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Beautiful World Reading and Discussion Group Session One: Which Utopia?

Improvisation is indeed a muddy, contested practice. But so is utopia - and by getting our hands dirty and engaging, we might just be able to move towards a freer, fairer, more exciting world for all. - David Bell, 2011

Welcome to the first post for The Bluecoat’s ‘Beautiful World Reading and Discussion Group’ blog! We’ll be sharing readings, videos and audio as well as doing summaries on the workshops. Our first one, hosted by me, Jon Davies, began with a very broad question on what Utopia could look like, what barriers do we face from reaching it and how do we overcome those obstacles. Firstly I’d like to apologise for this account being from my perspective, as opposed to being able to repeat ideas discussed verbatim. I began by proposing that we are beginning to face a critical moment for the world, politically and socially, that we facing the end of ‘The End of History,’ a term popularised since the 1990s and the fall of the Soviet Union, in which there was no longer a tension between two conflicting political realisms. However, since 2008’s global financial crisis, many tensions have since arisen which have begun to subsume all aspects of daily life.

This ‘Rebirth of History,’ it could be best called began with September 11th, spiralling into the War on Terror, in particular the Iraq War and was compounded by the 2008 financial crisis. Since then we’ve witnessed the roll out of global austerity, arguably leading to political events such as Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidency, but also the resurgence of European and American socialism and authoritarianism. There have also been global grassroots movements, from Black Lives Matter, the #Metoo movement and the varying responses to refugeeism in the West, to the Arab Spring and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, as well as emerging new forms of governance such as the autonomisation of Rojava. We could also look at how global power has been decentred from the European-American state axis towards China, the UAE and Russia, as well as the emergence of Silicon Valley as a growing influence in economic and political spheres. All the while the spectre of climate change is becoming impossible to ignore. In all these examples, we can see the increasing importance to understand the need to change our understanding of reality and possibility in our world.

I began with this quote from Federico Campagna’s ‘Technic and Magic’ on reality:

 “Like characters on the stage, specific notions of beauty, morality or justice seem to dance at the rhythm of history’s unfolding through the centuries, engaging in duels or chasing one another, suddenly entering or vanishing from the scene. Behind them, stuck to the frame of what we call ‘reality’, the image of the world stands still, offering a necessary background to their adventures. As one act moves into the next, however, there is no puppeteer to manage the curtains and spare us the vision of the catastrophe. To everybody’s witness, the background is removed and a glimpse of the dark void behind it adds to the shock of a sudden shift in our understanding of what constitutes reality and the world - until a new background cmes, mercifully, to all a new act to start afresh…

...As reality changes, the world also changes dramatically. While cultural values define our way of reading and judging specific things in the world, reality as such such refers to our general understanding of what kind of entities the world is and isn’t made.” (2018, pp. 14-15)

Beginning by looking at what sorts of crises we face in today’s society, the two main strands of argument were based on democracy and the environment. Many of the topics concerns are well known, from the need to restructure resource management, raising awareness of the damaging effects of overconsumption as well the global imbalance between the global north and south to misinformation in the face of recent referenda and democratic processes, and the mediation of social platforms such as Facebook interfering with politics. How do we overcome these obstacles with the wider question of creating a more progressive, beautiful world?

What struck me with the workshop was that one on hand we were discussing how to create a dialogue with our wider communities, yet there was a lack of trust with those on the other side of the argument. Can environmentalist speak to those apathetic to climate change, could the left speak to the right? Another strand of discussion that emerged was whether these sorts of events really contributed to anything, or is our time better spent out organising activism? I proposed that these discussions were in fact activism; while broadly the group emerged from a similar social and political perspective there were differing outlooks in which we needed to better practice our ability to not just persuade, but also be persuaded by others to involve ourselves in dialogue every day.

Introducing David M. Bell’s research on utopia and musical improvisation, I felt that what we were doing was a practice of Nomadic Utopia. According to Bell, State Utopia sets out a code and law of ‘moral good’ in which a hierarchy is necessary to enforce such laws of good, whereas Nomadic Utopia around an ‘ethical good’:

Drawing on the work of Spinoza, Nietzsche and Deleuze, this can be understood as that which unfolds immanently and increases the capacity of those present in a space to act. This should not be understood simply as a reversal of the domination of the collective over the individual found in State Utopianism, however. Rather, it collapses the binary opposition between the individual and the collective: the ability of one to act from their position of difference increases the ability of the collective to act: an increase in the power of one increases the power of all, meaning power is distributed and produced nonhierarchically (and indeed, the imposition or emergence of hierarchy is damaging to such power). As such, the concept of the ‘individual’ is replaced by the ‘dividual’, someone who - in the words of Lewis Hyde - is “constituted by the complexity of the world around him [sic]”. To be a dividual is to know that “we are always simultaneously individuals and sunk in our communities.” An increase in the power of the individual results in an increase in the power of the collective, and vice versa. (Bell, 2011, p. 7)

The idea of becoming was something I wanted to put forward to the group, that our actions and ourselves were constituted symbiotically in relationship to others. In this way, how we responded to others, like in musical improvisation, affects the broader composition of the group and the community. The idea that ‘nobody solos, everybody’ solos in improvisation is a manifestation of nonhierarchical composition of groups - could this be translated into conversation and more broadly into society?

The next in the series of the Beautiful World Reading and Discussion Group will be:


What if we conceive the world without humans as the apex of control and need? What does it mean to become posthuman, and are we even there yet? Jon Davies invites participants to discuss what it means to be human, who gets to be humanised and the possibility of changing or even moving away from the humanist project which began over 4 centuries ago.

Tue 11 Sep / 6 - 7pm

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Federico Campaga Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality. 2018, Bloomsbury

David M Bell Playing The Future: Musical Improvisation and Nomadic Utopia. Published for Thinking Ourselves into Existence exhibition at the CCA, Glasgow, 2011

Image: Salma Noor, CALL__ing CALL__ing CAL____ing 49, 2017, Digital Collage.


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