ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment

(P04)

Architects of utopia

Location Appleton Tower, Lecture Theatre 5
Date and Start Time 21 June, 2014 at 09:00

Convenors

Tobias Kelly (University of Edinburgh) email
Alpa Shah (LSE) email
Mail All Convenors

Summary

Utopias are too easily seen as impractical. Yet people committed to different futures engage in concrete activities to bring those utopias into being. This panel understands utopian projects as inherently practical activities and explores the political, economic and ethical tensions they produce.

Long Abstract

Utopian projects aimed at improving human welfare are often seen as inherently impractical. Yet people who are committed to visions of a different future are often also engaged in practical activities aimed at bringing those utopias into being. Projects aspiring for significant change can involve sustained practical efforts to undermine, improve, alleviate, transform, or to lay the ground. However, the search for a better world always exists in tension with the here and now. In order to imagine that things can be otherwise, to avoid being caught up in compromises of the present, they must project their visions to other times and other places, create new futures and sacrifice the binds of the past. Yet in a double bind, even a separation by a hair's breadth risks being a step too far, consigning the longed for improvements to an always distant future. Endeavors aimed at producing new futures are haunted by baggage from the past and present. This panel seeks to understand utopian projects of transformation as inherently practical activities, with their own understandings of causation, temporality and possibility. In doing so, it will explore the political, economic and ethical tensions involved in the process of trying to bring utopian futures into being. The panel invites contributions that look at the utopias of social movements; Marxian revolutionary struggles; humanitarianism and human rights movements; science and technology practices; prophetic, millenarian and messianic religion; amongst others.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

'Doing well by doing good': economic utopias and the making of solar markets in rural India

Author: Jamie Cross (University of Edinburgh)  email

Summary

The creation of markets for energy technologies that meet the needs of the world's un-electrified poor holds out the utopian promise that it is possible to do well by doing good. This paper explores the practical work involved in attempting to realise this promise in rural India.

Long Abstract

Alleviating the poverty of un-electrified others by making clean, affordable solar powered energy available to them at low cost whilst guaranteeing a return on investment has come to constitute an economic utopia for a generation of green and humanitarian capitalists. Nowhere, perhaps, is the promise of 'doing well by doing well' more apparent than in the visions of success projected by solar energy entrepreneurs onto rural markets for their products in contemporary India. The off grid solar lighting industry simultaneously presents India's poor un-electrified villages as spaces in which people languish in pre-modern darkness and as spaces that anticipate a post-carbon future, in which renewable energy technology will make it possible for all of us to live without the need for grid based infrastructures. Yet markets for solar energy in contexts of global poverty do not just emerge: they must be made. If utopian projects aimed at improving human welfare have often been seen as inherently impractical today's solar entrepreneurs appear resolutely focused on the practicalities of realising their vision, from the design of material technologies, to the production of knowledge about the poor through market research, to the logistics of rural distribution systems that harness and reconstitute village based social networks. Their understandings of causation, temporality and possibility are tightly connected to an idea of the Market with a capital M yet, as I explore in this paper, it is in the practical work of making markets that the realisation of their utopias are constantly deferred.

The pursuit of ignorance: unconditional cash transfers and the dismantlement of bureaucracy

Author: Tom Neumark (University of Cambridge)  email

Summary

Unconditional cash transfer welfare projects have a vision of alleviating suffering through the dismantlement of bureaucratic knowledge practices. I draw on ethnographic data from a Kenya slum to explore the tensions that emerge when they come into contact with existing bureaucracies.

Long Abstract

The politics of ethnic recognition rather than socioeconomic redistribution is said to have characterised the Kenyan state since independence. However, from the early 2000s a range of transnational actors have pursued a project to expand social welfare to the ‘most vulnerable’. Increasingly, this has been through the technology of the ‘cash transfer’; the transfer of money from the state or an NGO to recipients’ personal bank or mobile money account. Across Kenya, cash transfer projects have proliferated and, with funding from a range of donors (but also the government), are set to reach ten percent of the population by 2017.

