During his time at the Chocó Base, cultural analyst Max Bruinsma considered the concept of utopia and the role of design in relation to social interactions. His text Reflections on Utopia and Now is published in Nowhere.
Reflections on utopia and now
By Max Bruinsma
Nothing much moves here, but the waters. The palm trees, the bamboo bushes, all these countless plants of which I don’t know the names yet linger motionless in the damp air, sucked into the elastic moist soil. Motionless to the eye, that is. Shrouded by the constant hum of the waters, the sounds of insects and birds spice up the monotony. A sudden thud marks the fall of a coconut or heavy fruit, unseen in the shimmering green of the forest. Soft cracking and rustling and squeaking and grinding tell you the forest is alive, active, growing, changing, inhabited. But all this is hardly discernible to the urban eye, trained on quicker triggers, snapping events. Like the sudden appearance of the ‘Supervisor butterfly’, a wobbly speck of bright turquoise dancing past in the open air between the green stillness.
I was wrong in assuming we would be alone in this middle of nowhere. We have neighbours. Privacy is a different concept here than in the city where the huddle of so many people living together in such relatively limited quarters has resulted in them ignoring each other most of the time … Along this coast, houses and hamlets are scattered just far enough apart to not constantly see and hear one’s neighbours, but close enough for anyone walking along the beach to be constantly monitored. Privacy villa-style; on one’s own territory one is secure and on one’s own, but any outsider will be noticed. Not that the inhabitants of these houses – or cabins – are rich; some are, most are far from it. But on the surface and to the western urban eye they live in luxurious conditions: a mild subtropical climate, spectacular gardens, tranquillity, an abundance of food from the fertile soil and the plentiful ocean… The eye, again, can be misleading.
There is no way of avoiding one’s neighbours here, scattered along the small strip of beach that provides the only reasonably accessible pathway in a vast territory. The coast is as much a web of interdependencies as it is an ecosystem. Linked like beads in a necklace, people seem to adjust to a “liberating dependence”, in the words of social philosopher Émile Durkheim: each individual “submits to society and this submission is the condition of his liberation.” 1 It is the essence of civic – and civil – society.
In many respects, such webs of interdependencies have become undone in the modern city, this theatre of “life politics” acted out by an immeasurable mass of individuals. The metropolis has evolved into a “public, but not civil place” as Zygmunt Bauman describes the urban places where strangers meet without the need to interact. In such places, from shopping malls to hotel lobbies, from ‘interdictory spaces’, as Steven Flusty calls the vast spatial voids between the iconic buildings of postmodern urban design, to public transport systems, people seem to shun each other: “If physical proximity – sharing a space – cannot be completely avoided, it can be perhaps stripped of the challenge of ‘togetherness’ it contains, with its standing invitation to meaningful encounter, dialogue and interaction. If meeting strangers cannot be averted, one can at least try to avoid the dealings.” 2
In small communities, like the ones we visited along the coast of Chocó, this strategy of ‘avoiding the dealings’ is impossible. During my short stay here we visited a couple. Hamlets with no more than a few hundred inhabitants. My two hosts could not enter one of them without having to shake hands and chat with virtually everyone present at the time. Here, one needs to be ‘civil’ – that is, symbolically interact through exchanges of personal experiences and demonstrations of empathy – in order to be there at all. The ‘challenge of togetherness’, here, is more akin to visiting a home than visiting a city. One is a guest. This kind of civil interaction is a social art, which has become all but extinct in the ‘public’ spaces of metropolitan habitats, as Bauman observes as well; this manifest acceptance of the fact that one shares space, that commu- nality is not just a given, but a commission, a commitment to a shared task of making life not just bearable but socially meaningful. A public responsibility.
This is the moment when my idealistic associations of utopia meet the here-and-now. Projections of what could be are confronted with observations of what is. Reality is imperfect. Utopians spurn imperfection. Therefore, trying to live a utopian life almost by definition means to separate oneself from the world as it is. In fact, to the utopians, this imperfect world becomes the non-place; the place to shun. Reality becomes a non-place.
Generally, utopians do not seem to be optimists. Utopians typically skip the necessary steps to work for gradual amelioration in the present. They resolutely postulate how the world ought to look in some undefined future, which is so radically at odds with the here-and-now, that it is virtually unattainable. For all intents and purposes utopians are pessimists. They confront today’s dystopia with its virtual negative image – a reverse portrait. They are in perpetual opposition. But when you want to take a practical stance towards betterment in the reality of now – however grim it may be –, optimism is an obligation. What counts, then, is not how an ideal image mirrors its reality-based counter-image, but how reality itself transforms between ‘pessimum’ and ‘optimum’, these two abstract models of the real. In this process, both will change; the original situation will become mitigated and its utopian alternative will become more real. With patience and perseverance, it will become a reality that in its turn will provoke ideas of betterment. The essence, therefore, of both the ‘non place’ and the ‘good place’ that all utopias are, is that they are, for ever, ‘not yet’.
