Yet it has also been ready to intervene and bring about concrete transformation. Utopias of desire, as in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” focus on happiness, tying it to the satisfaction of needs.
Such utopias, demanding the complete alleviation of pain and sometimes glorious spaces of enjoyment and pleasure, tend, at least in modern times, to rely on technology.
After the Gulag Archipelago, the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields and the Cultural Revolution, these utopias seem both philosophically and politically dead.
The great irony of all forms of utopianism can hardly escape us.
Have you ever wondered about after getting up in the morning and never have to look in the mirror and do your hair or pick out an outfit good enough?
Even have to worry about getting laid off and losing your home and possibly getting a divorce?However, anti-utopianism may also become atavistic and beckon us to return, regardless of any cost, to an idealized past.In such cases, the utopian narrative gets replaced by myth. To many people the answer to both questions is a resounding no. They may even provide some kind of purpose to our strivings as citizens and political beings.Even the internet, perhaps the most recent candidate for technological optimism, turns out to have a number of potentially disastrous consequences, among them a widespread disregard for truth and objectivity, as well as an immense increase in the capacity for surveillance.The utopias of justice seem largely to have been eviscerated by 20th-century totalitarianism.And while the utopian narrative is universalistic and future-oriented, myth is particularistic and backward-looking. There are reasons, however, to think that a fully modern society cannot do without a utopian consciousness. It is to be open to change even radical change, when called for. Once utopias are embodied in ideologies, they become dangerous and even deadly. We also need to be more careful about what it is that might preoccupy our utopian imagination.Myths purport to tell the story of our origin and of what it is that truly matters for us. With its willingness to ride roughshod over all established certainties and ways of life, classical utopianism was too grandiose, too rationalist and ultimately too cold. In my view, only one candidate is today left standing. Yet it calls for neither a break with the past nor a headfirst dive into the future. It would remind us that we belong to nature, that we are dependent on it and that further alienation from it will be at our own peril.Anti-utopianism may, as in much recent liberalism, call for controlled, incremental change.The main task of government, Barack Obama ended up saying, is to avoid doing stupid stuff.The utopias of technology see social, bodily and environmental ills as requiring technological solutions.We know such solutions all too well: ambitious city-planning schemes and robotics as well as dreams of cosmic expansion and immortality.