Utopian thinking today: idealism or escapism?

Tuesday 22 November, 20.00 - 21.30 , Muziekstudio Desingel, Desguinlei 25, B 2018, Antwerp Battle of Ideas Europe


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Oscar Wilde famously argued that ‘a map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing at’. Today, after some decades in the doldrums, utopia is back in fashion.  Boosted by the 500th anniversary celebrations of Thomas More’s classic text, the theme of utopia now permeates the realms of art, literature, fashion, design, architecture, theatre, film and beyond. In contrast to the common recent view of utopian thinking as moribund and even dangerous, some commentators now proclaim that a revitalised utopian tradition can help us engage with ‘some of the fundamental issues facing humanity’ and fuel the imagination with new possibilities for the future.

Is the revival of utopian thinking useful? In the 16th century, the dream of an ideal world coincided with a new age in European thought.  The quest for Utopia and the urge to discover new horizons led to unprecedented levels of creativity. The results are reflected in the In Search of Utopia exhibition at the M-Museum in the Flemish town of Leuven, where More’s book was first published. The curators note that it stimulated ‘a wave of creative highpoints in painting, tapestry weaving, mapmaking and the development of scientific instruments’. Could utopian plans and manifestos give a similar boost to contemporary society?

While More’s visions of abundance, freedom and peace were taken up as rallying cries, today’s utopias often seem self-consciously to eschew the pursuit of such ‘big ideas’. Author Davina Cooper, for example, proposes that, rather than dreaming about a better world, people should instead seek to create ‘everyday utopias’ by ‘enacting conventional activities in unusual ways’. Others argue that the more fantastical technology-based utopias suggested by Francis Bacon or HG Wells should be superseded by low-tech schemes in which people work together and pool their efforts and resources. Fears of destructive technologies and environmental chaos have contributed to the dominance of dystopian themes in popular culture. Classic ‘blueprint utopias’ have been displaced by mystical utopias of the sort inspired by the German philosopher Ernst Bloch.

Should utopianism be practical – or is it enough that it stimulates blue-sky thinking? Is utopia an unattainable ideal, or does it offer the sort of vision and ambition that are necessary to promote change in the real world? Is the idea of an urban utopia only celebrated today because it is a fantasy with no practical consequences? When Thomas More coined the word ‘utopia’ he was playing with the Greek eu-topos meaning ‘good place’, but it could also refer to ou-topos, ‘no-place’. Is the latter a better description of utopianism today?

Admission is free. For further details and to reserve a place, see: here