Perfect Oneida


On the Individual/Collective tip:

Pretty much my favorite Utopian living experiment, the Oneida Perfectionists inhabited a compound of sorts in upstate NY for over three decades in the middle of the 19th century. As Perfectionists, they believed the kingdom of God was achievable on earth, and they developed two practices geared towards building it. Complex Marriage, the more lurid and consequently more well known, involved a complicated system whereby all the men had sexual access to all the women (and, rather progressively, vice versa), provided they used the appropriate channels. No innuendo there – the system involved a bureacracy of go-betweens in charge of granting permission.

The second, and way more wild, practice they called Mutual Criticism. Basically, at regular intervals a member of the community would volunteer to be observed by a rotating committee of peers. At the end of this period of scrutiny, the member would appear in front of the entire group (300+ in its heyday) and the committee would report on his or her faults, making reccommendations for improvement. Here’s a chapter from the community handbook on Mutual Criticism – pretty much a guide to taking it like a man (paraphrasing but not much). Marshalling the natural impulse of people living together to get annoyed and talk about each other, Oneida Perfectionists thus attempted to form a totally harmonious environment, free of jealousy and irritation.

I think my favorite part of this story, though, is the way it defies narrative closure. Predictably, the living situation fell apart after the death of the community’s charismatic leader, John Humphrey Noyes. Rather than disbanding completely, though, the group formed a corporation and continue to this day, manufacturing silverware and plates. They’re incredibly successful.

The mansion that housed the community is still around, too. Still occupied, actually. In fact, since it was built, it’s never been unoccupied. I visited it last spring and it’s a bit strange to walk around the museum in the middle of the building and pass residents going about their business. They seem to be largely, but not exclusively, elderly, perhaps attracted to the inexpensive rent and the built-in company. Inside the mansion, there’s a sense of things going on as they have because there’s no reason for them not too. Kind of like a harmony achieved once, a long time ago, and remembered vaguely; like a distant tone that’s still ringing.