Bleak dreams, not nightmares: Critical dystopias and the necessity of melancholic hope

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What kind of stories are most effective for envisioning a hopeful future when alternatives to the status quo are sorely needed? Few would turn to dystopian fiction for this specific purpose. Despite their current resurgence across different media, dystopias are often suspected of undermining progressive action, due to their militant pessimism and their all-too frequent succumbing to despair. In this paper, I respond to this charge by focusing on a type of dystopia that productively negotiates the tension between hope and despair: critical dystopias. Originating as a genre in the 1980s, critical dystopias leave space for the cultivation of utopian desires – so long as the hope for a better future is tempered by the memory of past and present suffering. To flesh out the implications of this nuanced view, I embark on a reading of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, whose alternative history of emancipation from slavery epitomizes the power of critical utopias to stir the imagination. To put it metaphorically, critical dystopias contain bleak dreams of violence, but they differ from nightmares. Upon imaginatively visiting a critical dystopia, the reader is summoned to feel empowered, rather than deflated, by the dark visions enclosed in these stories.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)607-622
JournalConstellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory
Issue number4
Early online date1 Feb 2019
Publication statusPublished - 18 Dec 2019


  • dystopia
  • slavery
  • melancholy
  • hope
  • critical theory
  • Colson Whitehead
  • slave narratives


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