Archive for the ‘Seminar’ Category


Ready Player One: A Discussion

Monday, November 11th, 2013

In the future, the world is left broken: an unrelenting recession has taken hold and governments seem to have simply given up. Most of the world spends much of their time in OASIS– a virtual world that holds almost endless possibilities. The creator of OASIS left a series of clues and begins a competition to find the ultimate gaming Easter egg: the fortune he amassed and ownership of his company. Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One follows OASIS addict and ‘gunter’ Wade Watts through his obsession with games and the virtual reality that has simply become reality for most.

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Please join us next week, on Tuesday, November 12, for a conversation on Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One. We’ll be talking about themes of games, virtual identities, competition, motivation, corruption, and so much more and we’d love to see you there! The meeting will be held in room 6417 at 4:15 pm.

First Fall Seminar Meeting– 10/8 at 4:15– Ender’s Game

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

10/8- Ender’s Game

View our event flier by clicking the link above!


Ender’s Game

Humanity has barely survived its initial encounters with the Buggers, a hostile and inscrutable race of insectoid aliens. In planning for the next conflict, a united Earth has placed its hopes in young generals trained at the Battle School, an orbital military academy. The brilliant Ender Wiggin, the most promising of the Battle School’s young cadets, must overcome the enmity of his fellow students and the cold calculation of the school’s administrators as he prepares for the final battle.

Ender’s Game, first published in novel form in 1985, is a science fiction classic that confronts questions of innocence, violence, empathy, and xenophobia. Alternative Worlds, Possible Futures is hosting a discussion of this seminal book as the first of a series of seminars on games and gaming, and in anticipation of the theatrical release of the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game on November 1, 2013.

We will be meeting on Tuesday, October 8 at 4:15 pm in GC Room 6417. 

Hope to see you there!

Gardens, Utopias, and the Impulse of Myth

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

Given the imminent arrival of Naomi Jacobs, who will be presenting on Nature, Utopia, and the Garden tomorrow, Thursday April 11 at 4:15 in room 3209 of the Graduate Center, I figured I would share a quote I came across recently in my reading of the Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature by George Claeys.


In his discussion of Oscar Wilde, he writes, “Utopia springs from the same pulse as the myth or the eschatological desire for a better afterlife and thus yearns to realize a condition of happiness, well-being, and social harmony. Indeed, myths of the Island of the Blessed, the Land of the Cockaygne, Elysium, Shangri-La, and the Garden of Eden haunted philosophers, writers, and travellers for centuries and paved the way for the geographical utopia of the Renaissance period and the voyage utopia of the eighteenth century which believed in the transformative quality of alterity” (51).

I’m quite taken by the idea of the geographically-rooted utopia. How could this quote challenge or inform the readings we’ll be looking at for the seminar tomorrow and how can we think about place (and green space) as intertwined with the utopian impulse?

Ralph Dumain Guest Blog Post: Reflections on Voyage to Kazohinia Seminar

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

Reflections on the Kazohinia Seminar

By Ralph Dumain

Let me express my gratitude for the opportunity to conduct this seminar on Sándor Szathmári’s Voyage to Kazohinia, my most inspiring experience in several months. I was surprised to see not only interest but so much enthusiasm for Szathmári’s novel among the professors, graduate students, and others who attended, most of whom are at least a generation younger than me and can be assumed to have been raised in a cultural environment with a different set of tacit assumptions than mine, not to mention compared to the social background of classic futuristic and dystopian literature of the half-century preceding my birth. But I should also note that some discussants emphasized how funny they found the novel. I am pleased to see progress in the endeavor to place Szathmári, hitherto unknown in the English-speaking world, into the canon of utopian/dystopian literature. Hungarian literature seems to be unaccountably underrepresented in the literary consciousness of our part of the world, and while English translations of works of many Hungarian authors exist, we owe Esperanto a debt of gratitude as a vehicle for transcultural communication in this regard.

The outline for my ten-minute introduction to the seminar can easily be turned into a publishable piece. Here I will focus on the ensuing discussion taking up the better part of two hours. The dozen participants contributed so many valuable ideas I cannot credit them all individually, but will have to for the most part collectively summarize the most outstanding themes and points made.

