Make room for Elsewhere

· Essay

Utopia is an exercise in balancing extrapolation with feasibility. Utopianism has forever been a project of blueprinting the course society should take (Engels 1880); feasibility is therefore the name of the game. To understand what’s possible to the minds of a particular social context is, then, to understand how the utopian project will be undertaken in that social context.

But what defines feasibility? To put that another way, what restricts the utopian project? It’s certainly nothing to do with the sociological; nearly every utopia includes a drastic (or at least partial) social reconfiguration. You could probably find a cave painting of a proletarian uprising if you looked hard enough. It’s not the material; utopias have been rich enough to make chains from gold, and advanced enough to achieve international travel via low-orbit spaceflight. No, the boundary of a utopia (and of utopian thinking) is the fundamental law no amount of ingenuity or willpower can make a dent in. Utopia is caged by space.

As the manifestation of space, the Elsewhere of a utopia is its potential: it is the selection criterion limiting the otherwise limitless solutions to the utopian impetus. The Elsewheres available in a context are much the same to the utopian project as a whole in that context. Let me illustrate this with an examination of our contemporary dearth of utopias. To put it diplomatically, we live in quite interesting times. There is no shortage of utopian impetus, so where are all the utopias? The answer to that question seems to lie in the simple fact that we have nowhere to go (Brossard 2019, 438–40). Earth is explored. Even the most remote islands now belong to someone. We don’t quite have the ability to say if expanding to the cosmos is a viable option. Sure, we have plenty of room on Earth, but the utopian project is not sufficed by mere room. It needs more than a slice of land carved out for it. To appreciate why, let me draw from David Harvey’s reading of Lefebvre: materialisation encrusts and crystallises power flows (Harvey 2000, 182–88). It is an innately authoritarian act, and one that flies in the face of the utopian project, which is fundamentally concerned with the exploration of alternatives. Utopia can’t be built off already occupied space, lest it be subject to this restriction of alternatives. Harvey’s critique of Foucault’s heterotopia underscores this point; despite the permission it grants to explore alternatives within space, heterotopia is evolution, not revolution (Harvey 2000, 184–86). Heterotopia grows outward from already-claimed space, and it’s subsequently subject to the same encrusted power flows of that space. This begins to account for the missing utopias. I repeat, we have room on Earth, but we don’t have space. If we understand Elsewheres better, we can begin to think outside the box to find space and reignite the utopian project in a time when we most desperately need it.

What contemporary utopias we do have exemplify how, without total severance, utopia becomes marred and tarnished by the trappings of the room it inherits. Robert Llewellyn’s Gardenia suffers from exactly this affliction. Without any space left, Llewellyn is forced to use time as a context distortion. With bountiful apologies to Einstein, time is no substitute for space. Gardenia subsequently manifests all the critiques Harvey makes of heterotopia. Gardenians live peacefully to 150 years old, but they’re only able to do so because of the material inheritance left by the non-utopian dynasties of war and progress preceding them. The residents are painfully aware of their dependence, and the precariousness of their dependence:

‘One hundred years, Mr Meckler,’ said Paula seriously. ‘That’s how long we’ve been struggling to make this frail system work. It won’t last forever, we all know that, but for now, we have reached a sustainable equilibrium between people and nature.’ (Llewellyn 2012, 174)

The adoption of time as a context distortion is not limited to Llewellyn’s contemporary utopia. The musical and artistic microgenre vaporwave adopts the same technique in the face of a modern absence of space. Placing itself in a past of unfulfilled promises, vaporwave’s utopia is unsurprisingly defeatist; an ironic celebration of the hypercapitalist, politically unstable world left in the wake of 1990s naivety shattered by post-millenial tragedy and upheaval (Barilaro 2020).

A vaporwave artwork, from SleepoBeepos (2020).
A vaporwave artwork, from SleepoBeepos (2020).

Perhaps the best example of space-limited utopia comes from real-world commmunes. Consider Rojava. Birthed from the unloving parents of a civil war and violently unstable region, Rojava certainly sets forth on the utopian project in Syria; under its ideals, gender equality, education, and peace have flourished in a space where they’ve traditionally suffered. In an unfortunate case of following suit, Rojava still exhibits the limitations of a space-limited utopia. As a place fundamentally born of, and still inhabiting, a lack of space for Kurds, Rojava is only utopia for the Kurdish. Rojava is guilty of exclusion and isolationism, adopting policies and rhetoric that implicitly attempt to keep out, or at least pacify, non-Kurds (students 2020). Hardly paradise on Earth. The trends, sadly, continue. The No. 9 Bus to Utopia details David Bramwell’s nomadic journey through real-world attempts at Utopia. Each of them tragically manifests Harvey’s critique of heterotopia (Bramwell 2014, 60–61, 140, 173, 176–77): Christiania, the anarchist, drug-happy commune in Denmark is frequently raided by police and forced to pay rent to the government for otherwise unused land; the Other World Kingdom, a “gynarchic” sex-focused commune was abandoned after disputes about finances; Puye, a free-love commune was denied land by Indian authorities; Damanhur, the builders and worshippers of a mighty underground temple built in mountains near Turin, was decried by the Vatican as home to cultists practising witchcraft, black magic, and drug use1 and has since been allowed to stay, but only after taxation and opening its doors to commodification.

