Fear images and the eclipse of utopia

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Utopia has been out of fashion for some time. It has long since been replaced by images of human catastrophe and survival struggles. Fostered by the insecurities, fears and threats of neoliberal crisis, war, terrorism, climate change, and pandemics, critics like Frederic Jameson, Slavoj Zizek and Mark Fisher famously claimed that it is ‘easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism’. Five hundred years ago, Thomas More’s original Utopia invented a highly controlled form of emotional release in conditions of extremely wide, violent and dangerous power imbalances between ruler and ruled. Today utopia is routinely derided as irrelevant, sentimental or fanciful. This reversal is not as recent as is often presumed. By the turn of the twentieth century wishful utopias, such as William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890), began to be supplanted by fearful utopias, exemplified by H.G. Wells The Time Machine of 1895 and The Island of Dr Moreau the following year. Optimistic utopias became increasingly ambivalent about images of technological and scientific progress that could equally serve barbaric purposes as civilizational ones. The growing predominance of fearful utopias range from highly-controlled state societies of George Orwell’s 1984 to ones where central control of the means of violence has all but collapsed in post-apocalyptic images of war of all against all, as in Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, The Road, (movie, 2009), that typically characterise the deluge of dystopian videogames, television and film. Dystopias are not simply premonitions of impending catastrophe or mass violence. They respond to widespread feelings of relatively low levels of human control over social and natural processes, the persistence of social myths, and uncertainty about the future. Fears, well founded or not, are imaginatively heightened and relieved by emotionally satisfying images. Paradoxically, the distended appetite for cathartic fear images emerges as social relations have become more pacified, impersonal and interdependent. Fear-images, either of too much or too little external regulation, allows people to experience a ‘controlled de-controlling’ of emotionally demanding forms of self-regulation, pacification and security, and more equal power chances between groups.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 23 Nov 2019
EventAMES Conference 2019: Mediatopia: Utopia & dystopia in media and society - University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Duration: 23 Nov 201923 Nov 2019


ConferenceAMES Conference 2019
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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