Utopia and Dystopia as Critical Representations of Reality
Patrice Mugnier
Multimedia artist
Research on the nature of Utopia and Dystopia has long since served as a form of critical reflection on contemporary society. Patric Mugnier investigates these philosophical perspectives through a broad range of examples from literature, art, and cinema.
Frankenstein, 1931, directed by James Whale, graphic interpretation of the original image by Patrice Mugnier

In this article I will address the issues of anxiety and hope through the lens of a major artistic, literary, and philosophical genre—utopia. I will discuss how utopia and its counterpart, dystopia, have become essential tools for the critical analysis of an era by calling into question the aspirations of that era, as well as its more alarming aspects. Literature, cinema, and architecture have all called upon the utopia/dystopia tandem in order to arrive at a constructive examination of our society. I will also demonstrate how the rise of digital technology, through the production of simulation, has become significant in further developing this critical reflection.

Chronology Of An Antagonistic Couple

Utopia was originally a literary form. The term was coined in 1516 by Thomas More in his novel Utopia, which describes an ideal form of society “which is nowhere to be found” (utopia, a Greek word, translates as “no place”). Inspired by Plato’s Republic, the book is above all a humanist critique, an outline of the injustices that plagued 16th century European societies, England in particular. In the second edition, More added the English homonym Eutopia into the title, thus stressing the idea of a “place of good.” This double meaning reveals the very nature of utopia—a device pertaining more to literature than to politics, it is an imaginary creation, an ideal which cannot be established within human society. Paradoxically, because utopia claims to respond to the entirety of human aspirations and contradictions through a single, univocal form of societal organization, it carries within it the seeds of ideological thought.

The notion of dystopia—a “negative place” in etymological terms—appeared in the 19th century, also in England. Dystopia is the realization of utopia within a society, which rapidly turns into a chance to witness the malfunctions of said utopia when put to the test of reality, exposing its shortcomings and its social and political risks. In literature, dystopia adopts the individual’s point of view, exposing the absurd treatment he/she is subjected to by a utopia that has evolved from a philosophical idea into an implemented, dominant system. Literary examples of dystopias abound, and some of them constitute major works that have become iconic representations of their times—A Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932), 1984 (Georges Orwell, 1948), Planet Of The Apes (Pierre Boulle, 1963), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1985), Submission (Michel Houelle­becq, 2015), among others. In the end, this derivative literary form has proven more prolific and productive than its initial source, utopia.

In the 1960s, youth and intellectual circles were driven by such a thirst for revolution and idealism that any form of constructive criticism was immediately dismissed as reactionary. Certain intellectuals, however, including Guy Debord in France and Pierre Paolo Pasolini in Italy, were clearly aware that this new revolution, even if it aligned with legitimate and progressive struggles, also had to do with the emergence of a bourgeois society structured by market consumption, coupled with the new form of the society of the spectacle. Does absolute, dazzling freedom prosaically lead to addictive consumption, the triumph of international brands, and the ephemeral glories of social networks? Does utopia tragically bear its own ­dystopia?

The idea here is not to question freedom in itself, which is an essential and universal human achievement, but on the contrary to try to identify the ways in which ideology can supersede an ideal, and single out the indicators that mark the shift from a legitimate utopia to its disembodied realization. The question is rather complex, because the essence of ideology is to be diffuse in the minds that share belief in it—it is an invisible way of interpreting the world. It is therefore imperative that we build tools that can make it visible, forcing it to reveal its most hidden consequences. Often accused of reactionism, dystopia nevertheless remains a relevant tool for dissecting the deep meaning of an ideology. It questions the future and exposes more than it promotes, allowing the enlightened individual to freely make their own choices and determine their own ideals.

Cinema As Dystopia’s Medium Of Choice

The 20th century saw dystopia become a source of inspiration for the arts. Film thus succeeds the 19th century novel as the ultimate form of story-telling and becomes the primary witness of its time. Initially based on adaptations of literary works, the medium quickly and increasingly began to develop productions, based on original screenplays, which questioned societal matters directly: class society in Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), the iterative loop of time and the eternal return in La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962), the dehumanization of society at the hands of a supercomputer in Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965), the society of the Eternal Immortals versus the Brutes in Zardoz (John Boorman, 1974), the tentacular and dysfunctional administration in Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985), or the collective dependence on an addictive and organic kind of virtuality in Existenz (David Cronenberg, 1999).

