A map of utopia is a map of a territory that does not exist.

The word and concept, "utopia," comes from Thomas More’s Utopia, an apocryphal travelogue about an island nation located in the New World, which, unlike the recently arrived Portuguese and Spanish, had a system of governance that promoted sharing, goodwill, civility, and peace. A perfect society, or as close as mankind could come. That’s how we remember it today, how we use the word, but how many of us can actually say we’ve read the book, which, as of this year, is exactly 500 years old?

Utopia is only an optimistic text on its surface. The fact that we don’t remember the book for what it is, but instead impose our own, rosier meaning is the dark joke of the work, one More embedded in the name of his island nation. Utopia is a compound word built from two Greek words, ou ("not") + topos ("place"), but most people think of this word as the antonym of dystopia (from the New Latin dus, "hard, difficult, bad"). What we really mean when we say utopia is eutopia (from the New Latin eu ("well, good"), as in, euphoria (phérein, "to bear"), eulogy (lógos, "utterance, narrative"), euthanize (thánatos, "death"). These words are all euphemisms (pheme, "a voice, a prophetic voice, rumor, talk"), words whose goodness are transparent attempts to mask an intrinsic, necessary bad (see Ramona Ausubel’s "Fairyland").

More’s logic is that there is no such thing as a good place, so long as there are people to discover it and declare it as such. War, adultery, death, slavery, all of which are present in Utopia—these are axioms of humanity, ones we choose to punish or justify or ignore. The fact that we continually misread the book, the concept, and the word is this argument made manifest.

We make the same mistake when we read maps. Maps, despite the cartographic science upon which they purport objectivity and totality, are anything but. They shrink the world, allowing us to perceive spaces bigger than ourselves, but in doing so, maps show the forest despite the trees. Details are lost or distorted They give us a god’s eye perspective of the world, but not a god’s omniscience. This is the moral of Jorge Luis Borges’ "Del Rigor en la Sciencia" in which a king’s mapmakers, in an attempt to make a perfect map of their kingdom, must make the map as large as the land itself, rendering the map "Useless" (see Jonathan Basile’s "On Exactitude in Maps"). Because it must privilege one perspective over another, a map, just like a utopia, can never perfectly represent its territory, and yet they mask their subjectivity, their choice, beneath objectivity and rationalism.

It’s fitting then that so many people have tried to map utopia. As we researched maps to feature in this issue, we found that their utopias generally fell into two categories—the found and the constructed—categories that shed light on the perspectives of their makers.

The found utopia is the city or country of myth, a place that always seems to solve or complete our world. They are magic mirrors, mirages promising what the seeker desires, and in doing so, revealing the seeker’s greatest weakness. More’s Utopia—peace and harmony for those who lament social unrest. El Dorado—gold for the poor or greedy. Shangri-La—nirvana for the world-weary. Santa Claus, Arizona—Christmas in the desert (see Jan Bindas-Tenney’s "The Unveiling").

It’s easy to see why they fail. The map is not the territory. In reality, a found utopia is never truly found. Someone had to build it, and to that someone, utopia isn’t utopia; it’s simply home. The found utopia is just a trick of perception. For there to be greener grass on the other side, there must be sides, and you must be on the "wrong" one. It’s for this reason we prefer that a found utopia never be found. It is only hinted at, whispered of, a ghost of the archive (see Gregory Howard’s "#8. The Thousand-Mile Speaker.").

The constructed utopia is equally mythic, equally impossible, and like the found utopia, it is forever receding, just out of our grasp. The constructed utopia is also a reflection of our desires, but it’s not a reflection we can locate because it has yet to be built. Rarely do these blueprints lead to actual contructions because any attempt to instantiate an ideal will uncover information the map excluded. Look at Henry Ford’s Fordlandia. Walt Disney’s EPCOT. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre.

