Searching for utopia in dystopian times

By Andy Inch

“Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process, with no end. Struggle forever.” 
― Kim Stanley Robinson, Pacific Edge

“No place like utopia”. Source: Creative Commons

It can be hard to know what to say when non-academic friends and family ask what you do as a full-time researcher. They often shake their heads, laugh and ask (only half-jokingly) when you’re going to get a real job. When faced with this reaction, I’ve discovered it’s best not to admit to spending long hours reading about utopia.  But at the risk of confirming people’s prejudices about life in the ivory tower that is one of the things I’ve been doing over recent months.

Since Thomas More coined the term in 1516, Utopia has been an important reference point in the cultural life of Western societies. Here in Lisbon the 500th anniversary of the publication of More’s book was marked by a series of debates and performances at the Maria Matos Theatre while one of the first exhibitions at the newly opened MAAT was entitled ‘utopia/ dystopia’.

Back in 1516 a good number of contemporary readers are reputed to have taken Utopia for a serious account of an actually existing society. Expeditions are said to have set off in search of the artificial island created by King Utopus where people pissed in pots of gold.

At a certain point, linked to new understandings of history and progress, the search for utopia moved from an unmapped geographical location to become a possible future place, a destination that could actually be reached in time. This shift from a spatial to a temporal horizon also brought utopia to life in other ways, moving from the book-shelves of a literary genre to become an active part of both political theory and practice.

In all three of its traditional manifestations, as fiction, political theory and in experimental forms of communal living, utopianism has been concerned with the possibility of imagining, and realizing alternative worlds. As a result, utopianism has been closely associated with various political movements, most notably perhaps socialism, that have sought to transform society in response to the cruelty, wastefulness, or irrationality of the prevailing order of things.

However, the utopian tradition has always been complex and contested. Various scholars argue that More gave name to a much longer-standing or even essential human need for what Lyman Tower Sargent calls “social dreaming”, stretching back to Plato’s Republic and even beyond. However, the word that More chose also embedded a deep ambivalence into utopia, the Greek roots of which can be read as either ou-topia, meaning no-place, or eu-topia, meaning good place.

Of course, in everyday commonsense usage to be accused of being utopian means you are guilty of a hopelessly impractical idealism (not dissimilar to being considered academic). It was this sense that Engels famously invoked to dismiss the utopian socialism of Fourier, Saint-Simon and Owen, chiding their attempts to realize socialism in the here and now for misunderstanding the scientific laws of capitalism and therefore as a distraction from the class struggle.

Others, including famously Karl Popper, have launched more fundamental criticisms of the idea of utopia itself, taking vehemently anti-utopian positions by arguing that the pursuit of social ideals is inherently totalitarian, underpinned by authoritarianism and synonymous with forms of social engineering inimical to democracy and freedom. For leading anti-utopians in the second half of the twentieth century, liberal, conservative and post-modernist alike, utopian ambitions lay behind some of the worst excesses of state-sponsored violence and attempts to realize ideal societies led inexorably towards the concentration camps and gas chambers.

Such concerns are important and cannot be lightly dismissed. Many literary utopias have tended towards depictions of static social orders, reflecting the bad habits and fears of their own time more than any universal idea of a good place. However, without visions of how the world might be different we risk becoming hostage to a status quo that, despite its ideological protestations to the contrary, was itself once a utopia that people fought and died for. As William Morris put it in A Dream of John Ball:

…men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name

For this reason, as Frederic Jameson has argued it seems important to at least hold to a robust anti-anti-utopianism, insisting on the value of imagining and arguing over how the world might be transformed.

From the beginning utopia has also been shadowed by its own, dark ‘other’. After all, one person’s eutopia is the next person’s dystopia (not necessarily anti-utopian, dystopias are depictions of bad-places, often utopias gone wrong). Since the middle of the twentieth century, cultural production has tended decisively towards the dystopian rather than the utopian. In a significant essay on Utopia and Science Fiction in 1978, Raymond Williams suggested that the utopian impulse and imagination had begun to shift again, retreating from the building of systematic alternative futures to instead act as a more limited heuristic, offering vision or hope against the grain of dominant social forces.

Rather than offering programmatic visions of a transformed world, heuristic utopianism focuses attention on the “education of desire”, a phrase first used by the French philosopher Manuel Abensour that points to a realm of social practices (literary, political or lived) where we might explore and learn about the possibility of alternative worlds.

Contemporary interest in Ernst Bloch’s work has arguably extended the scope of heuristic utopianism further, suggesting that we develop a utopian hermeneutics to interpret the traces of desire for different ways of living that reside in many social objects and practices. However, absent Bloch’s messianic marxist faith in the progressive unfolding of hope, determining which of these traces might contribute to concrete transformation and which are mere ideological abstractions becomes more difficult.

Locating utopian possibilities in the everyday rather than in a distant time or place enables a more open-ended and pluralist idea of how various forms of social dreaming might emerge from within a capitalist realism that seems to foreclose the possibility of more radical transformation. However, as Jameson, Ruth Levitas and others have argued, it may also suggest an underlying pessimism about our capacity to willfully transform the world.

So what to make of this search for utopia? (Or isn’t it time I got a proper job?)

Despite persistent fears of its exhaustion, the utopian impulse has proven resilient, shifting its location, form and content as hopes for the radical reconstruction of society have changed over time. The relations between the utopian tradition and the political possibilities for any such transformation are complex and resist any easy understanding. However, there is a marked sense in which the dystopian tenor of contemporary cultural production forms part of a wider conjunctural impasse. Contemporary societies seem to be haunted by images of the catastrophic futures our technologically enhanced presents are constructing. And yet, at the same time recent decades have been marked by a dearth of compelling alternatives.

The story of utopia (dystopia and anti-utopia) reflects this impasse, but might it also offer ways of thinking beyond it? I’m still trying to work that out but as Oscar Wilde famously said in The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.

Andy Inch is a post-doctoral researcher at Institute for Social Sciences, University of Lisbon.


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