Uros islands, Lake Titicaca. 2005. Photo: Mathias Ripp under CC BY-AS 2.0

Utopian (I)margins1: Counterflows of the Future

Edson Luiz André de Sousa

…We need to go back to arrange the deserts.”

Manoel Ricardo de Lima2

Sometimes, the future appears as a dark mist covering our dreams with soot, a result of the operation of the social machine and the repetitive forces of history. This soot covers one of the most essential categories of life: hope. In this scenario, “the agglomerations of things lived through totally obstruct the categories of the future,” our challenge is to know how to open holes in this veil of tomorrow.3 Walter Benjamin stresses that the viewer’s position is constitutive of the field of looking. This means that the territory we create depends on the position in which we place ourselves to design it, and, of course, the conceptual, historical, subjective, cultural, and political instruments we have at hand to sketch this geography.

To see a city inside/out offers the hope that another way of looking is still possible. These “inside/outs” will show types of banal spaces that according to Milton Santos are responsible for paving the way toward the fullness of life: convivial spaces, ones of citizenship, of responsibility with what is shared in public spaces.4

Every creative act is, ultimately, a utopian act, because it tries to establish a new place of enunciation and thus recovers dormant hopes in some forgotten inside out place. What utopias might retrieve this maverick spirit in our young people, paving the way for the reinvention of forms of life in cities?

It is for this reason that Milton Santos, in his classic book A natureza do espaço (The Nature of Space), is categorical in saying that we can only think about space as an inseparable set of systems comprising objects and actions.5 Thus, distinct spaces may deceptively appear as homogeneous. It’s hard to recognize this, because there are many strategies that camouflage difference under the veil of good intentions and the cover of fierce concepts that devour with relish the impurities that mark differences.

In this way, we have come into, from the perspective of Walter Benjamin, a new time of poverty. Today, this scenario is even clearer than 80 years ago, when Benjamin wrote his short article. Critical apathy, widespread resignation in the face of market forces and especially discrediting the power of utopias, a forgotten and discredited category in the debate of ideas, already turned into a useful adjective to disqualify an action – all this paints a desolate landscape. This is the scenario / challenge that lies ahead. Benjamin warns against what he calls “a new barbarism:”

So what is the value of all our cultural heritage, if the experience of it no longer binds us? The last century’s horrible mishmash of styles and the conceptions of the world showed us with clarity where these cultural values can lead us, when experience is taken from us, hypocritically or stealthily, that forces us today into a test of honesty to confess our poverty. Yes, it is preferable to confess that this experience of poverty is no longer private, but one of all mankind. As such emerges a new barbarism.”6

On this point, Flávio de Carvalho gives us a horizon on which to reflect, showing how much creation goes hand in hand with utopia when inserted as a counterflow movement amidst the instituted world of common sense. It is typical of him to have decided to walk in the counterflow of a procession in São Paulo, in 1931, to understand and induce mass movement principles. This experience, which almost ended tragically because Flávio de Carvalho was nearly lynched by the angry mass of the faithful, functions as a paradigm of inquiry, one that is necessary for us to minimally understand where we’re going and what we take with us in our hands and minds.7 Utopia fulfills this function of counterflow, to block our certainties, pick away at the excessive naturalization with which we wrap events. Utopia, then, suspends the false destinies that we wear as a way to numb what is the most precious: our responsibility towards life and tomorrow. Rather than being understood as a fractured image, utopian images have been read erroneously (and still are) as prescriptive, announcing ideal forms and finally the secret of shared happiness. Big mistake. All the great Utopians never sought the place of Gods. Utopian texts are nothing more than fictions that are simply seeking with the force of imagination to open a critical wound in the landscape of our time. The Utopians sought, in this way, to provoke their time with thoughts and as such open new frontiers for imagination and responsibility before history. Thomas More and his Utopia, Tommaso Campanella and his Sun City, Francis Bacon and his Atlantis, and many others materialized in text what Ernst Bloch calls the Principle of Hope.8 Critical hope that in order to dream toward the future, one needs to minimally know some functioning principles of the social machine.