This is perhaps why so many architects of constructed utopias are egoists who blur the lines between genius and insanity. Anyone who wishes to see their ideal to fruition must ignore the imperfect realities of the world, a gesture that can be inspiring or foolish depending, again, on one’s perspective. Most constructed utopias are dystopias in the eyes of the majority and will be marginalized as fringe—sects, cults (see Sarah Minor’s "The New Age Below Ground"), radicals, undergrounds—if not outright destroyed, as in the Branch Davidians and their compound in Waco, Texas. But sometimes a utopia is a viable counter to normative culture, a breath of fresh air, fringe and exciting—a dark horse, a cinderella story, an underdog—that is, until it’s assimilated, a different kind of destruction. To stay a utopia, the constructed utopia must never be constructed. It must remain a dream—deeply personal and hazy, breaking the rules of reality and impossible to explain to anyone else. And we prefer it that way.

So, just as there’s no real difference between eu- and dys-, the found and the constructed are two sides of the same coin. Those who yearn to discover a lost civilization are romanticizing the past and its trappings—yellowing paper, a dusty archive, the charm and comfort of outdated orthodoxy. Those who yearn to engineer a better civilization are romanticizing the future and its trappings—the newest, shiniest gadgets, the speed of computation, the spectacle of a skyscraper (see Adam al-Sirgany’s "A City of Silk"). In both cases, we’re aspiring, wishing, and yet this desire is so personal, so abstract, it can’t become a reality without sacrificing itself.

It’s not such a stretch to claim writing—or any art, really—faces a similar predicament. Construct a world totally unlike our own and no one will be able to access its beauty. Construct a world that is perfectly realistic and recognizable and there’s no reason to enter it. This space must surprise us, but not too much. It must appeal to us, but not too much. Put another way, it must be a utopia, an impossible non-place between the many binaries we create to make sense of things.

This is what makes utopia a fitting (but not perfect) theme for this, our first issue. As Territory has evolved over the last year or so, we’re all too aware of how ideals must bend and break for something to become a reality. We could keep finding and constructing this very personal, imperfectible space forever, but if we only dwelled on past errors or future plans, we’d miss the best part—right now, watching it out there, trying to stand on shaky legs. That’s what happened when Ramona, Jonathan, Jan, Gregory, Sarah, and Adam first shared their utopias with us, and it’s what’s happening now as we release this project into the wild, to you.

So here it is, a place that will never be utopia because it exists.

-Nick Greer & Thomas Mira y Lopez


We ask our contributors to contruct or respond to a map, but what defines a map and how a contributor chooses to interpret its territory will vary radically with each piece. Here is how things played out for each:

Ramona Ausubel’s "Fairyland" maps the same territory represented in An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Discovered and Set Forth,, a collage of folk and fairy tale characters and locales, each labelled in a flowery cursive: Here is Avalon; Here is the Moone’s Sphere and Her Enchanted Rainbowes; Tom Thumb is somewhere here but he is too small to draw.

The artist in question is Bernard Sleigh, who also embroidered, stained glass, and illustrated books, though his own fairy tale collection, The Gates of Horn: Being Sundry Records from the Proceedings of the Society for the Investigation of Faery Fact & Fallacy apparently wasn’t well received.

Find this map in the Library of Congress (G9930 1920 .S51 & online) where it is classified as a map of an "imaginary locality."

Jonathan Basile’s "On Exactitude in Maps" maps the process of mapping itself. To read more about this, Borges, and Moretti, see:

Apostol, Gina. "Borges, Politics, and the Postcolonial." Los Angeles Review of Books (2013): n. pag. 18 Aug. 2013. Web. 24 Nov. 2015. <https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/borges-politics-and-the-postcolonial>.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Dreamtigers. Trans. Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland. Austin: U of Texas, 1964. Print.

Borges, Jorge Luis. "Del rigor en la ciencia." Obras Completas, 1923-1949. Buenos Aires: Emece, 1989. 847. Print.

Kristal, Efraín. "‘Considering Coldly . . .’ A Response to Franco Moretti." New Left Review 15 (2002): 61-74. Proquest. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

Moretti, Franco. Atlas of the European novel, 1800-1900. London: Verso, 1998. Print.

Moretti, Franco. "Network Theory, Plot Analysis." New Left Review 68 (2011): 80-102. Print.

Moretti, Franco. Distant Reading. London: Verso, 2013. EPUB.


