Utopia and Its Discontents

From Matthew Charles – Thanks!

Pedagogy & the Inhumanities

Ahead of my presentation on ‘The Catastrophic Function in Contemporary Culture’ at the ‘Fragments of Time’ conference on 16th October, here’s my article on contemporary utopianism, which forms the backdrop to the ideas I hope to develop there.  I’m looking forward to returning to some of the tentative suggestions I raised about science fiction and the supernatural in the short coda to this article. Although not directly related to the topic of pedagogy and education, I was tempted to return to the theme of the “dead/undead” as a political category following my appeal to the possibility of “zombie zones of action” in relation to the crisis of contemporary education.

This article was originally published in Volume 18 (Winter 2010) of Studies in Social and Political Thought  and based on a paper I gave at the ‘Utopia, Dystopia and Critical Theory’ conference in May 2010, hosted by the Centre for…

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Fragments of Time: Keynotes & Poster

We are pleased to announce the keynote speakers for the conference will be Dr. Victoria Browne (School of Advanced Study, University of London) and Dr. Matthew Charles (University of Westminster).

Formulating Feminist Time: Progress Narratives, Futural Displacements, and Temporalities of Struggle
– Victoria Browne

Feminism is an emancipatory movement, and as such, there are some basic features common to most formulations of ‘feminist time’, namely, the hope that the future will be better than the past and present, and the conviction that oppressive sex/gender regimes are not necessarily fixed for all time. Yet, there is no innate feminist vision of the temporality of emancipatory politics and processes, and no core, united understanding of how past, present and future are related or bound to one another. In this paper, I will consider some different ways of formulating the time of feminism, and evaluate their effectiveness in terms of fostering a hopeful feminist politics which at the same time engages with the realities of struggling for change within an often hostile context and climate.

To begin, I will give a critical assessment of two common ways of formulating feminist time. The first is the progressive ‘wave model’ of feminism which has been subject to serious criticism of late, not least because it robs historical feminisms of their unsettling force by reducing them to neatly bounded positions which have been overcome and frozen in an out-of-date feminist past. The second is what I will term the ‘futural’ approach, which seeks to cultivate an openness to the unknowability of the future and focuses on the conditions for creating something radically different from what has gone before. Though it has become popular within recent feminist theory, this approach runs the risk of fetishising novelty, and of fostering a rather empty feminist politics which simply displaces the politics of time on to future time as radical alterity.

The main section of the paper will thus attempt to articulate a feminist politics of time in terms of what Chandra Talpade Mohanty refers to as a ‘temporality of struggle’ (1991): an approach which does not cling to a linear, teleological vision of progress, but neither does it simply defer the question of social transformation via futural displacements and the trope of the ‘to come’. To do so, I will draw on feminist re-workings of the concept of ‘repetition’ (e.g. Battersby 1998; 2007, Fleissner 2002), which offer ways of re-conceiving the nonlinear and ‘untimely’ trajectories of feminist politics as a site for critical reflection and re-engagement in the face of backlash retrenchments and ‘postfeminist’ ideologies.

Not Even the Dead Will Be Safe: The Catastrophic Function in Contemporary Culture
– Matthew Charles

‘The dead are “multiform” and exist in many places on the earth at the same time. For this reason, people must very seriously concern themselves, during their lifetime, with the betterment of the earth’ (L. J. B. Toureil, quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p5a, 2)

 ‘Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.’ (Charles Péguy, Notre Jeunesse)

The retrieval of the utopian imagination within contemporary theory and culture responds to the political impasse of a “capitalist realism”. Yet this attentiveness to what Ernst Bloch called the Utopian function in art and literature, now stripped of any Utopia, can only manifest itself as a liberal inversion of the conservative valorization of the past. Against the proliferation of Utopian visions of workless play and sentimental communality, this paper instead seeks to draw on Walter Benjamin’s concept of history to construct and utilise a pragmatic understanding of what I term the Catastrophic function as a way of interrogating the ideological dimensions of historicity within contemporary culture.

