On Utopia

Erik Bulatov, Horizon, 1971-72
Erik Bulatov, Horizon, 1971-72

Below is the outline for a talk I will give at the Architectural Association at the invitation of Mark Campbell (intermediate 1), November 23 2015.

Utopia, as commonly interpreted, exists as a space and time banished to the imagination. It is a space-time which corresponds only to its own space-time, and thus it exists without one—the impossible contradiction is implied in More’s contraction itself (‘non-place’, ‘elsewhere’, ‘good place’). It is, in this way, a form of imagining informed by the present/real, but destined to an unspecified future; a mirror world which both exists by dint of its relation to the ‘real’ world, but for that reason, always resigns itself to never actually exist.

Curiously, since More’s text in the early 16th century, the notion has developed into a vague yet ideologically overdetermined category. This transition took place from the late 18th century, where, by the 20th century, it could become flattened into an allegory for modernism’s ‘unconscious’, a stand-in for a set of universal principles embedded in the project of modernism and its Enlightenment substructure. In this, an opposition can be mapped between Utopia’s ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ attributes: utopian signifies that which is foolishly impossible, or as maniacally Orwellian in scope; or, it indicates a socially emancipatory project yet to come. Either way, Utopia is either seen as a space which can never exist, or one which should never exist—it is at once a promise of redemption and a danger. Perhaps what is truly ‘dangerous’ about the term Utopia is exactly this combination of vagueness and ideological overdetermination.

What I will argue in this talk is that our history of Utopia as a concept, like so many others, is one born not with More and his Utopia, but rather one which emerged two centuries later, washed through with Enlightenment morality, drawing from More’s text in order to legitimize and animate a new historical project. The ideological opposition that Utopia presents (promise/danger; perfection/totalitarianism) is false—a fallacy which stands as a signature of a certain ‘dialectic of Enlightenment’. This meaning is what we’ve inherited today and it has deep implications in the way we constitute architectural projects and their relation to politics.

In constantly insisting that Utopia exists strictly as a kind of unconscious of the modern project, or, more generally, as a form of imagination, another, radically different reading of Utopia has been precluded by definition: Perhaps the term Utopia does not describe a form of imagination at all, but is itself both the product of and the name for a spatio-temporal and political condition—a historical a priori that preceded More’s eponymous text and paved the way for its slow emergence in the world ever since. If this is true, what would it mean to consider Utopia as a generalized and concrete spatial, political, temporal condition that continues to unfold in and shape the world today?

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