Beyond the political, philosophical, and humanistic narrative, these works examine the importance of the physical places that act as settings for dystopias. How can we give shape to the setting of a dysfunctional utopia? Should it take place in a purely fictional space, or, on the contrary, would it better demonstrate its immediacy to insert it within fragments of our present environment? Some directors choose to favour the studio set and special effects—the evocative vertical city in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis still astonishes viewers today. Other directors attempted to twist reality, creating a utopia by distorting elements of contemporary architecture, thus extracting their futuristic potential. Examples include La Jetée, Alphaville, Stanley Kubrick’s provocative A Clockwork Orange, and Terry Gilliam’s baroque Brazil. This use of reality serves a more direct critique of modernity, its dehumanized spaces, and its ways of living by creating anticipatory fables that speak clearly to our present.

La Jetée, 1962, directed by Chris Marker, graphic interpretation of the original image by Patrice Mugnier

Critical Tools For Thinking Urbanism

The fields of architecture and urban planning have long been closely linked to the notions of utopia and dystopia. During the Renaissance, parallel to the universalist and humanist ideals of a better world, the concept emerges of an Ideal City capable of embodying it. The Ideal City aims to physically install utopia within a determined spatial and social organization, and follows from the dominant model in Italy at the time—the city-state. Over the course of the following centuries, and depending upon the popular aspirations of the time, the theme will have many variations, from the Familistère (family lodging) designed by Jean-Baptiste André Godin to the pre-revolutionary architecture of Etienne-Louis Boullet and Claude ​­Nicolas Ledoux.

In the 19th century, the garden city model introduced a hygienist utopia in relation to the place of production—the factory—in order to extract workers from the miasmas that diminished their productivity and hindered capitalism’s proper development. This ideology of imposed happiness for all will culminate at the beginning of the 20th century with Le Corbusier’s Ville Idéale, as demonstrated by the proposal brought forth by the seminal Plan Voisin, where both urban planning and happiness were authoritarian, imposed upon the individual, idealized as the athletic modern man. It is worth noting that this plan barely predates the expansion of fascism throughout Europe, and the ideological ties between the two are ambiguous to say the least.

Architectural utopia remained very much alive in the years following the Second World War. In the 1960s, the pop and avant-garde projects of the English group Archigram and the megastructure movement formed a kind of spectacular swan song, as the very existence of an ideal model faced growing scepticism. Can democratic society, born out of complex historical and social processes that reflect humanity’s diverse nature, be held to a unique, utopian, urban planning principle, however brilliant and beautiful it may be? Even if architects, overly confident in the social power of their constructions, have come to serve an ideology of habitat through their production of images, there are groups among them developing a more critical approach to the relevance of “modernity at all costs.” In this respect, the birth of Radical Architecture, which favours dystopia over utopia in order to explore aesthetic and social issues in relation to housing, marks a turning point in urban thinking.

A forerunner in this matter was the “No-Stop City” project (Archizoom Associati, 1969), a dystopia conceived by architect and designer Andrea Branzi. This endless city implements “the idea of the disappearance of architecture within the metropolis.” In practical terms, the city, transformed into infinite territory, is organized in the same manner as a parking lot or a supermarket. Underground architecture, limited to a simple grid, offers featureless, climate-controlled spaces isolated from the outside, in which individuals create their own habitat, like nomads wandering amidst a consumerist society. Branzi asserts the provocative and critical dimension of his dystopia, “To qualitative utopias, we respond with the only possible utopia: that of Quantity.” In an era in which discourses on the benefits of consumption are developing, Branzi forces us to distance ourselves through critical thinking, by presenting appealing rhetoric while at the same time displaying its obvious negative consequences.

Further developing this critical dimension, the “Exodus” project (Rem Koolhaas, Marion Elia, and Zoé Zenghelis, 1972) presents itself as a fiction, a kind of fable made up of images and texts. In the heart of London, a monumental urban strip is home to refugees who are completely subject to the reign of oppressive architecture. Inspired by the situation in 1970s Berlin and its wall, it describes a world divided in two, in which people from the wrong side desperately attempt to reach the right side. If they succeed, they then engage in a series of experiments within extreme architectural sequences. As with Andrea Branzi, the project is tainted with an unusual sarcastic tone, uncommon for designers who are accustomed to valuing the inherent benefits and qualities of their urban ­proposals.