Utopia, in this perspective, has much more of a dimension of the subtraction of excess – of images and of meaning – just as in psychoanalytic interpretation suspending the certainties of the subject, than in prescribing new codes of conduct and projects focused on happiness. To take utopia as a revelation of truth is a kind of refusal to compromise that people have their own imaginations. In this sense, rejecting the utopian text implies resignedly succumbing to texts that we have already lived under and signed many times “without knowing.” It is here we find the catastrophe announced by Walter Benjamin when linked with the experience of repetition: “That things continue as before, that is the catastrophe.”9 We know how the thirst for power has made of some “utopias” a cruel machinery, authoritarian and dogmatic. The utopia that interests us is not the one we know, but exactly the one we do not yet know and that we need to invent.

Every creative act carries within itself a utopia. The direction of utopia should not, at first, go toward reality, but above all against reality. Usually one thinks of utopia as something outside of reality, as illusion, escape, fantasy, delirium, empty projects. This form of utopia works as the classic vector of the present-future. Its horizon will always be to make something become real. If we restrict ourselves to this view, such utopian forms lose their strength. As proposed by Roger Dadoun, we can invert the direction of the vector and think about utopia as a movement that goes from the future to the past, a current against reality.10 Here, Utopia acquires its virtue of social criticism.

Consequently, it is necessary perhaps to think about borders from the perspective of the possible movements in transit between territories. From this perspective, of course, the border is thought of in its condition of passage. Jacques Lacan’s point of departure on this is interesting, when he says that, “in separating two territories, the border, certainly, symbolizes that they are equal for those who cross it, that there is a common denominator between them.”11 It is in this same text, Lituraterre, that Lacan indicates a difference that can help us in our reflection. Lacan proposes the term littoral to mark the radicalism of a heterogeneous encounter, since they are two distinct areas: land and sea. The border, as we have seen, often establishes a difference in homogeneous spaces. To encounter the littoral then implies a radical gesture of identifying fundamental limits, as a means of knowing the starting point that allows an effective contact with the other, with otherness, with the stranger. The littoral clarifies for us the limit of our knowledge, of our history, of our fantasies and, dare we say, our possible utopias. The littoral, in this way, holds on to a singularity that enables the margin, the construction of new (i) margins. On this point, although not mentioned in his text, Lacan approaches Benjamin, as these ‘beaches’ are created from the condition of narrating and transmission, whose extreme and sublime form is precisely literature. Literature, as noted by Lacan, is the condition of accommodation to what remains.12 In the condition of narrating we find the greatest value of transmission and chance for each person to make effective contact with his or her experience.

The Bureaucratization of Tomorrow

Tomorrow harasses us. We are afraid when we do not know it. So, knowledge is used at times to legitimize the reclusive state that we impose on ourselves before the unknown. To defend ourselves we do not need much: it’s enough to insist on the logic of yesterday and, in so doing, confirm that the continuity of [established] principles and their functioning legitimizes the ontological adages with an inflated rationality comprising [already] instituted forms. To create is to open discontinuities, interruptions in this flow of the same. In this analysis, the psychological variant cannot be neglected, because passivity goes hand in hand with the sorrow that finds that everything is always so equal and that, there is, in short, someone who thinks for us, does for us and what’s worse, lives for us. There is, therefore, no revolt without the joy of the invention, without the enthusiasm of sharing a dream with another.

The bureaucratization of tomorrow is a form of time control. Time/cards clocked in mark the routines that we preserve and love so much. For this reason, the complaint we direct into the midst of these fluxes are fragments of loving speech. Controlling time is one of the most powerful instruments of the logic of power. Time set by the logic of the market, the flow of goods, of values, the speed of advertising campaigns, defending the virtue of patience and waiting, all under the cloak of a developmental theory of progress. This scenario, as we know, is maintained even if few are chosen and appear as the cream of a milk warmed by the sacrifice of many. These masses, the system’s logic makes us believe, lost the chance from sheer incompetence to live for themselves. This is a radical condition of blindness that does not allow us, on this point, to visualize the littoral mentioned before. When culture cannot manage to minimally write these heterogeneous spaces, of critical links between the different, we lose the horizon line that gives us a direction. As recalled by Alfonso Sastre:

Life’s worst enemy is homogeneity. Culture is an activity that opposes the fact that our reality becomes an entropic soup. Entropy means disorder that is the basis of death… lone thought and lone language only produce ridiculous scarecrows.”13

Utopia is, therefore, a kind of brake on the mimetic delirium that we suffer. It comes to oppose the tendency to repeat. Utopia breaks with the passion of analogy to propose a non-place. The utopian form, fundamentally, at first puts into play a “no” in the present scenario. Utopia introduces the category of the possible and for this it fractures history. We never know how far a culture that bets on the utopian spirit can take us. The key, in truth, is not to anticipate this place, but just to understand that utopia’s job is to put us in motion and we can, as Ernst Bloch says, overcome the darkness of the lived moment.

