Utopia as practice
future thinking as tranquilizer in an accelerating world
“Bist du bereit für eine kleine Utopie?”, Blumfeld in ‘Wir Sind Frei’
“I miss the future”, Jaron Lanier
The 1977 album ‘Trans Europa Express’ by the German band Kraftwerk is a peculiar one. Although the arrangements, the use of synthesizers and layers of noise are very modern the overall feel is nostalgic. On previous albums ‘Autobahn’ (1974) and ‘Radio-Aktivität’ (1975) Kraftwerk were slowly losing their style based on improvisation and jazz for a more poppy sound focussing on rhythm, mood and feel. On ‘Trans Europa Express’ the mixture of avant-pop, krautrock and synthesizer driven music became their trademark. A sound that would ultimately lead to the proto-electro of ‘Computerwelt’ (1981) and become an important inspiration for new music genres like electro, house and techno. But ‘Trans Europa Express’ is more than a musical shift, the album shows a new way of looking at the world.
The video for the title track is a perfect example of nostalgia for the future. The band uses images of the legendary ‘Schienenzeppelin’, an experimental railcar which resembled a zeppelin airship in appearance. It was designed and developed by the German aircraft engineer Franz Kruckenberg in 1929. Propulsion was by means of a propeller located at the rear. The railcar never went beyond the experimental phase, but it represents something bigger: the ability to think about new technologies that will change the future. It is not difficult to imagine a city with Schienenzeppelins driving high up in the sky. Looks today as futuristic as it did back in 1977 when Kraftwerk used railcars to connect the major cities in Europe.
At the end of the 1970s connecting European cities by fast trains was already a dream that everybody knew would never come true. With mass unemployment, an economic crisis, a cold war becoming more visible and neoliberalism knocking at the door, there wasn’t much to be positive about. The video for ‘Trans Europa Express’ is an interesting blend of new, fresh and experimental music, exciting lyrics of a dreamt future, Kraftwerk dressed up like businessmen in the 1950s and images from the 1920s recalling the unconditional belief in the future. “Wir laufen ein in Düsseldorf City, Und treffen Iggy Pop und David Bowie”, it says. Kraftwerk dreams of a creative, progressive and both economically and culturally flourishing Europe. Against all odds. There were more albums trying to put the shift from modernity to late/post-modernity into music. ‘Station to Station’ (1976) by David Bowie for example. Quite a disturbing record. Or ‘Ambient 1: Music for Airports’ (1978) by Brian Eno: the ultimate soundtrack for a society that is solely based on systems, instructions and procedures creating non-places where people are discouraged to stay too long. It is also the time punk had already become commodified, with punk music being used to sell almost anything. Even a new youth culture wasn’t able to turn the tide.
According to the theory of the American sociologist Fredric Jameson the video for ‘Trans Europa Express’ is a good example of utopian culture. In his excellent piece ‘Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?’ for Science Fiction Studies in 1982 he studied a lot of essential SF- writings trying to investigate the role utopia plays in modern science fiction. In his book ‘Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions’ (2005) he goes even further and dismisses the idea of utopia “as the image of a perfect society or even the blueprint of a better one”. According to Jameson utopian writing has the effect of “cognitive estrangement”: it has the ability to make familiar power structures of our lives appear as strange. Thus making us recognize the disturbing and problematic systems and structures within our own world. Science fiction teases us with radical social and economic models and reminds us of our future’s uncertainty and contingency. So the power of an utopian vision isn’t what the future should or even could look like, but that reality can be changed or, even more so, will change in an unpredictable way. In our current world where science and logic aren’t capable anymore of explaining the problematic global and local changes utopia could fulfill the role of tranquilizer and bring us at ease with the notion that we will not be able to fully know what direction our world will take.
In 2014 Dutch artist Dieuwke Spaans tried to grasp the essence of utopia in her ‘Coming Soon: Real Imaginary Futures’ show at Bureau Europa in Maastricht. Spaans created a nostalgic exhibition focussing on the history of utopia, the lack of believe in the future and design explorations and projects that show possible futures. Most of them had the tendency to try and go back to better times. Times in which people believed in a better future. Of course, using Jameson’s idea of utopia as cognitive estrangement, the exhibition triggered enough recognition but more so evoked nostalgic feelings for past times. In more or less the same way pop culture at the moment is looking back. Electronic music is using elements from early 1990s rave, the very popular indie rock movement takes the late 1980s and early 1990s as checkpoint. The music of the British producer Zomby could also have been made in 1990, Amsterdam rockers Those Foreign Kids would suit perfectly opening for Dinosaur Jr. at club Vera in 1991. Metamodernism is the theoretical equivalent of this kind of nostalgia. In their ‘Notes on Metamodernism’, published in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture in 2010 Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker propose to go beyond post-modernism and write history beyond the end of history by combining elements of modernity and postmodernity: “Ontologically, metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between modern enthusiasm an a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, […]”
Okay, it’s a bit dull to come up with the oscillation metaphor but Vermeulen and Van den Akker are definitely on to something. Still, their theory is too much rooted in a modernistic approach. As if both are hoping modernism will come back, crush postmodernism, give back our western universal way of progress and we’ll live happily ever after. That won’t happen. Modernism is outdated. Trying to describe reality in models, systems, rules and ideas that are universally true isn’t possible. And, like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer claimed in their brilliant book ‘Dialektik der Aufklärung’ (1944) it is not desirable either. If we want to bring back hope for the future we have to look at alternative models of understanding the world we are living in. One of the most interesting thinkers of the 20th century is Marshall McLuhan. As a professor of English literature at the University of Toronto McLuhan saw how post-world war II United States were dominated by media. His imagination of the possibilities of new media pushed him with firm hands towards the slowly emerging media science. According to McLuhan new media — radio at that time, the first steps of television and early pop culture — were meant to liberate mankind from the yoke of the literate society. From the media, emerging during the enlightenment, that enslaved us: typography and the printing press. The media that shaped modernity, so to speak. With the emerging new media in the 1950s and 1960s society doesn’t necessarily gets back control, but at least isn’t controlled by faceless systems and structures that are already outdated.