Through its evocative power, radical architecture currently stands as a reference whose intellectual influence goes beyond the framework of urban planning. It represents a profound global reflection on the kind of society we want to implement. The frontrunners of this movement have since taken diverging paths. Some Italians, shaped by the weight of history, have brought their work back to inspirations of the classical city. The Dutchman Rem Koolhaas, on the contrary, has developed architecture embedded within the chaotic urban fabric of the great ­megalopolises.

A Clockwork Orange, 1971, directed by Stanley Kubrick, graphic interpretation of the original image by Patrice Mugnier

Virtual Simulation—A Means For Exploring Possibilities

The field of digital contemporary creation is undoubtedly the most likely to further the dialogue between utopia and dystopia. Through digital technology and programming, we have shifted away from traditional representation, whether pictorial or photographic, into a form of real-time representation—simulation. What the image loses in terms of truth, it gains in interactivity. It abandons the representation of reality in order to embrace a kind of playful, scientific exploration of the ­virtual model.

Utopia has nourished the field of gaming since its creation. Published in 1981 by Mattel, Utopia constitutes the ancestor of all the simulation games that followed. Two competing players must each develop their own island, increasing its population and developing its urbanism. Although the game’s graphics remained quite simplified, Utopia was one of the first to integrate early forms of artificial intelligence. Many games will later draw their inspiration from this concept, building on storylines which implement a set of variables and mathematical functions to define what an ideal society would look like. One example is Civilization (1991), whose timeline spans from the Stone Age to the conquest of space. Pertaining to the specific sub-genre of the “god game,” Peter Molyneux’s Black And White (2001) gives the player the chance to transform into an omnipotent god, capable of offering happiness and prosperity to his subjects or, on the contrary, of arbitrarily destroying their achievements. Within this genre, the dystopian form too often focuses on exclusively first-person action. As an apocalyptic framework for individual missions based on violence, its philosophical or humanistic scope is limited. Creations such as Half-Life 2 (2004) enable the player to eliminate a large number of enemies by evolving though different levels, with the societal scope reduced to a decorative backdrop. If the player is subjected to political or social oppression, it only serves as an excuse to exalt their own individualism, and to justify their right to eliminate and destroy that which stands in the way of a Manichean notion of good.

In spite of video games’ limitations in terms of expressing dystopia, the evocative power and the endless possibilities offered by the medium remain evident. So how can a scripted digital simulation become the framework for a relevant and thorough reflection on our societal ideals and their consequences? If we broaden our scope to include other fields, it appears clear that simulation has become a precious tool for scientific research. The creation of digital models is allowing us to shift the field of experimentation from physical experiments to virtual simulations. Thanks to the use of big data, we have been able to bring meteorology, nuclear reactions, aerodynamic design, financial viability tests, and the structural resistance of engineering structures into the field of simulation. Today, quantum computing can even simulate the behaviour of elementary particles in chemical reactions, creating bridges between scientific disciplines that once had their own distinct theories of the behaviour of matter.

However, we cannot reasonably assemble all the parameters characterizing dystopia as adjustable variables in a simulation. The fields involved in the matter are far too vast for such a project to be realistic—economics, architecture, urban planning, ecology, sociology, technology. The possibilities for each of these fields are far too immense for current computer simulations which, on the contrary, focus on solving specific problems through precise and copious calculation. What is, on the other hand, available to us is the possibility of making the public interact with pre-selected structuring data, of establishing a narrative scenario and allowing users to push it to its maximum expression, so as to reveal that which remains purely theoretical and has not yet materialized as a tangible reality. It is a matter of off­ering not only perceptual, but also reflective experiences.

Themes For Contemporary Dystopia

I propose to elaborate a social and environmental simulation, implementing the structural points of emerging ideologies. The first step is to identify these ideologies. Although our era seems particularly inclined to cover up the tragic dimensions of existence, it is home to multiple catastrophes—global warming and its environmental consequences, the resulting human migrations, and the rise of populism are all disasters that inhibit the ability to project oneself into the future, and seem to indicate imminent civilizational rupture. But the human spirit needs hope, and no society can be built without values and ideals. Today, ecology, organic farming, bio-inspiration, sustainable development, degrowth, and local purchasing are all issues which crystallize these ideals.