For many advocates, the project goes further than traditional welfare. Supporters of unconditional cash transfers have utopian visions of dismantling a bureaucratic infrastructure which has often been blamed for unwanted patronage and paternalism. Thus attempts are made to remove the monitoring, workshops and seminars traditionally associated with welfare. Here, experts confront the failure of their own knowledge to solve the problems of the poor, and in doing so embrace a vision where the poor use the money to pursue their own values in the market.

Drawing on ethnographic data from fieldwork in Kenya, this paper explores the implications of unconditional cash transfers which involve not the impartation or gathering of knowledge, but attempts at what I am calling the pursuit of ignorance. It highlights the tensions this creates as this pursuit comes into contact with an existing governmental and non-governmental bureaucratic infrastructure, involving chiefs, village elders, and community health workers.

'Something even I can do?' New communities of exchange in urban Japan

Author: Iza Kavedzija (University of Exeter)  email

Summary

This paper explores the motivations of people involved in a local mutual aid organization in Japan, as an example of a ‘real utopia’. It seeks to answer the question of how people who are deeply sceptical of their ability to effect meaningful change ever bring themselves to act.

Long Abstract

Contemporary urban Japan is increasingly described as a 'society without ties' (muen shakai), and the problem of atomisation is widely discussed in the national media. Dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, many local community residents nevertheless aspire to create networks of support by engaging in a range of small scale projects that help people to imagine alternative institutions, thereby resembling what Erik Olin Wright has referred to as 'real utopias'. Building on Ernst Bloch's idea of 'ontologies of the not-yet', this paper explores the motivations of one such group of residents in South Osaka, who have drawn on the ideas of social activist Tsutomu Hotta to establish a local 'mutual aid' system of volunteer services. Looking for 'something they could do' about some of the problems they observed, these people did not however wish to revive the 'traditional community' or what they took to be the burdensome relationships of the 'old times'. Their wide ranging achievements nevertheless contrast dramatically with their typically modest assessment of their own abilities to bring about change, both as individuals and as a group. This raises an important question of motivation: in what ways do people who are sceptical about their own ability to effect change ever bring themselves to act? In considering utopian projects as practical endeavours, personal motivation is of central importance, since it is in this realm that the tension between the hoped-for and the possible plays out.

Cosmology and transhumanism, Mormons and utopia

Author: Jon Bialecki (University of Edinburgh)  email

Summary

Drawing the 19th century Mormon utopian tradition, and literature on the relation between the Mormon church, science, and cosmology, this paper asks whether the recent interest of some Mormons in transhumanism and entropy can be thought of as a return of the Mormon utopian imaginary.

Long Abstract

There are several distinctives to the Latter Day Saints, or "Mormons": Emphases on continuing revelation, on the cosmological as opposed to the eschatological, and on materiality as opposed to transcendence, all work in combination to make the LDS a unique form of American religiosity.

Nineteenth century Mormons were also distinct in that they strove to create a utopia situated not in some future moment or transcendent sphere, but rather on American soil. Both Joseph Smith's various attempts at building 'Zion' in the American frontier, and Brigham Young's State of Deseret, can be understood not only as expressions of the Mormon Cosmological imaginary, but also as perfectible intentional communities, with different conceptions of property, authority, and even space.

Mormon cosmology has also had effects in another field: many of the same traits that gave rise to nineteenth century Mormon utopian projects have also fostered an attitude towards science and technology distinct from that found in American Protestantism. Recently, some members of the LDS have become interested in transhumanism, arguing that the technological overcoming of the limitations of biological humanity is not only consonant with Mormon religion, but is the purest expression of it. Building on literature on the LDS and science, this essay asks whether a recent growing interest in transhumanism can be understood as a return to a Mormon utopian project. Often already framed as crypto-religious and utopian when adopted by humanists, what does it mean when transhumanism is adopted by a religion with utopian cosmology?

Political utopia socialized: the mundane life of Ambedkarite Buddhism in Uttar Pradesh

Author: Nicolas Jaoul (CNRS)  email

Summary

This paper on the mundane life of Navayana Buddhism in Uttar Pradesh, analyses the way utopia functions once socialized.

