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By Li Chong


The Montréal Review


Swirski, Peter. (2019).  American Utopia: Literature, Society, and the Human Use of Human Beings. Routledge. 250pp.


Over the past twenty years or so Peter Swirski has carved out an international career out of interdisciplinary studies of American culture and society. On the one hand, in every one of his nineteen books to date he looks at how the books we read, the films we see, and the popular culture we consume reflect on the deep social problems that beset America (and more often than not, the rest of the globe). On the other hand he casts light on how the social problems that bedevil America, the wars it fights, and the political decisions its ruling classes make impact the culture we make, the books we read, and even the language we use.

It is therefore no surprise that his new book conforms to this interdisciplinary pattern. Tellingly, American Utopia is subtitled Literature, Society, and the Human Use of Human Beings, revealing that, although Swirski is first and foremost a literary and cultural scholar, human, social, and economic concerns drive it as much as literary and cultural ones. The book as a whole is therefore a multifaceted study of American Utopia: its history, its political premises, its economic viability, its social promises, and its literary incarnations.

On the opening pages one American Utopia contrasts the twin paths to utopia in the form of social engineering (through legislation, education, enculturation, and so on) and bioengineering (through direct modification of our genetic material). On the remaining two hundred and fifty pages it documents the pitfalls and windfalls of social reform in the name of the human use of human beings. At various points in the book, Swirski makes enormous contributions to current debates surrounding such controversial topics as gene editing, artificial intelligence, welfare society, studies of deaggression, the nature and nurture of capitalism, social competition versus cooperation, universal basic income, gender and human equality, and any number of other issues of concern not only to all Americans but all citizens of the world.

The book is organized in 5 parts, each consisting of three chapters. The first part functions as a general introduction to the thematics of utopia and its (often unappreciated) role in social thought. It surveys the always colorful and sometimes downright bizarre history of utopian communes in the United States, some of which go back to the early years of the colonial settlement. It wraps up with a poignant discussion of the role of literature and more broadly popular/mass culture in fostering the spirit of social reform as well as of language as a diagnostic tool equivalent to thought experiments in the sciences. The following four parts of the book—twelve chapters in all—discuss in detail four outré modern utopias by Thomas Disch, Bernard Malamud, Kurt Vonnegut, and Margaret Atwood, more often than not departing from them in order to pursue conceptually original avenues of research.

American Utopia, much as its predecessor, American Utopia and Social Engineering (published by Swirski in 2011) is a breathtaking book not only in its intellectual scope but in its beautiful execution. For this reason, being unable to discuss it in its entirety, in what follows I will focus on the issues of economic and gender equality to frame some of the issues that drive this page-turning study. The equality of men and women (pay, economic and social status, investment opportunities, political representation, and so on) have never left the spotlight in the recent years, becoming the subject of heated debates. Gender equality is an integral part of human rights, a fundamental criterion of democracy and a prerequisite for the achievement of social justice and equitable society. 

Persistent Gender Inequity Worldwide 

Much as the utopian movement itself, over the centuries numerous movements for gender equality have taken root around the globe, continuing to this very day. In 2001, to take a prominent example, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to allow same-sex couples to officially enter into marriage by law, another milestone of the worldwide struggle for the human right and gender equality.

Gender equality issues manifest themselves in all walks of society. Academia is a crucial part of it. In most developed economies, over 50% of student enrolments in colleges and universities are women which reflects a striking success in bringing our society out of the Middle Ages.

However, not to be one-sided—in keeping with American Utopia, which never fails to balance its story of dreams and aspirations with abject and sometimes horrifying failures—gender inequality persists even among ostensibly liberal and progressive academics, in particular at senior levels of tertiary educational institutions. To put it simply, the equal gender composition from student enrolments is not reflected in the representation of academic women in senior leadership across the sector. Women continue to be under-represented, with a dismal 15% at senior levels of professoriate across academic institutions worldwide. Moreover, since women are over-represented in lower-paying faculty positions, there is generally a large gender gap in pay and income.

Gender bias in language

American Utopia is about two core issues: the social and the biological ways of actually attaining a better social order. To help visualize some of the issues riding on these two thorny paths to Utopia, it enlists the help of some of the most controversial utopian imaginings in modern culture. Indeed, for all its social and even scientific analyses, American Utopia is equally a thoroughgoing investigation of today’s American literature and culture.

How are the social issues that plague us in real life presented in contemporary literature and culture? How do they sharpen our understanding of the kind of society we would all like to live in? How does the very language we use reflect, and in many ways entrench, the preconceptions we have of the world we live in and the people in it? Is there a way out of this language trap?

