Utopia scholar to deliver annual UCSC faculty research lecture

UCSC professor of history Jonathan Beecher will deliver the 36th annual Faculty Research Lecture on Tuesday, March 11, at 8 p.m. in the Second Stage Theater on campus. The event is free and open to the public.

Beecher was selected by UCSC faculty members for the prestigious honor given in recognition of outstanding research achievements at the university. One of the world's leading intellectual historians, Beecher will speak on the topic: "Two Concepts of Utopia."

"Utopian speculation has been a vehicle--not only for imagining better worlds, but also for criticizing the world we live in." Beecher noted. "There's something in the utopian enterprise that we desperately need."

Beecher said that utopias have had a bad name since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He added that many critics of utopias misunderstood what the great writers in the utopian tradition have been saying.

"It's been said by many critics that 'someone who believes in utopia today is widely considered out to lunch, or out to kill,'" Beecher explained. "I think that modern utopian thinking has been gravely compromised by the ideologically motivated wars of the 20th century, by the totalitarian regimes that claimed to be inspired by utopian ideas."

Beecher described his upcoming lecture as a trip into the past, beginning with Thomas More, who invented the genre of utopia in 1516, and ending with Ernst Bloch, the late 20th-century author of The Principle of Hope. Along the way, Beecher will cover the Russian anti-utopian writers Fyodor Dostoevsky and Yevgeny Zamyatin, as well as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the work of 18th-century French thinker Denis Diderot, the late 19th-century Victorian utopian William Morris, and the 19th-century early French utopian socialist Charles Fourier.

"It's a broad topic that allows me to talk about a lot of writers that interest me," Beecher noted. "I think it should be broadly accessible."

Although he said his first reaction to being selected as the annual speaker by the Academic Senate was one of amazement, Beecher speculated on why he thought he was chosen.

"The history that I write is readable," he observed. " I write on weird and obscure topics, but I try to write for a wide audience."

Beecher published his first book, The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier, shortly after his arrival at Santa Cruz in 1970. In 1986, he finished Charles Fourier: The Visionary and his World, a monumental study grounded in years of archival research, that has now been translated into both French and Japanese. In 2001, he published a second major biography, Victor Considerant and the Rise and Fall of French Romantic Socialism.

An inspiring lecturer in French, European, and Russian intellectual history, Beecher received the UCSC Alumni Association's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1988. He is currently at work on a study of the history and tradition of anti-utopian writing, as well as a volume about Herman Melville.

Beecher's excitement and enthusiasm for new research is contagious.

"I'm an archive rat," he confessed. "I recently learned of a great archival collection in Russia. It's in the old central party archive of the Communist party--letters, manuscripts, and documents of early French utopian ideas--all created at the beginning of the Soviet Union."

"I read about its existence in the French newspaper Le Monde," Beecher added. "It's the history of European socialism buried in an archive. All of it had been inaccessible to Western scholars until after the fall of the Soviet Union. I want to inventory it for scholars of French history, and I've just written an article telling the story of the formation of the collection."