Long Abstract

Navayana Buddhism was conceived by Ambedkar as the proper cultural soil for India's future democratic society, an attempt to blend together a liberal discourse of political equality with a more utopian vision of the Dalit political project. The striking parallels with Marx's reflections "On the Jewish Question" indicates a similar dissatisfaction with bourgeois citizenship, hence the need to redefine through Buddhism a more encompassing project of human emancipation.

After the coming to power of the Bahujan Samaj Party in the mid-1990s, the turn to Buddhism represents a historical prolongation of the mobilization of Dalit government employees by this party. How does the political sociology of Dalit activism affect the shapes and meanings of Navayana Buddhism ? Inversely, how does this new religious form affect the politics of Dalit emancipation?

In spite of reproducing hierarchies of the state (due to the patronage of Dalit officers in the Buddhist organizations), Buddhism also provides the more revolutionary sections of Dalit activists new opportunities to pursue the movement of emancipation from below, and to experiment new political forms away from electoral politics. Their political habitus and secular conception of religion in turn defines the limits of the counter-hegemonic attempts to consolidate their authority on their own milieus, generating resistances particularly among women, who resent these educated-male incursions into the religious domain.

Pacifist utopias: British conscientious objectors in the second world war

Author: Tobias Kelly (University of Edinburgh)  email

Summary

Pacifism is often seen as a utopian commitment. Yet, pacifists face a problem of how to bring their utopian optimism into being. Focusing on Second World War Britain, this paper explores how pacifists sough to overcome the temporal fissure of pacifism, by collapsing means and ends.

Long Abstract

Pacifism is often seen as a utopian commitment. It is based on the assumption that human beings are perfectible and contain within themselves the capacity to live better, more peaceful lives. Yet, pacifists face a problem of how to bring their utopian optimism into being. Put bluntly, what happens if future peace can only achieved through violence in the present. Or, alternatively, what happens if a commitment to pacifist principles in the here and now results in the death of other people, in the name of a future peace that was yet to come? Focusing on Second World War Britain, this paper explores how pacifists sough to overcome the temporal fissure of pacifism, by collapsing means and ends. For such people, pacifism could be built through small-scale social interaction, exemplified by communal farms. As war spread around the globe, pacifists continued to be optimistic, not despite of all the bloodshed all around them, but because of it. It was the difficulties of pacifism that proved its importance. Empirical reality or utilitarian calculation could not be used to undermine this optimism. Above all, COs tried to create a pacifist sociality through a form of self-sacrifice. However, such sacrifices were constantly on the verge of turning from the productive to the destructive, the peaceful to the violent.

Micro-utopias: humanitarian goods in an age of audit

Author: Peter Redfield (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)  email

Summary

This paper examines contemporary efforts to improve the world through humanitarian design, and the form of practical utopianism invested in the “small fixes” promised by humanitarian goods.

Long Abstract

What scale of vision do people enact when seeking to change the world? This paper explores that question by focusing on humanitarian goods: objects that direct sentiments of human connection toward highly delimited practical problems. Whereas the era of decolonization embraced large dreams of nation building and massive development works, today they appear in relatively short supply. By contrast, diffuse claims about human rights and humanitarianism permeate international relations alongside the glossy brochures of aid organizations. They also adhere to specific objects on a growing frontier of design. Recently, a wave of social entrepreneurs has sought to respond to social problems of disaster and extreme poverty with ingenious, small-scale designs. The successors to an earlier wave of appropriate technology like solar cookers, these devices display heightened ecological concern, deploy audit oversight and desire to enroll their targeted users into the planning process. They remain modest in scope, seeking "small fixes" through highly specific interventions. At the same time they suggest new contours of humanitarian imagination, partly decoupled from both states and standard infrastructure and refocused on a microscale of future good.

Afterword

Author: David Graeber (LSE)  email

Summary

Afterword

Long Abstract

Afterword

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.