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Utopia Is No Place
An Interview with Stephen Duncombe

By Stephen Duncombe & Sarah Peters

Theorist and activist Stephen Duncombe was invited by Open Field artists-in-residence Red76 to give a lecture at the Walker on his work on utopia. His ideas about the uses of utopia in political imagination also became fodder for the group’s Pop-Up Book Academy discussion series, part of their project exploring ways to repurpose knowledge and materials. For that program, he led a conversation on collective utopia, a complicated concept in which individual dreams meet (or clash) with collective desires. Here, Duncombe discusses these ideas in relationship to Open Field in an e-mail interview with Sarah Peters in March 2011.

Sarah Peters

Open Field was both praised and criticized for being utopian. Your book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy elaborates on the necessity of utopian thinking to reshape progressive politics. Can you summarize why you think we need this kind of imagination?

Stephen Duncombe

We need utopian thinking because without it, we are constrained by the tyranny of the possible. Look where realistic thinking has gotten us: a looming ecological crises that may exterminate life on the planet; and a state of normality whereby the rich get richer and more powerful, while everyone else gets poorer and more powerless. This is reality, and to imagine something other than this takes a bold leap.

Meanwhile, critics of the status quo act as if criticism is enough, an appropriate response to the unfolding apocalypse that is now. They seem to believe that criticism itself will transform society. It’s not that easy. Criticism is part of the very system itself. By its condition, criticism always remains obedient to the present: the object it criticizes. That is, criticism is wed parasitically to the very thing it ostensibly wants to change. There is no transformative moment. Besides, liberal democracies such as ours need critics in order to legitimate themselves as liberal democracies; it’s part of the system.

The political problem of today is not a lack of rigorous analysis, or a necessity for the revelation of the “truth,” but instead the need for a radical imagination: a way to imagine a world different from the world we have today.

Peters

From what you experienced of Open Field, does this museum experiment relate to the idea of utopia?

Duncombe

I think Open Field is an experiment. You/we set boundaries: time and space, but we were also “open” to what might happen in that space. This is a good setting for Utopian imagination; you need that sort of opening to dream. Many curatorial practices function as tightly scripted spectacle with the expert directing the spectator’s gaze and providing meaning. This has its functions, but Utopian dreaming is not one of them. But Open Field was not completely open. There was always some sort of impetus or prompt to organize participation: a project, a discussion, etc. And this was productive. The problem with complete openness is that it often leaves one dazed, confused, and disoriented. This is good in a way, as it breaks us out of the present, but without any guidance, the response is often to retreat back to what is safe and known—returning home to the familiarity of the very structures we were trying to escape from. If you want to stimulate imagination, it is far better to take people on a journey, give them something to think about, or do, or play with.

This sort of prompt pulls people out of the everyday and lets them experience an alternative reality — breaking them from the familiar and accustoming them to the strange. This is what good art does; it’s what Thomas More’s Utopia does. And (and this is an important “and”) the stimulus needs to be just that: a stimulus, a prompt but not a plan. The trick is to lead people out of what they know without simply replacing this old way of being, thinking, and seeing with a new one. You need to provide space for people’s own imaginings.

Peters

In my notes from the discussion you led for Red76’s Pop-Up Book Academy, I have written this quotation: “Let’s not be practical about utopian thinking. We won’t get there.” I have no idea who in the room said this—which is not insignificant for a conversation on collective utopia. Can you talk about the tensions between pragmatism and impossible utopias?

Duncombe

“Be realistic, demand the impossible!” as the May ’68 slogan went. But I want to push this idea of impossible thinking even further, to a point where I think it starts to become practical. The problem with Utopia, as the horrific social twentieth-century experiments of Nazism and totalitarian Communism amply demonstrated, is that dreams start to be taken for realities. Once this happens, there is a tendency to brutalize the present in order to bring it into line with an imagined future. We must collectivize farms, even if it kills all the farmers! This is the nightmare of Utopian history from which we are desperately trying to wake. But what if we imagine Utopia as only a dream? That is, make it something patently impossible?

This is what Thomas More does in his Utopia: he sketches a picture of an attractive and compelling world for us to lose ourselves within. We live in it, see it, feel it, experience it. We WANT it. And then at the same time, he takes it away from us by calling it “no-place.” He denies us the cathartic moment when we’d switch our allegiance from reality to a fantasy. Because we realize the dream is just a dream, this fantasy of the future cannot be sold to us as a place in which we can, and thus must reside (even if it kills us). And, more importantly, it forces us into a space where we can imagine for ourselves.

This sort of unrealistic Utopia in its true meaning of no-place, still retains its political function as an ideal: a loadstone to guide us and a frame within which to imagine, yet it never closes off this imaginative journey with the assertion that we are there. There is no “actually existing socialism,” as Stalin had the temerity to declare. Utopia functions as what Stevphen Shukaitis has been calling an “imaginal machine.”

