notes on dialectic utopianism

Chapter 6 of Harvey, D. (2000) ‘Spaces of Hope’, Edinburgh UP

Harvey talks about two kinds of utopianism: one that materializes in spatial forms and one that is the outcome of social processes (the historical materialism version). He tries to bridge the two in a dialectic spatiotemporal utopianism but I think I need to move beyond chapter 6 to find out how- dialectic utopianism asks ‘utopianism now?’ but it actually announces it. I find Harvey’s account so far attractive because it focuses on the need for the concept of utopianism- at a time that it seems to have lost its popularity- and the need to transgress it as well.

Spatial form utopias happen in specific places and can be a (Foucauldian) combination of counter-practices, whereas the social process utopias are closer to Marxist thinking- they will happen in time and may be the result of specific process of revolutionary steps. Harvey explains the concept of spatial utopias, to be reached with ‘endlessly open experimentation with the possibilities of spatial forms’ (182), in the work of  Lefebvre’s (1991). For Lefebvre exploration of alternative living processes is the key to achieve social and moral goals-collective living, relationship to nature etc. The problem lies with producing specific strategies and establishing defined spaces where these explorations take place. In line with absolute conceptions of Cartesian space, defining spaces signifies closure for Lefebvre.

Foucault’s heterotopias are perhaps in better terms with materiality. Though here Harvey reads in Foucault the idea of escape as central-‘the ships the heterotopia par excellence’- it is to me the fact that the ship actually comes from somewhere and goes to another somewhere which is important. Not the escape, I never thought of escape in Foucault’s ship until  I read Harvey-it is the mobility that adds the excellance to the ship, not the purpose of its formation. Mobility in space makes the ship, or other moving heterotopias, escape definition as an actual place and what makes it  a ‘process of social ordering’ (Hetherington 1997 in Harvey 184).

Harvey notes that this conceptualisation allows for diverse multiple schemas (spatial plays) to co-exist. In places where life is experienced differently, critique and political logos can emerge.  Alternatives are not imaginary, they are part of the social dynamics that already exist. So, while utopias are homogeneous because they are included in the social order of things, heterotopias are heterogeneous. But is heterogeinity the only thing that matters, asks Harvey: are heterotopias just places where things are done differently? He thinks this is not enough- just thinking of cemeteries, Disneylands, factories and shopping malls as heterotopias is banal: ‘an eclectic mess of heterogeneous and different spaces within which anything ‘different’-however defined-might go on’ (185)-or they may be exclusionary and closed spaces.

On the other hand, process-oriented utopias (temporal) struggle to reorganise hard and heavy structures and constructions- highways, institutional buildings, nuclear power stations. Neoliberalism, says Harvey, has actually been able to do that, see for example the diminution of trade unions in the UK. Harvey presents then the work of Roberto Unger: a process, personal and institutional transformation approach to utopias. He critiques existing institutions and behaviours and instead of presenting utopian solutions, he administers the emergence of alternatives through the practical engagements of institutions. Instead of having a whole visionary plan, he only knows the next step of the trajectory.

Unger writes in 1987b (cited in Harvey 186):

‘Our thinking about ideals becomes visionary or external to the extend that it holds up a picture, however partial or fragmentary, of a radically altered scheme of social life and appeals to justifications that do not stick close to familiar and established models of human association. The visionary is the person who claims not to be bound by the limits of the tradition he or his interlocutors are in…Notice that visionary thought is not inherently millenarian, perfectionist, or utopian (in the vulgar sense of the term). It need not and it does not ordinarily present the picture of a perfected society. But it does require that we be conscious of redrawing the map of possible and desirable forms of human association, of inventing new models of human association and designing new practical arrangements to embody them’.

SO for Unger the desire to change the individual self through cultural-revolutionary practices the desire to intervene at a macrolevel (institutions and through innovation) coexist. The objective of course is the system. Here Harvey comes back with what he sees as the essential problem of spatial forms of utopia: materialization=closure. Even temporary materialization in specific institutional arrangements run the danger of closure, fixity, stability for Harvey. What he like in Unger is that his utopia does not have a material referrent-no material form is given to social relations, so the signifier is left open- this is what Harvey calls a ‘pure signifier of hope’ (189). Unger’s processes are for Harvey non-material, non-place, even as they come from historical materialist lines of thinking.

Harvey moves on to literature in order to illustrate his concept of  <!– @page { margin: 0.79in } P { margin-bottom: 0.08in } –> ‘Spatiotemporal utopianism’. It is the novel of  Ursulla Le Guin, Doris Lessing, Marge Piercy and others ( see Levitas 1990, 1993) that present possible societies which are material and spatial indeed, but the product of

continuous processes of struggle. Casting utopias however to the sphere of fantasy happens because there are no ways to link utopian thinking to tangible social change.It is strange how, from this, Harvey moves to talk about the future-looking aspect of Marxist utopianism (and eventually link it to Unger) and to suggest a study of the historical geography of capitalism.

Closing the chapter, Harvey emphasises that we need to position a spatiotemporal project both in present and past. Since the problem with closure is that, even if it is the result of open playful negotiations, it forecloses the possibility of materializing other designs- the social process utopianism (the historical materialism one) evades that. Between the two, spatiotemporal utopianism could define an alternative, not as a spatial form or emancipatory process, but rooted in the present possibilities and pointing ‘ towards different trajectories for human uneven geographical developments’ (196). To do that, we need practically to do historical geographies.


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