Felicity D Scott | Whose Utopia?

By Felicity Scott

Struggling with what to contribute to Bernard Harcourt’s remarkable conversations about “concrete utopias,” what in the Epilog to the 10/13 session he called “actually existing political initiatives, projects and experiments that relate to a possible utopian future,” I kept switching between two options, both from the 1970s.[1]  First, space colonization initiatives that while clearly dystopian reprise universalisms of utopian thinking and trope on prospects for hope found in a geographical elsewhere of sorts (a non-terrestrial, artificial island cast as agrarian utopia), and which I don’t think should be dismissed as an unrealized blueprint of a possible future, or future world order, for reasons I’ll come back to.  Second, on a more modest scale, the self-governed, autonomous social centers in northern Italy (some of which are still active today), that practiced a radically distinct form of secession or exodus from capitalism as it touched, and continues to touch down so violently and inequitably on lives and environments, redistributing and reconfiguring forms of labor and of subjectivity.  (Both initiatives, I might mention, emerge from struggles of 1968). Recognizing the time limit, I am going to risk briefly reprising both in order to raise questions about the architectural imaginary and how it potentially troubles or complicates our ability to invent forms of life, labor, and subjectivity antithetical to the destructive forces of capital, paying attention to its media-technical infrastructures and its non-linear temporality.  So, in short, I’m asking why renderings like this of Princeton University physics professor Gerard K. O’Neill’s Island 4 proved more efficacious in demonstrating possible “alternatives” to looming threats than the social centers.

O’Neill publicly launched his grand plan to construct, populate, and manage vast, self-contained, profitable, artificial territories in outer space with a conference at Princeton University in May 1974, convening a second conference a year later that expanded the line-up of speakers from engineers and physicist to include: experts from the social sciences, medicine, architecture, law, diplomacy, manufacturing, and management, along with representatives from multinational corporations, the US government and military agencies. Here was a spectrum of expertise thought to encompass knowledge necessary for establishing new worlds, or really new new worlds, for haunting this imperialist imaginary was the “discovery” and colonization of the Americas five centuries earlier, what Carl Schmitt deemed “an unrepeatable historical event.” “Only in fantastic parallels can one imagine a modern recurrence, such as men on their way to the moon discovering a new and hitherto unknown planet that could be exploited freely and utilized effectively to relieve their struggles on earth,” he remarked.[2] (Etienne Balibar, incidentally, also alluded to the persistence of the fantasy of emigrating to another planet in “Uncovering Lines of Escape: Towards a Concept of Concrete Utopia in the Age of Catastrophe.”[3])  A few months after the Princeton conference, O’Neill testified in front of US House of Representatives’ Committee on Science and Technology, now armed with spectacular color renderings, a large model, and a film to better demonstrate his recovery of colonial models and ambitions to extend capitalist extraction and population transfer to outer space.  Not only was this technically possible, he insisted, it promised solutions to many Earthly threats, from resource scarcity, nuclear and environmental catastrophe, and other “limits to growth” [which for him included legal constraints and sovereignty claims!] to insurrection and war.  Soon after, he subtly switched from the duration of a grand plan, as might be implemented by governments, to a time-frame driven by more proximate pecuniary returns on private investment.  O’Neill also later dropped the ambivalent images of agrarian or suburban utopias, acknowledging that while they were important for generating interest, and hence financing, that space colonies “will not be a utopian paradise or a laboratory for sociological experiments. The orbital facility will be much more like a Texas-tower oil rig, or a construction camp on the Alaska pipeline, or like Virginia City, Nevada, in about the year 1875.”[4]  Fellow libertarian Stewart Brand, who sponsored the first conference with profits from the Whole Earth Catalog, read this turn as a strategic mistake, insisting on the need to engage artists in realizing this capitalist utopia.

