Definitions are a nice thing – the attempt to find a clear and precise determination of a concept or mental unit. This also applies to the main topic of this page and of the media I’m reviewing, the term Dystopia.
As a basis for the overview offered in this article, a section from the final dissertation of my media studies (feels like eons have passed since then), in which I also ventured to find a nice definition of dystopia. If you are not fans of scientific texts, let’s just say that the enjoyment of reading this article will be quite limited. However, it will not be to your detriment for a deeper exploration of the origins of this topic.
As you will also see, I have completely taken over the literary footnotes of my work and added Wikipedia links to historical persons and terms – for those of you who want to delve deeper into the subject’s matter. Be careful though, the main sources in the footnotes are in German.
Dystopia as the Counterpart to Utopia
Apart from the quite instructive and interesting Wikipedia article about Dystopia, which focuses in particular on the sociological context and especially on its usage in literature, I would like to offer you my own short variant of the definition as a quick start here:
A Dystopia is a fictitious, future-oriented, pessimistic scenario of a society that turns towards the negative use of ideologies and technologies, often in extreme forms.
To define the term Dystopia, you also have to look at its positive counterpart first – the Utopia. It was coined by the British Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) and his literary work Utopia (1516), in which he describes a fictitious and idealized community based on norms and aspirations within European societies of the 16th century.1
However, such fictional scenarios can be found early in human cultural history, be it in the idealized conceptions of Plato (4th century BC), especially in his Politeia or, extending even further into the past, in the myths of the saga of the “Golden Age“.2
Dystopia as Reaction to the Waves of Modernization
The Dystopia (also: anti-utopia), however, gained its position as the “dominant variant of utopia” in all kinds of media in the 19th and especially in the 20th century in particular3, despite the fact that the tradition of literary criticism of utopian visions had basically existed since antiquity4.
During the course and development of the social and technological upheavals of the progressing industrial revolution, utopias as well as dystopias were re-interpreted and re-formulated on a time-specific basis because of the inherent contemporary points of discussion, such as the often discussed tension between the rights of the individual and the equality of all.5
“Utopia-Critical Anti-Utopias” versus “Socio-Critical Dystopias”
The distinction between utopia-critical anti-utopias and socio-critical dystopias, sporadically made in the various scientific disciplines, often turned out to be difficult in the practice of analyzing cultural works in all kinds of media.6 I therefore tend to use the terms synonymously, since both describe alternative forms of societies, which are contrary to most of today’s social and political orders as well as individual social processes of the present. In cultural analysis, these terms are presented in a multifaceted way, viewed by standards of the present and extrapolated on a specific scenario of the future or on parallel worlds, which makes the transition between the two terms quite fluid.7
Social & Technological Developments as Medial Afterburner for Dystopias
As a result, the warning nature of dystopian narratives of tangible social and technological developments and their possible distortions as well as disruptions often reveal themselves in the tension between man and his environment: Due to the ongoing mechanization and rationalization of living conditions and circumstances oriented to specific purposes, an artificial lifeworld takes the place of nature.8
The resulting debate about the social interaction with the consequences of research and mechanization, industrialism and production9 makes the cultural processing of the fundamentally synthetic terrains of e.g. large urban settlements into dystopian fiction consistent and can be viewed as additional sources of inspiration.
In regards to cinematic use of dystopian themes, Ulrich Tormin describes the corresponding meaning of dystopias for cinematic works on the basis of the technological progress of armaments and the wars and conflicts of the 20th century, as general social tendencies such as perceptions that indicate “dystopian projections of the future, e.g. in the guise of more or less coded political warnings or in the form of nihilistic apocalyptic spectacles […] “10.
- Erzgräber, W. (1980): Utopie und Anti-Utopie in der englischen Literatur. München: W. Fink. p. 13f
- Haufschild, T. & Hanenberger, N. (1993): Literarische Utopien und Anti-Utopien. Eine vergleichende Betrachtung. Wetzlar: Förderkreis Phantastik in Wetzlar, p. 15
- Inderst, R. (2007): Antinationalsozialistische Dystopien. Literarische Fiktionen des Totalitarismus. Saarbrücken: VDM, p. 19
- Zeißler, E. (2008): Dunkle Welten. Die Dystopie auf dem Weg ins 21. Jahrhundert. Marburg: Tectum, p. 15
- Hachtel, J. (2007): Die Entwicklung des Genres Antiutopie. Aldous Huxley, Margaret Atwood, Scott McBain und der Film „Das Leben der Anderen“. Marburg: Tectum, p. 19ff; Nöske, T. (1997): Clockwork Orwell. Über die kulturelle Wirklichkeit negativ-utopischer Science Fiction. München: Unrast, p. 98
- Cf. Zeißler 2008, p. 17
- Cf. Zeißler, p. 31
- Cf. Nöske 1997, p. 97
- Cf. Haufschild & Hanenberger 1993, p. 51 ; Zeißler 2008, p. 24
- Tormin, U. (1996): Alptraum Großstadt. Urbane Dystopien in ausgewählten Science Fiction-Filmen. (G. Hoefer, Hrsg.) Alfeld: Coppi, p. 11