Philosophical Notions of Utopia and Progress

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The debate

A philosophical debate about utopia and progress was held at the WRF in July 2009, as part of the Dreams of Progress video art exhibition. The debate took a look back at our previous visions of the future, how they materialised and the way they relate to the dreams we nourish today. It was punctuated by projections of videos questioning the meaning of progress, between modernism and post-modernism, individuality and utopia, and human nature as opposed to mega structures.

Philosophical debate on Utopia and Progress
Philosophical debate on Utopia and Progress

The predictions for the 60s from General Motors in 1940 served as an introduction to the concepts of utopia and progress. I asked the audience to give their first impressions and how they would describe the vision presented in the video. It attracted a lot of interest because I think it embodies so many of the modern utopias.

In the second part of the debate, I showed Productivity Vision for 2019 by Microsoft, Future of Cities by the Danish Royal Academy of Architecture, and Tokyo.future by Ian Lynam. I asked members of the audience what kind of utopias and progress the videos showed, what their assumptions were, and why they were made. Vision by Microsoft monopolised attention first – it was perceived as both inhuman and very realistic. The Future of Cities was unexpectedly the most controversial video of the debate. Some people felt that its message was closer to their own concerns, others thought it was superficial. The last video from Ian Lynam was sadly a little lost in the debate, even if its screening received great reactions during the exhibition.

In the last part of the evening, I showed the Mardi Gras video by the artist Keith Loutit, and McCool!!! by Julian Roberts and Namalee Bolle. I asked if the videos were showing utopias or dystopias. Because of the previous videos and the discussions that followed, the reference to McDonald’s was heavily debated. The Mardi Gras video was well received but came a little late in the debate to really be properly explored.

The use of the videos worked very well in engaging the audience, and the contributions were challenging. Two hours was just enough time to open up the conversation. One problem I did not anticipate though, was that my selection of videos slightly biased the debate towards a judgement on corporate visions, sometimes avoiding the more difficult task of defining ideals that might have been shared by the audience.

The two chapters below introduce some of the aspects and philosophical questions related to the concepts of progress and utopia. They served as a framework for the selection of the artwork, but also as an analysis of the resulting tensions.

Utopia

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Utopia is “an ideal commonwealth whose inhabitants exist under seemingly perfect conditions”. It is taken from the title of a book written in 1516 by Sir Thomas More describing a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean, a pagan and communist city-state in which the institutions and policies were entirely governed by reason.

The ambiguity of the word resides in its etymology – the word comes from Greek: οὐ, “not”, and τόπος, “place”, thus meaning a place that is nowhere, impossible to find in reality. Its homophone Eutopia, derived from the Greek εὖ, “good” or “well”, and τόπος, “place”, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a region of ideal happiness or good order. A utopia can thus either be perfect or fictional, or both.

To help clarify this essay, I will be using the following terminology:

  • Eu-topia, as explained above, derived from the Greek εὖ, “good” or “well”, and τόπος, “place”, is defined as a region of ideal happiness or good order.
  • Ou-topia derived from the Greek ‘ou’ for “no” and ‘-topos’ for “place,” is a fictional, unrealistic place.
  • Dystopia (from the Greek δυσ- and τόπος) is an imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible [Oxford English Dictionary]

These definitions can be represented on a graph with two axes. [Between Dystopia and Utopia* by Constantinos A. Doxiadis*, 1966]

The first axe defines how realistic a utopia is, from ‘topos’ (meaning that the utopia is reality), to ‘ou-topia’ (meaning that the utopia cannot be real). The definition of ou-topia is unclear on the time scale used to judge whether a utopia is realistic or not. This proves to be especially problematic if technology moves at a fast pace, quickly shifting the perception of a utopia from ou-topia to topos. It remains that some imaginary societies are truly impossible, whatever the state of science may be, because they rely on contradictions or false postulates.