Having introduced and defended the present usefulness of the Catastrophic function, this idea will be put to work, first to delineate “the dead” as a political category within 19th and 20th century literature, and then to contrast this with a shift in the most recent representations of the “undead” within contemporary film and television, a shift symptomatic of broader changes with contemporary social and political life. What is catastrophic about contemporary representations of catastrophe, it will conclude, is that they are too utopian: that is, not catastrophic enough.

The poster is also ready! Schedule will follow very soon. Cheers!

poster #1 copy

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Wormholes through History

Here’s a very interesting post from Terry Pitts, discussing Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel Mumbo-Jumbo. Terry’s excellent blog on can be found here: Vertigo: Where literature and art intersect, with an emphasis on W.G. Sebald and literature with embedded photographs.


I recently reread (and wrote about) Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo.  I probably first read it in the 1970s and I don’t recall being unduly surprised by finding a horde of strange images included within the text.  In the anything-goes era of Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, Donald Barthelme, Guy Davenport, and others, it felt as if the novel form was being redefined continuously.  Adding real images to works of fiction was just another way to shake up the establishment.

In his book Postmodernist Fiction (I still use the first edition of 1987), Brian McHale refers to much of the imagery that was beginning to appear in novels like  Mumbo Jumbo as “anti-illustration.”  In his words, images ” contribute to and serve to heighten  the polyphonic structure of these texts; through their surrealist non-sequiturs, they bring worlds of discourse, visual and verbal, into collision.”  In fact, five…

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>Progress Report<

Well, the deadline for submissions has past and we’ve had a phenomenal response! Thanks very much to all who contributed abstracts and panel ideas. The organising team is already busy reading through the huge pile of submissions, and we aim to draw up a schedule over the next week or two.


We’ve also got two great keynote speakers lined up (more on that soon) and submissions for the blog have been trickling in. On that note, the blog had 76 visitors and 147 views yesterday! That’s the current record holder by a margin. Please do drop us a comment when you pass by, if you have a mo – it’s great to see and hear from “the readership” (i.e. you). What would Barthes say? Where le blog lisible was let le blog scriptible be? (Apologies…)

Best wishes –
Chris and all on the Organising Team

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Disquieting timescapes in a provincial setting: the poetry of Norman Nicholson

by Alan Beattie, Lancaster, 29 July 2013

Norman Nicholson, a Cumbrian poet (1914-1987).

Norman Nicholson, ‘Man of Millom’ as he’s described on the blue plaque on the front of his small terrace house, was born and died in the same house, having ‘stayed put’ there all his life (1914-1987). But from this unlikely vantage point, Nicholson authored four plays, eight volumes of poetry, two novels, four works of literary history and criticism, two edited anthologies of poetry, five volumes of topographic and local history, innumerable articles – and frequent nation-wide radio broadcasts for the BBC. He was lauded in high-modernist circles (championed by TS Eliot), and acknowledged as an influence by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, amongst others; and received many honours. Yet he chose all the while to remain ‘rooted’ in the local world that he felt he belonged to. He was vigorous in his defence of ‘provincial pleasures’ (the title of one of his books), much concerned about the economic threats to the ways of life of his neighbours and fellow-citizens in the industrial settlements along the West Cumbrian coast; he also spoke ironically of himself as a ‘prophetaster’ – a (small-time?) prophet, who tried to look far into the future as well as deep into the past of his corner of Britain. His work, especially his poetry, has attracted considerable interest in the Green Movement, and (for example) poems by Nicholson regularly feature in publications from Common Ground that try to ‘revalue our emotional engagement with places [and] liberate our subjective response to the world about us’.