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There were various comparisons made between Swift’s Gulliver Travels, Huxley’s Brave New World, Kafka’s fiction, several contemporary dystopian novels and Szathmári’s work, as well as comments on common characteristics of the genre of utopian/dystopian literature.

I was asked to comment and fill in some background on Szathmári’s background and perspectives and the relevance of the Esperanto movement. Szathmári was a dedicated Esperantist and internationalist and always destined his writing for an international audience, hence produced his works in both Hungarian and Esperanto. Szathmári harbored quite a bit of idealism coexisting with his unwavering pessimism. I do not have enough information about Szathmári’s overall intellectual background and the range of languages or translations he read in order to make assertions about the philosophical trends to which he was reacting, beyond his satirical references to Hume and Kant. His philosophical perspective remained consistent from the 1930s until the end of his life.

The satire of various nationalisms and empires in the novel, not just Gulliver’s apologetics for the British social order and empire, were pointed out. There certainly is a satire of the capitalist system (in crisis in the 1930s) in the novel, but that does not exonerate in Szathmári’s eyes how the alternative turned out. When queried about this in 1973, the year before his death, Szathmári insisted that his object was not specific social systems, but human nature. In an article published in 1960, Szathmári even denied that material causes were fundamental (as would a Marxist), but rather asserted that human aggression is sui generis.

The question arose in the discussion, as it did in the Esperanto press, as to what extent Szathmári really believed that the Hins represent an ideal society. In the aforementioned interview in 1973, Szathmári insisted that, contrary to others’ claims, Hin society was intended as a positive utopia. Through the decades Szathmári expressed himself repeatedly that we must adapt ourselves to the modern mechanized world, as the instincts and habits that once served survival are now obsolete, but since we are unable to modify them, we are endangering our very existence.

Some questions about Esperanto and the Esperanto movement were also asked. One discussant wondered whether Esperanto itself could be considered an amalgam of science and humanism. While Esperanto has been associated with a range of ideologies and none, it could certainly be said that for Esperanto’s creator Zamenhof, Esperanto’s creation was motivated both by rationalistic and humanistic motives, as was the case for innumerable progressive Jewish intellectuals in the modern world.

Some of the most penetrating observations were brought forth in discussion of the characteristics of the Hins and Behins and in the contrast between the two. One important observation was that while the Hins were anarchistic (while being spontaneously cooperative) and automatically calibrated their actions rationally for the common good completely absent any hierarchy, the Behins were entirely ruled by arbitrary authority. Also noted was the total unpredictability of Behin behavior.

There was a lengthy discussion of the outrageous absurdism of Behin society. While I suggested that the extreme irrationalism of the Behins brought out the rationalistic side of Gulliver, someone else insightfully proposed that Gulliver’s behavior among the Hins was absurd, and that Behin society just presented a different vocabulary for the same notions to be found in Gulliver’s world. (Gulliver of course never recognized the similarity.)

As hilarious as readers found the narrative of the Behins, it is also noteworthy that some found that reading this part of the novel was also such a torturous experience that they were as relieved as Gulliver to return to Hin society. At this point the Hins look pretty good, and they are more conspicuously presented in a positive light. I pointed out the poetic images of Gulliver’s last view of the Hins as he departs on the ocean: a Hin’s outstretched arms to the sun, the Hins swimming in the water thinking to rescue Gulliver . . .

However, before and after this turn in the discussion, various participants questioned the characteristics of the Hins. The Hins were said to have no sense of challenge, limiting themselves to exerting the least effort to accomplish practical tasks. Hins do not understand the motivations of others, and the question is, what motivation do they have to do anything? In the modification of their make-up in the course of evolution, which human traits could or should have survived, and which not?

Much later in the discussion, I questioned the strict utilitarianism of the Hins. What is wrong with pleasure for pleasure’s sake, as befits organic beings? Why is sex, which seems rather perfunctory, still linked with reproduction? Other discussants picked up on this issue, questioning the consistency, viability, and assumptions of the Hins’ brand of rationalism.

