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The ‘Utopia game’ — utopian thinking in practiceDavid Kergel 1
Preliminary theoretical considerations
Utopian thought is a ‘not-pragmatic-thought’. It is a process which reaches beyond the allegedly realistic borders and boundaries of existing societies. A utopian thought ‘minds the gap’ between a state of society and what it could be: ‘There are indeed ideals represented in utopias, ideals that shape our notions of progress. Utopias implicitly provide a standard by which we judge our political and social achievements.’ (Rohstein, 2005, p. 6). Utopian thought is thus part of a society which it implicitly criticizes – a utopian thought points to aspects in a society which could be improved. Utopian thought reveals subsequently deficient aspects in existing societies. The etymological roots of the notion ‘Utopia’ can be traced back to the novel ‘De optimo statu reipublicae, deque nova insula Utopia’ and it means roughly translated ‘no-place-land’ (1516, by Thomas Moore). But instead of being a ‘no-place-land’ utopian thought is fundamentally bound to the state of the society, out of which it emerges. Because of their emphasis on deficient aspects of a society, utopian thoughts possess a critical distance to the society, having subsequently subversive implications: ‘The journey to utopia is also full of dangers.’ (Rohstein, 2005, p. 2).
What is utopian thought?
A thought can be called utopian when it describes the schemes of an ideal society; a society of liberty, equality and wealth. A society which is defined by peace, rational based decision making, tolerance and respect. These aspects and the increasing publication of utopian states in course of the enlightenment reveal to what extent utopian thought is a modern thought. That means a thought which refers to the immanent aspects of humanity and not to divine orders:
‘The conventional utopia – the imaginary ideal city or world – seems to me a transitional state between belief in an almighty dignity, a supreme being capable of bending the laws of nature, and the acceptance of personal responsibility in whatever sphere life happens to place us.’ (Muscamp, 2005, p. 29).
Instead of referring to an external otherworld, a – so to speak – ‘kingdom to come’, utopian thought focuses on the competence of human being. A utopian thought signifies that the human being does not need a ‘big Other’, in the sense of Lacan, to establish a peaceful and fair, emotionally rich and solicitous social practice.
‘The big Other designates radical alterity, an otherness which transcends the illusory otherness of the imaginary because it cannot be assimilated through identification. Lacan equates this radical alterity with language and the law, and hence the big Other is inscribed in the order of the symbolic. Indeed, the big Other is the symbolic insofar as it is particularised for each subject. The Other is thus both another subject, in his radical alterity and inassimilable uniqueness, and also the symbolic order which mediates the relationship with that other subject’ (Evans, 1996, p. 166).
According to Lacan´s conception of the big Other, the existence of objective requirements which demand a pragmatic necessary acting is a permanently discursive point of reference. It appears like a `vital necessity´ which determines macro- and microstructures, affects EU policies and `particularises´ each subject´. But despite its impact and meaning, pragmatic necessities and their demands cannot finally be conceptually defined. By fulfilling a crucial attribute of the big Other, the objective requirements and their demands cannot be finally fixed, like I will point out below.
Utopian thought versus pragmatic acting
Western society has developed the ideology of utilitarian pragmatism: The seemingly unconditional belief in systemic necessities rise to the surface in times of financial crises. The discourse of the crises-management is defined by a radical either – ‘or’. For example: Either the European political leaders succeed in saving the banks, the financial base of states like Greek and Cyprus ‘or’ … This ‘or’ remains undefined and this undefined state of alternatives marks that there exists no realistic alternative to the pragmatic rescue of the banks. The discourse of the crises is at the same time an apocalyptic discourse which grounds on the dichotomy that either the pragmatic based solution works out or the chaos takes over. Utopian thinking here would ask of a possibility space of social practice beyond these pragmatic necessities and the alternative ‘apocalyptic chaos’: ‘(…) utopias (…) are visions of what should be, (…)’ (Rohstein 2005, p. 3).
For example: When Cyprus cannot exist any longer with the established socio-economical order the utopian question has to be posed. This question asks which other socio-economical order is desirable. Instead of reacting according to already given ‘objective necessities’ utopian thought asks what is desirable posing afterwards the question which pragmatic strategies could realise such a utopian state.
Utopian Thinking within a ‘society of control’
Practicing utopian thinking is a creative thinking process because it demands more or less implicitly the search for new paths in order to solve (old) problems. But such a thinking has to be trained or – in other words – conquered: ‘A utopia is like one of those forbidden gardens in fairy tales, hidden from view by briars and ringed with thorns, or surrounded by flames like the sleeping body of Brünnhilde; (…)’ (Rohstein 2005, p. 7).