In a PhD study completed in 2007 at Lancaster University, David Cooper examined Nicholson’s ‘continued occupation of one circumscribed place’ in the light of ‘spatial theory’ in literary studies, and in relation to recent developments in geo-poetics and eco-criticism. Cooper shows at length how Nicholson’s writing is grounded in “a landscape charged with memories, not only his own memories, but those of his fellows, those of people around him” (Nicholson’s words), and how a sense of pastness emerges as a dominant characteristic within Nicholson’s portrait of his local environment. Cooper’s thesis is highly illuminating about (and largely appreciative of) what he calls ‘positive provincialism’, but he claims to detect a thread of uncertainty emerging in Nicholson’s poetry that is precipitated (he argues) by the instabilities created by the de-industrialization of Millom – a process Nicholson observed and documented at first-hand. Cooper suggests that Nicholson’s poetic project was problematized as things moved on from the social certainties of provincialism (in the 1950s) to a more unstable and ambiguous position in which traditional concepts of landscape and environment were no longer applicable – leaving Nicholson neither unreservedly nostalgic for the industrial past, nor entirely hopeful for a post-industrial utopia. Cooper suggests that Nicholson’s ‘solution’ to this dilemma was ‘to go underground’, to undertake imaginative excavation of the telluric, subterranean terrain of Cumbria – delving back from the recent industrial past to a pre-industrial ‘agrarian history’ and into ‘geological history’. Cooper shows how Nicholson became preoccupied with the intersection of the telluric and the temporal, with what it means to dwell in both place and time, and with the contrasts between geological and anthropological time.

I’m interested in building on Cooper’s eco-spatial analysis of Nicholson’s poetry, by proceeding to an analysis in terms of Bakhtin’s theory of the chronotope (not mentioned by Cooper), which I think offers a different take on Nicholson’s apparent descent into the telluric depths of Cumbrian geology. My counter-suggestion is that long before the closure and dismantling of the Millom Ironworks (when Nicholson was in his 50s) he was already a man haunted by time, by timetables and by timescapes. One of the reasons for his ‘staying put’ in Millom was that at the age of sixteen he’d been found to have tuberculosis of the throat; he was ‘confined’ for more than two years, and remained a ‘convalescent’ for much longer than that. This foreclosed any possibility of ‘leaving home’ to go to university and beyond. As it happens, the experience of the TB patient is the subject of a superb ‘observing participant’ monograph – a classic of medical sociology – entitled Timetables: Structuring the Passage of Time in Tuberculosis Treatment and Other Careers (1963) by Julius Roth. This shows how waiting – waiting for clinical attention, waiting for test results, waiting for symptom attenuation, waiting for the stages of the natural history of the disease to ‘progress’, waiting for discharge, waiting for recovery, just waiting for time to pass – is the overwhelming preoccupation of the TB patient. I suspect that through his own experience along these lines Nicholson – like other TB patients – was socialised into an intense awareness of the many layers and depths and divergences in the way time passes. As described also in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, the life of the TB patient is a thorough-going way of being put on ‘time-watch’ – sometimes, to the end of time…. The human experience of TB (like that of chronic illnesses – note the label) can itself be seen as a chronotope in Bakhtin’s terms: a way of imagining a configuration of time and space that defines and constitutes identity and position in a particular setting; that serves to keep alive particular stories or myths about origins and pathways and destinations – especially when the continuity or coherence of the life-course are threatened with disruption or erasure. My argument is that Nicholson in his poetry is preoccupied not merely with timelines at multiple levels – but with the way they coexist, cross, collide, fold into each other, interrupt and subvert each other. His understanding of these myriad heterogeneous clashing chronotopes extended from the quotidian, diurnal time of the TB patient and the industrial worker, to the months, seasons, and wheeling year of the rural labourer – and then on to lifespans (growing up, growing old, contemplating death), family-tree-timescapes, evolutionary sequences, and deep glacial and cosmological corridors of time. His modelling of these in diverse textual incarnations, reflects I believe, not ‘ambiguity’ on his part, but rather his distinctive grasp of the profoundly heterochronic nature of lived experience in his own locality, its past and its future. He was indeed a provincial, ‘confined as a limpet to one small radius of rock’, with ‘history squinting over the rim of a fell’ – as such, a far cry indeed from the cosmopolitan nomads, exiles and refugees of the 20th century – but his complex textures of deep retrospect and impassioned prophecy seem to me to embody an important epistemic and ethical challenge of the sort prefigured in Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope.

[1] Here is a link to Norman Nicholson’s page at the Poetry Archive.
[2] Here is a link to some of David Cooper’s publications.

