Concepts and Repertoires of Living Together (RePLITO)
Longing for a better way of “living together” is probably as old as humanity. Since antiquity, and arguably discursively rendered more precisely by Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516, in every part of the world human beings engaged in what came to be called utopian imagining and utopian community building. In cultural, sociological, political, religious, and particularly literary studies, utopia, utopian thought, and utopianism became a set of umbrella terms to encompass and understand this fuzzy human activity which, albeit not clearly defined, seeks conceptualizing human capacities that seek a better way of “living together”(for an overview, see: Claeys 2011; Sargent 2010).
Yet what has been the utopia for some, signaled dystopia for others, an equation that frenetically differentiates between utopia and politics, and which became particularly powerful in Cold War anti-communist propaganda that wanted to make us believe that utopia would just be the breeding ground for the twentieth-century totalitarian catastrophes fascism and state-socialism (Ingram 2016, xi). For most proponents of utopia, however, a better “living together” has usually implied to build a better world, hopefully for all, in which political oppression, labor exploitation, gender inequality, and racist as well as sexist discrimination, among other issues, would have been overcome. Particularly in light of current global crisis, utopian imagination and doing is most pressing—and arguebly not negotiatible. Thus, for some proponents of utopia, this would imply a truly universalist shift towards a “living together” that does include all human beings across boundaries of class, race, gender and sexuality, and that implies a clear break-up of the international division of labor and a critical rethinking of modernity and history (Harvey 2019; although not a “utopian” but argueing along similar lines, see: Chakrabarty 2021). And going even one step further, for some others, this inclusivity should also encompass plants, animals and other non-human agency, which ultimately deconstructs not only white supremacay, but human supremcay altogether (Springer et al 2021).
The literary utopian tradition is overwhelmingly rich. And its strong focus on utopian ideas sometimes seem to limit our understanding of utopian models about “living together” to philosophies of utopia or the intellectual history of certain theorists that would solely exist in the imaginary. Such criticism, however, is itself limiting, as it misses the point that utopian ideas and text, and their analysis, nevertheless uncover that utopian imagining also bears a political reality. Utopian writing and thinking indeed has the potential of discursively constructing a libertarian world, thereby opening up horizons of possibilities for political realities (Davis 2011).
Such line of argument grounds in Fredric Jameson’s observations, who, on the one hand, has established the notion that imagining a better world is a political act that might enable political realities, because the “Utopian idea … keeps alive the possibility of a world qualitatively distinct from this one and takes the form of a stubborn negation of all of this” (Jameson 1971, 11). Yet, on the other hand, Jameson has simultaneously cautioned that utopian imagining does not outline a blueprint of a better, ideal world, but also showcases “our own incapacity to conceive [utopia] in the first place” (Jameson 1975, 230). In any case, utopian imagining and practices of “living together” not least fosters representing and developing a new and radically different social totality—and ultimately it is up to us doing it.
Historically, utopian ideas of “living together” have been a thriving force for the imaginary, but also the actual building of a better society, in which people sought to live in harmony, work cooperatively, and bond together by commitment and mutually shared interest. In many cases, commune and community deliberately conflated as the communal experiment was oftentimes considered a laboratory for all society. Although most utopian community projects were often only short lived due to harsh state repression, internal quarrels, and economic problems, they constituted important sites to put ideals of a better society into practice. As prominent examples such as the Paris Commune demonstrate, sometimes even with long lasting repercussions (Ross 2015).
As with literary utopian form, however, also communal models are hard to define as normative taxonomies of such communities are either too narrow or too general. Also Utopian Studies-heavyweight Lyman Tower Sargent understands this very well, but he has nevertheless provided us with a definition of an intentional community “as a group of five or more adults and their children, if any, who come from more than one nuclear family and who have chosen to live together to enhance their shared values or for some other mutually agreed upon purpose” (Sargent 1994, 15).
There is much to unravel from this quote, but here I would like to emphasize that, for “living together,” the people’s own choice and on their own terms, and their collaboration and mutuality, are of utmost importance. Sure, it is equally important to critically engage with communties’ mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, their “tense and tender ties” to borrow a phrase from Ann Stoler (Stoler 2001). Historical and sociological studies on utopian communities—which have been labeled as: communal society, cooperative community, practical utopia, communal or utopian experiment, collective settlement, or most recently as intentional community, and most plainly as communes, among many other names—have demonstrated the sheer variety, desire, and human creativity of building a place or space for people “living together”—which ultimately proves that doing it is not impossible.
Hence, I would argue in accordance with Ernst Bloch’s understanding of hope that it is exactly this slightly positive notion of possibility, with the underlying belief in the human capacity to build a better world, which should allow us all a better “living together.” Normative taxonomies offer fantastic orientation, particular in scholarship; yet why not take inspiration more eclectically?
History provides enough examples to do so. Albeit history obviously also offers enough examples for how and what can go wrong. Yet these are the lessons to be learned, and a significant one has already been offered by Jameson, namely that radical otherness is only possible with a fundamental critique in and of capitalism. Ex negative, Jameson’s famous saying that imagining the end of the world is easier than imagining the end of capitalism is incisive here, because it indicates the crucial important task of overcoming capitalism’s ideology with and through utopian thought and utopian practice.
In a more straightforward political take, it could also be a lesson to be learned from anarchism and its highly sophisticated elaboration of mutuality or mutual aid as the foundation for hierarchy free association. An anarchist Jameson utopian community would thus turn “living together” into “living the revolution”—“living together” better, each and every one of us, beyond capital, beyond state-power, and only through mutually shared authority, creativity, and action.