Utopia and Dystopia in Cultural Narratives of Happiness and the Good Life

Monday, 16 July 2018: 10:45
Oral Presentation
Jordan MCKENZIE, University of Wollongong, Australia
Karl Mannheim once described utopian thought as any state of mind that is “incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs” (1936: 173), but what portion of the contemporary interest in happiness and the good life can be understood in this way? Interest in utopian thought has waned in recent decades (consider thinkers like Marcuse, Ricouer, Castoriadis, Bauman), while dystopian narratives come to the fore through concerns about yet another global market collapse, pending nuclear disasters and an increasingly dysfunctional political public sphere. Yet against this backdrop is a heightened interest in finding happiness, albeit in largely individualised terms. Research in positive psychology has promoted terms like mindfulness, flow, resilience, and gratitude as personal responses to living within a period of anxiety, stress and moral ambiguity. But where are the utopian theories of the good society during this period of heightened interest in chasing the good life? This paper aims to demonstrate how the contemporary surge of interest in happiness research, within both public and academic discourses, can be reframed as a project in utopian social analysis, and to some degree, critical theory. Large scale statistical analyses (such as the World Happiness Report) consistently highlight the need for a fairer distribution of economic resources, greater recognition of personal and cultural differences, a renewed engagement with politics in the public sphere and civil society, and a critique of individualised, rationalised and generally neoliberal ideological positions. By incorporating utopian thought into popular discourse on the good life, the potential for reimagining debates around progress, technology, rationalisation and inequality can be renewed in an era where traditional utopian literature may seem unhelpful or wilfully idealistic.