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Things falls apart; the centre cannot hold. That’s where I started this essay. In this black vacuum in time Neuhaus is proposed as an experiment; as was the case with Bauhaus, its source of inspiration, Neuhaus views a time of confusion, nostalgia and pessimism as a catalyst to look ahead and work on a new world orientation. Neuhaus fits in with a growing undercurrent in culture that wants to break with the structural pessimism of our time. I am thinking in particular of artistic movements such as ‘solarpunk’, ‘hopepunk’ or ‘accelerationism’, which in their own way all manage to mobilise the energy of utopian imagination, but this time without falling into textbook fantasies.

This is already refreshing in itself. While popular cultural imagination is dominated by dark projections of the future (think of the geopolitical war mania of Game of Thrones, the technoparanoia of Black Mirror or the eco-tyranny of The Handmaid’s Tale), the attempt to break it open is a meaningful exercise. In his essay ‘Dystopias Now’, the American science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson concludes that our contemporary preoccupation with stories about dystopian futures comes across as ‘fashionable, perhaps lazy, maybe even complacent’. Why? ‘Because one pleasure of reading them is cozying into the feeling that however bad our present moment is, it’s nowhere near as bad as the ones these poor characters are suffering through.

The opposite, a naive and frenzied utopianism, is no longer convincing and/or credible at the present time. After all the destruction and megalomania of the 20th century, we have largely lost faith in the idea that we can build an alternative society for the future. Instead, the distant horizon has been replaced by a longing for an abandoned or undead past. One could also call this an inverted utopian impulse: for lack of hopeful visions of what lies ahead, the past becomes the new future.Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called this contemporary utopian longing for the abandoned past ‘retrotopia’.

This is clearly an untenable situation. Living with one’s back turned to the future is disastrous for a society’s resilience and vitality. Science fiction writer and activist Redfern Jon Barrett therefore recently proposed replacing utopia with an ‘ambitopia’, a speculative imagination that takes both destruction and oppression as well as human potential into account. In the light of the current challenges, this may be a fruitful way of thinking about future-oriented imagination. For there is one fundamental difference between then and now: where Gropius and his companions had just survived the horrors of the First World War and tried to build a new world full of utopian bravura on its ruins, Neuhaus finds its origins precisely in or just before the disaster: everything indicates that we are moving rapidly towards an era of water shortage, natural fires, rising sea levels, extreme weather and economic and geopolitical instability. So, apart from much-needed preventitive measures (such as drastic CO2 reduction) and ecological restoration (where possible), the 21st century will in any case be largely dominated by creative adaptation. Unbridled optimism or opportunism do not therefore seem entirely appropriate here (let alone convincing).

The German thinker Ernst Bloch once argued that all utopias ultimately yearn for reconciliation with that from which they are alienated. They tell us how we can get home again. In the 21st century there is actually only one serious candidate left – let’s call it the ambitopian imagination – namely: our home town, the earth.Here I follow the Norwegian philosopher Espen Hammer who, in his essay ‘Utopia for a Dystopian Age’, identifies the earth as the last candidate for the utopian imagination. I’m not referring to a romanticised Mother Earth, which must be brought back into balance (it’s already too late for that), but rather to a hybrid planet full of organic and non-organic life forms that is becoming increasingly confrontational (some climate scientists already call her an ‘Angry Beast’). You could see this not only as a huge challenge, but also as one massive crazy adventure, an adventure without any guarantees of a good ending. Can we ‘dehumanise’ our gaze a bit, without losing our humanity? Can we re-tune our senses and find a meaningful home on this new turbulent planet? I don’t know. But I do know it’s worth a try. Fortunately, I’m not the only one.


March 2019

Translation: Mark Poysden

Ruben Jacobs (1984) is a writer and sociolgist. He teaches at the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten in Utrecht. He is also a regular contributor to the online philosophy platform His book Artonauten. Op expeditie in het Antropoceen was published in 2018 by V2_Publishing, Rotterdam.