The idea of utopia makes many people nervous because it immediately brings to mind images of ‘unrealistic’ fantasies conjured up by someone with their head in the clouds. Even the more ‘grounded’ utopian visions are critiqued and ridiculed for their outlandish impossibility and impracticality; just look at the innumerable blockbusters about utopias and ‘better’ ways of living that fail spectacularly, leaving us realizing perhaps how we are isn’t so bad after all.
This is a very narrow idea of utopia, one which David Pinder in his article ‘Reconstituting the Possible: Lefebvre, Utopia and the Urban Question’ attempts to overturn and redefine. Using ideas from Henri Lefebvre, Pinder argues that utopia is not some unattainable and therefore laughable idea but instead is a vision of potential, especially with regards to urban theory. He quotes Lefebvre, ‘Today more than ever, there is no theory without utopia. Otherwise a person is content to record what he sees before his eyes,’ and ‘in order to extend the possible, it is necessary to proclaim and desire the impossible’ (Pinder 2013, 28).
In our thoughts and actions, we are constantly stretching beyond the visible into the possible and impossible. Utopia according to Pinder is different from merely dreaming, as dreamers dream of things staying the way they are while utopia is a dynamic reimagining of possibility itself. It is a way of seeing reality differently, in such a way that ways of doing and being change. To me, this does not sound too different from dreaming, especially if we assume dreaming to be synonymous with wishing – we often hear the phrase ‘I wish this could last forever’ in films and literature (and our own imaginations) but we also hear with equal frequency the expressed wish for something better.
Of course, it is completely understandable to be skeptical, especially in our current era of ‘realism’ and so-called enlightened modernity. We fear the escapist because his apparent irrationality and audacity to believe people can change are rather preposterous and easy to refute in light of the way the world works. However skeptical we may be, though, we must not disregard the desire for more nor refute it as a desire that lacks all sanity and reason. Seeing the world as it can be requires seeing the world as it is, for you cannot get to ‘there’ unless you start from ‘here.’ As Pinder says, realizing Lefebvre’s impossible ‘demand[s] a historical understanding of the conditions of possibility as well as opening them up to what could be’ (34). The possible is there – we just have to overcome that which says the possible is impossible.
Perhaps the difference here between dreaming and utopian vision is that the latter is an explicit call to action. It takes the hegemonic acceptance that things are as they are and will never change and turns it on its head by saying that desiring and acting for more is necessary for our survival and progress. Lefebvre goes as far to call it ‘militant utopianism’ to emphasize the importance of acting ‘within, against and beyond the current urban condition’ (Pinder 31).
Everyone has ideas for making the world a better place. Some of them are very concrete and specific and others are incredibly vague and broad. To rephrase Lefebvre’s question about urban reimagining, who doesn’t have a drawer overflowing with ideas for how to better society? The key is the acting upon these ideas, the methods applied and processes undergone. For Lefebvre, ‘utopia is a method’ (Pinder 35). This is a very useful way to understand this reconstitution of the possible – if utopia is a method, it is no longer an imaginary concept or abstract ideal but instead it is attainable and rational, critical and constructed. It is a process, something grounded in reality and focusing on the specific futures of certain places, societies, or types thereof. This is encouraging to those of us who desire something (even if it remains so vague for now) better – processes need time, but once percolation has begun, results begin to appear. Utopia in this respect requires being aware and critical of the present moment, not lost in fantasies of some distant future, as utopian visions are often portrayed and understood.
In very typical critical urban theorist fashion, Lefebvre (and similarly Pinder) does not give us a solution to this question of utopia but instead opens up the idea that the solution is actually a process in itself. Driving down the road becomes a very different experience if the goal is to experience the road and perhaps eventually come to the end destination instead of the destination consuming the entirety of your time on the road – you probably wouldn’t notice the road at all! Similarly, tomorrow’s present is only realized in light of today’s – if you focus too heavily on tomorrow’s, today’s will be irrelevant and tomorrow will truly never come.
For urban planners, theorists, and residents alike, the city can come across as a very fixed entity, immovable in ideology and structure. However, the fixedness of buildings does not equally cement into place the use of the building or guarantee that the expectations of those occupying it will always remain the same – nor should it. What Lefebvre and Pinder together suggest is revolution – sometimes this does mean physical rupture and intentional breaking of social standards in order to instigate change. Other times, it really means asking questions of that which we take for granted in the urban environment. The key is to avoid easy solutions and ask questions while avoiding the potential heaviness of unanswered questions. It’s a tricky balance, but it is not impossible.