Such a conquering or training of utopian thinking has been one main target of our ‘Utopia Game’. Therefore we ask how the gap between the macro level of traditional utopian thinking (utopias describe mostly the ‘whole perfect society’) and concrete social practice can be diminished: How is it possible to apply utopian thinking within concrete practice (of social work). One starting point is social work which is strictly value-based and bears more or less implicitly the desire to ‘make the world a better place’:
‘The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.’ (IFSW 2012).
This programmatic definition of Social Work by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) points to the aspect of change on a micro-level; because it focuses on concrete ‘human relationships’. It might be possible to derive from this formulation that the `Principles of human rights and social justice´ are to be established within the concrete social practice, within the specific human relationships. To establish such a practice one has to face the constraints and the pragmatic normative requirements of a society which could be – following Deleuze – understood as a ‘Society of Control’. According to Deleuze, we live in a society which mediates patterns of meaning which are pragmatic and defined by a purposive-rational action grounding on ‘(…) a society of control, the corporation has been replaced the factory, and the corporation is a spirit a gas. Of course the factory was already familiar with the system of bonuses, but the corporation works more deeply to impose a modulation of each salary, in states of perpetual metastability that operate through challenges, contests (…)’ (Deleuze 1992, p. 4). On a micro-level an economic state of society has been established, which keeps the individual in tension. ‘(…) man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt.’ (Deleuze 1992, p. 6): The precarity of life – the stable instability of economic insecurity and as an effect of this precarity, the economical pressure-marks the individuals. This pressure is an ‘(…) excellent motivational force that opposes individuals against one another and runs through each, (…)’ (Deleuze 1992, p. 5). This economic pressure can be interpreted as a big Other (as a basic normative requirement the individual can never fulfil), inscribes itself within the individuals and their self-interpretation patterns. Subsequently, the economic pressure and precarity is pop-culturally (re-) produced by TV formats like ‘casting shows’ (American Next Top Model, American Idol …) which celebrate the competitive basic organisation of societies of control: ‘If the most idiotic game shows are so successful, it is because they express the corporate situation with great precision.’ (Deleuze, 1992, p. 4). The ‘corporate situation’ effects a concurrence situation among the individuals which divides the individuals from each other. The ‘corporate situation’ can be considered as an undermining of solidary networks. Utopian thinking in turn can be considered as a ‘counter-strategy’ to such an undermining of solidary networks. From this point of view utopian thinking is a social task: ‘(…) THAT A UTOPIA IS a symbol of wholeness. (…) It is a form of inclusion or integration that attempts to overcome or cure the ills of the differentiation necessary to civilised life.’ (Muschamp, 2005, p. 29).
A systematic utopian thinking provides a forum to order the potential of improvement which utopian thinking reveals: ‘Behind many analyses of utopia, (…), is the recognition that at their heart is some version of a search for order. ‘(Marty, 2005, p. 52). In our ‘Utopia-workshop’ we tried to operationalize this ‘search for order’.
The Utopia Game’ Conception, Conduct and Results
During the Course ‘Social Work and Spirituality’ 2012 in Dubrovnik, Jörg Zeller and I organised a ‘Utopia Game’. In course of this game ‘keystones’ of a utopian society should be developed. Another goal of the game was to train utopian thinking. All participants of the three Social Work courses in the week from June 11–15, 2012 at the IUC Dubrovnik were players of the ‘Utopia Game’ with the aim and working task to ‘imagine the best possible society ever’.
The game had no other rules than the way how the participants are willing to agree upon how to play it. Thus the players are free to ‘make up the rules as they go along’ (Wittgenstein) and to change them as they go along.
The following ‘rules’ had been suggested:
1. Imagination: feel absolutely free to imagine whatever you want about how the best of all possible societies shall look like.
2. Negotiation: negotiate your ideas with your co-players. What you think is best for you should also be best for your co-players (kind of basic principle of ethics).
3. Conclusion: formulate the result of step 1 and 2 – the common conclusion of your playing the game.
The basic thought was the question how one could re-construct a utopian state of society. Here we focused on basic elements which utopian conceptions normally have in common.
Because of the number of players and the complexity of the wanted result we suggested to divide the total of players (approximate about 20) in three subgroups. In each subgroup a dimension of a basic element which structure society should be discussed. So we formed three groups with the topics
Jörg Zeller and I agreed to choose these three dimensions, because they appear as typical basic elements in traditional utopian models. Further, they could be considered as basic elements of social practice in general. For a better orientation for the participants and as foundation of the discussion we provided a basal definition of each element:
By politics we meant as well how the law-giving, judging and executive power should be instituted and implemented. With ‘politics’ we asked the participants how they imagined the best possible constitution of a human society and how its ‘public affairs’ should be ‘governed’: should a kind of government exist? Should the administration be delegated to a kind of magistrates?
