Images of Utopia and Dystopia: From the Sea to Hyperspace

Feride Çiçekoglu*

x #01


The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel.

 William Gibson, Neuromancer


The opening sentence of William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer is the image of a dead sea under a greyish sky, reflecting each other in hollowness. This single sentence is almost a full image of the lost nature, a vanishing sea and a lifeless sky. It becomes a mental vision of technology having devoured the seas and the heavens, the sources of life and faith from eternity.         

Gibson coined the term cyberspace in Neuromancer which was published in 1984. Cyberspace denoted the dystopian vision of a new kind of space where the key elements of nature had disappeared from human experience. Looking back after two decades, one can see a dramatic turn in the fate of dystopian fiction in 1984 when George Orwell’s vision of the modernist dystopia (or the dystopia of modernism) seems to have fulfilled its mission in the year of its premonition. It may or may not be a coincidence that an analytical expression of this turn also came in 1984, in Fredric Jameson’s famous essay on “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” where he proposed the term hyperspace, encompassing in its ontology a notion of space beyond that as we have known of it.  (Jameson, 1998: 1-20) A decade later Jameson would sum up the essence of the turn by saying: “Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and the nature is gone for good.” (Jameson, 1991: ix)

In this quest from the dystopian to Utopian imagery, I propose to focus on the sea –the main element of nature “gone for good” – as the catalyst of the change. I would like to start with the epigraph from Neuromancer as a snapshot while launching on an anachronistic analysis from the threshold of the twenty first century back into the history. Naturally, the film Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999) inspired by Neuromancer becomes an emblematic moment of visual expression at the start of our voyage, projecting the spatial dystopia of the loss of nature to its utmost limit, the loss of the human body.

At the turn of the previous century we meet Joseph Conrad whose writing appears to us today “not [as] a reflection of the sea and a worldwide experience of it so much as an anxious premonition of its disappearance as a key element of nature from human experience”. (Taussig, 2000: 250) We have to travel three more centuries, to the turn of the sixteenth century to encounter a unique visual expression inspired by the discovery of the sea as the vista to Utopia: Hieronymus Bosch’s enigmatic triptych, the Garden of Earthly Delights. Although it has seldom been discussed in the context of Utopia, what makes this example particularly interesting for us is precisely this overlooked aspect. Its source of inspiration, which is the same milieu that inspired Thomas More to write Utopia, is none other than the discovery of an imaginable unconquered space beyond the sea. In contrast to the dystopian imagery in the film Matrix, Garden of Earthly Delights is a complete spatial utopia, depicting not only a utopian vision of place and landscape but also of the human body.

The range of this essay is exemplary. I focus on the relation of Utopia and dystopia, by way of an anachronistic analysis of two emblemetic moments of visual expression: The film Matrix, as a reflection of our present epoch characterized by dystopia and the Garden of Earthly Delights reflecting the aspirations of the dawn of the sixteenth century, enhanced by Utopia. The main line of argument derived from this visual odyssey to the arcades of the sea – akin to Benjamin’s search for the flâneur in the arcades of Paris – is simple: Utopia came into being with the possibility to imagine a non-existing space beyond the sea and it transformed to dystopia with the disappearance of the sea as a key element of nature from human experience.

The framework of analysis will unfold along two interrelated dimensions, the spatial and the narrative turns. The spatial turn, which has often been considered as a crucial manifestation of the transformation from modernism proper to postmodernism will be problematized in the context of the sea and the conceptual shift in this respect will be analyzed, arguably, as the catalyst of the narrative turn from Utopia to dystopia. Consequently, the relationship of Utopia and dystopia will be assessed to the extent that it can be conceived as metonymic, with implications for the broader understanding of the modern-postmodern divide.



The Spatial Turn

It is the unique provision of Baudlaire’s poetry that the image of the woman and the image of death intermingle in a third: that of Paris. The Paris of his poems is a sunken city, and more submarine than subterranean.

Water Benjamin, Paris, The Capital of the Nineteenth Century  (Exposé of 1935)


As far back as 1935, Baudlaire’s genius joins the intuition of Benjamin in the image of Paris as a sunken city under the sea. This image is a premonition of the vanishing sea, the loss of the vista which opens up to new space. The sea is no longer the horizon beyond which lies a New World for discovery but merely an implication of death, a lifeless shell which covers up the remnants of what has already been lived and exhausted. The awareness of a phenomenon is often a sign of its extinction and thus is the case with the sea: “For it is by virtue of the separation and loss that the sea acquires a new magnificence, as when Benjamin, sensing the demise of storytelling in European cultures, notes that at that point it is ‘possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing’.” (Taussig, 2000: 258)

If the obsession with temporality, which finds its classical literary expression in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time at the dawn of the twentieth century is seen as a distinction of the high modern, so is the concern with space for what follows modernism proper: “A certain spatial turn has often seemed to offer one of the more productive ways of distinguishing postmodernism from modernism proper, whose experience of temporality – existential time, along with deep memory – it is henceforth conventional to see as a dominant of the high modern.” (Jameson, 1991: 154) The spatial turn finds its analytical expression only in the second half of the twentieth century, most extensively in Henri Lefebvre’s colossal work, The Production of Space. Its poetics comes earlier however, as is usually the case.

