Saturday, January 03, 2009

Utopian Thought & Imagination: Part 2

In our first post on this topic we examined, among other things, Russell Jacoby's Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (2005). Jacoby divides utopian thought and imagination into two broad categories (or genres): the "blueprint tradition" and the "iconoclastic tradition." The categorization is not purely descriptive, as Jacoby aims to demonstrate the latter tradition has been relatively neglected and the former tradition rightly castigated for giving rise to all sorts of ethical and political problems if not horrors. The principal problem with the blueprint tradition is that individuals and groups are said to use these blueprints as concrete models for constructing their particular dream of a better world here and now, without delay. Those attracted to this utopian genre apparently lack all ability to discern a logical or political gap between theory and praxis and, relatedly, are not at all reluctant to resort to coercion and violence as means and methods for impatiently instantiating their visions and values in the world. I do not think this is either an accurate summary or plausible picture of the function of utopian thought and imagination in history (for reasons found in the arguments of the books in our forthcoming selected bibliography on the subject).

In this post I would like to share some thoughts from the political philosopher
William A. Galston that capture in large measure both the way utopian thought has functioned and, in any case, should function in relation to political thought and action. In other words, even if one believes utopias have not been understood by political actors in the manner outlined, we should appreciate the extent to which Galston provides us with the conclusions of a compelling argument for how they ought to function. This material is from his book Justice and the Human Good (1980). Galston helps us see the misleading character of Jacoby's simplistic typology, in particular, how utopias are not on the order of "blueprints" or architectural plans at all:

Utopias are images of ideal communities; utopian thought tries to make explicit and to justify the principles on the basis of which communities are said to be ideal. [….] [T]he philosophical importance of utopias rests on utopian thought, although the practical effect of a utopia may be quite independent of its philosophic merits. [....]

Utopian thought performs three related political functions. First, it guides our deliberation, whether in devising courses of action or in choosing among exogenously defined alternatives with which we are confronted. Second, it justifies our actions; the grounds of action are reasons that others ought to accept and—given openness and the freedom to reflect—can be led to accept. Third, it serves as the basis for the evaluation of existing institutions and practices. The locus classicus is the Republic, in which the completed ideal is deployed in Plato’s memorable critique of imperfect regimes. [....]

Utopian thought attempts to specify and justify the principles of a comprehensively good political order. Typically, the goodness of that order rests on the desirability of the way of life enjoyed by the individuals within it; less frequently, its merits rely on organic features that cannot be reduced to individuals. Whatever their basis, the principles of the political good share certain general features:

First, utopian principles are in their intention universally valid, temporally and geographically.

Second, the idea of the good order arises out of our experience but does not mirror it in any simple way and is not circumscribed by it. Imagination may combine elements of experience into a new totality that has never existed; reason, seeking to reconcile the contradictions of experience, may transmute its elements.

Third, utopias exist in speech; they are “cities of words.” This does not mean that they cannot exist but only that they need not ever. This “counterfactuality” of utopia in no way impedes its evaluative function.

Fourth, utopian principles may come to be realized in history, and it may be possible to point to real forces pushing in that direction. But our approval of a utopia is not logically linked to the claim that history is bringing us closer to it or that we can identify an existing basis for the transformative actions that would bring it into being. Conversely, history cannot by itself validate principles. The movement of history (if it is a meaningful totality in any sense at all) may be from the most desirable to the less; the proverbial dustbin may contain much of enduring worth.

Fifth, although not confined to actual existence, the practical intention of utopia requires that it be constrained by possibility. Utopia is realistic in that it assumes human and material preconditions that are neither logically nor empirically impossible, even though their simultaneous co-presence may be both unlikely and largely beyond human control to effect.

Sixth, although utopia is a guide for action, it is not in any simple sense a program of action. In nearly all cases, important human or material preconditions for good politics will be lacking. Political practice consists in striving for the best results achievable in particular circumstance. The relation between the ideal and the best achievable is not deductive. [….]

Thus, the incompleteness of utopia, far from constituting a criticism of it, is inherent in precisely the features that give it evaluative force. As has been recognized at least since Aristotle, the gap between utopian principles and specific strategic/tactical programs can be bridged only through an inquiry different in kind and content from that leading to the principles themselves. If so, the demand that utopian thought contain within itself the conditions of its actualization leads to a sterile hybrid that is neither an adequate basis for rational evaluation nor an accurate analysis of existing conditions.

