-Three Articles and Our Criticisms-
“News from Nowhere and William Morris’s “Aesthetics of Unreflectiveness: Pleasurable Habits”
Article by Jayne Hildebrand
“News from Nowhere and William Morris’s “Aesthetics of Unreflectiveness: Pleasurable Habits” by Jayne Hildebrand described Morris’s Utopia as relying on habit, which to many Victorian thinkers was the enemy of economic and political progress, as well as evolutionary advancement. Hildebrand suggested Morris knowingly and controversially portrayed habit as the primary source of pleasure and stability for the inhabitants of his imagined Utopia. He was in opposition to J. S. Mill who defined custom as the “unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary which is called…the spirit of liberty or that of progress or improvement (pg. 7).” The “Economic Man,” a rationally thinking self- interested individual, was believed to be the foundation of a successful capitalist society, and capitalism was seen by the elites and the majority of Victorian England as the best economic model. Psychologists of the time believed habit or instinct threatened “rational self – determination,” and anthropologists believed evolution was weeding out instinctive behavior for more advantageous rational action. In his novel William Morris imagined a socialist society much happier than the world he lived in, a world that embraced habit as a unifying force and saw competition as savage.
Hildebrand explains that Morris perceived habit and customs as fluid, changing with the needs of a society. Morris viewed habit as a product of the collective and the individual that was only understood through experience. Hammond told the narrator that he would struggle to describe the nature of what we do here. “It is only by habituating himself to Utopian life through non-discursive immersion by ‘giving himself over… to the utopian world’ – that Guest can begin to discover ‘what we do. (pg.14)’” In Morris’s Utopia Hildebrand argues that the characters experience their body and their surroundings in a richer manner than the Victorians, a manner that would be unconceivable simply through explanation to an outsider like the narrator. They do not experience a distinction between man and nature. They are excited by the “mundane,” rejoicing in all their daily activities and finding repetitive and physically demanding work to be one of the world’s great pleasures. Whereas the capitalist in Victorian England sought to make laborers into machines with efficiency as their chief goal, the people of Utopian England made pleasure the chief concern of labor. Since work for the characters was pleasurable and sought after, competition was not a necessary motivator. Habit, Morris argues, does not cause stagnation or boredom, it instead fosters pleasurable work.
In response to the psychological belief that habit was a threat to individual freedom Morris imagined the work produced by the people of Utopian England as aesthetically beautiful and greatly varied. “Alexander Bain… describes the tendency to form habits as an expansion rather than a loss of productive capacity, claiming that habit-forming natures are ‘distinguished by plasticity or the power of acquisition’ that applies with particular force to the development of aesthetic tastes. (pg. 15)“ In the world of the novel individuality of opinion is reduced, but with this political and social strife are almost nonexistent.
Hildebrand’s argument that Morris’s intent was to argue in opposition to the “Economic Man” by presenting a controversial alternative is highly plausible. In “News from Nowhere” Morris addresses the fears Victorian society had concerning socialism. He responds to “concerns about historical regress, economic stagnation, and aesthetic and psychological conformity (pg.4).” Morris triumphs habit, living life unreflectingly, which for many critics of his work is cause to question whether “News from Nowhere” is actually a dystopia.
“Anarchism and Utopia: William Morris’s News from Nowhere”
Article by Michael Holzman
Michael Holzman argues that the novel is more than an escapist utopian fantasy, but also a political act during that time. Holzman reminds the reader that Morris’ novel was originally a collection of newspaper articles. Towards the beginning of the novel, it touches on a debate about Anarchism throughout the Socialist League, which eventually led to its demise. Morris carries on this debate through the use of his novel. Readers of that time were able to recognize that Morris’ opinions were quite obviously showing through the novel and at one point it alludes that he may even be the character old Hammond. The novel’s two main objectives were to explain what kind of society is best, and how we can go about creating one. Holzman argues that this is simply Morris’s critique of Anarchism. The article also points out that Hammond’s recall of the economic collapse in 1952 due to union demands for nationalization happens a century after Morris writes this novel. The conclusion is that News From Nowhere is a response to Blackwell’s question of how to achieve a socialist society.
I agree with this article and that this novel was a last ditch effort for Morris to get his socialist desires out to the public and plant the seed of how it can be accomplished and what it should ideally look like. Since some of the novel’s predictions came true a century later, I wondered if this was a coincidence or if readers were inspired by Morris’s words and took action. Holzman makes a very appealing argument that the novel was more for political reasons than for entertainment, also because this novel is hard to be classified in the Science Fiction genre.
“‘O Me! O Me! How I Love the Earth’: William Morris’s News from Nowhere and the Birth of Sustainable Society”
Article by Martin Delveaux
In his article, “‘O Me! O Me! How I Love the Earth’: William Morris’s News from Nowhere and the Birth of Sustainable Society,” Martin Delveaux argues “that Morris, by stressing the need for a decentralized and polycentric country and by showing how co-operation, as opposed to competition, can form a symbiosis between the members of the society, effectively linked the local with the global.” Delveaux goes into detail about how Nowhere is all around a socially just, economically viable, and environmentally sustainable social order.
First, Delveaux discusses Nowhere and how Morris, in the text, relates it back to the ‘Back to Nature’ and ‘Back to the Land’ movements from the 1880s and 1890s. Basically, the argument being made is that Nowhere’s cross-fertilization of town and country, ecocentric attitudes, and collaboration with nature are only possible because of the abolishment of class monopoly. With no bourgeoisie to influence the urbanized areas (which would then exploit the surrounding, rural habitations), there is no suppression of livelihood based on class or privilege. Successfully integrated (town with country), the people now view their attitudes toward nature as the same as their attitudes toward themselves, instead of succumbing to the influences of the attitudes of upper classes.
Another of Delveaux’s main arguments is for Nowhere as a “Bioregional Utopia,” meaning that it does not distort the earth to meet human demands. The “Nowhereians” live by a philosophy of “saving the whole by saving the parts,” (the whole being the world, and the parts being humans and nature). Their market also has a good deal to do with this utopian opportunity. With their labor being carried out along the Marxist principle of from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs, there is no over-exploitation of resources or overabundance of market. These factors, as well as others, are how Delveaux argues Nowhere as an overall utopian social order.
The article is well-cited and well-argued, commenting on the obvious realities of Morris’ work in News from Nowhere, as well as his other publications and lectures prior to the novel.