O’Neill’s hyperbolic visions might be ridiculed as science fiction, their initial telos and planning schema dismissed as outdated, their notion of fully instrumentalized human subjects as untenable, the spectacular renderings as archaic.  Yet they are no laughing matter, and through Brand they help connect the dots from development of satellite infrastructures, the rise of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and their digital utopianisms, scenario planning, President Reagan’s SDI initiative, and much more, to the intensive economization of every aspect of life, what Balibar hauntingly framed as the digital catastrophe, accompanying its nuclear and environmental counterparts, in the first seminar.  Under the rubric of a utopian future wherein scarcity had ceased to exist, environmental pollution was overcome, nuclear technologies and petroleum were rendered redundant by solar power beamed to Earth, in which populations could increase exponentially to only-advantageous effects, and lebensraum was deemed endless, his expansionist vision captured the imagination of business and government not because it was likely to be realized.  Rather, it facilitated integration of actors, institutions, technologies, and knowledges for modeling new organizational logics, economic tools, and legal mechanisms for American-dominated, post-democratic, planetary futures. On Earth. The physicist’s unlikely scheme, that is, operated like a microcosm, or simulation of a new new world order, as if the US had devised a way to counter the unrepeatable discovery of a New World in the wake of recent decolonization struggles.

To do so O’Neill’s images savvily channeled the valence of a capitalist utopia, of a perfectly functioning, rationally designed world—and here it’s hard to forget Daniel Defert’s damning reading of architects visits to “the realized utopias of industrial housing estates,” as perfectly encapsulating the blindness to having become passive technicians for the spatialization of capital, for putting capitalist norms into effect.[5] His world building exercise, no matter how allegorical or fictional we take it to be, of course required attention to the built environment simply in the need to house and organize bodies and factories.  Yet this too does not explain the visibility of architecture within what he acknowledged was a gigantic civil engineering plan. Architecture is doing other work.  As a discipline, it is in the business of projecting futures.  Architects, as we know, make projects, from the Latin pro-jectum or throwing forward, producing scenarios that seek to render legible a vision of future forms of life, creating documents that help to steer this projectile into concrete form.  Harboring claims about what “ought” to be, architecture offers “solutions” to materializing the interrelation of bodies, economies, social norms, media-technical infrastructures, semiotic registers, legal regulations and more.  It is a type of world building in miniature, and O’Neill called upon architecture not simply to humanize or dress up civil engineering, or act as a more palatable cultural or aesthetic supplement, but to help model that integration or switching between competing expectations deemed necessary for a new governing apparatus.

Perhaps more importantly, architecture operated in the service of something like a disinformation campaign, or as a form of dissimulation with respect to unknowable futures, two aspects of which I want to flag.  First, at a historical moment marked by rising uncertainties and a crisis in the efficacy of long-term planning, the loss of a telos in the modern sense, these visual techniques offered compensating images of certainties, even if only offering probabilities, while advancing scenarios with particular economic and political dispositions.  Planning was not dead, it just took on new logics and protocols. Revolving around O’Neill were powerful actors in the scenario planning business, precisely those working to script probabilities uncoupled from facts, to rescript the rules of the game and inflect who the winners or losers of capitalism’s next phase were likely to be. Which brings me to the second dissimulation.  In reprising agrarian utopias, strip mining, and industrial manufacturing, these images downplayed what was actually at stake: instituting new computerized data management systems, satellite infrastructures, and logistics of management, here put to work in imagining a redistribution of labor with new forms of segregation, and the replacement of political negotiation with private economic mandates in the name of progress. [O’Neill literally dreamed of possibilities for managers remaining on Earth, communicating to workers via Satellite.]  If we are presented with an island, a geographical elsewhere, in fact we are faced with a strategy for instituting new forms of regulation and management then seeking to eradicate any last vestige of self-governance and with them strategies for refusal or exodus.  Aspects of this digital utopia and its “distributional consequences” (with a nod to Bernard’s Epilogue to the first seminar) did indeed come to pass, touching down on the Earth and on our lives in all too concrete ways, hence reminding us to ask just what concrete might look like.[6]  O’Neill’s Princeton colleague, and professor of International Law, Richard Falk, was the only interlocutor to intervene: in his paper, “New Options for Self-Government in Space Habitats” [he refused colonies], he insisted on the need to “crystalize a political consciousness,” and drawing on his contributions to the so-called “relevant utopia” then being formulated in the World Order Models Project (but that is a much longer story)… I am going to switch, instead, to the anarchist social centers, with a short detour through architecture.