The image of Paris as a sunken city under the sea is a premonition of not only the vanishing sea but also the melting of the physical into the virtual reality. While the sea as a physical reality is lost a new kind of space emerges as the ghost of the sea. This new kind of space which will be named as the cyberspace or the hyperspace in the 1980’s has its seeds in the 1940’s because it is during the Second World War that its conceptual and technological framework is constructed. The key concept of this framework is cybernetics. The etymology of the word goes back to ancient Greek, kybernetes meaning helmsman, from kybernan, meaning to steer or to govern.

Cybernetics originated in 1940’s as the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things. 1960’s witnessed the emergence of another concept from the same origin, cyborg which is a fictional or hypothetical person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body. In the 1980’s, came cyberpunk, coined most famously by William Gibson. The key to these concepts is the core notion of cyber, a back formation from cybernetics, relating to electronic communication networks and virtual reality. [i]

The notions of cybernetics, cyborg and cyberpunk have paved the way to a new conception of space, the cyberspace which borrows its distinctive characteristic from a concept peculiar to the sea, namely steering. The “helmsman” of the cyberspace however no longer sets on voyages towards new horizons of Oceans but towards the mysteries and horrors of a new realm where the limits of the human are extended beyond the physicality of the body. The loss of nature as we know of it – the irresistable attraction of the unknown, yet the uncanny space awaiting beyond – is the catalyst, I claim, which ignited the narrative turn.



The Narrative Turn

The dystopia is generally a narrative, which happens to a specific subject or character, whereas the utopian text is mostly nonnarrative and (...) somehow without a subject position, although to be sure a tourist-observer flickers through its pages and more than a few anecdotes are disengaged. 

Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Postmodernity

Drama requires death, literally or metaphorically. Murder is drama, a happily married couple is not. No story can be stagnant. No narrative can proceed without contradictions or so is our conception, maimed by modernity. Benjamin puts this in a nutshell when he says: “Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell.” (Benjamin, 1973: 93)

Thomas More’s imaginary island of Utopia, inspired by the news from the New World which was yet uncolonized, named the genre on the eve of capitalism. The collective memory of Western consciousness has passed this episode on to us as the opening scene of our contemporary narrative. We have to remember that Utopia is part of the Western agenda and that it can not be generalized as a universal aspiration for “non-place”. The historical context of Utopia implies the wishful thinking for some kind of consensus, without necessarily making the naive assumption that the consensus is the result of the free will of all participants.

The threshold of the nineteenth century is the heyday of Utopia: This was the era of individual projects of great utopians like St. Simon, Fourier and Owen who invested all they had in some blueprint of consensus. The end of the nineteenth century witnessed the end of the dream. It seems that the exhaustion of the nondiscovered space around the world exhausted the aspirations for a society of consensus in some imaginable distance. This was the time when Joseph Conrad’s writing was already an echo of the disappearing sea. The First World War may be interpreted as the performance of  Conrad’s literary premonition, executed for redistribution since there was no new horizon.

 It is no coincidence that the classics of dystopia made their first dramatic appearance in the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s, in expectation of the decade which is probably the most dramatic in the history of collective human experience. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis dates from 1926 and Aldoux Huxley’s The Brave New World dates from 1932. Walter Benjamin is the dramatic character par excellence, who not only witnessed this dramatic turn from Utopia to dystopia but performed his own life as a modern Oedipus, quitting the stage at the end of the decade, on September 26, 1940.

So we reach the decade of the 1940’s, when cybernetics becomes the key to a new kind of space, which is the sanction of death for nature and thus is capable of more narratives than any preceding age.



Garden of Earthly Delights

Bosch stood between the generations that met at the threshold of the sixteenth century, and he gained personal freedom by his stance which was both ‘no longer’ medieval and ‘not yet’ modern.
The utopian vision of a perfect society formed a literary counterpoint to Bosch’s vision of paradisical humanity. (...) More’s island is no more a part of this world than Bosch’s paradise. 

