Thursday, July 13, 2017

Can utopianism be rescued?

I’ve been wanting to do a post on utopias for some time, notes on the subject have drifted to the bottom of my queue of potential posts.  There are six cities in America named Utopia and 25 named Arcadia.  Utopia is an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. The word was first used in the book Utopia (1516), a satirical and playful work by Sir Thomas Moore that tried to nudge boundaries but not perturb Henry VIII unduly. The image of Arcadia (based on a region of ancient Greece), has more innocent, rural, and pastoral overtones.  One imagines people in greek togas strolling about strumming on their lyres uttering poetry and civilized discourse to each other. (Is our modern equivalent strolling among the countless input streams offered by the cloud that permit us to savor and respond to music, ideas, movies, serials, etc.?   What would be your vision of a Utopia, or Arcadia?)

I pass on the ending paragraphs of a brief essay by Espen Hammer on the history and variety of utopias. I wish he had been more descriptive of what he considers the only reliable remaining candidate for a utopia, nature and our relation to it.
…not only has the utopian imagination been stung by its own failures, it has also had to face up to the two fundamental dystopias of our time: those of ecological collapse and thermonuclear warfare. …In matters social and political, we seem doomed if not to cynicism, then at least to a certain coolheadedness.
Anti-utopianism may, as in much recent liberalism, call for controlled, incremental change. The main task of government, Barack Obama ended up saying, is to avoid doing stupid stuff. However, anti-utopianism may also become atavistic and beckon us to return, regardless of any cost, to an idealized past. In such cases, the utopian narrative gets replaced by myth. And while the utopian narrative is universalistic and future-oriented, myth is particularistic and backward-looking. Myths purport to tell the story of us, our origin and of what it is that truly matters for us. Exclusion is part of their nature.
Can utopianism be rescued? Should it be? To many people the answer to both questions is a resounding no.
There are reasons, however, to think that a fully modern society cannot do without a utopian consciousness. To be modern is to be oriented toward the future. It is to be open to change even radical change, when called for. With its willingness to ride roughshod over all established certainties and ways of life, classical utopianism was too grandiose, too rationalist and ultimately too cold. We need the ability to look beyond the present. But we also need More’s insistence on playfulness. Once utopias are embodied in ideologies, they become dangerous and even deadly. So why not think of them as thought experiments? They point us in a certain direction. They may even provide some kind of purpose to our strivings as citizens and political beings.
We also need to be more careful about what it is that might preoccupy our utopian imagination. In my view, only one candidate is today left standing. That candidate is nature and the relation we have to it. More’s island was an earthly paradise of plenty. No amount of human intervention would ever exhaust its resources. We know better. As the climate is rapidly changing and the species extinction rate reaches unprecedented levels, we desperately need to conceive of alternative ways of inhabiting the planet.
Are our industrial, capitalist societies able to make the requisite changes? If not, where should we be headed? This is a utopian question as good as any. It is deep and universalistic. Yet it calls for neither a break with the past nor a headfirst dive into the future. The German thinker Ernst Bloch argued that all utopias ultimately express yearning for a reconciliation with that from which one has been estranged. They tell us how to get back home. A 21st-century utopia of nature would do that. It would remind us that we belong to nature, that we are dependent on it and that further alienation from it will be at our own peril.

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