Utopian consciousness wants to see far away, but deep down it is just to cross the darkness so close to the instant that you just lived, where all becoming is adrift and hidden from itself.”14

Utopia implodes any bureaucracy. Attuned to the poetic, as much in its capacity to invent new metaphors as in (and perhaps this is the most radical point) its suspension of meaning that reactivates the imagination. All the more, we need poetic thought that, once established, effectively produces a political way of working in the full sense of the word. Poetic production re-invigorates language, touches with courage the limits of the sayable, borders with determination the boundaries of the formless, thereby accepting the challenge, launched by Jack London, that we have to narrate our nightmare however difficult it may be. It produces, in this way, a form of counter thinking.15 Utopia searches to pick holes in the veil of blindness that contemporary rationalization and technical society impose on us.

The exaggerated confidence in technique, know-how, has left tomorrow with its hands full of regulations, project activities, statutes, package inserts, and instruction manuals. With our hands busy with so many prescribed things, it has not been possible to hold onto the vapors of new ideas.

For us to activate new ideas we thus need a culture of utopia. Here, it might be possible for us to encounter the most important littoral of our humanity, since, as noted by Ernst Bloch at the beginning of his trilogy on the Principle of Hope: “Lack of hope is, itself, as much in terms of temporality as of content, totally intolerable, absolutely unsupportable for human needs.”16

T.N. All citations are free translations from the Portuguese.

1 This is a text that dissolves the margins of a series of reflections that I have written about utopias. Here, these fragments are reunited in a new geography like Uros, the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. I am grateful to Luiz Guilherme Vergara whose readings and edits have made of my writings, like a master “bricoleur,” allows a new configuration ideas. No one builds an island alone. T.N. The title “Imargens” in Portuguese plays with the sonority and meanings of the words imagem and margem – image and margin.

2 See Manoel Ricardo de Lima, Geografia Aérea, Rio de Janeiro, 7Letras, 2014, p. 93

3 Ernst Bloch. O princípio esperança. Editora Contraponto, Rio de Janeiro, 2005, p. 18

4 Milton Santos. Por uma outra Globalização – do pensamento único à consciência universal. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2000, p.112 and Milton Santos. A natureza do espaço, São Paulo: Edusp, 2002.

5 Milton Santos. A natureza do espaço, Edusp, São Paulo, 2002, p. 21

6 Walter Benjamin. “Experiência e Pobreza” in: Obras Escolhidas: magia e técnica, arte e política, Editora Brasiliense, São Paulo, 1994, p. 115

7 I developed these ideas extensively in “Monocromos psíquicos: alguns teoremas,” in: RIVERA, Tania & SAFATLE, Wladimir. Sobre Arte e Psicanálise, Editora Escuta, São Paulo, 2006.

8 Ernst Bloch. O princípio esperança, op.cit.

9 Walter Benjamin. Paris, capitale du XIX siècle, Cerf, Paris, 1989, p. 491

10 Roberto Barbanti (org.). “L’art au Xxe siècle et l’utopie,” Paris, L’Harmattan, 2000

11 LACAN, Jacques. Lituraterra. Outros Escritos, Jorge Zahar Editor, Rio de Janeiro, 2003, p. 18

12 Ibid, p. 16

13 SASTRE, Alfonso. Los Intelectuales y la utopía. Editorial Debate, Madrid, 2002, p. 43

14 BLOCH, Ernst. Princípio Esperança, op. cit., p. 146

15 Jack London “Como alguém poderia encontrar as palavras para descrever um pesadelo?” In LONDON, J. O pagão. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Dantes, 2000, p. 22

16 Ibid, p. 15