Anna Belle Newport | Defining Utopia’s Temporal Dimension

By Anna Belle Newport

As Professor Harcourt articulated in the introduction to the 1/13 seminar, we are more comfortable using the term dystopia than utopia—and for good reason. We are surrounded by concrete dystopian realities, which in turn instills in us the need to identify and investigate existing concrete utopias around us. But utopia has a bad reputation. Harcourt described that utopia is rife with “philosophical luggage.” We see glimpses of our authors disparaging those who theorize without action. As Nick Srnick and Alex Williams stated in Manifesto for an accelerationist Politics, “‘[a]t least we have done something’ is the rallying cry of those who privilege self-esteem rather than effective action.”[1] And Ernst Bloch, in The Spirit of Utopia, stated ‘the emancipated, intellectual ones decay with all their soul, however elegantly they may have put talk, sentimental experience, a moral sensibility in the place of action when the others act, when the others need help…they split moral life off from itself, contemplate it lifelessly.”[2] By coincidence, in the midst of these lectures, I was assisting a professor on a paper about pragmatic thought and came across this quote in a piece on Black feminist pragmatism: “By contrast to ‘utopian imaginaries,’ where thinkers decline ‘to engage in building a bridge from the world as it is to the world that might be…pragmatic imagination is rooted in query about current conditions and oriented toward actions given those conditions.’”[3] But doesn’t thinking about concrete utopias necessitate such a concrete dialogue about action? The contrast that Linda McClain describes between utopian and pragmatic imagination highlights an inherent tension I have noticed in our approach to concrete utopia, specifically in regard to timing and temporality.

The discussion of concrete utopia’s relationship to time is important for two reasons. First, in the literature we read and in the post-1/13 discussions, we all seem to have competing ideas of when utopia comes to fruition: can they be partial and hyper-localized, yet present, or are they expansive and totalizing, but in a “not yet” time just beyond the horizon? Second, time is quite literally of the essence. With the acceleration of global warming at an unprecedented scale, we can’t simply theorize in the future tense forever. We need to focus on the concrete, partial utopias of today and build upon them for tomorrow. Therefore, I believe we must define concrete utopias as simultaneously occupying two temporal spaces: there must be a present enactment of the utopia, but there also must be a future vision contained within it. Utopia exists within this trans-temporal process. Utopia requires us to step away from our usual categorization of time—past, present, or future. Concrete utopias cannot exist purely in the present or purely in the future.

At 1/13, Kendall Thomas brought up Paisley Currah’s quote about the fight for trans rights: it “seeks the dissolution of the very category under which it is organized.”[4] This concept, if we view it as a utopic vision, is no small feat and it is similar to the forward looking ideas about utopia employed by José Esteban Muñoz in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. Muñoz, who builds off of Bloch’s theoretical foundations, argues that “queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.”[5] Muñoz uses Bloch’s language to argue that queerness is tied up in the future as a “not yet here.” But there must be a way to simultaneously witness a concrete, partial utopia in the “here and now” without it leading us to myopically and purely pragmatically focus on the present in a way that obliterates our imagination for the future. Here, I believe Muñoz’s use of C.L.R. James’ idea of “a future in the present” can be deeply useful in our investigation and definition of concrete utopias. As Muñoz articulated, “[c]ertain performances of queer citizenship contain what I call an anticipatory illumination of a queer world, a sign of an actually existing queer reality, a kernel of political possibility within a stultifying heterosexual present.”[6] It is the present’s “dialectical relationship to the future” that enables us to experience a utopic moment.

As Balibar alluded to, there is some circularity inherent in any utopian discourse. Contemporary catastrophes make utopian projects feel impossible, but they are also exactly what stimulates the urge for utopia and utopic dreaming—utopia is, after all, the ultimate critique of the present. As Kathleen Stewart wrote in Ordinary Affects, “[w]e wish for the simple life that winks at us from someone else’s beautiful flowerbeds.”[7] Striving for something outside of or beyond our present is a necessary aspect of utopia, but doing so also has deeply negative connotations, since it is a constant reminder of the reality in which we exist. One cannot have an idea of utopia without an idea of misery. Seyla Benhabib in her comment at the end of 1/13 posited one meaning of utopia in today’s nihilistic age as “the hope to act” or the “ethical impulse to act” in the hope that tomorrow can be different than today. If hope is embedded in our definition of utopia, then utopia is tied up in the future. But this poses a question: if we conceptualize utopia as having a forward-looking element, should we feel disappointed that it may never be fully reached? Is utopia just the movement along a mathematical asymptote to a point beyond the imagination that can never be fully reached? How do we simultaneously maintain focus on the disappointments and challenges of the current time and the hopes and challenges of the future?

