Utopia in the Present

Cultural Politics and Change

by Claudia Gualtieri (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 206 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Foreword. ‘Thinking means venturing beyond’ (Itala Vivan)
  • Utopia and the Present (Claudia Gualtieri)
  • 1. Utopia in Theory
  • From Utopia to Endgame: What is Left of Capitalist Metaphysics (Fabio Vighi)
  • The Utopian Dimension of a (Possible) Islamic Philosophy of History (Massimo Campanini)
  • 2. Utopia in Performance and Practice
  • Mauro and Tiziana, Perelà’s code, Nails in my mouth (Lanfranco Vicari aka Moder)
  • Performing Rap, Practising Utopia, Building Resistance (Roberto Pedretti)
  • The Black Body Telling Stories: Giullarate in the 21st Century (Pina Piccolo)
  • From Knowledge to Practice: A Possible Utopia in the Global Era with Refugees and Social Services. The Door to Door Project: A Network Against Tiger Mosquitoes (Claudio Venturelli / Gokce Hazal Karabas)
  • 3. Utopia and Localities: North America
  • Minongeng, an Anishinaabe Utopia: A. I. Hallowell’s Contribution to a UNESCO Anishinaabe Cultural Landscape (Maureen Matthews – Roger Roulette)
  • Euro-American Utopia and Native American Ethics: A Comparison (Francesco Meli)
  • Utopian View: Thomas McKenney’s Portfolio of American Indians (Marco Sioli)
  • Feminine Weakness and Restored Masculinity in Post-9/11 Science Fiction Cinema (Raffaella Baccolini)
  • Afterword. ‘In search of (Never-)land’ (Stefano Simonetta)
  • Notes on contributors

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Itala Vivan

Foreword. ‘Thinking means venturing beyond’1

The different voices collected in the book edited by Claudia Gualtieri – Utopia in the Present: Cultural Politics and Change – act together as a meaningful piece in the mosaic that is the cultural and political reality of our present. The book offers a contribution towards keeping the spirit of utopia alive by practicing it, so that the struggle for liberation may continue in an era whose landscape is obviously not inhabited by the presence and influence of great utopian constructs.

If the principle of hope invoked by Ernst Bloch survives in our time, its anxious questioning – ‘Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What are we waiting for? What awaits us?’ – is no longer on the frontline. In this book it is (perhaps temporarily) replaced by a search for new approaches and cultural practices that may somehow answer the irrepressible human demand for a better world. The wide range and diversity of the voices impersonating and witnessing such a search are precious symptoms of their being deeply rooted in the human condition, although no longer in the perspective of that Homo Novus who was positioned at the other end of the vision of previous utopias.

The human desire for liberation and fulfillment is present throughout history, and in the tradition of Western thought it has frequently taken the shape of utopia, ever since Plato – or was it Socrates? – first conjured up the complex vision of a perfect imagined society.

That ancient dream of his, which he tried in vain to realise in the Sicily of his time, bounced back centuries later with a Greek name invented in 1516 by Thomas More. Recurring avatars followed those early examples, and by now utopia has become a genre of its own, spreading its branches beyond philosophy and political science, into the realm of literature. Meanwhile, with the appearance of Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, literature also contributed to its gemination into dystopia, giving origin to a line of pessimistic projections into the future with Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and, most recently, Margaret Atwood, among its epigones. ← 9 | 10 →

There was a time, in the late Renaissance, when popular types of escatologic utopia emerged to scare their contemporaries, as happened during the Lutheran Reformation with the apocalyptic Thomas Müntzer and in Puritan England with the radical Gerrard Winstanley and his Diggers. In both cases the issue that shocked their opponents most was the idea of communality – of land, and women.

The age of Enlightenment engendered many versions of utopia, from Rousseau and de Sade onwards, and the flow continued well into the 19th century with the socialist inventions taking on more and more political weight. The old theme of communalism, already present in Plato and then in the peasants’ revolts, resurfaced in new utopias evoked by a huge social and economic phenomenon – capitalism – which created new forms of oppression.

In 1848, Marx and Engels opened their Manifesto with the image of a ghost roaming through Europe, persecuted by reactionary regimes. It was the ghost of communism, which in the 20th century would transform the czars’ old Russia into the Soviet Union of proletarians: a dream come true. Communism called itself scientific and refused all connections with utopian thought. Yet, albeit an apparent contradiction in terms, it was the greatest of 20th century utopias and one that marked a long period in history, calling for the workers of the whole world to unite. The principle of hope underlying communism provided fertile ground for a persistent confidence in history – that is, in the future – as the path that would lead to the triumph of socialism and the liberation of humankind from need. This Weltanschauung delocalised the final achievement towards the future and thus a utopian level of reality.