In a fotoromanzo entitled Utopia, a 1972 counter-information pamphlet produced for MoMA’s Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, Italian radical architects Gruppo Strum presented experimental environments from the late 1960s, such as their systems-based “social-leisure” environment, Spettacolo, situating its’ adjustable kit-of-parts as a failed experiment in attempting to break down “organized superstructures” through engaging audio-visual devices, which they imagined could somehow be freed from “institutional conditioning and consumer logics.” By 1972 they relegated these strategies to the status of “ambivalent utopias,” potentially liberatory but still able to be “manipulated and deformed by the bosses.”  But we also find an unmarked, unrealized project for a social center, connecting us to landmark events in the history of autonomous movements, a moment collective political struggles extended from the factory to the social domain, including housing and other rights claims.  Intended to house social services for migrant workers who flocked to Turin during the 1960s seeking employment at Fiat’s Mirafiori factories, it lay unassembled and supine in the wasteland between housing towers in Via Artom in Turin’s Mirafiori Sud quarter.  The photograph reappears in The Mediatory City in the context of massive protests, riots, the occupation of factories and schools, and police suppression.  The Via Artom struggles appeared in the third pamphlet, The Struggle for Housing, constituting a landmark event within Italy’s “hot autumn” of 1969 and the rise of autoreduction strategies (rent strikes), take-overs, and squatting. “I’ve been living in this hut since I first came to north Italy,” reads the caption to an informal shack, stressing the plight of migrant workers.  “A mattress on the floor cost me a fourth of may wage.” If marking awareness of “collective and autonomous political activities,” the supine structure remains symptomatic, as the architects turned their attention back to the domain of counter-information experiments with an expanded field of communication technologies.

A few years later, on October 18, 1975 a flyer called for the occupation of an abandoned pharmaceutical factory in Leoncavallo street, in a de-industrializing area of northeastern Milan. The ambition was to create a self-managed social center, and to test the continuous redefinition of physical space under the principle of autogestione.  If waning in the architectural imaginary, social centers and their promise of flexible programming became a significant site of social and political experimentation, as northern Italy grappled with increasingly precarious labor conditions born of part-time work, and the influx of migrant workers, not just from the south but beyond Italy’s borders.  Obsolescent buildings were appropriated and put to work to articulate new prospects for radical cultural production (particularly the progressive music scene) and for what they termed “civil welfare” (welfare autonomous from State sponsorship).  Leoncavallo’s stated intention was to bring together a range of users and promote intermingling, with programs including: childcare, kindergarten, afterschool care, people’s school, cafeteria, medical and gynecological advice, library, people’s gym, spaces for popular entertainment and performances, meetings, debates, cultural and socializing events.  This soon expanded to include legal assistance, job information, employment, Italian language courses for migrants, protection from xenophobic right-wing attacks, temporary housing, and more.  Andrea Membretti described Leoncavallo as “a space for the learning of cooperation and for the exercise of actual forms of citizenship.”[7]  The building was a necessary resource in this struggle to invent forms of life outside capitalist relations of domination and exploitation (being rent free and providing space for experimentation). Yet, to be clear, potentials for recombination and redefinition of physical space under the principle of autogestione, were driven not by the flexibility of the building or its components, as architects imagined, nor solely by individuals as they engage with or activate this enabling framework.  Rather, potentials for an open-ended political space derived from forms of collective self-governance, from counter-management strategies seeking to adapt activities, services, and forms of cultural production in dialog with changes in the external milieu (such as automation and new management techniques then impacting modes of production) while seeking to facilitate forms of negotiation that resisted resolution into normative solutions.

