Boundaries and Transgressions

Life as an idea is dead. This may be the beginning of a great new era, a redemption from suffering. . . . Only one crime remains: cursed be he who creates life. I cremate life. That is modern humanitarianism—the sole salvation from the future.

Rolf Hochhuth, The Deputy 

Utopia begins by setting up boundaries: between reality and vision, the desirable and the undesirable, the intimate and the alien. It banishes the disruptive in the name harmony, the eccentric in favor of the collective. Whether it is predicated on metaphysical dogmas, political principles, social ideals, or biological determinants, utopia cannot tolerate dissent. It is thus defined by what it excludes. Yet once the boundaries are set up, transgressions are bound to follow.

Historically, we can speak of several types of boundaries, based on ethnic, religious, geographical, political, and social categories, as well as on gender and generational differences, although individual identity will normally be determined by belonging to more than one such category. Boundaries can produce a sense of security and stability but at same time may be the cause of tension and competition, oppression and submission. As long as they are accepted by the majority, boundaries can therefore make for an appearance of harmony; for this very reason, any transgression will be seen as posing a threat of disintegration and chaos. Conversely, transgression of established boundaries can also be presented as a step toward greater harmony. Indeed, perfect, universal utopia assumes the ultimate eradication of boundaries, between sexes or races, classes or faiths, the present and the future. Nevertheless, the idea of utopia is predicated on a fundamental rift between conventional, sordid reality and the ideal toward which one ought to strive. Hence it is a harmony based on difference.

Antiquity recognized boundaries between civilization and barbarism. Barbarian conquest of Greek, Roman, or Chinese civilization led in turn to the emergence of new boundaries between an idyllic, remote past, and a more recent, decadent period, seen as the cause of destruction, occupation, and the erasure of previously established boundaries associated with cultural superiority and traditional privilege. But utopian visions were also informed by the image of a purer barbaric invader as yet uncorrupted by the social and moral ills of degenerate civilization, who could serve as a model of ancient ideals. Hence the boundaries between civilization and barbarism, reality and utopia, constantly shifted even as they asserted eternal immutability.

In medieval and early modern Europe, the predominant utopia was heaven, whose essential attributes were similar across denominations and estates. But aside from this purely religious utopia, wherein the boundary between life and death had to be negotiated and traversed, other utopias focused on transforming the world of the living. Here one group’s utopia was another’s nightmare, whether it involved redeeming the Holy Land or unshackling the serfs, the “reconquest” of Spain or the Islamicization of Christendom, the rise of Protestantism or the Messianism of Shabbetai Zevi. If the gates of heaven could open only after the outrage of death, earthly paradise could be accomplished only by the violent overthrow of established regimes and religions, the massacre of dissidents, the conquest of land. Europe’s emergence from the Middle Ages was followed by centuries of political and military expansion, invariably accompanied by the exclusion, expulsion, and murder of those perceived as obstructing the realization of religious and secular utopias and the redefinition of identity within newly drawn boundaries.

This was especially noticeable in the course of European colonialism, which perforce made for encounters with hitherto unknown cultures and religions, customs and norms, races and ethnicities. Here the most fundamental boundary established was that between men and savages, or human and nonhuman. The European discourse on the humanity of colonized peoples largely determined both the fate of the indigenous populations in the colonies and the self-perception of Europeans and their increasing predilection to differentiate between, and rank, types and degrees of humanity according to physical, mental, and cultural criteria. Modern western utopias now included the same split we have noted in antiquity, between a romanticized view of nature and its “noble savages,” on the one hand, and the dehumanization of other, “lower” races and cultures, on the other. But both the notion of “returning” to nature and Europe’s “civilizing mission” involved a great deal of violence, exacerbated by rapidly improved technologies for killing. Thus utopian societies established far from civilization’s corrupting reach could simultaneously assume the eradication or enslavement of indigenous populations, while schemes for social justice, liberty and equality, could at the same time be predicated on the exclusion or annihilation of those no longer recognized as members of humanity.

Cultural differentiation extended also to distinctions between societies with and without history, increasingly seen as the basic criterion of civilization following the decline of religion and the concomitant recognition of non-Christian civilizations in Asia and Antiquity. If modern utopian visions aimed to reach a point where history would come to a standstill and humanity achieve a condition of perfect rest, this was a process to be accomplished through history rather than by avoiding it altogether, just as the true saint would emerge from the valley of sin, or classless society from a bitter struggle with an historically necessary phase of ruthless capitalism. The innocence of the original, pre-historical paradise was derived from an absence of history; this naivete would now have to be replaced by an awareness of history as a precondition for the post-historical utopia. And while some sites of presumed innocence were still to be found in the shrinking white areas of European cartography, the utopias discovered there had to be unmade, and then remade again so as to fit the needs and dreams of modernity’s refugees.

Utopia was not perceived as a natural development, but as planned and controlled nature, whose boundaries were determined, set, and guarded by man, not by the whims of climate and biology. Nature was the site in which utopia would be built, but nature was also the ultimate transgressor and thus had to be kept under strict control and supervision. Utopia was a garden society, where chance and mutation, disorder and catastrophe could not to be allowed to disrupt the orderly development of man-made environment. This quest for domination over nature characterized most civilizations, both ancient and modern. Its most recent manifestations are related to the industrialization of the nineteenth century and can be found in fascist rhetoric and planning, liberal suburban schemes and garden cities, and postwar “Green” ideologies. The contemporary discourse on ecology, whose roots go back at least two centuries, is especially pertinent in this context, since it involves the relationship between categories of people and types of environment, nature preservation and human habitation, transgressing the laws of biology and setting limits to reproduction.

Boundaries can also be set between species; nature prevents most interspecies procreation, civilization makes such transgressions strictly taboo. Yet modern science has been preoccupied with evolution, genetics, and cloning, while nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century ideologies have popularized the ideas of social Darwinism, eugenics, and scientific racism. If civilization has for millennia domesticated plants and bred animals, the modern utopia of a perfect humanity has included the idea of breeding pure races of human beings. This is the great temptation of purging physical deformities, mental handicaps, and foreign races, of manipulating nature to fit desirable aesthetic and intellectual criteria, and of eradicating so-called life unworthy of life or categories of people deemed detrimental to society’s health and progress. Here conventional taboos against tampering with humanity are transgressed, while the boundaries between humans and animals tend to disappear: superhumans are put above the rest of humanity, subhumans are considered less worthy of life and often more pernicious than domestic animals. Nor should we think of this phenomenon as being limited to such extreme manifestations as Nazism, for the modern discourse on links between biology and society, science and ethics, nature and nurture is the necessary context for such radical policies as racial genocide.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!