Peters

We discussed the idea of collective utopia at length during your visit to Open Field. Utopias tend to be exclusive—representing one person’s or group’s ideal of how society should be, yet a collective utopia would make space for conflicting visions. Has your thinking about collective utopia changed since that discussion? Was Open Field any influence?

Duncombe

This, I think, is biggest question I walked away with from Open Field, and it’s a question that I have still not resolved. If, as I’ve argued above and elsewhere, the function of Utopia is not to present a vision of an idealized other world, but to prompt people to imagine another world for themselves, then how do we end up with anything besides a million and one individual and possibly incommensurate visions? How do you get any sort of social change from that? The advantage of the totalitarian Utopian visions is that they were singular: you either bought in or you didn’t; you either climbed aboard or you were rolled over. This is brutal, but very effective in changing the world on a mass scale.

Is there a way to envision a democratic process of Utopian imagination that leads to some sort of consensual model that, together, we can push toward and act upon? I honestly don’t know, but there are glimmerings of hope in collective projects such as Open Source software development and Wikipedia. In both cases, there is a process of individual imagining (code, truth) and something useful comes of it (program, definition). How this process might translate from the digital to the political is still very much unknown, but I think this is a fruitful direction in which to go.

Peters

You’ve recently started an online project that allows anyone to use the complete text of Thomas More’s Utopia as a true commons; one that can be annotated, reorganized, and downloaded freely. Would you talk briefly about Open Utopia?

Duncombe

The Open Utopia actually began at Open Field. When contemplating the workshop Red76 invited me to lead, I though it might be interesting to “open” the text of Thomas More’s Utopia itself by reediting it, annotating it, and perhaps writing our own version. To prepare for this, I found a public domain version of Utopia through Project Gutenberg and copied it into a collaborative authoring site. Reality, of course, got in the way: we ran out of time just talking about the ideal of Utopia and never got around to writing our own. But the idea stuck with me, and I decided to expand the scope of the workshop by opening it up to the digital public, building a website that would allow people to freely read, copy, download, annotate, remix, and write Utopia.

The first thing I needed to do was to find a version of Utopia in the public domain. The Project Gutenberg version was a good beginning, but it didn’t contain the commendations, letters, prefaces, maps, alphabets, and marginalia of the original printings in 1516 to 1518—all of which are important to the imaginative power of the text. Luckily, a book that’s been around 500 years tends to have lots of translations whose copyrights have expired, so I pieced together a new edition.

Then I thought about how I might explode the very idea of a book, replacing the author-produces and the reader-consumes model implicit in the form of a traditional printed text. In order to break this binary, I’ve used software produced by the Institute for the Future of the Book to enable public annotation, paragraph by paragraph. I’ve also created a wiki wherein a collaboratively produced new Utopia will be written. I have channels for uploading Utopia-inspired art and videos as well. The whole site is produced using open-source software under a Creative Commons license.

Opening up Utopia is important to me because this is exactly what I think that More was trying to do when he wrote the book. By describing this ideal someplace, but calling it no-place, he pushes the reader into imagining an alternative. More did this masterfully within the limitations of the book. I’m fortunate enough to have access to communications technology that allows me to develop this imaginative capacity of Utopia even further.

Book: Conversations on the Commons

Edited by Sarah Schultz and Sarah Peters, Conversations on the Commons includes contributions by Susannah Bielak, Steve Dietz, Stephen Duncombe, Futurefarmers (Amy Franceschini, Michael Swaine), Lewis Hyde, Jon Ippolito, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Machine Project (Mark Allen), Sarah Peters, Rick Prelinger, Red76 (Courtney Dailey, Dylan Gauthier, Sam Gould, Gabriel Mindel Saloman, Mike Wolf), Sarah Schultz, Scott Stulen, and Works Progress (Colin Kloecker, Shanai Matteson).

Red76’s Floating Academy on Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis, 2011

Photo: © Walker Art Center

An aerial view of the Shape of the Night: Busby Berkeley Nocturne event on Open Field during the dusk-to-dawn Northern Spark festival, 2011

Photo: © Walker Art Center

Red76’s Anywhere/Anyplace Academy (A/AA) campus, 2010

Photo: © Walker Art Center

Making books at Red76’s Pop-Up Book Academy, 2010

Photo: © Walker Art Center

Stevphen Shukaitis’ Imaginal Machines: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life, 2009

Red76 artist Mike Wolf leads young Anywhere/Anyplace Academy participants in a visioning exercise, 2010

Photo: © Walker Art Center

A woodcut Woodcut map from the first edition of Thomas More’s Utopia

Source: Public domain via Wikipedia

Utopia Is No Place: The Art and Politics of Impossible Futures

A growing number of artists are abandoning truth-telling political art for a boldly utopian practice, recognizing that political problems can’t be solved by an atrophied collective imagination. With examples ranging from Thomas More’s 16th-century tome Utopia to the Yes Men’s recent “special edition” of the New York Times, Stephen Duncombe explores the creative terrain within this new world of dreampolitik. Duncombe is an associate professor with the Gallatin School at New York University.