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By conjoining the Greek adverb “ou” (“not”) and the noun “topos” (“place”) the English humanist and politician Thomas More conceived of a place that is not — literally a “nowhere” or “noplace.” More’s learned readers would also have recognized another pun.
Myths purport to tell the story of our origin and of what it is that truly matters for us. 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. In my view, only one candidate is today left standing. Yet it calls for neither a break with the past nor a headfirst dive into the future. 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.
That candidate is nature and the relation we have to it. No amount of human intervention would ever exhaust its resources. 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. The German thinker Ernst Bloch argued that all utopias ultimately express yearning for a reconciliation with that from which one has been estranged. Espen Hammer is a professor of philosophy at Temple University and the author of “Adorno’s Modernism: Art, Experience, and Catastrophe.” Now in print: “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” an anthology of essays from The Times’s philosophy series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.
The utopias of justice seem largely to have been eviscerated by 20th-century totalitarianism.
After the Gulag Archipelago, the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields and the Cultural Revolution, these utopias seem both philosophically and politically dead.Are our industrial, capitalist societies able to make the requisite changes? This is the fifth in a series of essays I wrote as an undergraduate, honours, and then masters student in political theory.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.Today, the utopian impulse seems almost extinguished.The utopias of desire make little sense in a world overrun by cheap entertainment, unbridled consumerism and narcissistic behavior.Utopianism can be dreamy in a John Lennon “Imagine”-esque way.Yet it has also been ready to intervene and bring about concrete transformation. Utopias of desire, as in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” focus on happiness, tying it to the satisfaction of needs.It has animated and informed progressive thinking, providing direction and a sense of purpose to struggles for social change and emancipation.From the vantage point of the utopian imagination, history — that gushing river of seemingly contingent micro-events — has taken on meaning, becoming a steadfast movement the sought-for condition supposedly able to justify all previous striving and suffering.