EREWHON. SOUNDS WELSH – the soft ‘h’. That’s what I thought when I first saw the word on the higgledy-piggledy front fence of a bach in the South Island of New Zealand. But the word isn’t from Wales. It isn’t from any particular place. It’s made-up, a kind of anti-word. A word that speaks of how quickly the familiar can be folded back on itself and become ‘other’. Just as the cosy familiarity of Our Home is reversed into Emohruo to suggest more exotic possibilities, the place-names of Erewhon – and its alternative, Erehwon – are rearrangements, reversals of the word nowhere.
In the history of utopian thinking, it’s possible to read this word as a marker of mourning. Once the last place was marked on the West’s maps of the world, once the world’s coastlines had been traversed by the northern hemisphere, the age-old dream of discovering a Utopia somewhere beyond the realms of everywhere and anywhere known disappeared. And in the historical moment that followed, the ancients’ idea that Utopia or Arcadia or Paradise was some-place still to be discovered floundered and ran aground.
After seeing Erewhon for the first time as the name of a house, I’ve spied it on lots of other homes in far-flung destinations across Australia and New Zealand. I’ve come across one such signpost for a farmlet on the rugged north-west coastline of Tasmania, another marking a vast property in Central Queensland, and, once, a milk-can letterbox marking a track in the Flinders Ranges. These places shared no similarity other than their existence as dots on the map; locations that someone had sought to contain by the simple process of designating each as nameable. And the adoption of Erewhon as a tag to mark a sense of belonging suggests an ironic awareness of the fragility of feeling connected to places that might be indifferent to such sentiment.
Well before what’s termed the ‘wokeness’ of the twenty-first century set in here, in this part of the world, there were plenty of indications that Australasian settlers were uncomfortably aware that the places they had settled had belonged to and been named by others before they arrived. The irony implied in many early colonial placenames suggests an implicit awareness of the shortcomings of the northern hemisphere idea that places can be ‘owned’ and labelled like tame things. If naming denotes power, Erewhon – the marker of a ‘somewhere’ by the reversal of ‘nowhere’ – carries this irony to an even deeper deliciousness.
Sometimes the word has the ‘h’ before the ‘w’: a complete reversal of ‘nowhere’. At others – as with the spelling of the title of the book Erewhon, published by Samuel Butler in 1872, who first coined the appellation – the ‘w’ and ‘h’ are reversed. Butler used this label for a mystical fictional country through which he parodied the inconsistencies and follies of his own Victorian times.
The fictional land of Erewhon was conjured during Butler’s experiences as a sheep farmer near the headwaters of the Rangitata River in New Zealand’s South Island between 1860 and 1864 – a place that must have seemed every bit as other-worldly to settlers from the northern hemisphere as any fictional space in a novel. Butler’s decision to live in New Zealand had, to a great extent, been motivated by his dissatisfaction with contradictions, inconsistencies and hypocrisies in the values of Victorian England. And the utopian descriptions and ideas he created in Erehwon’s pages were so compelling and seductive that they survived to influence the thinking of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze a century later.
In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze names ideas that are identifiably different to the fixity of those he termed ‘concepts’ as ‘Erewhons’ – acknowledging their latent fluidity. And the interpretation of Butler’s term as both ‘no-where’ and ‘now-here’ appealed to Deleuze as an appropriate form through which to explain the ‘nomadic’ dimensions of meaning. The term’s capacity to elide the specificity of site-location, operating as a ‘no-where’ while simultaneously establishing a temporally provisional space – ‘now-here’ – from which to create agency, offered Deleuze a means to argue the ‘nomadic distributions’ of meaning. In his world view, all privileged positions on representation were open to challenge, and no prior established hierarchical framework for thinking and practice was validated.
If the fictional space and time created in Butler’s novel mirrored the places and society he had left in England, and reflected the inconsistencies, incongruities, calamities, complexities and contradictions of his own world, this work contributes to a tradition of critical fiction that includes Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which also visits the Antipodes, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). It’s also a predecessor of the utopian-socialism in the novel News from Elsewhere (1890) by artist, designer and socialist pioneer William Morris. But Butler’s description of a world where the rapid development of mechanisation generates increasingly self-aware and progressively dominant machines that in turn threaten to eclipse the development of other evolving species was well ahead of its time.
As the basis for Erewhon, Butler drew from the ideas informing an earlier essay, ‘Darwin Among the Machines’, written in 1863 as a critical response to On the Origin of Species. In this essay, Butler describes a country from which machines had been banned due to fears that they were evolving steadily towards a higher form of consciousness that threatened to supersede humanity. And Erewhon’s fiction incorporates improbable scenarios as a counterpoint to the time in which it was written: it is peopled by a race that treats the sick as if they are criminals, and criminals as though they need treatment. And its educational system supports Colleges of Unreason – places where both originality and reason are despised, and where youth waste their time and money studying ‘hypothetics’, a useless and boring subject with no practical application.
IN THIS WAY, it’s interesting to think how Butler might respond to today’s world, where countries are ruled by billionaire clowns, and where social welfare and treatment for the sick are both secondary to considerations of international business and globalised marketing. It might be interesting to imagine his response to a kind of contemporary Erewhon, where education is tailored to the auditing of market-led forces and where immigration policies are governed by fear. In a world like this, it is doubtful whether the protagonist of Butler’s novel, Higgs (a stranger-narrator who describes the world in which he finds himself), would have been granted so much as a legal visa from the outset.
It might also be interesting to imagine whether Butler would recognise the geographic region in which he briefly lived as one now considered part of the greater region of the Asia-Pacific, reduced to providing a political platform for a stand-off between superpowers. It’s almost as if this part of the world has metastasised into its own form of Erewhon – as no-where and now-here – and as if Butler’s imagined world was in many ways a mutant precursor for what was to come.
But in following on from Butler’s utopian novel, Deleuze’s own reinterpretation of the ‘now-here’ – as part of the possibility of challenging or overturning accepted ideals or privileged positions – now has a particular resonance in the contemporary postcolonial world. It can also be refolded and refashioned, like the word itself, to leverage the idea of an imaginative realm as yet relatively untapped by northern-hemisphere thinking. If Deleuze invites thinking that avoids the tyrannies of fixed coherence and advocates the more fluid possibilities of meaning as creation, critique and collage, his argument suggests that we accept dreaming might be the best kind of thinking we have – and that that is no bad thing.
Thinkers in the southern hemisphere recognised this more than 60,000 years ago: the importance of their dreaming as interactive, mutable, performative lore remains potent to the present. Yet it’s still the authority of northern hemisphere academia and ‘knowledge’ that we reference to make sure an argument has an acceptable intellectual pedigree.
Nevertheless, the capacities of the southern hemisphere’s First Nations’ dreamers to create inspirational spaces unshackled from the dictates of northern hemisphere frameworks for thinking surely rise as potent markers for the more interconnected mind-maps required for the future. Like Butler’s Erewhon, these imaginative realms locate space in a fluctuating time zone where the past, the present and the future wander simultaneously. One where ‘here’ and ‘now’ matter most, as a point from which the past can be called into the future.
If only we could find the courage, we might dare to believe that these tens of thousands of years of the thinking and practices of First Nations peoples in the Global South are capable of offering imaginative spaces of ‘now-here’ from which to reimagine this bruised world. In such a dreaming, the ‘here and now’ is a zone of awareness eclipsed by history and by the future; one capable of reconnecting all the incidental spatial dots of ‘nowhere’ together into a more interrelated and meaningful world view.