society as a model among a multiplicity of possibilities. The subversive potential of utopia seems to be in the renewal of our perception of reality, thanks to the contribution of a new look. Following Maffesoli, we can place utopia on the side of irony and carnivalesque inversion, all "soft" weapons of political destabilization that show us the relativity of order (Maffesoli, 2002).

Anne Staquet, in her book Les utopies ou Les fictions subversives, suggests that the emancipatory component of utopias is induced by how they criticize society through the proposition of an ideal social arrangement. The function of utopia will then be that of the criticism of the "environmental society" and the description of a different society in which the defects of the preceding one would be overcome (Staquet, 2003).

For Staquet, utopias question our ways of conceiving society, criticizing our way of living and organizing ourselves socially. In this conception, the fact of questioning the ways of being that have appeared to us as natural can only provoke a questioning of themselves, or at least of their natural character. Utopias, in this sense, are as subversive as the discovery of radically different societies because they show us how what is considered natural has been culturally constituted (Staquet, 2003: 8–9).

In a similar perspective, Harvey points out that utopia leads us to become aware of the real world, accepted by custom. Utopia can become a fruitful means to explore a great variety of different ideas about social relations, moral order, and political and economic systems.

Paul Ricoeur points out, in this regard, that the main effect of utopia is to question what exists in the present: the fact that the current world seems strange to us . Utopia introduces a sense of doubt that highlights the fact that we can lead another life than the one we currently lead.

Indeed, for Ricoeur what is at stake in both ideology and utopia is powerIdeology is always an attempt to legitimize power, while utopia strives to replace it with something else. Utopia opens the search for alternatives that operate through cooperation and egalitarian relations. This issue extends to all modes of relationship: sexuality, money, property, the state, and religion. In this way, utopia constitutes, according to Ricoeur, a variation of the imaginary power.

For Alain Pessin, utopia, more than proposing a solution, constitutes an intuition: an intuition of breaking with the way of thinking and imagining the world. Utopia does not appear as a strong idea, but rather is contaminated by the weakness of thought to which ongoing mutations seem doomed; this aspect would explain the ambiguity of the notion.

According to Pessin, the sociology of utopia will be based on the freedom of the image and the discontinuity of social experience, which leads us to speak of utopias, in the plural, rather than a utopia. Thus, Pessin proposes the following hypothesis: utopia must be seen as a collective construction that actualizes a specific modality of hopeIt is this specificity that Pessin proposes to tackle taking into account the organization of his imagination. The first task of utopia is, precisely, that of characterizing present-day society as monstrous and, thus, constituting the utopian dramaThe effect of utopia will be, in this case, to provoke a rupture within the categories of action and the modalities of power. (Pessin, 2001).

From this point of view, we could conclude that utopia manifests itself as a proliferation of views that allow us to criticize the order of the present while opening us up to experimentation with other sociopolitical possibilities. Utopia reveals the fragility of the dominant order from a perspective that is situated elsewhere.

Thus, for Henri Desroche, utopia and hope stage strategies of alterity: "In utopia, Hope for another society. In Hope, a utopia for another world" (Desroche, 1973). The strategy of hope, for Desroches, presents itself as a transition between the Same and the Other: "It finds its polarization in another place or in a not yet, showing us that situations can and must become others" ( Waste, 1973).

For this reason, utopia must be claimed as a domain of interest for sociology if we believe that dreams of transformation can play a significant role in the construction of social life.

In conclusion, we can say that utopia initiates us into what Unger defines as "visionary thinking." She sends us an image, albeit partial and fragmentary, of a radically altered scheme of social life (Harvey, 2000: 217). In visionary thinking, the explanations do not adhere to the models established by humanity. Utopia requires us to be aware of redesigning a map of the possible and desirable forms of human association, inventing new modalities of association, as well as designing new practical agreements for its materialization. In this approach, utopia can be understood as visionary since it allows us to question the limits of the tradition in which we are installed. She carries out, in effect, a work of decolonization of the imaginary,11 In this sense, its emancipatory function is fundamental at the level of our representations and our imaginary. The utopian story can become a device for criticism and reinvention of the present society, seeking new images of the world that constitute the engine of the practices of social transformation.