Jan Bindas-Tenney’s "The Unveiling" maps Santa Claus, Arizona in a few ways. It is an essay, a literary map, paired with photography, a kind of visual map. This piece also makes use of a literal map, the result of a collaboration between Jan and Tucson artist Corinne Matesich. Because of its bird’s eye, aerial perspective, this map resembles panoramic city maps from the late 19th century, and like these maps, Corinne’s map is a fantasy map, choosing to depict "points of interest" rather than every last detail. Corinne had this to say about her process:

"[This map] represents final installment in a series of essay-maps that Jan and I collaborated on exploring the meaning, boundaries, and limits of place. Santa Claus is a dream that didn't quite make it into reality. The nonexistence of this place is charming. Besides being "no place" in an abstract sense, it's also a place I've never been. I started with the feeling that Jan's writing inspired: a wish that all places were easily healthy, that they'd follow the trajectory that was imagined by their founders, or maybe relief that they didn't; I certainly wouldn't visit a Christmas-themed town. And then I turned to the internet to piece together the particulars (satellite images, digital maps, etc.) to create this map."

Gregory Howard’s "#8. The Thousand-Mile Speaker." is working from an etching, one of the 34 in Bartolommeo Del Bene’s 1609 book Civitas veri sive morvm (Latin: "The City of Truth, or Morality"). Most of the etchings represent figures on a pilgrimage to this city. The historian Frances Yates writes: "Like so many Renaissance allegories, the ‘Civitas veri’ grows from a medieval root. The commentator Marcile points out its indebtedness to St. Augustine’s ‘City of God,’ and indeed the plan of the City of Truth recalls illustrations in medieval manuscripts of the City of God."

Sarah Minor’s "The New Age Below Ground" maps, both textually and visually, an Italian cult’s underground temple. The author had this to say about her process:

"The doubled map at the bottom of this essay describes the Temples of Humankind, a New Age subterranean structure in northern Italy. The image on the left is a pared-down version of the map I saw on brochures and posters around an Italian ecovillage that sits above the temples themselves. I never went down into the structure, partly because it was expensive to do so, and partly because I thought I would be disappointed once I arrived.

I mirrored this found image in grey to create two parallel maps to signal the ways my essay is trying to describe place in two different modes. There is something about how this line drawing divides underground space that seems impossible. My experience of the map is akin to the way I experienced this New Age spiritual system that seemed both lofty and unspecific: an incredulity paired with a wanting to believe. That mythic space remains ridiculously abstract for me in the way this drawing still is, but I think I'll always regret not eating that entrance fee."

Adam al-Sirgany’s "A City of Silk" is a response to a map of Madinat Al Hareer ("City of Silk"), a proposed urban area in Al-Subiyah, Kuwait. The map is not an overhead, cartographic map, but a rendering of what the urban area would look like upon completion, and is part of a series of similar such maps. This project is a speculative urban development, one of many composed by Eric Kuhne's Civic Arts, a "research and design practice dedicated to rediscovering the pageantry of civic life" by "restor[ing] the genius of place, the legacy of civilizations, and the story-telling quality of architecture."

Madinat Al Hareer's central tower is 1,001 meters tall, an allusion to legacy and story-telling of the One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of pan-Arab and Muslim folk tales collected by multiple authors from 8th century AD to the early modern period when its translations to other languages, most notably to French in 1704, codified its contents. Most Westerners are familiar with the translation by Mirza Abdullah al Bushiri (née Richard Burton), to whom Adam dedicates his work. The fantasia of this text is very much present Kuhne’s vision of Silk City as "[a]n emerald necklace of lakes and parks, like ribbons of silk, intertwin[ing] and weav[ing] each of the 25 neighbourhoods together into one cohesive city."

Silk City has yet to be built.


In addition to the standard bio, we ask that our contributors share a location that represents them in some way, their own personal utopia. Collected together they comprise the genius loci of this issue.

Other Utopias

Our themes are territories too large to map in full, so we like to point you outwards, away from our particular interpretation. Below are some other maps of utopia that we appreciate.

Return to the issue cover page, preview upcoming issues, or learn more about how you can get involved.

Utopia was published May 4th, 2016.