Many linguists researched the gender (in)equality in languages and noted the existing of gender bias in many major languages. Take German, one of the leading European languages, as an example. German is a gender-specific language involving three genders, namely feminine (die), masculine (der) and neutral (das). The German language is also very gender-biased and male-dominated. There are a lot of suggestive sentences that reinforce male images, for instance "Wer wird der neue Bundeskanzler?" (Who will be the next (male) chancellor?) disregards the image of a Bundeskanzlerin [the female version of the word]. Not very apt and appropriate and certainly not in keeping with the times, with Angela Merkel being the Chancellor of Germany for more than a decade since 2005.

Gender stereotypes are also built in to Asian languages. Research and a recent article in The Economics indicated that Chinese, the language of the world's biggest population, shares some issues with other languages and has gender bias, too. But unlike some European tongues, Chinese nouns do not have genders. It demonstrates that some of the Chinese written characters ascribe negative stereotypes to women. "女" is the radical for "woman" in Chinese. It is often connected with negative meanings, e.g. "妒": jealously; "妖": devil; "奴": slave. The character "好", good, appears to be positive, but it relies on gender stereotypes; a woman stands next to a male child or a son "子".

What is the importance of gender equality in language? The significance of language, for instance the literary and social value of proverbs, is perfectly demonstrated and analyzed in American Utopia (especially in Chapter 9). Swirski describes language as the weapon of choice of writers and shows why the language we use matters because it colors our depiction of the world. Regardless of whatever language is being used, words and phrases we employ daily conjure up connotations which impact upon images in our brains, thereby influencing our social reality on matters regarding identity politics. Women have a right to be just as visible and significant as men in languages because paternalistic languages often tend to repress any concern for or reference to women. Every sentence that refers to people in the masculine gender mentally invokes male associations in our minds, which prejudice women implicitly.

Economic In-Equality

American Utopia is also about the economics of utopia or, to put it differently, about the ways to end poverty and exploitation in society. The gender pay gap, the average difference between what men and women are paid, belongs to one of the main issues in terms of economic in-equality from a public policy perspective. In countries with a well-established welfare economic system like in North America and most of the European states, this problem affects women in almost every way, beginning with welfare payments upon retirement. According to The Global Gender Gap Report 2018, to date there is still a 32.0% average gender gap that remains to be closed.

The idea commonwealth, as described in American Utopia, remains as powerful today as it was in the history. Equality in economic models levels the playing field for all employees, enhances the pool of talent in an organisation, and improves the overall performance of an establishment. Moreover, wage difference and exploitation hurt employers as employees who feel discriminated against are less motivated to work which can reduce the entire economic output. The difference between reality and utopia is as pronounced as that between the ill-conceived idea of universal basic income and the idea of utopian basic income sketched out by Swirski in Chapter 6.


To give the readers sense of the book I have read, I would like to end this necessarily all-too brief review with three favourite quotes of mine selected from the first part of American Utopia. This is what Peter Swirski has to say about utopia:

Away from their pens and palettes, quite a few utopian novelists, bohemian artists, and reform-minded members of the vibrant arts and crafts movement tried their hand at alternative social living. The latter especially shared, and their communes embodied, a conviction that art was a powerful instrument of personal and social advancement. This apostolic ardour explains, perhaps, why they were willing to undergo pains and privations in the name of reforming society.(Chapter 2, p.19)

Utopia, in my view, is not a unique blueprint for a paradise on earth but rather a habit of mind cased out in the way we interrogate the world, society, and selves. Utopia, in other words, is not so much a prognostic as a diagnostic tool. It is not the answer but the question. (Chapter 3, p.32)

The search for utopia, a blueprint for a happy life within the framework of harmonious social existence, its ultimately a search for self-identification and self-identity. As such, it is a search for a definition of life well lived. If only for this reason, I contend, utopia will always be with us, just because there is hardly a more important task for any human being—and by extension for any collection of human beings—than finding happiness for "me" in the context of "we". (Chapter 3, p.42)

At the end of the day, the aim of all utopian writing, not to say utopian reform, is to create ethical human being with humanistic moral values and an innate sense of decency and respect for fellow human beings, treating each other without fear or favor. If you have any vested interested in these issues, I cannot think of a better place to start than Peter Swirski’s witty, colorful, erudite, heart-wrenching, entertaining, and encyclopedic study of the human use of human beings.


Li Chong is a language and culture scholar at the University of Hong Kong.



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