This is far and away the best summary I've read of the nature and function of utopian thought and imagination. It is no small irony that it comes courtesy of an avowed Liberal political theorist (and quite a good one at that), if only because we might plausibly if not persuasively claim that the utopian potential of Liberalism is largely exhausted, while that found in Marxist, socialist, anarchist, and cosmopolitan political thought is alive and well if not flourishing (if only owing to the failure of Liberalism to transcend--rather than simply rationalize--the capitalist economic system in the name of democratic principles, values and practices).

In Utopian Lights: The Evolution of the Idea of Social Progress (1989), Bronislaw Baczko essentially concurs with Galston:

1. There is no utopia without an overall representation, the idea-image of an alternative society, opposed to the existing social reality, and its institutions, rites, dominant symbols, systems of values, norms of interdictions, hierarchies, relations of dominance and property, its domain reserved to the sacred, and so forth. In other words, there is no utopia without a synthetic and disruptive representation of social otherness. [….]

2. The representations of a different and happy City are the products of a particular way of imagining the social; utopias are one of the places, occasionally the privileged place, where the social imagination is put into practice, where individual and collective social dreams are welcomed, gathered, worked on, and produced. Moreover if utopian imagining activity is focused on overall and synthetic idea-images, it nevertheless is developed through day-to-day reality. The dreams of the happy City are, then, articulated with images of a renewed daily life, and utopias often offer a great luxury of detail in their descriptions of individual and collective daily life. The structural relationships between the representation of the overall society and the detailed images of the ordinary aspects of life are as complex as they are revealing. [….]

3. The alternative society is not only imagined, it is also thought to be consonant with reason, and prides itself on the rationality it brings into play. Utopias want to install reason in the realm of the imagination; in utopias, constant exchanges among social dreams and critical, theoretical, and normative reflection are carefully worked out. The term idea-image to which we often have recourse has the sole aim of bringing these distinctive characteristics of utopian representation to the fore. [….]

4. Utopia is not only imagined and thought, it is made intelligible and communicable in a discourse by which the merging of the idea-images and their integration into a language is accomplished. [T]wo classic paradigms were imposed in utopian discourse from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. The first is the utopia of the imaginary voyage. [….] The other paradigm is that of the utopia-proposal for ideal legislation. [….]

5. Every utopia is not necessarily proposed as a program of action or even as a model that would demand intellectual or emotional support. The novelistic utopias are offered most frequently as intellectual games. They only seek to stimulate both the imagination and the critical and moralizing reflection of the readers…. However, sometimes even the utopias presented in the form of an imaginary voyage inspire a will to act and to give some of their ideas a practical application. [….] But there are utopias that proclaim themselves as both a prophetic and a founding word, and that find their extensions in the establishment of exemplary communities professing to put them into practice.

Ours appears to be (and with ample reason) a time characterized by the ubiquitousness of dystopian fears and apocalyptic anticipation. In other words, we have been living in a climate inhospitable to utopian thought and imagination. But that may be changing, the proverbial tide may be turning, and we may be on the cusp of a global warming of a different sort:

Certainly, the concept of utopia is only one of the many possible demonstrations of the anxieties, hopes, and pursuits of an era and of a social milieu. The questioning of the legitimacy and rationality of the existing order, the diagnosis and criticism of moral and social defects, the search for remedies, the dreams of a new order, etc.—all these favorite themes of utopias are found in political systems and popular myths, in religious doctrines and in poetry. If the critique of social reality and the expectation of a new City turn toward utopia, that means that a choice has been made among available forms of discourse. What is said in utopia and as utopia cannot be said otherwise. There are “hot” eras when utopias flourish, when the utopian imagination penetrates the most diverse forms of intellectual, political, and literary activity; eras when opposing points of view and divergent main themes seem to rediscover their point of convergence in the very invention of the descriptions of utopias. But there are other “cold” eras, when utopian creativity is weakened and cut off from social, intellectual, and ideological activities. (Bronislaw Baczko)

We will continue this discussion in a future post.


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