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Rethinking Utopia

by David Bell on March 16, 2017
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We all know the story of utopia. It’s a tragic narrative in which hopes, dreams and projects oriented to a better world give way to ‘totalitarianism’. ‘Nice ideas on paper’ prove ‘disastrous in practice’. Utopia itself is disgraced, revealed as nothing more than dystopia disguised by false promises and enforced through violence. We are so over that. We know better now. Our present is post-utopian.

Such glib truisms don’t extend to an analysis of the utopianism inherent to our dystopian present, of course; nor to the violence through which this present reproduces itself. As many have noted, we are not living after utopia but through its disavowal. The post utopian is the most utopian (with apologies to Deterritorial Support Group).

Given this, the task I set myself in my recently published book Rethinking Utopia was, well, to rethink utopia (though I must confess, the publisher chose the title, and this ‘rethinking’ is not mine alone but is the product of a general intellect that citation can never capture). I mobilise ‘utopia’ as a vibrant, slippery concept helping us to navigate the present; and to struggle within, against and beyond it. I explore dystopia, anti-utopianism and the post-utopian too: reading our world through operations of power and subjectivity in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We and Michael Winterbottom’s 2003 film Code 46. These texts refuse liberalism’s anti-utopian-post-utopianism even as the form to which they belong – dystopia – is marshalled in its support, and offer tantalising (if problematic) suggestions for a recalibration of utopianism.

Rethinking Utopia is grounded in the tradition of utopian studies, and I explore how the interdisciplinary field has revitalised utopia such that it becomes a tool for conflict and struggle rather than finality and certainty. However, I argue that in doing so it often conflates utopia with utopianism, or rejects the former in favour of the latter. And whilst I reject the liberal critique of utopian violence as apologism for a violent status quo, I note that attention must be paid to utopianism’s role in that status quo by noting its historic imbrication with state and colonial power.

This provides me with a platform to rearticulate utopia in a more normative manner: a ‘utopian utopianism’, perhaps. Doing so means rejecting the ‘harmony’ with which utopia has so often been associated in favour of a politics of dissonance. It means denying the possibility not just of our end of history, but of any end of history. It means working against the ontologies and epistemologies of patriarchal, racist, statist, colonial utopianism.

I seek to do so by paying utopia a ‘subversive fidelity’ through its three constituent terms – ‘good’ (eu), ‘no’ (ou) and ‘place’ (topos) – and their ‘ambiguous’, dissonant relations. The works of Gilles Deleuze, Sara Ahmed and Doreen Massey are particularly important to this end, and are explored alongside, through and within musical free improvisation, radical experiments in education and Anarres – the anarcho-communist world in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; as well as the (anti-anti)utopian glimpses in We and Code 46 and a magpie’s array of Indigenous, queer, communist, and anti-racist praxis. Joyful and joy-killing place-making practices are connected across time and space, allowing the book to undo the finality of any world. And perhaps, even, to undo utopia itself…

David Bell

David M. Bell is the Research Associate on and Co-ordinator of the ‘Imaginaries of the Future: Historicizing the Present’ Leverhulme International Research Network, based in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University, UK.

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