For many crucial decades, the power of this vision influenced the whole world and offered a viable alternative to the hegemony of capitalism. Communism acted as a magnetic pole for all the oppressed, and encouraged and actively supported the liberation movements fighting in the colonies against the crumbling European empires. The anticolonial struggle was deeply rooted in Marxist thought and provided generations of young militants of Marxism with a reason for hope and engagement at an international level.

With the gradual collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites in the late 20th century, the Eastern European communist network has foundered before the world’s eyes. But it is not so for the utopian strain which had nurtured it, still very much alive in Marxist thought and by now totally transferred into future history. This Marxism, still present and actively fermenting in our 21st century, is again asking for change. The urgent drive to change the world, however, no longer invokes dramatic and violent revolutions, nor does it find its foundations in a necessary class struggle, but looks forward to improving the world and making it ← 10 | 11 → egalitarian through gradual changes for the better, based on solidarity, egalitarianism, communality of intentions, redistribution of wealth, and, once again, a firm belief in the possibility to free humankind from the yoke of suffering and need.

This aim calls for the cooperation of all women and men, through a simple and generous collaboration rooted in the common awareness of an existing hope.

1 Bloch, Ernst: The Principle of Hope. Vol. 1. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA 1986 [1954–59]. Introduction, retrieved 15.11.2016 from https://www.marxists.org/archive/bloch/hope/introduction.htm.

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Claudia Gualtieri

Utopia and the Present

2016 marked the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia. As part of the celebrations and reflections on the continuing influence of utopian thought, scholars and intellectuals across the world have discussed ways in which utopia may be reconceptualised today. It appears to be a challenging and urgent undertaking, if we accept Henri Lefebvre’s position that ‘today more than ever, there is no theory without utopia’.1 In the Western cultural tradition, utopian thought has attempted for centuries to make sense of the fascinating and complex interdependence between the human past, present and future, and has enlivened it with collective and personal desires, searches for power, and hopes for social stability and happiness. Different epochs have produced diverse forms of utopia according to shared aspirations, the imagination of a better future, and allegiance to ideologies and structures of power. In the global present of mass movement and rapid technological development, however, once-fixed categories of time, place, and identity have lost stability, and change is a constitutive feature of our present. Utopia seems to have become a site of contestation, even though the past and the future have been made less relevant by the pressures of our present, and the utopian appeal of the future appears to be consequently tarnished.2

Early in 2016, in the cities of Bolzano and Trento in northern Italy, Zygmunt Bauman spoke about utopia, underlining how, in our modernity, the political and social promises, which were embedded in Thomas More’s utopia, have been destroyed by consumerism and the fetishism of wealth and the market. Bauman said that ‘Utopia itself has been appropriated and privatised’ and the presuppositions ← 13 | 14 → for a utopian society have turned into forms of anti-utopia.3 In our present, the future has been emptied of its promises, to the extent that, in Retrotopia, Bauman explores the notion of nostalgia as a form of utopia. The idea that human beings could achieve happiness in an ideal future state, which Thomas More tied to a topos – Bauman argues – has lost appeal, but the human aspiration that made this idea so compelling has re-emerged as a vision focused on the past, ‘not on a future-to-be-created but on an abandoned and undead past that we could call retrotopia’.4

The notion of golden ages had been previously explored by Raymond Williams with reference to the changing attitudes to the country and the city in English culture and imagery.5 In regard to the pastoral way of life, he identified a nostalgia that looks backwards towards an ever-receding past of bucolic lifestyles and which is animated by a desire for lost rural England. In his cultural and political analysis, Williams warns against the dangers of idealising social structures on the basis of uncritical and immutable nostalgia which ignores systems of power, subordination and exploitation, and their consequences in specific historical contexts. The ambivalence and ambiguity of this form of nostalgia also relate to its being applied and expressed out of context, outside contingent networks of relationships, and devoid of ideological alliances. For the purpose of locating utopia in the present, Williams’s notion of an ever-receding past provides an archetype according to which Bauman’s idea of retrotopia may be understood and seen at work in context.

