Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Can utopia exist in the present?/A desire to be elsewhere.

Utopianism is not about being “no-where” it is about desiring to be “elsewhere”. This fact means that utopian desire has both hopeful and pessimistic sides; it yearns for happiness but only because it is so unhappy in the existing world…Utopian desire is the desire to desire differently, which includes the desire to abandon such desire…

Tobin Siebers – ‘What does postmodernism want? Utopia’

Utopia as a concept has had a number of incarnations, but its beginnings as a project are attributed to Thomas More and his book Utopia written in 1516. The title he chose for his imaginary society played on two Greek words: u-topia meaning “no-place” and eu-topia meaning “good-place”. An expression of what humanity might be, it was a place where human reason and rationality produced dignity, democracy, uniformity and equality for all. More’s project however was only ever philosophical, it was a way for him and his followers to critique the real world they lived in, but not to necessarily change it.

Fast-forwarding to the twentieth century then the project of utopia becomes modernist and concrete and a central vein of ideology in the aftermath of WWII. Utopianism promised hope for a better future, it was feverishly optimistic in which equality and opportunity for all were central values. Sadly these values were unsustainable in the increasingly competitive market driven economy, and the fear of totalitarianism and a realisation that one size does not fit all contributed to its demise.

It is commonly articulated that the post-war socialist utopian project failed and that it was dangerous and degenerating. This is a troubling view, but nevertheless the limitations of the project need to be considered. Clearly the fantasy of utopia must hang on a double edge between optimism and ruin, like many utopian novels, instability is always omnipresent. What is sacrificed or hidden? What is excluded from the plans?  

I wonder if utopia as ‘a place’ conceived and represented can ever really exist, for does it not then risk becoming a heterotopia (a different place) or an isotopia (the same place)? - just another council estate inscribed with all the failing of the others? - a homogenous place, or an enclosure that is reserved for particular practices? Can, then, utopia really exist in the present?

Lambeth Towers, from Utopia London

In chapter two of The Urban Revolution Henri Lefebvre briefly turns his attention to the matter and presents utopia within a dialectical framework. (see pages 37-40)

Now, there is also an elsewhere, the non-place that has no place and seeks a place of its own. Vertically, a height erected anywhere on the horizontal plane, can become the dimension of elsewhereness, a place characterized by the presence-absence: of the divine, of power, of the half-functional, half-real, of sublime thought… Obviously the u-topic in this sense has nothing in common with an abstract imaginary. It is real. It is at the very heart of the real, the urban reality that can’t exist without this ferment. Within urban space, elsewhere is everywhere and nowhere.

For Lefebvre utopia is found in the dialectical urban form, in the possibility of contradiction and its own negation (possible-impossible and presence-absence). Above and below, near and far, there are spaces in the urban form that are unattainable yet ever present, that attract our attention and desires, they symbolise power structures but escape our full comprehension.  He goes on to say,

The urban is defined as a place where people walk around, find themselves standing before and inside piles of objects, experience the intertwining of the threads of their activities until they become unrecognizable, entangle situations in such a way that they engender unexpected situations. The definition of this space contains a null vector (virtually); the cancellation of distance haunts the occupants of urban space. It is their dream, their symbolized imaginary, represented in a multiplicity of ways – on maps, in the frenzy of encounters and meetings, in the enjoyment of speed “even in the city”. This is utopia (real, concrete). The result is the transcendence of the closed and the open, the immediate and the mediate, near and far orders, within a differential reality in which these terms are no longer separated but become imminent differences.

Within a differential reality separations are transcended, and flows and assemblages are in free form. Optimism is exchanged for possibility and anything is possible as long as you desire it enough… Utopia becomes a set of relations, it is pieced together rather than given, and it is lived.

Utopia of urban reality is characterised by its everywhere and elsewhereness. This is interesting when considering our places of interest, particularly Neo-Bankside, not only for those who look on excluded from the plans, but also for those global inhabitants, who are neither here nor there (present-absent), who are always on the move and in a state of un-belonging (but long a place of their own). Not satisfied with owning the property they are also promised the ‘ownership’ of the view, of status, of luxury amenities, of speed - the folding in of time and space. The giddiness in this conception of utopia promises heterogeneity, freedom and agency, it is awash with networks, opportunity and diversity - no less, a marketing dream. But the drive towards completeness and happiness cannot be satisfied; this desire always seeks something else, even if we’re not sure what that is yet (hence more luxury apartments and shopping malls and leisure facilities).

Utopia as a desire to be elsewhere seems quite different from the modernist utopia that projected human values and reason into another time and space. Siebers suggests that ‘[postmodernists] are utopian not because they do not know what they want. They are utopian because they know they want something else. They want to desire differently’ so (ignoring any arguments as to whether we are postmodern or not), it appears then that we are stuck in this utopia even if we don’t like it very much, as a desire to change is thus a utopian desire: this, it seems, is the utopianism of present. But this is not satisfactory at all! Perhaps we should go back to classical utopia and not wish it to be a reality, but maintain it as philosophical and critical project and keep it away from desires?

Of course what all this talk of desire misses is the presence of hope that drove earlier utopian projects. Hope in transformations… Perhaps it is hope that needs regenerating and not utopia?

Can utopia really exist in the present? Its existence relies on an inherent contradiction: it is possible and it is impossible. As soon as it is realised it dissolves into another desire, or it becomes yet another place just like any other, or it reveals itself as a quasi-utopia - a marketing ploy. It shows itself best in moments of transformation, in sets of unstable relations, and in unfinished plans.


Henri Lefebvre The Urban Revolution
Tobin Siebers (ed) Heterotopia
Alice Coleman Utopia on Trial: Vision and Reality in Planned Housing


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