Spatial dreams, social plans: Early English utopias and the capitalist imperialist imaginary
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This dissertation explores the early modern utopia as a significant, unique vantage point from which to understand the experience of capitalism's emergence. As a genre of new worlds, pioneered by Sir Thomas More's publication of Utopia in 1516, utopia is the paradigmatic literature of historical and geographical becoming, and as such, it constitutes a privileged site to examine the reciprocal relationship between text and context. While utopia has often been understood as a literary response to the “discovery” of the New World, this dissertation builds on previous scholarship by also considering how canonical and non-canonical utopias of early modern Britain negotiate the historical emergence of capitalism, both at home and in its already expansive reach abroad. For the transition to capitalism, in its agrarian, commercial, and imperial forms, I argue, fuels the early English utopian imagination. To make this argument, Spatial Dreams, Social Plans calls on a body of historical writing on what Marx called “primitive accumulation”—or the acts of dispossession that were a necessary prerequisite to the formation of capital and the wage relation. While economic historians have vigorously debated the processes and causes of capitalism's formation, the Transition debates have had a relatively small impact on the way in which cultural critics discuss sixteenth- and seventeenth-century socio-economic change. Part of this study, then, is framed as a methodological intervention into the way literary critics represent early capitalism. Chapters feature close readings of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English utopias, including the canonical utopias More, Francis Bacon and Gabriel Plattes, and more marginally utopian works like Edmund Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland and John Milton's Areopagitica .