Greetings from Utopia

We can only answer the question of what we should do, the philosopher Alistair MacIntyre said, if we can answer the question of which stories we are part of. We aren’t authors of our own lives so much as weavers of tales that extend before and beyond us.

This week I was at Chester’s new theatre, Storyhouse, as one of the speakers for an event called Murmurations – a mix of inspiring stories, experiences and provocations designed to stimulate people’s imaginations and encourage new thinking. So in preparation for the event I got thinking about Alistair McIntyre’s comment on story.

Another philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, talks about the present moment as a time of crisis, caught between the ‘surpassed past’ and the ‘fleeing future’. Trying to understand what place (and associated ideas of home and rootedness) means in a Britain caught in the crucible of Brexit highlights that sense of crisis, but also the sense of possibility that crisis entails.

Too often our stories of place have been sanitised and used to sell economic growth and real estate development. In Jerusalem, a city characterised more than most by troubled and contested stories of origin and ownership, I found a high-end development of apartments sold with the slogan ‘Welcome to the neighbourhood. We’ve been expecting you for 3,000 years.’ I wondered who the ‘you’ might be – or, more pertinently, might not be.

Similarly with our stories of the future. Characterised by narratives of dystopia and apocalypse, or by naive technofixes of ‘smart cities’, they remove the doubt and dignity of our bounded human agency in favour of big-screen simplicity.

Caught in this prolonged moment of uncertainly, I suggested it’s time for utopian thinking. Utopia holds up a kind of mirror to our world, presenting it as both the same and radically different, asking penetrating questions of the way humans arrange their lives. As Ricoeur says in his essay on imagination:

It is indeed starting from this strange spatial extraterritoriality – from this nonplace, in the literal sense of the word – that we are able to take a fresh look at our reality; hereafter, nothing about it can continue to be taken for granted.

To be utopian means starting with the imagination. In my slot at the Storyhouse I talked of four ways of using imagination productively.

First, there’s imagination from. Our imaginaries don’t appear from nowhere: they draw on our experiences and the stories we tell about our lives, and the stories of others that shape our lives – other people, other places, and, more importantly than we tend to realise, the other species with whom we share our planet. Those stories offer material and insights from which we can imagine alternative futures.

Then there’s imagination of. What can we imagine? How far are we prepared to diverge from what we see around us? What else might be possible in the degraded and neglected spaces of our cities, or the ecologically damaged fields, hills and watercourses that surround and shape them?

Third, there’s imagination for. Who is included in our vision? Who have we left out and why? Again, if we see our world in terms of the coexistence and co-evolution of humans and other species, how far might we extend our imagination beyond a paradigm of anthropocentric resource extraction and exploitation?

Finally, and perhaps underplayed in contexts where we seek hope and inspiration, is a need to talk about imagination against. How can we use our utopias, as utopian writers such as William Morris did in News From Nowhere, to critique and challenge the world we see around us and the priorities we see exercised in planning, decision-making and the political marketing that tends to masquerade as democracy? After all, there are plenty of people and organisations who are heavily invested in not leaving future generations a better world if it threatens their economic models and revenue streams.

Applying that imagination – in urban planning, in consumer choices, in political decisions, in the use of our time and energy – may be utopian. There is unlikely to be an immediate payback. But utopian thinking might also be the most practical thing we can do. It might generate better stories.

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