Reflections on Utopia and Now

Choco Base  / Más Arte Más Acción,
Colombia, November 2012


The vague roar of the metropolis, which rang in my head like a half conscious tinnitus for days, is now washed away by the white noise of the rain and the ocean. It takes some adjustment, not only to the ears, but also to the imagination. You think: a distant plane or train roaring past. But it's a heavier than normal wave that breaks along the black sandy beach beyond the tree line. This is the edge of the rain forest; water is coming from all sides, vertical, horizontal and lateral. Watery clouds above, rain channeled by the tree leaves, the murmuring brook that sneaks past the house, and the endless Pacific ocean stretching out before me...

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 queecking and grinding tells 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 neighbors. 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 neighbors, 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, tranquility, an abundance of food from the fertile soil and the plentiful ocean... The eye, again, can be misleading.

The stories of each individual, and of each group of people who landed on these idyllic shores in the past centuries, are far from tranquil. This is not a 'promised land' – rather a 'nec plus ultra', the edge of the inhabitable world. It is utopian and dystopian at once. The paradisal scenery sets a beguiling stage for some quite discomforting stories. Like that of the Embera boy who, approximately 7 years old, came walking out of the forest one day, alone. Since he appeared out of seemingly nothing three years ago, he hasn't spoken a word. No one knows his tale, nor even his name. One can only guess that his family moved away from their ancestral spot deep in the rainforest because of the effects of illegal mining, water pollution, drugs trafficking or civil war. Like so many others they may have followed a river towards the coast. Our silent boy was the only one to get there. He keeps his story to himself – there's no telling if he's mute by nature or by trauma. Still, he is lovingly adopted by a local family and merrily plays with his new older brother. He talks with hands and eyes. But he never utters a sound...

There is no way of avoiding one's neighbors 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." 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 Zygmund 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."

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 communality 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, as we know, spurn imperfection. Therefore, trying to live an 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'.

This insight, that 'utopia' should not be an abstract ideal projected on a distant time and place – or onto a seemingly perfect environment like the paradisal coast line of Chocó –, but an 'agency' working in the here-and-now, is the great contribution to utopian thinking by the German philosopher Ernst Bloch. Bloch is the philosopher of utopia as guideline for acting hopefully in the grey reality of the now. His stressing of the importance and value of the present is remarkable and in his days – the first half of the last century, a bloody battle ground of utopias of various kinds – almost masochistic. Bloch, however, is less concerned with a specific goal – or telos – as he is with the way to reach it, the process that takes place in the here-and-now. The essence of his philosophy is to regard the world and any meaningful human activity in it as "noch nicht." These two words, "not yet," are the most concise way to connect present and future. In all his future-prone idealism Bloch is primarily the philosopher of the dynamic 'yet,' which is always one imaginary step ahead of 'now.' That distinguishes him from utopists who pin down the imagined future as something that is a fact for all intents and purposes – something that merely needs to be realized, reality notwithstanding.

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 discomfortably 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." 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 fulfillment 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.

Paradisal fantasies have since time immemorial imagined an estrangement from reality, a separation of desire and action. This old Buddhist tale is an archetypal example:

"They make no use of agriculture or any other art or profession. A tree named Padesá grows in that fortunate island on which, instead of fruit, are seen hanging precious garments of various colors, whereof the natives take whatever pleases them best. In like manner they need not cultivate the soil, nor sow, nor reap; neither do they fish, nor hunt; because the same tree produces them an excellent kind of rice without any husk. Whenever they wish to take nourishment, they have only to place this rice upon a certain great stone, from which a flame instantly issues, dresses their food, and then goes out of itself. While they eat their rice, various kinds of exquisite meats, ready dressed, appear upon the leaves of some trees, from which everyone takes at will. The meal over, the remains immediately disappear."

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 fulfillment. 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...."

How this paradisal infrastructure came into being, and at what labor, 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." said Superstudio's Adolfo Natalini.

Superstudio is employing a Brechtian 'Verfremdungseffect' ('alienating effect') to point to the dangers of dissociating a strictly 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 latter – 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 paradisal imagination: 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.

Reflecting on these issues and insights in one of the more idyllic looking regions of the world, this tranquil coast line between the rainforest and the ocean, I wonder what design can do – or can be here. A construction or a process? A first intuition comes from visiting the communities along the beach, the coastal backbone: whatever one can do here meaningfully can only be social and civic. A metropolitan-style individual will wither away here in splendid isolation.


< Émile Durkheim, Sociologie et Philosophie, quoted from Anthony Giddens's translation, in Émile Durkheim: Selected Writings, p.115

< Zigmund Bauman, Liquid Modernity, p.105

< Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung, Kapitel 1 - 32, p.207 (translation MB)

< 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

< Superstudio, press release for "Italy, the New Domestic Landscape" exhibition, MoMA New York, may 1972.

< Adolfo Natalini, Superstudio, quoted by Jonathan Glancy in The Guardian, 31 March 2003


This essay was written as a first reflection during a residency At Chocó in Chocó province, Columbia in a guest house designed by Joep Van Lieshour for the Colombian cultural organization Más Arte Más Acción. Both the building of the guest house and my residency were kindly sponsored by the Mondriaan Foundation. The photo's are made by me during the same trip, except the last one, made by my host, Fernando Arias.


max bruinsma