However, a dystopia must go beyond simply stating the obvious if it is to maintain its critical scope. Its nature is purely prescient—it aims neither to trouble nor to reassure. To conclude, let us examine a few contemporary social indicators that relate to dystopian fiction.

Scientific Cosmogony

Whereas religion is characterized by a dogmatic attitude with no allowance for the dogma’s evolution, science proceeds by establishing theories that can be overturned by other more relevant theories at any time, the only judge being repeated and peer-reviewed experimentation. Since the beginning of the 20th century and the advent of the theory of relativity, science has reached a metaphysical level which has opened up the examination of the universe. By extracting us from a godless, purely deterministic Newtonian world, quantum physics unwittingly brought up a set of questions regarding the very nature of reality. Many elements seem to converge toward the appearance of a new cosmogony, based upon scientific hypotheses and stemming from our new knowledge of the laws of the universe—forms of time and space, the nature of the Big Bang, the existence of parallel universes on a macroscopic scale, neuron structures proving the brain to be the most complex structure in the known universe, analyzing genomes on the microscopic scale, or even the theory of evolution. Can such a spiritual quest, being inherently mutative, escape the sectarian temptation of pseudoscience that brought about a quantum mysticism based upon speculative and erroneous interpretations of scientific theory?


The ability to control births, a practice descending from eugenics, and the desire to modify the living have been addressed in many dystopian fictions. Through trans­humanism, our era has introduced further confusion in defining the nature of life. The idea of a “singularity,” a point in time at which artificial intelligence will supersede human capacities—which is believed to be very close—and the aspiration to completely transfer a human mind into the global computer network in order to make him or her eternal and omniscient constitute two watersheds, though we have yet to determine whether they are real possibilities or simply the result of an unbalanced and deranged ideology. Although the possibility of augmented man is becoming increasingly palpable with each step in scientific progress, the very nature of our consciousness cannot be reduced to a data-processing machine, for it remains inextricably bound to the nerve endings of our body. Does transhumanism’s yearning for eternal life not remind us of one of our most ancient myths—Icarus, who by refusing the transitory nature of human life, announces his inevitable demise?


Derived from ontology, animalism goes beyond humanism by extending its moral scope to the entire animal kingdom. One of its most recent developments, anti­speciesism, rejects the categorization of animal species by arbitrary criteria established according to the interests of the human race—an attitude that, according to anti-speciesists, is part of the anthropocentrism responsible for the destruction of all living things. The rapid and unprecedented disappearance of the majority of known species, induced by human activity, has given much credit to this philosophy, which, through radical activism, has challenged many traditional aspects of our society—food, farming, agriculture, our relationship with nature, urban development, and more. Is it possible for our species to profoundly redefine itself, going beyond the ecological urgency of ending industrial farming? Is it possible to engage in otherness with animal forms of consciousness that are different from ours? Will this utopia, a rediscovered Garden of Eden of sorts, drive Adam and Eve out of paradise once again?


Human genius arose out of careful observation of the world, be it nature or the physical laws underlying its existence. In spite of this, technological progress, based upon an abstract application of sciences such as physics, thermodynamics, and chemistry, has turned a blind eye to the notions of ecosystem and interdependence, exploiting resources as if they were unlimited. The beginning of the 21st century marks a brutal wake-up call in which human beings have finally begun to understand the complexity and fragility of the planet they inhabit. The evolution of plant and animal species and the solutions they have deployed to adapt to their environment demonstrates the kind of harmonious development that has already begun influencing architecture, design, and agriculture. Although bio-inspiration may appear as the antidote to the model of all-mighty modernity, it can also turn into a shallow display safeguarding the endurance of destructive industrial growth. Will bio-inspiration be capable of effecting profound change in the way we produce and consume, or is it just our latest attempt at covering up our addiction to un­conscionable consumption?

Superstudio 1960-1982, graphic interpretation of the original image by Patrice Mugnier

Artist and multimedia director. Graduate of the ENSAD Paris school of art and design and motion design director, he worked in parallel on real time digital technologies for museums and art installations. He is the co-founder of Active Creative Design.

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Between Anxiety and Hope

Artist and multimedia director. Graduate of the ENSAD Paris school of art and design and motion design director, he worked in parallel on real time digital technologies for museums and art installations. He is the co-founder of Active Creative Design.

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