In his classic book ‘Das Prinzip Hoffnung’ (‘The Principle Hope’) Bloch recognizes that acting in the here-and-now to better, not just one’s own conditions but society at large, can be a uncomfortably daunting prospect: “The here-and-now lacks distance, which, although alienating, produces clarity and overview. Therefore, immediacy, in which reality takes place, is experienced as essentially darker than the dream image, even from time to time without form, and void.” 3 Dreaming, fantasizing, imagining a better world is easier when one distances oneself from reality as it is. Translating that dream into reality, but untouched by it, however, will also transpose this implicit distance. Consequently, utopian designs that take a teleological approach towards fullfilment are often designs realized without adjustment to the real. They are in all respects materialized fantasies; projections that may seductively look and feel like perfect realities – or paradise –, but which have severed the ties that bind cause and effect in the real world.
Paradisiacal fantasies have since time immemorial imagined an estrangement from reality, a separation of desire and action. This old Buddhist tale is an archetypal example:
This story reads like a presaging of – or an unwitting longing for – today’s consumer culture. In this paradise, there is no inherently connected, active relationship between a desire and its fullfilment. The act is in desiring. All ‘toiling’ is filtered out. Similarly, the connection between ‘sowing, reaping, fishing, hunting’ and enjoying the benefits of these labours is filtered out in the process of getting pre-cooked meals from the supermarket and ‘preparing’ them in the microwave oven. The combination of the latter two ‘machinas’ equals the magic tree and the ‘great stone’ in the Buddhist monk’s tale. It also closely resembles the ubiquitous infrastructure that was postulated as a technological utopia by Superstudio, an Italian avant-garde design collective. In their 1972 proposal for a ‘new domestic landscape’, they too focused on the effects of their design (“everyone will be happy…”) rather than the causes or processes to achieve them. Superstudio summarizes these in broadly technological terms:
“All you have to do is stop and connect a plug: the desired microclimate is immediately created (temperature, humidity, etc.), you plug in to the network of information, you switch on the food and water blenders….” 5
How this paradisiacal infrastructure came into being, and at what labour, cost and consequence it needs to be maintained remains shrouded in mystery. In fact, Superstudio’s utopia is intended as a dystopian caricature of the modernist dream of a perfect world in which each desire can be translated into a technological premise, to be realized through rationally standardized design and industrial production:
“In 1969, we started designing negative utopias like Il Monumento Continuo, images warning of the horrors architecture had in store with its scientific methods for perpetuating standard models worldwide. Of course, we were also having fun.” 6
Superstudio is employing a Brechtian ‘Verfremdungseffect’ (‘alienating effect’) to point to the dangers of dissociating a strict rational answer to physical and emotional desires from the effects of their realization. As consumer culture – this closest semblance of earthly paradise to date – has shown, this alienation leads to disinterest, a form of dissociation, which severs the ties between a desire and the reality in which it can or cannot be realized. It cuts the umbilical chord between the realization and the real, and discards the lat- ter – the mother of all possible realizations – as being contingent, eventually causing the former – an instance of the real, after all – to starve.
This is the planners’ hubris, the intractable ambition of designers, of modernism tout court. This modernist claim of objectivity and the ensuing procedures for design and social construction have been increasingly criticized from the 1960s onward – Superstudio’s caricatures of the late 1960s and early 1970s are textbook examples of this ‘counter-design’. For designers and planners in the modernist tradition a design is a model, which once made is fixed – not a proposal but a prescription. Not a process but a product. The result is that the design’s links with present and past are severed. The design is ‘immediate’ in the sense Bloch meant, and yet distanced. Real and yet unrealized. A modernist design is absolute. It exists beyond time as a teleological utopia, not as not yet reality.
This, it seems to me, is the greatest danger of utopian or paradisiacal imagi- nation: that it tends to treat the real as inconsequential. The here-and-now becomes an obstacle – at best a contingency – rather than both the locus and the tool for realizing a better world.
1 Émile Durkheim, Sociologie et Philosophie, quoted from Anthony Giddens’s translation, in Émile Durkheim: Selected Writings, p.115
2 Zigmund Bauman, Liquid Modernity, p.105
3 Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung, Kapitel 1 – 32, p.207 (translation MB)
4 Burmese Buddhist tale, in: Father Sangermano, A description of the Burmese Empire compiled chiefly from native documents by the rev. Father Sangermano and translated from his MS by William Tandy, D.D., Rome, 1833. Quoted by Lyman Tower Sargent, Utopianism, a very short introduction, Oxford, 2010
5 Superstudio, press release for “Italy, the New Domestic Landscape” exhibition, MoMA New York, may 1972. http://www.moma.org/docs/press_archives/4824/releases/ MOMA_1972_0053_46X.pdf
6 Adolfo Natalini, Superstudio, quoted by Jonathan Glancy in The Guardian, 31 March 2003