Utopia as the education of our desires

London’s Roundhouse hosted an evening of utopian propositions last week, jointly programmed with Compass. Those of us there were able to experience Penny Woolcock’s extraordinary Utopia installation and listen to Owen Jones and other social justice campaigners. I was particularly struck by the contribution of Marina Prentoulis, from Syriza London.

Marina Prentoulis spoke about what utopia means to her at a time when the people of Greece are experiencing a kind of dystopia where social values and human needs seem to count for less than austerity and the mad logic of the markets. Despite the unequal struggle and all the setbacks faced by the Syriza government, she saw hope in the fact that Greece can keep the idea of democratic human-centred politics alive. For her, utopia is not a blueprint for the perfect society or a monolithic and detailed vision of what needs to change. Instead utopia is ‘the education of our desires’ – a process where being able to imagine and desire improvements to our world is the first step to actually working for change. Even in the most difficult times, or perhaps particularly in such times, it is essential to hold on to the utopian impulse.

As U.S academic George Kateb said:

“Any serious utopian thinker will be made uncomfortable by the very idea of blueprint, of detailed recommendations concerning all facets of life.”

The phrase ‘the education of our desires’ was first used by the French philosopher Miguel Abensour writing about News from Nowhere (1890) William Morris’s visionary account of an egalitarian future England. For Abensour, utopian thinking disrupts the taken-for-granted nature of the present and creates a place where we can, even fleetingly, broaden and deepen our aspirations.

“…we enter utopia’s proper and new-found space: the education of desire. This is not the same as a ‘moral education’ towards a given end: it is rather, to open a way to aspiration, to teach desire, to desire better, to desire more, and above all to desire in a different way.”

In her brilliant book Utopia as Method, Ruth Levitas summarises the core of utopia as:

“The expression of the desire for a better way of being or living and as such is braided through human culture….the desire for being otherwise, individually and collectively, subjectively and objectively. Its expressions explore and bring to debate the potential contents and contexts of human flourishing. It is thus better understood as a method than a goal.”

Ruth Levitas describes this method as the ‘imaginary reconstitution of society’ and she argues that this work of the imagination is urgently needed if we are to begin to address the overwhelming global challenges, injustices and inequalities which we face.

For Levitas, the method of this imaginary reconstitution of society has 3 main aspects:

An archeological mode which involves excavating fragments from our utopian political, literary or artistic accounts.

An ontological mode concerned with the subjects and agents of utopian change; how people bring about such change, how they are themselves changed by it and the new social relations it brings about.

An architectural mode which relates to the institutional design and delineation of the good society.

The method also includes prefigurative practices in which different ways of being or doing things are tried out through the creation of new or at least slightly different social institutions. It’s worth remembering that the co-operative movement, the university settlement movement and, more recently, transition towns or citizens’ income initiatives are examples of this.

This also has a more intimate human-scale. In Penny Woolcock’s words:

“Utopia is already here in the sweet moments we share with those we love and random strangers whose eyes we catch. We know it slips in between the cracks of the everyday.”

Andre Gorz in Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage Based Society (1999) says:

“It is the function of utopias…to provide us with the distance from the existing state of affairs which allows us to judge what we are doing in the light of what we could or should do.”

Without utopian thinking and experimental, prefigurative practices to educate our desires, we would not have been able to imagine and then create a national health service, universal public education, a national minimum wage or the institutions of the welfare state. If we are to create the new institutions and practices which will help us to address the new threats to our survival our desires will need all the educating we can muster and we will also need the skill and ingenuity to put some of those new desires into practice.

See also:

Keri Facer and the future –building school (August 2015)

Market madness: condition critical (June 2015)

No austerity of the imagination (July 2015)

For a pragmatic idealism (June 2015)

Roberto Unger on school as the ‘voice of the future’ (April 2015)

Reading dystopias (July 2015)



About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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