Hans Belting, Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights

In his recent book on the Garden of Earthly Delights, Belting interprets the central panel of the triptych as an earthly paradise, as “painted utopia”. He suggests that, while the side panels portray heaven and hell in biblical fashion, the central panel  reflects the aspirations of early sixteenth century, and he touches upon the zeitgeist of the period as the link to Thomas More’s Utopia. Belting finds the explanation for the involvement with the verbal and visual expressions of a perfect society in the feelings of wonder and terror triggered by the age of discovery:

The conquest and charting of the world irrevocably pushed the existence of a terrestrial Paradise into the realm of dreams. Paradise could not be turned into a colony without destroying it. Colonisation meant the disappearance of those imaginary places so long surmised in the unknown parts of the world. The realisation began to dawn that such places had existed only in the imagination. Imaginary space was devoured by empirical space. (Belting, 2002: 99)  

The imaginary space being devoured by empirical space was reflected in the patronage of imagery. The secularization of the patronage of imagery is concretized in the example of Bosch’s triptych in a unique way. The tryptich makes no sense as a religious icon. Posing this as a question, Belting determines the owner of the triptych as Hendrik, the Count of Nassau-Breda, who came into possession of Garden of Earthly Delights as a young man, after he inherited the estate of the House of Nassau in 1504. [ii]  Particularly interesting for our subject is Belting’s description of an imaginary banquet by Hendrik who had his Breda residence transformed into a Renaissance Palace: [iii]

After the first glass of wine, [the host] leads his guests to the work, which is closed. Although they have heard many wonderful things about it, they are disappointed at the sombre, empty exterior which is not even colored. Seeing their faces, the Count instructs a servant to open these huge, gloomy doors. When the wings open, there is a cry of surprise from the assembled party. In an explosion of color, the Garden of Earthly Delights appears as a sensation – something never seen before in painting. Hendrik enjoys the astonishment of his guests and laughingly calms their fears that they have enjoyed a view of something forbidden by the church. (Belting, 2002: 77-78)

Although this scene is fictitious, Belting claims that Bosch’s work “was surely destined for just such a form of presentation if its format as an altarpiece was to make any sense.” (idem, 78) He further emphasizes that “it must surely have been intended for a theatrical presentation in which the triptych would appear as a wunderding (marvel), to quote the term used by Dürer to describe the trophies from the New World in the adjacent residence of the House of Burgundy.” (ibidem)

A theatrical presentation, intended as a spectacle and linked to the New World beyond the sea: These are the points we have to keep in mind, before we focus on the iconography of the central panel. I propose to delineate a particular aspect of this iconography, which will be my main axis of comparison with the dystopian visuality: The human body.

I suggest looking at the imaginary paradise of Bosch as the painted utopia of the human body, in perfect harmony with its natural setting. This scene of naked people, where “humankind lives in nature and at the same time a part of nature” is an apex in erotic visuality. (idem, 47) Yet, even in the acts of erotic play, the men and the women seem almost androgynous, or childlike, apparently spared the labors of childbirth and the burden of earthly life. This is sexual play with no risks, erotic adventure with the nature as a whole or even, the erotic adventure of the nature itself, where the human body merges with the rest of the nature seamlessly.

I will not go into the details which consciously unsettle this utopian vision, details like the glass cylinders or the only clothed man looking at the spectator like a silent commentator –possibly a self-portrait by Bosch ( Belting, 2002: 57) – from behind the test tube with ebony base, pointing to the woman with an uneaten apple. Let it suffice for the moment that these details are all man-made products, like splinters of technology in nature and thus, the seeds of dystopia which still have about five centuries for their own heyday.

At this point, I suggest looking at Bosch’s envisioning of the earthly paradise as a visual counterpart of the intellectual milieu at the turn of the sixteenth century. The critical literature of the past decades has often traced the change in the representation of the body to the dawn of modernity. The radical difference between the representations of the body in Michel de Montaigne’s Essays (1588) and René Descartes’s Discourse on Method (1637), for example, is highlighted by Dalia Judowitz: “Considered from a historical perspective this span of time appears relatively short, yet it marks one of the most significant turns in the conception of the body in the European tradition”. (Judowitz 2001: 67) In Montaigne’s Essays “fully embedded in the fabric of the world, the body functions as the horizon of subjective being and becoming” while “Descartes’s elaboration of the duality of the mind and body will relegate the body to an autonomous entity”. (ibidem)