While there is no body of relevant critical literature in English, and I do not know whatever criticism can be found in Hungarian, I do know most of the critical literature in Esperanto. I summarized several critiques of Szathmári’s work in Esperanto, of the whole schema and particularly of the notions embodied in the Hins. The most frequent criticisms levied are the strict biologism and undialectical perspective. As I indicated in my introduction, the handling of contradictions and the unresolved questions on the nature of organic beings are taken to a logical conclusion in Szathmári’s 1963 novella Maŝinmondo (Esperanto, meaning “Machine World”), in which the evolution of an intelligent machine-driven world leads to the extinction of all organic life. Several seminar participants expressed their eagerness for me to translate this work into English.

One interesting and important point offered that I had not considered is that while neither of the extremes presented in Kazohinia work for us, neither does moderation, neither does the middle ground. What is then the alternative? It then occurred to me that Gulliver, being British, probably does represent the middle ground of the time, as the Brits’ stereotypical representation is the very epitome of moderation. And so with this satire, the indictment of civilization as we know it leaves no one out.

With regard to relations between the sexes, I pointed out that Gulliver’s final crisis in both Hin and Behin society is precipitated by his encounter with a woman.

Another novel topic introduced by others was the question of custom and causality, made in association with the philosophy of David Hume. There were differing opinions on this. Some took the position that the Behins were entirely ruled by custom, but others, stressing the Behins’ randomness and the Hins’ sense of appropriateness, argued that the Hins are the ones who abide by custom. Kant was also introduced into the discussion. The Hins are born as they are, they do not learn. They could be considered incarnations of the Kantian categorical imperative. I found this interchange interesting also because Hume and Kant are two philosophers satirized in the novel.

I initiated a discussion of C. P. Snow’s notion of the “two cultures.” I also brought up J. D. Bernal’s 1929 transhumanist vision and its possible impact, mentioning also an article contrasting Bernal with Max Horkheimer’s critical theory. I posed a question to the participants: what other works in the utopian/dystopian genre display the sort of dichotomy I outlined in Kazohinia? Several discussants offered a number of examples, which I will have to follow up on. But I was more convinced by Carrie Hintz’s comment that Kazohinia yields not only contrasts, but the clearest example of a dichotomy that she has ever seen. While Francesco Crocco suggested that most utopias incorporate dichotomies, he agreed with my claim that the Hins are an embodiment of positivism as a total way of life. These reactions are very important to me because the dichotomy I see in Kazohinia is one I see running through the modern history of ideas and is central to my own project, and I cannot remember encountering another fictional work that so clearly and outstandingly expresses this dichotomy.

By now you should have a glimpse of why the participants in this seminar were so excited by this novel. Carrie referred to it as a thought experiment. Making your own readerly Voyage to Kazohinia, you will find yourself thinking through the most fundamental philosophical and existential questions. Let us then proceed to advance the incorporation of this Hungarian Esperantist writer into the mainstream of futuristic, utopian, and speculative fiction studies. 

Read more on Dumain’s blog here:

April 11: Nature, Utopia, and the Garden with Naomi Jacobs

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

Please join us on Thursday, April 11 at 4:15 at the Graduate Center, room 3209 for

Nature, Utopia, and the Garden with Naomi Jacobs

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The garden occupies a special place in utopian representations of the “good place.”  In Judeo-Christian mythology, the Garden of Eden was the place where the first people lived in harmony with nature and with God. For Islamic believers, the paradise reached after death is a beautiful enclosed garden. Thomas More’s Utopians were keen gardeners who vied to outdo their neighbors. Most utopian fictions and projections since More have addressed in some form the importance of the cultivation of both ornamental and useful plants. In contemporary culture, such phenomena as the “Locavore,” and “guerrilla gardening” movements, as well as the shift toward landscaping with native plants, indicate a lively desire to engage with the production of plants, whether as home gardener or as farmer’s market customer, and a conviction that the world would be a better place if it included more or different kinds of gardens. In this seminar meeting we will consider a variety of questions on the relationships between nature, utopia and the garden. Why has the garden been so important in utopian imaginings? What forms of utopianism are at work in environmentalist treatments of nature? Can gardening truly serve as an oppositional praxis? And what does the creation and tending of gardens teach us about our place as natural beings who inhabit a complex natural world from which we draw both physical and spiritual sustenance?