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Andrea Rossi, Panel on Gino De Dominicis: ‘Attempt to form squares instead of circles around a stone falling into water’

 Attempt to form squares instead of circles around a stone falling into water

Panel proposal for the ‘Fragments of Time’ conference,
by Andrea Rossi, PhD Candidate, Lancaster University

Confirmed speakers: Prof. Michael Dillon, Dr. Arthur Bradley, Prof. Charlie Gere.

[Note: We are currently looking for a fourth speaker, a PhD student or junior academic, please do get in touch if you’re interested.]

Gino 1
This panel takes its cue from the homonymous work by Italian artist Gino de Dominicis – a video produced in 1969 showing, for its entire duration, the artist throwing pebbles into a stretch of water.

The 1’55’’action, we are led to believe, is a fragment of an otherwise infinite performance. Whilst it would be tempting to read into it a comment on the infinite circularity of time and the purposelessness of human action, the artist appears to suggest something quite different: his ‘attempt’ is not unending because hopeless, but precisely because it is driven by a genuine faith in its possible accomplishment[1]. If this was not the case, after all, the performance would be a mere divertissement; a hollow pastime. Experience can undo physics – and so can art, De Dominicis glossed, when celebrating the overcoming of the second law of thermodynamics[2].

His ‘attempt,’ I would suggest, does not gesture at the elliptic nature of time. At stake, here, is a somehow contrary operation, one that seeks to stretch the calculable pace of time to infinity. One needs to have an eternity in one’s sight in order to ‘attempt’ the absurd; one has to become untimely – ‘immortal’ – if one is to imagine the as-yet-impossible [3]. How could man ever create, were he to abide to the laws of (his) time? How could he set the pace of his world, if he was chained to the logic of re-production?

Action is the indefinite longing for a time to come. Creation must disrupt the reassuring teleology of an age: it must be dreadful, out-of-time, disproportionate – “I am not very much interested in modern art or in the ancient one. I prefer the antediluvian one” (De Dominicis).

Starting from these reflections, I wonder how to characterize the tempo of politics and resistance today, in as much as they too are forms of creation. If, as is often claimed, politics can no longer play out ‘grand narratives’, what would its proper time be – a time that has not yet been, nor can be deduced from the laws of the present? Who is to persuade us that now – right now? – it is time to ‘square the circle’? On what ground are we to imagine a future whose pace would be irreducible to today’s? That is to say, following De Dominicis, how to envisage an ‘eternity’ before ourselves?

The panelists will be asked to deliver short presentations (10 min) engaging these questions, possibly with reference to other art or literary works. Ideally, the papers will be followed by a fairly long discussion/ Q&A session (30 min).

gino 2

Plate 1. Attempt to fly (1969)

 gino 3
Plate 2. Cocktail party to celebrate the overcoming
of the second principle of thermodynamics (1972)

[1] While talking of his work ‘Attempt to fly’ (1969; a 2’ video where the artist is shown while repetitively trying to take off from a hill and fly), De Dominicis said: “I have decided to learn to fly. I have repeated this exercise for the past three years. Probably I will never be able to fly, but if I will make my children and their children and grandchildren repeat this exercise, one day one of my descendants will suddenly discover to be able to fly.” (see plate 1)

[2] On 18th December 1972 De Dominicis gave a ‘cocktail party to celebrate the overcoming of the second principle of thermodynamics’ at Palazzo Taverna, Rome. The following text was shown at the party: “If all men could imagine and desire their own salvation, the conservation of their body for eternity would mean that, finally, there would have been no dispersion, no mental entropy. Therefore, the second principle of thermodynamics would no longer be valid because it would be contradicted by the behaviour of an organism that can plan, without any distraction, its own eternal condition as an isolated system” (see plate 2)

[3] The theme of immortality is central to all of De Deminicis oeuvre. So much so that in 2010, the MAXXI (National Museum for XXI Century Art, Rome) dedicated to the artist a retrospective exhibition titled “Gino de Dominicis. The Immortal”

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Call for Papers?

For the interest of readers, below is an earlier version of the Conference’s CFP. (To avoid confusion, here is a link to the current CFP.)

Possible poster CFP 2

Any thoughts?

– Chris Witter

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