It would be unproductive for us to fuse our definition of concrete utopia with that of pragmatic planning. We must be careful to bear in mind the distinction between political pragmatism and party politics on the one hand, and the reality of concrete, flawed but aspirational utopias on the other hand. The latter requires us to hold onto a political imagination that extends beyond electoral politics. Even in our seminar’s post-lecture talk, we all agreed: Biden is worlds better than Trump, but electing Biden was not a utopic moment.

For all the urgency that we feel to imagine alternatives to our dystopian present, we must recognize the futility of striving for an all-or-nothing new utopic “science-fictional world”—as Fredric Jameson put it. However, utopia also cannot look too much like our current reality because then we will slowly find ourselves back in reformist and social-democratic politics.[8] Erik Olin Wright focuses on “concrete utopias” that are existing in our contemporary world.[9] Yet, we see that we can easily puncture holes in many of them. Can we call Wikipedia a utopia? A partial utopia? How do we think about this definition of Wikipedia in relation to Balibar’s definition of digital catastrophe? We must constantly probe such questions as we think about today’s concrete utopias, in full awareness of the future, when they will certainly morph. Failure to think ahead will only move us back.

The concept of time gets further confused when we acknowledge that one’s current image of utopia can mutate into a less and less utopic vision and be viewed as an incredibly un-utopian reality by future generations. As Balibar examined, concrete utopias inevitably will struggle not only against the dominate order but also against themselves. One example of a fleeting utopic vision can be seen in flashpoints of the Dyke separatist movement and Womyn’s lands of the 1960s. Womyn lands were founded to be remote lesbian utopic cooperatives but have over time been fraught due to limited employment opportunities and the concerns over certain movements being explicitly transphobic.[10]  One’s current utopia has the risk of imprisoning its heirs. However, if we agree that utopia is not solely based in the present, then this concept of imprisoning future generations, or the fallibility of any utopia, should be of less concern. If we ensure that a concrete utopia never becomes static – while potentially existing in one space, it never stops striving or moving forward – then we can avoid becoming discouraged by the notion that utopias will always be failures because future generations will find them wanting. This brings me back to the suggestions by Kendall Thomas and Ann Stoler that concrete utopias should be thought of as verbs, rather than as nouns. Professor Thomas further brought the body into the conversation, asking us to think about utopia as an embodied practice. Both the idea of a verb and the idea of an embodied practice require a constant movement towards a new dimension.

A few days after 1/13 and with utopia and Muñoz on the mind, I saw the queer band MUNA in concert. Before singing one of their more infamous songs—”I Know a Place”—they told the audience that they wrote the song as a utopic vision. The song was explicitly about a future place that does not exist, although it was written in the present tense (“I know a place”). This confirmed to me that utopia must exist in two temporal spaces—the “here and now” and the “then and there” (to use Muñoz’s language). Standing in a room packed full of people—after years of COVID isolation—listening to a song about a future queer collectivity was a transportive experience for me, akin to a fleeting utopic moment. What made it utopic wasn’t only the transcendental dimension of music or the feelings of safety and belonging I experienced in that physical space, it was also the sense of simultaneously existing in that moment, while actively, imagining a futurity—the collective hoping for a world not yet here. Utopia is where those dual dimensions collide: the present enactment is a stepping block into another world and therefore, future-oriented.

We cannot take an all-or-nothing approach in defining utopias: we must recognize the small partial and possibly fleeting utopias that already exist, while working towards utopia in the distance, even though we know future generations will see our “utopic vision” as flawed. As Balibar said, all utopias leave traces.


[1] Alex Williams & Nick Srnicek, Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics (2013).

[2] Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia 165 (1918).

[3] Linda C. McClain, Experimental Meets Intersectional: Visionary Black Feminist Pragmatism and Practicing Constitutional Democracy, 69 Drake L. Rev. 823, 869 (2021).

[4] Paisley Currah, Transgender Rights (2006).

[5] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity 1 (2009).

[6] Id. at 49.

[7] Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects 10 (2007).

[8] Fredric Jameson, Archeologies of the Future: the Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions 168 (Verso 2005).

[9] Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias 150 (Verso 2005).

[10] Rina Raphael, Why Doesn’t Anyone Want to Live in This Perfect Place?, N.Y. Times Aug. 24, 2009,