The recent Brexit results offered a clear example of the backward turn to an idealised impossible past. The crisis of the present, the fear for the future, the distrust of the political elites, the widening gap between political management and democratic representation, the silence and ostensible absence of public intellectuals, and the anxiety about what will come, as it appears to be uncontrollable, justify ways in which the past seems to offer a more reassuring shelter than an uncertain and chaotic future. In Bauman’s analysis, in modernity, the link connecting utopia ← 14 | 15 → and the future has been broken, and a dangerous regression towards the past is emptying utopia of both its idealistic future aspiration and its political meaning.6

If the past and the future mark contrasting topoi where a vision of utopia may be posed, and if human actions seem to have lost their effect in building a positive future, the questions that the essays in this collection try to answer are: Is there any place for utopia in the present? If so, what political and cultural relevance might utopia express? How may utopian visions be recuperated, perceived, and put into action in the present? Would new forms of communal utopias prove useful for cultural politics and change?

In a talk titled ‘The biopolitical crisis of Europe’ at the 2016 Festivalfilosofia in the city of Modena in Italy, the Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito offered a possible answer by referring to the recent political European impasse. He argued in favour of Immanuel Kant’s conception of ‘cosmopolitanism’ – as is theorised in the political essay Perpetual Peace7 – in order to re-establish a utopian vision for Europe and the world.8 Esposito repositioned Kant’s suggestion of the ‘league of nations’ locally, namely in contemporary Europe after Brexit, and tried to rethink a condition of possibility for utopia in Europe. Arguing against the claim of the impossibility of Kantian cosmopolitism, he assumed Kant’s suggestion of working towards a shared sense of communality, inclusive governmental practices, and down to earth actions that would bring peoples together is the only viable path for Europe; in order to construct its new identity, it must draw inspiration from Kant’s federation of states in perpetual peace. This Europe, Esposito claimed, will not be a final target or an ideal aspiration, but a departure point for ethical and political progress, a process that may take place everyday, thus helping the realisation of a possible utopia in the present.9

This encouraging view is not entirely shared by Italian philosopher Massimo Cacciari and historian Paolo Prodi in Occidente senza utopie.10 By tracing a historical excursus from diverse disciplinary perspectives and by examining the ← 15 | 16 → relationship between prophecy and utopia as a political project, the authors give reasons for the failure of this relationship as regards the prophetic components of monotheisms which lead to the problematic function of the Church of Rome and Islam as structures of power. Also, they argue, this abortive alliance marked both the end of the prophetic utopian projects of modernity – based on a faith in constant progress which was taken for granted – and the ensuing lack of reference points which globalisation produced. Cacciari’s and Prodi’s chronologic reading of the development of utopian thought in relation to prophecy is useful to understand utopia’s specificity in the European and North American cultural contexts, and to understand how utopia is bound to ideology, and, therefore, relative to historical milieux, religions, and traditions of thought. In ‘Grandezza e tramonto dell’utopia’, Cacciari argues that in the global present, insurmountable aporias dislocate utopia as ou-topía, hence preventing the possibility of utopian thinking and action, unless politics, theology, and utopia themselves are regarded archaeologically (substantially in their arché), so as to allow the emergence of something new.11

It is this possibility of change – embedded in contextual localised actions in the present – that this collection of essays sets out to explore. In order to trigger a constructive discussion about utopia in the present, it is useful to follow Bauman’s argument in Retrotopia, because it provides some essential notions that help to envision change in utopian terms, given that, as Bauman bluntly puts it in ‘Utopia with no topos’, ‘The utopian model of a “better future” is out of question’.12 These key notions may be presented in apparently opposite, though mutually significant, pairs: first, ‘globalisation and locality’. In our historical present, Bauman underlines how globalisation has gradually provoked ‘a deepening gap between power and politics – that is, the ability to have things done and the capability of deciding what things need to be done, once vested with the territorially sovereign state’.13 This has lead to ‘an age of persistent instrumental crises’.14 Among the consequences of such a divorce is ‘the lack of an agency deemed to be fit to face […] the original idea of pursuing human happiness through the design-and-build of a society more hospitable to human needs’.15 Hence, an institutional void has ← 16 | 17 → displaced society from being the subject of a search for common good, leaving up to each individual the pursuit of personal happiness and wealth.16


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Cultural practices Globalisation Localities Past and future Liberation Action
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 206 pp., 2 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Claudia Gualtieri (Volume editor)

Claudia Gualtieri is Assistant Professor of Anglophone Literatures and Cultures at the University of Milan. She published on African and Canadian cultures and literatures, travel narratives, old and new slaveries, colonial and postcolonial writing, and cultural theory. She is working on questions of identity, migration and borders, cultural objects and immaterial culture, Afro-Europeans and African-Italians, migrant theatre, everyday cultural and subcultural productions.


Title: Utopia in the Present