Especially television, McLuhan thought, had a revolutionary character. Because of the capability of the medium bringing the world into the living room, eventually there would be a global change. Electric media, as McLuhan called the new media of his time, were able to establish a network around the world and connect everyone to everyone. Resulting in a redefinition of our social relationships, bringing us together in one universal tribe which he calls the global village. Away from the suffocating reality of the individualistic society dictated by objective rules. In the early 1990s a group of visionaries in Silicon Valley recognized the emerging internet as an important new medium in the vision of McLuhan. In his own time, McLuhan was mostly dismissed as an eccentric academic thinker who’s ideas had more to do with popular culture and storytelling, based on opinions rather than facts. His nonlinear way of thinking, without beginning and end, was way too complicated. It’s interesting to read his work almost fifty years later, because it now makes a lot of sense, maybe even more sense. Storytelling has become a key idea for artists and designers. Seeing technology and culture as one instead of two separate things, is becoming more and more accepted. Nearly all contemporary media theorists are referring to McLuhan, either in a positive or negative way. To fully understand how our current society is changing or how it has already become a network society, we simply can’t ignore his work.
There are some loose links between Marshall McLuhan, the emerging ideology in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s — often referred to as the Californian Ideology — and the work of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU). The CCRU was founded in de mid 1990s by Sadie Plant at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England. Loosely based on the theories of the French thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their two volume work ‘Capitalisme et Schizophrénie’, on science fiction stories and movies like ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) and the emerging rave culture and electronic music. The blend between academic theory and fiction is what McLuhan would think of as the ultimate form of nonlinear storytelling. Especially philosopher Nick Land wrote a handful of excellent articles. ‘Meltdown’ is an absolute masterpiece. It tells the story of a future that is dictated by accelerating capitalism merging economy, bio-science, artificial Intelligence, religion, technology and culture to one strong force heading for an uncertain future. The only way to go is understanding the process of acceleration and adept to it. Although the CCRU only lasted till 2003 it had a lot of influence in academic and popular culture circles. Ray Brassier, Mark Fisher, Kodwo Eshun, Luciana Parisi, Steve Goodman, Anna Greenspan amongst others were connected to the unit. With their ‘Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’ (2013) Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ recently restored the ideas of the CCRU but it is the documentary ‘Hyperstition’ (2016) by German filmmaker Christopher Roth and the Austrian philosopher Armen Avanessian, currently connected to Freie Universität Berlin, that credits the ideas of CCRU the most.
The term hyperstition was used by Plant and Land at CCRU to define the process of making fictional entities real. In other words: to blend fiction (believe) and truth (science) in order to describe reality. In a world where processes of globalization, capitalism and culture are blending, accelerating and therefor too complex to objectively understand hyperstition can serve as a way to give the impression of control. Simply because we can fill in the fictional part ourselves. It serves the role as a utopia if used in the definition by Jameson mentioned earlier: a tranquilizer that brings us at ease with the notion that we will not be able to fully know what direction our world will take. The British design duo Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are using that notion in their work as designers. In their book ‘Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, And Social Dreaming’ (2013) they come up with a design method based on speculations and fictional scenario’s. In Belgium and The Netherlands bureaus like Pantopicon, Monnik, The Beach and Metahaven are using similar speculative and sometimes even romantic notions in their design methods. It is there where utopia has become a practice instead of just speculations. And that’s a good thing.
Sources and further digging
Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, And Social Dreaming. MIT Press: Boston.
Christopher Roth and Armen Avanessian (2016). ‘Hyperstition’. Berlin.
Fredric Jameson (1982). ‘Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?’. Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 9, №2.
Fredric Jameson (2005). Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1972). Capitalisme et Schizophrénie 1: L’Anti-Œdipe. Les Editions de Minute: Paris.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1980). Capitalisme et Schizophrénie 2: Mille Plateaux. Les Editions de Minute: Paris.
Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore (1967). The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Penguin Books: London.
Nick Land (1994). ’Meltdown’. Abstract Culture, Swarm1.
Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (2013). ‘#Accelerate Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’. Critical Legal Thinking. 14 May.
Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron (1995). ‘Californian Ideology’. Science as Culture 6.1. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1944). Dialektik der Aufklärung. Querido: Amsterdam.
Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker (2010). ‘Notes on Metamodernism’, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture. Vol 2.