The Banality of Dystopia

Photograph by Elliot Sperber

The term dystopia, as everyone knows, means bad place. In the 19th century, however, dystopia had a medical meaning.

These days, that medical meaning is generally conveyed by the word ectopia. From ex (out) and topos (place), ectopia means something that is out of place.

Not to be confused with Ernest Callenbach’s utopian novel Ecotopia, ectopia is probably familiar to most from the phenomenon of the ectopic pregnancy. And this ectopia, the ectopic pregnancy, is not just a medical problem, but one that has serious dystopian connotations as well (as religious zealotry threatens the lives of millions by preventing and interfering with medical care, among other necessities).

Because ectopia is generally defined as a condition in which an organ is misplaced, often congenitally, and because ectopia and dystopia are so alike, we can arguably also define dystopia in such a way. But just which, and how many, political and/or social organs are out of place in our dystopia?

One in particular extends from the word organ itself. For organ derives from the Greek word organon. Meaning a tool, as well as the product of that tool, organon refers to the product of a society’s tools and work. And what is this product today? Among other things, war, ecological devastation, and habitat destruction give way to pandemics and mass extinction; in short, a (capitalogenically) polluted and overheated world careening into de facto genocide and general unlivability. These are the true wages of capitalism.

We can also see here how closely the word organ is to the word ergon, which means work or labor, most of which in this society is in the wrong place (as both fact and value). Not only are people’s lives consumed working jobs that spread harm and mass produce toxic garbage (often subsidized by the state); at the same time rest, play, and work that humanity requires to flourish (teaching, caring for one another and our environment) is neglected. Even those apparently benefitting from all the senseless work and waste of this society can’t escape this dystopia, this ectopia.

And yet the concept of ectopia also leads to a reading of “out of place”, of ex topos, that is related to exodus (from ex hodos, the path out). For, like the medical notion, the ectopia is not just the condition that must be removed, it is also the place of harmful conditions from which we must be removed; the place itself must be taken out. The conditions must be transformed.

So, in this way ectopia leads to ex-hodos, exodus, the path out. But is this path also a physical place, a topos, a road? Or is it a series of steps — i.e., a meta hodos, a method, a path through?

As our dystopia metastasizes more and more rapidly, it is vital to recall as well that topos does not just mean place. In addition to place, topos means possibility. And so, ectopia, in addition to dystopia, also means a possible exit.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber