The Best of All Possible Worlds: PW Talks with J.C. Hallman

by Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly, 6/21/2010

Hallman investigates modern day utopians in their natural habitats—communes, $30 billion megacities, bed and breakfasts in Italy, ships perpetually circling the world—in In Utopia (click here for the PW review).

The deeper I got into the book, the more I saw utopian efforts everywhere. What do you you see in the mainstream?

The U.S. itself is arguably an achieved utopia. Many of the rights in our founding documents—freedom of speech, power-sharing government, right to firearms—are easy to find in earlier literature that was counted as utopian when it was produced. The mood of the 20th century was largely dystopian, thanks to the world wars and the Cold War, but a utopian mood is emerging. President Obama is fond of referring to the “American experiment” and the “more perfect union” the Constitution tasks us to achieve. You have to have a pretty tin ear not to hear the utopian echo of “more perfect.”
Did you think about writing about “intentional communities” at the state level?

Yes, and this is how the idea of utopia begins to branch out. The book explores this in a section about the Slow Food movement and Italy. In attempting its own “globalization,” the Slow Food movement, with chapters in more than 80 countries, is essentially trying an end run around the idea of the nation-state. The basic idea here is that “states” are drawn on ideological lines, not ecological lines.

You’re very respectful (and plain fond) of so many of the utopians you write about. Were you surprised by your reaction to them?

I only expected to be critical of the gun utopia I visited—the gun school that hopes to build a master-planned community around its armories and shooting ranges—and while I tried to give them a fair shake, I didn’t want to disguise my visceral reaction, which was pretty negative. As to the others, I felt that utopians fell on one of two paths—earnest or ironic—and I was interested in the earnest ones. The world has major problems that require grand, audacious solutions. The dystopian mood gives us a knee-jerk reaction to anything that seems too hopeful, too audacious. If we don’t grow out of that, we’re doomed.

Your subjects are so varied—do they share any common characteristics or is a yearning for utopia universal?

I noticed a lingering youthfulness, and a bullheaded resistance to reconciling oneself to a world less perfect than it might be. There was an inspiring selflessness. That these people often thought of themselves as failures for having failed to achieve the perfection they sought was tragic and moving. I took pains to demonstrate how earnest visions do, in fact, translate into progressive reality in one way or another.  Utopian thought does make the world better—though the utopians themselves might be gone and forgotten before that impact is felt.

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