6 Pages


Most utopian writers, certainly in earlier periods, are passionately interested in defining an idea of civilisation (and its opposite). From one point of view, the sailor is right: the gibbet does signify civilisation, that is a society that is sufficiently organised to invest its penal code with ritual symbolism when executing transgressors. From the ancient Greeks to modern interpreters of cultural history like Foucault, the way in which a society disciplines and punishes its citizens is an index of its ideology.2 From another point of view, the sailor is grotesquely wrong. The gibbet is the visible sign of civilised society’s failure, not its success. It mutely calls into question the relativity of our standards of civility and barbarism. And this kind of challenge, implicit or explicit, runs right through utopian fiction. However absolute the judgments may seem to be, they are always relative so far as the reader is concerned. He or she always stands at a slight angle to the utopian universe. To put it another way, emtopia (good place) and dystopia (bad place) are always, in Thomas More’s pun, omtopia or no-place.3