The second axe is between nightmares (dystopia) and dreams (eu-topia). However, the classification cannot be objective because it must be based on a system of values. A perfect social order, for some, can be perceived as a state of perfection, but for others, it could be a type of oppression.

Graph of Utopia
Graph of Utopia

This graph does not take into account the notion of heterotopia that Michel Foucault introduced in 1967. The concept goes beyond the scope of this paper, but here is a quick description by Michel Foucault himself:

“First there are the utopias. Utopias are sites with no real place. They are sites that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of Society. They present society itself in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case these utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces.

There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places – places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society – which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.”

The graph cannot be objective because our idea of utopia depends heavily on our values and on how much the vision is seen as realistic or not. Would a ‘good’ society prioritise for example the well-being of its people, or would it refer to a quality of the society as a whole? Debates concerning utopias often end in a  confrontation of values and levels of optimism.

One final aspect to consider while analyzing utopias is their purposes. They can be multiple:

  • A utopia can serve as an ideal that guides the effort of a society.  For example, it can guide efforts in technology.  As Constantinos A. Doxiadis describes in his book Between Dystopia and Utopia (1966),  “Technological progress cannot start without any conception of the dreamland that we want and can create. Dreams are necessary and they must precede the technological achievements” . Technology might be motivated by the ideal of knowledge, with the assumption that knowledge brings happiness. It could also be motivated by the ideal of immortality, where medicine attempts to erase what is presented as the ultimate cause of sadness. Total knowledge and immortality are two utopias driving our efforts, even though they will never be reached.
  • A utopia can also be a means to criticise a society, by considering how it could be different. The goal then is not necessary to build a realistic vision, but to bring attention to existing norms. The use of utopia is particularly relevant in a oppressive regime where political convictions cannot be debated openly. It is also adequate when social rules are so established that the possibility of change is unthinkable.
  • Many utopias emerge paradoxically in times of crisis, when they are even less likely to become real. This demonstrates an important capacity of human beings – the ability to reinvent the world when no hope remains, to see beyond its immediate future and draw the lines of a unheard course.

Understanding the inherent contradictions of a utopia, the aims of its author(s), its historical and social context, and how it was perceived by its contemporaries, is a precious insight into a society and its values.

Progress

Progress can be about anything: science, health, happiness, and wealth just to give a few examples. This essay focuses on social progress, which is loosely defined by Wikipedia as the “changing of society toward the ideal”. The difficult part is naturally to define what the ideal is.

As an example, here is a definition of progress derived from a specific ideal: progress is a “developmental activity in science, technology, etc., esp. with reference to the commercial opportunities created thereby or to the promotion of the material well-being of the public through the goods, techniques, or facilities created” [http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/progress]. One should recognize that it is only a viewpoint on progress.

Another tension is to be found within the notion of progress itself: does it exist and in which form? The typical Western view is that progress exists and it is linear, constantly improving people’s lives. A more nuanced view is that progress happens in the long run but is made of ups, downs, and diversions.

Furthermore, what happens when societies and their ideals change? Is there a ‘macro progress’ building up through a succession of visions of progress, so that society learns from its past mistakes and defines a better vision each time, from monarchical ideals to democratic ones for example? Or is it a cycle with notions of progress all being equivalent, all of them doomed so that the next one can emerge?

The nature of an ideal and the possibility of progress are both central to the way a society works. Throughout history, societies changed the way they operate in hope of reaching their ideals: monasteries were organized to reach a state of religious perfection, factories were built in the perspective of achieving maximum efficiency, the internet was developed with the hope of creating a world of universal knowledge. I believe that one of the biggest danger to a society is to not elicit its position on progress – making it impossible to organise itself convincingly, to address the challenges of its time and to inspire fellowship from its members.

References

Here are the books that have been used to prepare the debate. Books and authors with an asterisk (*) can be borrowed for free at the Westminster Reference Library and other libraries of Westminster: http://www.westminster.gov.uk/libraries/.

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