Cartesian view of mind and body associates a person “with his or her thought processes and not with his or her bodily existence.” (Burkitt, 1999: 9) The Cartesian claim that we cannot know anything about ourselves or about the external world through our bodies and bodily sensations, that only the ability to think is the certainty of existence are criticized by many, as an essential aspect of deconstructing modernity. Ian Burkitt for example, points out that in the contemporary Western world, a historical experience of being divided between mind and body, thought and emotion is part of the reality but this does not prove the correctness of Cartesian dualism, but on the contrary it proves to what extent “this extremely radical” (for its time) and “very wrong idea of the body” has impaired our wholeness and wholesomeness. (idem, 8-9)

Although there has been extensive work in the critical conceptualization of the body in the last two decades or so, the same is not true concerning the representation of the body as a pictorial metaphor. Bryan S. Turner’s preface and introduction to the second edition (1997) of his book The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory (which was first published in 1984) points out both to the increasing interest in the sociology of the body during the last two decades and to the requirement for a similar involvement in the visual culture of embodiment. (Turner, 1997: xi-2)

This essay is a step in that direction, suggesting anachronistic ways of looking at familiar visual examples. Such an analysis of Bosch’s iconography in the Garden of Earthly Delights reveals it as a final documentation of the body before it fell prey to the Cartesian duality of the mind and body. Now it is time to look at a contemporary example where this duality is  taken to its extreme in the dystopian imagery of the Matrix.



The Matrix

All the speed he took, all the turns h’d taken and the corners he’d cut in the Night City, and still he’d see matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across the colorless void.
Night City wasn’t there for its inhabitants but as a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself. William Gibson, Neuromancer


Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake from. Which is why the Matrix was designed to this: the peak of your civilization.



The body cannot live without the mind.                                                                        

MORPHEUS, Matrix                        


I chose the film Matrix not because it is the most sophisticated example of dystopia, but because it is a pastiche of everything, from religion to science fiction, including features from some of the classical dystopias such as The Brave New World and Neuromancer. Thus, its form both reflects and reinforces its content which is the fragmentation inherent in postmodernity.

The story of the film is probably familiar to most of us. The nature is defeated by the artificial intelligence of the computers and the human body is used as a source of energy for the machines. Since “the body cannot live without the mind” however, the human mind is programmed as a mental projection of the digital self. Thus, a simulated life goes on in cyberspace for the minds of the human beings whose bodies are no longer born but grown in fields.

A group of people, the last surviving human beings led by Morpheus fight the Matrix. They are in a hovercraft named Nabucadnezzar and the last human city, named Zion is a sunken city. A computer programmer who spends his nights in the Internet using the name Neo as a hacker is chosen by Morpheus as the Saviour. Agent Smith represents the machines and he fights for the Matrix. Trinity from Nabucadnezzar is the closest one to Neo, fighting against Agent Smith and falling in love with Neo.

Not only the sea as the vista to Utopia has totally vanished but the sun is also non-existent. While the human mind is confined to a dreamworld, the body is tormented, sucked up as a source of energy and abused by technology. The Matrix is a nightmare (Night City) for the body. There is no eroticism, no sexual play and the body is subject to all kinds of intrusions and extrusions as a battlefield between the machines and the crew of Morpheus.

The scene where Agent Smith bugs Neo by sending a creature through his navel is the most iconographic expression of the intrusion of technology into the human body. Trinity then debugs Neo, extracting the creature from his navel. During bugging and debugging, both Smith and Trinity use tubes similar to the ones Bosch uses in the Garden of Earthly Delights to create the alienating effect of technology.

If Bosch’s painting is the visual utopia of the human body, the Matrix is the dystopian vision stretched to its extreme: An illustration of what Baudrillard has referred to as the “end of the body and of its history: the individual is henceforth only a cancerous metastasis of its basic formula”. (Baudrillard quoted in Denzin, 1991: 32-3)



The Metonymy of Utopia and Dystopia   


That weakening of the sense of history and of the imagination of historical difference which characterizes postmodernity is, paradoxically, intertwined with the loss of that place beyond history (or after its end) which we call utopia.

Fredric Jameson, The Politics of Utopia


Now I would like to go back to where I suggested cyber as the key word for the spatial turn in mid-twentieth century. Although we often use the geneological counterparts of this concept, we seldom think about the connotations of the Greek origin of the word; kybernetes which means “helmsman” and kybernan which means “to steer”. Cyber is related to the sea, like other terms such as navigation and surfing but in our present jargon, we have come to associate these words more with the Internet rather than the sea.