By ‘economics’ we meant how the ‘best possible society’ should produce and distribute the necessary and sufficient means for every citizen and the overall society to realise a good life. This included the aspect how the production and distribution of goods should be related with ownership. What should be public and which kind – if any – of private property makes sense in the best possible society?
By culture we meant the individual and common systems of values that motivate us to act and interact with each other. Culture embraces the different areas where the ‘human spirit’ manifests itself, in contrary to a ‘raw, untreated state of nature’. The culture metonymically points to the competence of human beings to structure their life (and its cultural manifestations) in a self-determined manner. From this point of view we developed the following question for the ‘Utopia Game’: If the meaning of human existence is to realise a good individual and social life one has to find out what s/he wants and does not want, what we like and dislike, what we desire and do not desire.
The three guiding questions should help to foster a thinking which reaches beyond the borders of a status quo of a society which seems unchangeable. Such thinking becomes, via this, ‘to reach out to something what seems out of reach’ a utopian thinking. To discuss the aspects of politics, economics and culture isolated in groups should help to provide a systematic access to utopia. By concentrating on a single aspect of basal societal elements and their possible ‘utopian designing’, the utopian potential of politics, economics and culture could be formulated more precisely. In a last session the results and conclusions of each group were presented. Afterwards a synthesis was discussed which connected the results of each group integratively.
The discussions within the groups lasted approximately one and a half hour and were intensive. The basic result of the ‘politic group’ was the aspect of self-determination of the individuals within processes of government and administration. The necessities of political institutions had been acknowledged but at the same time the group pleaded for a possibility to provide each individual the space to take direct influence to governmental acts. The powerlessness of the individual towards political and administrative institutions was considered as the most important problem. This problem was solved in a utopian way by the model that a single individual could without further ado take influence in political decisions and processes.
The ‘economic group’ favoured a model where the exchange of products is not bound to a market which transforms a product into a commodity via a price. The famous Marxist phrase from 1875 – ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ – describes the utopian approach towards an economical exchange which does not orientate itself on production costs. Rather economics is understood as a common social process which dissolves the artificial distinction between consumers and producers and the group pleaded for a social wholeness where solidary production and consuming takes place.
The ‘culture group’ formulated as a result the dissolving of artificial borders between ‘different cultures’ – differences should not be considered as demarcation lines. Rather the differences could be interpreted as challenges and as means to ‘broaden one's horizon’. From this point of view culture is a performative practice in which different rites, myths, arts ... merge with each other and produce something new. This kind of cultural practice bases on the assumption that no culture is superior to another culture. Differences between cultures are possible spaces to negotiate, forums for encounters and thus spaces to approach to each other.
Conclusion and action orientation
In a concluding discussion the different results were presented. As final conclusion the following were proposed as the keystones of the utopian society
• basic values of tolerance,
• the unconditional exchange of products (not of commodities) and
• a far reaching space for the self-determination of the individuals within political processes
Finally, we discussed the possibility of an action-orientated implementation of these results within the everyday challenges of social work. Here the concept of an ‘epistemological awareness’ was formulated: The value-based knowledge of what is desirable for a utopian world can be used as some kind of a corrective to the pragmatic answer-strategies which are allegedly without any alternative. This is why Marty points to the relevance of (applied) utopian thinking: ‘But consider the alternative: drifting from expedient to ad hoc buoyed only by piecemeal reforms and fragmented values that are out of touch with much of our everyday experience.’ (Marty 2005, p. 83).
Deleuze, G. (1992) Postscript on the Societies of Control, [Online] Available at: https://files.nyu.edu/dnm232/public/deleuze_postcript.pdf (last called 27.04. 2013).
Evans, D. (1996): An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Routledge. London.
International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) (2012) Definition of Social Work, [Online] Available at: http://ifsw.org/policies/definition-of-social-work/ (last called 27.04.2013).
Muschamp H. (2005)’Service Not Included’ in Visions of Utopia, eds E. Rohstein, H. Muschamp & M. Marty, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 29 – 48.
Marty, M. E. (2005) ’ “But Even So, Look at That”: An Ironic Perspective on Utopias’, in Visions of Utopia, eds E. Rohstein, H. Muschamp & M. Marty, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 49 – 88.