Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Failed Utopia


an imaginary island described in Sir Thomas More's Utopia  (1516) as enjoying perfection in law, politics, etc.
(usually lowercase ) an ideal place or state.
( usually lowercase ) any visionary system of political or social perfection.
< Neo-Latin  (1516) < Greek ou  not + tóp ( os ) a place + -ia -y3

Failed utopia, this term seems to be banded around a lot. In reference to idealist schemes that have fallen short. It seems to stand for good intentions, thwarted by harsh, often economic realities. I wish to suggest however, that in using the term utopia, surely we are setting ourselves up to fail? There should be no sense of surprise with which we refer to a utopian ideal that has failed to come into fruition. In fact, to use this phrase at all is perhaps something of a tautology.

The term 'utopia' came into general use as a result of Sir Thomas More, who in 1551 chose it as the name for his imaginary island that had, at least as far as he himself was concerned, perfect legal, social and political systems. However, the word utopia, far from simply referring to something ideal, heavenly, in fact comes from the Greek 'uo' to mean 'not' and 'topos' which translates as 'place', literally 'no place'. As late as 1609 there is record of it being used to mean simply 'having no known location'. It isn't until 1621 that it can be found defined as 'impossibly visionary, ideal'. As we can see, based on its origins it doesn't necessarily have positive connotations. It is perhaps more accurate to suggest that it is a place that is always just out of reach, both theoretically and practically.

If we look back to Moore's Utopia, the title page in fact reads 'the perfect place'. Many consider that his labelling of the island as Utopia was a joke, a comment on the idea that this perfection can never really exist. There is also the school of thought that More did not see his island as perfection at all, as a strict catholic he could not possibly have seen a legal system that allowed divorce to be anything other than abhorrent, but for now let us subscribe to the idea that he was aiming at the ideal.

If we bring this definition of utopia, as meaning 'of no known location' into a modern context, there are some interesting implications. In light of the current economic climate, land developers find themselves in great difficulty. Gone are the days in which huge loans could be taken with which to procure land and build luxury homes which would sell without question. There is suggestion that the new breed of land developer is concerned only with gaining planning permission which can then be sold to the highest bidder.
Handing over the keys is no longer the finish line, developments are commonly halted at various stages while deeds and debts change hands, in some cases never to be finished. Ghost towns are effectively created, where dreams crumble along with infrastructure. Is this the new utopia? The forever unfinished project, the promise and not the delivery.The no place.

If these spaces do exist, if we take the 'ideal' definition that recent rhetoric seems to have favoured, what then? Let us also look at the implications of the way in which utopia tends be commonly used, as a synonym for heaven. Utopia as a heavenly place, does not strive to provide the best for all, it is inherently selective. Each heaven has its own conditions of inclusion or exclusion, there are those who will and won't be allowed through it's gates. Perhaps this provides the basis for the new utopia, one that is no longer about inclusion, the best for all, but in fact about exclusivity. High end new builds such as Neo-Bankside and One Hyde Park (the penthouse having recently sold for £136m) trade on exclusivity, once you have purchased your utopia, the feeling of satisfaction that follows is based as much upon the amenities you know have access to, as it is on the knowledge that you are among a privileged few.
Is Utopia now reserved for the chosen few, those who have the means to buy their entrance through the pearly gates? Utopia is seen as marketing device that can be packaged neatly and sold to the highest bidder.

Which ever way we choose to define our utopia, one thing seems abundantly clear. It is no longer about the best for all, a future that is better than the present. It can be bought and sold, and benefits only those who know how to trade it. The only thing that can be said with any great certainty, is that in its current state, More would no longer recognise it.


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