These modern utopias are not the children of a new generation of particularly cruel utopists. Their uniting theme is a ‘do the best with what you’ve got’ attitude; the shortcomings of contemporary utopias are the result of the cruft they have to deal with in lieu of a blank canvas. In the case of those real-world communes, compromise is also the consequence of nearby authorities’ dissatisfaction and contempt for new spaces attempting to claim sovereignty (even if the land is completely abandoned). If the role Elsewhere (or lack thereof) is playing here is ignored, the best a theory of utopia production can hope to do is guess. Nothing else links these utopias; their creators, their format, their utopian impetus, and their contexts are heterogeneous and plural. Nothing else in the theory of utopia production’s armory can be leveraged against this phenomenon. To fix it, we need to better understand Elsewhere, and how it can be created.

This issue of debris opens another line of intriguing inquiry. Perhaps I have overstated Elsewhere’s role, and the utopian project simply requires a blank canvas free of all the nastiness that’s come before; a context distortion powerful enough to enable a fresh start. The real-world utopias certainly support this proposition in their difficulties navigating their existence as components of a heterotopia—that is, connected to hegemonic, ‘old-world’ civilisation. Perhaps all a utopia needs is a distortion powerful enough to achieve total severance, and maybe the other tools in the utopist’s belt are capable of achieving such a distortion. Maybe, to draw more from Foucault’s ouevre, heterotopia can still manifest powerful enough sites of resistance to permit severance from encrusted power flows, even without spatial severance. But is it just, in this case, to diminish the efficacy of Elsewhere? Elsewhere is evidently indispensable among these tools—at least, it is certainly the most detrimental to be left without, as contemporary utopias illustrate. Even supposing this more general requirement of utopian production, Elsewhere is important.

All this is not to say, of course, that Elsewhere is a breeze to analyse. Searching for Elsewheres can often be an exercise in searching for a needle in a haystack written 200 years ago. But why bother searching? Call off the needle hunt. The mere knowledge that there’s a needle at all should suffice. Consider works like La citta del sole. Campanella never mentions the city’s foundations lying in an island, continent, spaceship, or otherworldly dimension. It merely suffices that the City is somewhere out of the reach of obstacles. The contextual potential for an Elsewhere is enough to instantiate the utopia. The contextual potential for an Elsewhere, then, should be the focus of any concern for Elsewhere. The implicit or explicit Elsewhere in a particular work is merely an artefact of this potential, and the associated trouble with identifying it should not dissuade from the importance of the concept.

So, after all this, where are we left? This inquiry into the usefulness and importance of Elsewhere as a critical element of utopia production leaves us with a certain, but nuanced answer. Elsewhere is useful and perhaps more useful than any other tool to distort context. However, this significance is only symptomatic of a more pressing issue; the utopian project requires total severance in its context distortion to be truly limitless. Elsewhere is only useful, therefore, until more effective methods of context distortion are proposed. Even if it is phased out, though, Elsewhere will remain useful as a driving force behind historical utopian production (i.e.: before this hypothetical innovation in context distortion) and certainly as part of a framework that uncovers how the utopian project is restricted and stifled by context in general.

References

Barilaro, Alessandro. 2020. “Broken Promises, or, Vaporwave: The Barren Utopia.”

Bramwell, David. 2014. The No. 9 Bus to Utopia. Unbound.

Brossard, Baptiste. 2019. “Elements for a Theory of Utopia Production.” Utopian Studies 30 (3): 422–43. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/utopianstudies.30.3.0422.

Engels, Friedrich. 1880. “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.”

Harvey, David. 2000. “Spaces of Hope.” In. Edinburgh University Press.

Llewellyn, Robert. 2012. News from Gardenia. Unbound.

SleepoBeepos. 2020. “Goodnight and God Bless America.”

students, SOCY2053. 2020. “Rojava Collaborative Working Document.”


  1. When raided by police, they “didn’t even find a cigarette”(Bramwell 2014, 178)