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DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Social and Political Science : Politics

Undergraduate Course: Utopia (PLIT10161)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Social and Political Science CollegeCollege of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 10 (Year 3 Undergraduate) AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
SummaryThis course introduces students to various expressions of the utopian imagination. It will trace utopian thinking and acting across three interconnected domains: political theory (e.g., in debates around climate change); various art forms (e.g., in contemporary speculative fiction) and different social formations (e.g., in intentional communities and prefigurative practices). The overall goal is to work collaboratively toward a nuanced understanding of utopianism, as both urgently necessary and fraught with risks.
Course description Utopia is a controversial idea. On the one hand, the prospect of a better future seems necessary for all kinds of social change, from systemic revolutions to piecemeal reforms. On the other hand, history tells us that utopian visions can have deeply destructive effects, as the example of 20th Century totalitarianism demonstrates. Given the simultaneous importance and danger of utopian visions, this course aims to introduce students to the many ways in which the basic idea of utopia has been interpreted in political theory, in various art forms and in different social formations. The overall goal is therefore to work with the students toward a nuanced understanding of social dreaming, as both urgently necessary and fraught with risks. In public and much of academic discourse utopian thinking and acting is frequently derided as wishful thinking, as completely detached from the reality. The module will try to open up an alternative perspective according to which all forms of political change depend, on a basic level, on the wish for things to be otherwise. What utopias do, then, is fashion this yearning for transformation into - more or less radical - projects of collective empowerment. In the context of a conjuncture where fewer and fewer systemic alternatives seem to be available, we need critical interrogations of the status quo that point to a better future. The debate around climate change is only one example in which the desire for utopian visions, from technological "solutionism" to degrowth proposals, becomes patently obvious. The module will grapple with several such controversies to determine which utopian visions may help us deal with the current predicament - and which might lead us astray.

Content Outline

General introduction
Part 1: Utopia in social and political theory (seminars on the historical and contemporary debate around utopianism)
Part 2: Utopia in various art forms (seminars on the ways in which writers, filmmakers and other artists have appropriated the idea of utopia)
Part 3: Utopia across different social formations (seminars on political projects informed by the utopian imagination)
Recap and discussion of assignment 2

Student learning is envisaged to be maximally interactive. The course will therefore be taught in seminar form, with only a small lecture input on the organizer's part. Students are expected to present work and become engaged with both the substance of the course and with the core driver behind utopian experimentation: to find better ways of orienting ourselves in the world. In particular, the course will expose students to different learning materials, from academic texts to speculative fiction and political pamphlets. The idea is to enable students to train their critical eyes not only on scholarly papers, but also on novels, films and a variety of social experiments. This openness will be reflected in the assessment mode, whereby one essay should be on a topic for the students to choose freely.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Students MUST have passed: Politics and International Relations 1A: Concepts and Debates (PLIT08017) OR Politics in a Changing World: An Introduction for non-specialists (PLIT08012) OR Introduction to Politics and International Relations (PLIT08004)
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements Students who lack the compulsory pre-requisites but have completed comparable courses should contact the Course Organiser to confirm if they are eligible to take this course.
Information for Visiting Students
Pre-requisitesVisiting students should have at least four Politics/IR courses at grade B or above (or be predicted to obtain this). Only university/college level courses will be considered. One of these four courses must have been a political theory course.
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Academic year 2023/24, Available to all students (SV1) Quota:  21
Course Start Semester 1
Timetable Timetable
Learning and Teaching activities (Further Info) Total Hours: 200 ( Seminar/Tutorial Hours 20, Programme Level Learning and Teaching Hours 4, Directed Learning and Independent Learning Hours 176 )
Additional Information (Learning and Teaching) Film screening (2 hours, voluntary) ; Possible field trip to New Lanark (8 hours, voluntary)
Assessment (Further Info) Written Exam 0 %, Coursework 90 %, Practical Exam 10 %
Additional Information (Assessment) 1. Essay - from questions provided by CO - 40%. Maximum word count: 2000 words.
2. Essay - critically analyse an existing utopian project or develop own creative proposal for one - 50%. Maximum word count: 2500 words.
3. Student participation - 10%. Students will be asked to give short presentations on a topic of their choice, in consultation with the course organizer and in relation to a predefined weekly topic. The participation mark will be composed of this presentation as well as consistent seminar performance.
Feedback The aim is to return feedback on Essay 1 within three weeks of the submission deadline. This will then be formative feedback for Essay 2. Where this is not possible, students shall be given clear expectations regarding the timing and methods of feedback.
No Exam Information
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. demonstrate a critical understanding of the complex concept of utopia.
  2. apply the theoretical knowledge acquired in this course to a variety of real-world contexts.
  3. draw connections between theoretical approaches to, artistic engagements with, and practical aspects of utopianism.
  4. separate desirable features of utopian projects from undesirable ones.
Reading List
- Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope: Volumes 1-3. Translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995.
- Claeys, Gregory, and Lyman Tower Sargent, eds. The Utopia Reader. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
- Levitas, Ruth. Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstruction of Society. Houndmills/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
- Sargisson, Lucy. Fool's Gold? Utopianism in the Twenty-First Century. Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
- Thaler, Mathias. No Other Planet: Utopian Visions for a Climate-Changed World. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022.
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills The course will aim to make students:

- creative problem solvers and researchers, by confronting them with complex and rewarding tasks in class;
- critical and reflective thinkers, by giving them the opportunity to choose their own assignment topic and by prompting them to develop distinct viewpoints on the complex topic discussed;
- skilled communicators, by focusing on in-seminar debates.
KeywordsNot entered
Course organiserDr Mathias Thaler
Tel: (0131 6)51 5769
Course secretaryMr Ethan Alexander
Tel: (0131 6)50 4001
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