I.  Three poems:

Andrew Marvell, “The Garden,” online at  (date unknown, but ca. 1650)

Bernadette Mayer, “The Garden,” A Bernadette Mayer Reader. New York: New Directions, 1992.   84-85.

Eleanor Rand Wilner, “A Moralized Nature is Like a Garden Without Flowers,” The Girl with Bees in Her Hair.  Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2004.

II.  Articles and Book Chapters:

Lisa Garforth, “Ideal Nature: Utopias of Landscape and Loss,” Spaces of Utopia: An Electronic Journal, 3 (Autumn/Winter 2006): 5-26 < >.

Naomi Jacobs and Annette Giesecke, “Nature, Utopia and the Garden.”   Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia and the Garden.  London: Black Dog Press, 2012.   6-17. On reserve at the Mina Rees Library.

Peter Lamborn Wilson, “Avant Gardening.” Avant Gardening: Ecological Struggle in the City & The World. Eds. Wilson and Bill Weinberg. New York: Autonomedia, 1999. 7-34.

Jennifer Atkinson, “Seeds of Change:  The New Place of Gardens in Contemporary Utopia.”   Utopian Studies 18.2 (2007): 237-260

Naomi Jacobs is Professor of English at the University of Maine, Past President of the Society for Utopian Studies, and founding member of the Advisory Board for Utopian Studies, the Society’s journal. With Annette Giesecke, she co-edited the new volume of essays from Black Dog Press, Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia and the Garden. Her publications on utopian and dystopian fiction range from William Morris to Octavia Butler. 

A copy of our flier from the Center for the Humanities: 4.11_Naomi Jacobs Utopia, Nature and the Garden

Some Resources in Preparation for Thursday’s seminar

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Hello everyone!  Here are some resources in preparation for Thursday’s seminar:

Ralph Dumain on the “two cultures” and “warring dichotomies” of the mid-twentieth century:

Dumain’s bibliography: “Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers”:

Sándor Szathmári’s epilogue to Voyage to Kazohinia, translated by Ralph Dumain:

March 7: Seminar with Ralph Dumain on Voyage to Kazohinia

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013


Join us on Thursday, March 7 for a discussion with Ralph Dumain on Voyage to Kazohinia!

Ralph Dumain will be leading a discussion on Sándor Szathmári‘s Hungarian utopian novel Voyage to Kazohinia— a novel written in the tradition of Swift and Gulliver’s Travels. Voyage to Kazohinia is a cult classic that has only recently been made available in English.

We will be meeting at the CUNY Graduate Center at 4:15 on Thursday, March 7, in room 3209. 

There’s a copy on reserve at the GC library or you can purchase your own copy on Amazon here:

Some information about our speaker, Ralph Dumain:

Ralph Dumain is a librarian and independent researcher, living in Washington, DC. In 1991 he became librarian/archivist of the C.L.R. James Institute in New York, founded by Jim Murray (1949-2003) to document James’s life and work. Murray’s roots were in the political and cultural activism of the ’60s and ’70s, and the Institute continued in the same spirit, with the aim of making James’s work available to all researchers and the wider public, remaining outside and independent of academia and other traditional institutional forms. This ideal is also reflected in Dumain’s unusual website, The Autodidact Project, which publishes original bibliographies, research guides, and varied writings by Dumain himself, as well as a wide range of writings by others, famous, obscure, or forgotten, providing study material and perspectives that might not otherwise come to the attention of both formally and self-educated readers. Dumain began to teach himself Esperanto as a high school student; a year and a half later he translated Sándor Szathmári’s novella “Vincenzo” into English. In 1987, Esperanto’s centennial, Dumain co-founded the World Atheist Esperanto Organisation (Ateista Tutmonda Esperanto-Organizo; ATEO). Dumain has published in both Esperanto and English, has translated here and there, and has lectured and been interviewed both on C.L.R. James and the social history of Esperanto.


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