I suggest that we have transferred and transplanted these concepts from the sea to the hyperspace with the vanishing of the sea. Thus, I argue, “the loss of space beyond history” is due mainly to the spatial turn and that the relation of hyperspace to the utopian space is similar to the relation of postmodernism to modernism proper. Akin to the threshold of the sixteenth century which was not ‘any more’ medieval but ‘not yet’ modern, our present age is a threshold, not ‘any more’ modern, but ‘not yet’ what, we don’t know.

It seems that we cannot any more talk about Utopia as a contemporary concept without falling into nostalgia. This is my impression when I read the recent New Left Review article by Fredric Jameson, “The Politics of Utopia”. (Jameson, 2004: pp.35-54) Although I understand the urge for “the conception of systemic otherness, of an alternate society” I find it difficult to agree that this can be kept alive (“however feebly”) by “only the idea of utopia”. (idem, 36) It is my impression that implicit in the unwillingness to give up the idea of Utopia is the assumption that the concept is ahistorical.

In his essay on “The Antinomies of Postmodernity”, Jameson cautions about “the facile deployment of the opposition between Utopia and dystopia” and he suggests “disjoining” the pair Utopia and dystopia in a definitive way. (Jameson, 1994: 55) I dare to propose a metonymic relation rather than a definitive disjoining. Metonymy highlights Utopia and dystopia as the geneological counterparts of modernism and postmodernism, enabling us to analyze verbal or visual expressions at different moments in history coherently, rather decontextualizing them.

Metonymy could be the clue in explaining why the film Bladerunner failed to grasp the audience in the early 1980’s but it became a cult film later when the cyberculture of postmodernity had evolved into an experiential reality. As “a nightmare vision of the futuristic postmodern society” Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Bladerunner did not enjoy the popularity of the Matrix largely because it was too early. (Denzin 1991: 33) Similarly, whether we like it or not, it seems too late now to engage a concept like Utopia for our contemporary aspirations of “systemic otherness” or of “an alternate society”.

As a final word, I would like to add that it was the New World which both triggered Utopia as the dreamland beyond the sea and which transformed it to dystopia. I am tempted to go into the politics of it, by referring to “the American Empire” but I will not. It is probably no big secret for anyone among us anyway.



Belting, Hans (2002) Hieronymus Bosch / Garden of Earthly Delights, Berlin, Prestel Verlag.

Benjamin, Walter (2002)  The Arcades Project, Cambridge, Mass., The Belknap Press of Harvard University


Benjamin,Walter (1973), “The Storyteller”, in: Illuminations, London, Fontana.

Burkitt, Ian (1999), Bodies of Thought: Embodiment, Identity & Modernity, London, Sage.

Denzin, Norman K. (1991) Images of Postmodern Society: Social Theory and Contemporary Cinema, London, Sage.  

Gibson, William (1995), Neuromancer, London, Voyager / HarperCollins [1984].

Jameson, Fredric (1991),  Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London, Verso.

(1994), “The Antinomies of Postmodernity”, in: The Seeds of Time, New York, Columbia University Press, pp. 50-72 [1991].

(1998), “Postmodernism and the Consumer Society”, in: The Cultural Turn, pp. 1-20 [1984].

(2004) “The Politics of Utopia”, New Left Review 25, pp. 35-54.

Judovitz, Dalia (2001), The Culture of the Body: Genealogies of Modernity, Ann Arbor, The University of

Michigan Press.

Kacmaz, Gul (2004), Architectural Space in the Digital Age, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Istanbul, submitted to Istanbul Technical University, Institute of Science and Technology.

Taussig, Michael (2000), “The Beach (A Fantasy)”, in: Critical Inquiry, nr. 26, pp. 249-277.

Turner, Bryan S. (1997), The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory, London, Sage [1984].




[i] The definitions are based on The New Oxford American Dictionary, and they are taken from the glossary of an unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. (Kacmaz, 2004: 136)

[ii] Belting also notes “there is much to indicate that Hendrik was in fact the patron who commissioned the work”. (Belting, 2002: 71)

[iii] Hendrik was known to often hold banquets and enjoyed seeing his guests drunk. If they drank so much wine that they could no longer stand, he would have them thrown onto a huge bed, reported by Dürer to be as large as to host fifty people. (Belting, 2002: 73-77)

Feride Çiçekoglu, [Istambul Bilgi Univ. Turkey] has a Ph.D. in architecture (University of Pennsylvania, 1976). She was developed a professional interest in literature and cinema after years as a political prisoner, during the military junta of the 80(s) in Turkey. Her recent publications include two articles on My Name is Red [Journal of Aesthetic Education, Fall & Winter, 2003] and a book she edited on New York-Istambul (2003). Since 2000, she has directed the graduate program in Visual Communication Design at Istambul Bigli University.