Biological Alterity in Utopia/Dystopia, 1516 to the present

deadline for submissions: 
August 31, 2018
full name / name of organization: 
MLA International Symposium
contact email: 

Biological Alterity in Utopia/Dystopia, 1516 to the present

Modern Language Association (MLA)

International Symposium: “Remembering Voices Lost”
Lisbon, Portugal, July 23-25, 2019

In Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516/trans. 1551), we find an account of the conditions under which the killing of old people becomes morally and socially acceptable. On one hand, Utopian elders are revered and cared for by the state. On the other hand, the severely ill, who would reasonably include the aged, are pressured to end their lives by their own hand or another’s. (The assumption that elders would be among the sick is supported by More’s description of old age as a time that “carries many diseases along with it, so it is a disease of itself.”) No one in Utopia is forced to “die against his will”; nor can we know for certain the extent to which voluntary euthanasia should be taken seriously (if at all). Nevertheless, in More’s ideal commonwealth, terminating the lives of the sick and elderly is presented as rational policy.

Since More’s inaugural text, utopian and dystopian literatures have always been about world-making—imagining past, future, or parallel societies that are either better or worse than the one inhabited by the writer or filmmaker. But imagining new forms of political and social orders also can bring with it some very old problems—ableism, ageism, sexism, racism, classicism—thereby exposing the contradictions or gaps in utopian reformist agendas.

Seeking papers for a proposed session interrogating the biological construction of the Other in utopian or dystopian literature and film. Papers might explore the following questions: What types of bodies in utopian texts are represented as being physiologically or economically unproductive, redundant, or wasteful, or, as inherently inferior, dangerous, depraved, or weak? How is the body of the Other either accommodated or marginalized in these worlds? How is science and technology used to justify and perpetuate unfair treatment of the Other? And how do marginalized groups work to resist or transform their categorization or condition?

 Some possible topics:

-the bodies of women, fertility/infertility, control of sexual reproduction, breastfeeding, menopause

-constructions of racial difference, foreignness, xenophobia

-sexual pluralities, deviance, queer visibility 

-sickness, disability, impairment (mental, physical, sensory), madness

-old age, ‘demographic time bomb’ scenarios, geronticide, voluntary/involuntary euthanasia

-the biologically deserving poor

-inherited moral imperfections, intellectual potential


Proposals from any discipline and intersectional approaches are particularly welcomed. Abstracts (no more than 300 words) and CV are due by August 31 to Hanh Bui, Brandeis University ( Participants will be notified of the outcome of the selection process in December 2018.