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Richard Moore

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From: M Polak
Date: 30 August 2009 11:22:27 IST
Subject: Re: Let’s have a shift of focus

rkm: (For non-fiction books about ideas, a good review is often – not always – more useful than the book itself, besides taking less time to read.)

ayiee!! mpolak

Hi M,

I take it you disapprove. In the case of a well-written book by a wise author, I mostly agree. But consider the other extreme. A lousy book by a misguided author, but a book that lots of people are taking seriously. I wouldn’t want to wade through such a book, but I might want to find out what all the fuss is about. Or something like the multi-volume Das Kapital. I just don’t have time, but a good review at least gives me some insight.


From: Ian Hewitt 
Date: 30 August 2009 11:35:23 IST
To: Richard Moore 
Subject: Re:  Let’s have a shift of focus


Just ordered a copy  of ‘The Story of  Utopias’ from Amazon ..I’m really pleased that you have picked up on Mumford, I have had a similar recent awakening upon reading ‘Technics and Civilisation’ which is gives some vivid insights into the role and purpose of technology in modern (1928) capitalist development.
Incidentally some one I met last year, Brynn Purdy  – a scholar of Robert Owen and co-operative education education, has recently had a new word accepted by the Oxford English dictionary which may be of interest – the word is ‘eutopism’ and it’s meaning is something along the lines of  ‘to make a better place’.
Look forward to the discussion on ‘The Story of  Utopias’  .

Hi Ian,
They must have quite a job at the OED, keeping up with all the new words we invent. They say Shakespeare made up 3,000. One wonders how you can put new words into a play and expect people to understand. Says something about the amazing flexibility and plasticity of the English language.
Feel free to send us in a report on Technics and Civilization.
From: herb 
Date: 30 August 2009 17:06:08 IST
Subject: Re: Let’s have a shift of focus

Well OK.  I have enjoyed reading Mumford over the years, but have yet to read this book.  I found a ebook version  on where it is listed as “free” (of course “free” in the commercial context usually means something else) and I have gotten to page 16.  Book readings on line, in my experience, don’t live up to their promise.  That said, I am willing to give it another try.  Utopian thinking is an interesting human malady, right up there with sexual paraphilias in terms of bizarreness and internal contradictions. 


Hi Herb,
For me, one of the benefits of a book is that it gets me away from the computer, where all the rest of my reading takes place. 
One of the things Mumford talks about is the variety of types of Utopian thinking. Not all are maladies. 
From: “Brian Hill” 
Date: 30 August 2009 23:36:01 IST
To: “‘Richard Moore'” 
Subject: RE: Let’s have a shift of focus

Mumford was indeed a visionary and very learned scholar

From: “Claudia Woodward-Rice” 
Date: 31 August 2009 21:26:48 IST
Subject: Re:Let’s have a shift of focus

Did Mumford notice that our ‘utopia’ depends on so much world misery?

Hi Claudia,
Yes indeed. Also, when he talks about our society being a realization of a certain kind of utopian thinking, he is not saying that it was good utopian thinking. For example, lots of people have thought technology was going to create some kind of golden age. So we went for the technology carrot big time. In that sense we’ve been pursuing a utopian vision of technology, but the result hasn’t been what we’d judge to be a utopia. Neither for us nor for the third world. 
Let’s see, where to start with Mumford. I don’t want to write a long report. Something more interactive. Let me put out a few thoughts for now, and we can see where that leads.

He categorizes utopias. Utopias of escape are not intended to be practical, or models to emulate, but serve other purposes. The myth of heaven with its angels and harps would be a utopia of escape, encouraging the downtrodden to put off hopes of improving their conditions in this world. I suppose Hollywood and television are in the job of producing escape-utopia mini-experiences. When you consider that people actually buy magazines about soap operas, so they can extend the vicarious experience, it seems they’re tying to be part of the fantasy world, to escape into a structured, fascinating, social utopia.

Constructive utopias provide models, and illustrate ideas, about how society might actually be improved, at least in the mind of the writer of such utopias. I suppose Plato’s Republic would be the canonical example.

And then he talks about utopias that haven’t been formally put forward as utopias, but which become a way of thinking (what he calls idola) that structures how society develops – as if society were pursuing those idola as a utopian vision. It is in this context that he introduces the country house as a kind of utopia, a place where leisure prevails, and that which is consumed is produced elsewhere by others. The opposite of a family farm. In some sense, consumerism itself is a manifestation of the country house as utopia. When you stroll through WalMart, picking up things that catch your fancy, you’re like the aristocracy of old, ordering up pies and pipers, to entertain their weekend guests in their country house.

One of the reasons I decided to read Mumford’s book, is that I noticed it was written in the 1920s. Last winter I became fascinated with that era, and read five or six books about it. In particular, I focused on the Algonquin Round Table folks, and the saga of Sarah and Gerald Murphy. And in both cases, the country house theme played a major role, was a kind of central figure.

The Algonquin crowd spent weeks at a time in their Long Island estates, where they spent a good deal of their time playing croquet. When they started a party, it would go on for several days. They did their best to be socializing with one another nearly all the time. Finally, they bought an island, where they’d spend whole summers, and that island probably stands as the ultimate realization of the country house vision. Mumford certainly knew about this crowd, who were well known figures, and he refers specifically to “Long Island estates” as being an example of this kind of utopia.

The Murphy’s had a villa in Southern France, Villa America, which was for them a conscious utopia, something they envisioned, created, and then savored. The door was always open to their friends, and the villa and the Murphy’s were the model for Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Similarly, the model for his Great Gatsby was a Long Island estate.

And then there’s what they now call Hearst Castle, and which Hearst himself called The Ranch. It was a country house for the Hollywood elite during the 1920s. It incorporated Roman elements, harking back to the Roman Villa, an early example of the country house. Indeed, with Rome such a point of reference for Britain during its imperial days, I imagine the Roman Villa was the implicit if not explicit prototype for English country houses. When Rome occupied Britain, the colonizers who didn’t live in cities tended to live in elegant rural villas.

So in the 1920s the country house utopian craze was in full swing, and Mumford was able to see this within an historical context.


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