Posted by: HAT | February 27, 2008

Utopian Lessons from Bob Gamble

The Women’s Center (where I spend a lot of time, it seems) hosted a visit from Rev. Bob Gamble of This Child Here, a mission to street kids of Odessa, Ukraine, last week.  I had expected this to be valuable and thought-provoking, and to challenge me to do more in the world, and it did all that, but hadn’t expected this visit to make me think more about utopia, and it did that, too.

In particular, one of Bob’s several presentations of images, a short film made by a photographer in Ukraine documenting the situation with streetkids there, ended with a song by Michael Krug (sp?) “The Golden Domes,” evidently a symbol of both prison — it is somehow connected to going to prison and getting tatooed — and of escape, the ideal world beyond the immediate horror.  In this film, it’s also related to the aesthetics and pragmatics of inhaling glue.  So the escapist dimension of utopian representation and imagery is totally obvious:  life is awful, the situation is awful, and some of us escape the full realization of this horror by getting high and focusing on something else, a fantasy of something more pleasant. 

Well, that doesn’t change anything at all, in fact, it makes the actual immediate situation even worse.  So that’s one side of utopia and utopian discourse, its dysfunctional side.  And then Bob said, with children in the dormitory with which he works, this place that is meant to rescue children from the difficulties of the streets, to get them back into a place where there’s some safety, order, they can go to school, etc., the task is to work with them “to get them to imagine a future . . .”  But, hearing that, I think:  well, yes, and that future has to be imaginable, it has to seem plausible.  So it has to connect in a really pragmatic way with the situation in which people really are, what Adorno would call “extant reality,” it has to work within the existing system, it has to involve “getting a degree” or job training, it has to take the time things take in this world, etc.  A kind of anti-utopian discourse, in a way, “pragmatic” and “practical” rather than utopian, some would say, according to some usages of utopian.  But the direction of this imagined (represented) future is improvement, quasi-utopian, I might want to say. 

So I think to myself, what I am thinking about, the kind of utopian discourse I am interested in, falls somewhere in between these two alternatives.  It is the discourse about the non-escapist, possible but not immediately actualizable, kinds of options we wish we had, that would not be in principle ridiculous, possible other worlds that might be constructible — there is a place for that kind of discourse, that kind of thinking, that kind of representation, that kind of imagination, too.  It won’t get you off drugs, maybe, and it won’t get you the degree and the job it will take to survive off the streets in the current situation, and clearly, that kind of practical application is needed.  But I think it would be a mistake to limit our thinking to that kind of practical application.

I’m not faulting Bob here at all!!  I’m just taking the juxtaposition of the drug-induced euphoria and the very practical imagination of a future in my own direction, and thinking, there’s at least one other kind of thinking, and there’s a place — a different, but i think a valuable place — for that, too, and it was the excluded term in this event, but the one I think my neglected dissertation project is supposed to be focusing on.


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