Gruppo Strum emerged from attempts to ward off architecture’s own sense of obsolescence in the face of postindustrial technologies: their early nightclubs dreamed of a liberation born of promiscuous intermingling of bodies and technologies, a form of escape from normative institutional and social strictures rendered through a flexible environmental apparatus. If they hoped that through an alternative architecture one could invent radical behaviors, overcome contradictions, or solve the antinomies of techniques of control versus creative forms of participation, they found themselves unwittingly forging spaces for subjective retraining in alliance with the demands of a transforming capitalism.  The counter-management strategies of social centers remind us that other types of open-ended environments remain possible, those able to retain moments of radical autonomy, while engaged with what went on outside their walls, providing something like a testing ground for articulating nondominant relations to dominant techniques of power, whether they be in the domain of music, law, medicine, education, or food.  If starting as neighborhood venues responding to local needs, these collectives later engaged with political struggles at the national level and in turn with anti- and alter-globalization movements, the G8 summit in Genoa of 2001 becoming a flashpoint wherein social centers disseminated information and offered medical and legal services. As sites for supporting anti-institutional actors, they became strategic players in a bigger game.


A brief coda in lieu of a conclusion:  As is likely evident, I had trouble navigating the relationship of urgency or crisis to a demand for praxis, or as motivating a switch from critique to praxis, not because I don’t subscribe to the seminar’s call for radical change, which I do, but because of the disciplinary framework from which I speak, or with and against which I think with a certain epistemic disobedience.  Architecture, as a discipline, tends to script the future in the name of progress, of creating a better world, under the language of the good. This is a default narrative, it is entirely naturalized.  Yet it has a long history of acting too quickly, without reflection, or without attending to the complex relations of power within which it operates, and what Bernard has termed their distributional consequences.  Haunted by this legacy, my work tends to focus either on creative forms of resistance, or on figures, events, or institutions that help render visible the machinations of the larger apparatus within which architecture is encompassed and through which it operates.  A core contradiction is found in the ease with which architecture switches narratives from caring for bodies and subjectivities, to providing sites of mediation between subjects and a dispositif of power, often integrating subjects as productive elements within economic and political mandates serving capital.  But architecture does many things other than offering solutions or giving form to conventionally productive or normative modes of life.  It is a paradoxical discipline; it has critical, ironic, activist and other modalities for deploying its expertise, for re-inflecting its entanglements, whether with techniques of governance, digital media, or aesthetic logics.  At times it can decouple social and economic mandates.  It can be a spanner in the works rather than a cog in the machine.  Here, perhaps, lies something like hope.


[1] https://blogs.law.columbia.edu/utopia1313/bernard-e-harcourt-epilogue-on-the-frankfurt-school-and-ernst-bloch/

[2] Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum. Translated by G.L. Ulmen. (Telos Press, 2003 [1950]): 39.

[3] https://blogs.law.columbia.edu/utopia1313/etienne-balibar-uncovering-lines-of-escape-towards-a-concept-of-concrete-utopia-in-the-age-of-catastrophes/

[4] Gerard K. O’Neill, commentary in in Space Colonies, ed. Stewart Brand (New York: Penguin Books, 1977): 70. An editorial note explains that the text is derived from “remarks before the Senate Subcommittee on Aerospace Technology and National Needs on January 19, 1976, and his keynote address at the annual national convention of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Washington, D.C. on January 30, 1976.”

[5] Daniel Defert, “Foucault, Space and the Architects,” in Politics-Poetics: Documenta X-the Book (Kassel: Hatje Cantz, 1998): 274-83.

[6] https://blogs.law.columbia.edu/utopia1313/bernard-e-harcourt-epilogue-to-utopia-1-13/

[7] Andrea Membretti, “Centro Sociale Leoncavallo: Building Citizenship as an Innovative Service,” European Urban and Regional Studies 14, no. 3 (2007): 264.