Julia Fay | Utopia as Ritual: The Possibility of Regenerative Utopias

By Julia Fay

Towards the end of Utopia 1/13, during the question-and-answer portion of the lecture, Professor Ann Stoler and Professor Kendall Thomas asked complementary questions about utopia as praxis. Professor Stoler proposed focusing on the idea of utopia as a verb rather than a noun, and asked why affect and its potential for politicization are not considered more richly in utopian discourse – or at least, why they were not considered in this lecture about concrete utopias.[1] Professor Thomas followed this up by asking us to consider utopia not in terms of time or place but in terms of the body – as a bodily practice, cognizant of its own eventual dissolution in the service of future utopias.[2] I would like to pull on these threads here, and consider what utopia as a verb, or as a practice, could mean for concrete utopias.[3]

We have another word to describe mindful practice that transcends space and temporality (to borrow the language both Foucault and Étienne Balibar uses to frame discussion of heterotopias) and encompasses its own dissolution even in its instantiation: ritual. Though itself a noun, “ritual” implies and depends on verbs: a ritual is instantiated in the act of its performance, and that instantiation dissolves when the performance ends. Though similar in some ways to utopia, ritual possesses key features that utopias or heterotopias lack – features which, if folded into utopic thinking, could make space for a sort of regenerative model of utopia rooted in the kind of active, self-conscious praxis Professor Thomas and Professor Stoler pointed us towards.

Adam Seligman, Robert Weller, Michael Puett, and Bennett Simon offer a useful framework for thinking about ritual in their book Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity.[4] They model ritual as a sort of subjunctive mode of human behavior, through which we create world orders that are “self‐consciously distinct from other possible social worlds”.[5] A simple example of this is the social norm of “[framing]…requests with please and thank you”.[6] When asking for something we exchange the ritual words “please” and “thank you” to create a social dynamic in which it is “as if” compliance with the request is wholly voluntary and both parties have equal agency, even when this is not the case (as, for example, if a parent asks their child to “please buckle your seatbelt” – if the child says no, the ritual world fractures and the parent will most likely compel compliance).[7]

Ritual always, however, “exists in problematic tension to the nonritual world”.[8] The ritual creates a sort of liminal space between the “as if” and the “is”, in which the performers inhabit ritual roles that are plainly different from the rest of their everyday lives. That tension is, in a way, precisely what the ritual is about: “ritual gains force where incongruence [between the ritual and the actual worlds] is perceived and thought about”.[9] Utopias – or, perhaps more helpfully, heterotopias – exist in similar tension with the world around them. Heterotopias and utopias are defined in many ways by the boundaries they create: the asylum, the prison, the retirement home, and the boarding school are all identified as heterotopias and all exist to contain a particular type of person undergoing a particular type of experience (different as those people and experiences may be from one another).[10] Some heterotopias may require “rites and purifications” – rituals – as a prerequisite for entry.[11] In performing rituals, participants mediate “the incongruity between the world of enacted ritual and the participants’ experience of lived reality” – ritual can be a way of crossing from the normal into the utopic, or from one heterotopia to another.[12]

So what does this mean for utopia? Perhaps ritual worlds belong in our taxonomy of heterotopias – liminal spaces in which a particular world is generated and then dismantled, mediating the dissonance between the world as it is and the world as it could be. The “as if” world of ritual described in Ritual and its Consequences is not so different from the function of heterotopias as Foucault describes them in “Of Other Spaces”. As the cemetery in “Of Other Spaces” has served different (but always differentiating) functions in different times, cultures, and places, ritual can reflect and mediate social dynamics or personal needs in ways that shift with context.[13]

Professor Thomas’s vision of a utopic praxis built around its own dissolution seems consonant with ritual-as-utopia, or utopia-as-ritual, as well.[14] One salient feature of ritual that utopias typically lack, and which utopian thought might benefit from, is repetition. Ritual is almost always iterative.[15] Each performance of a ritual contains both the echo – a “recollection” of sorts – of each past performance that has informed the present one, and the shape of each future performance yet to be enacted.[16] Even a new ritual can be described as iterative, if only as the beginning of what its performers expect will become a new sequence of ritual iterations. Ritual is, in this way, regenerative: the ritual “as if” world is always destroyed, and it is always recreated.

The iterative quality of ritual creates the conditions for precisely the sort of self-dissolution that Professor Thomas suggested for utopic praxis. A practice of iterative recreation and destruction would make a utopia flexible and adaptable, rather than static: it could become a sort of regenerative utopia, intended to exist for a limited time, ended only to be reconstituted under new conditions. Étienne Balibar pointed out in his lecture that utopias run the risk of becoming prisons for the next generation; a practice of regenerative, ritual utopia could prevent the sort of ossification that would cause this kind of generational frustration.[17] If a utopia is to avoid becoming a prison, perhaps a certain self-consciousness and centering of ritual is needed. Utopia-as-ritual becomes, too, the sort of verb-form utopia Professor Stoler asked us to consider: a state not of being but of doing, an active and ongoing creation and dismantling of utopia, rather than a passive and singular instantiation of it.[18]

The liminal spaces of ritual are not as “concrete” as most of the utopias – or heterotopias – this lecture series sets out to explore. But ritual could perhaps be a helpful (even, in some cases, necessary) complement to successful concrete utopias. The concrete utopias we have studies all depend on rituals in one way or another. Any democratic structure relies on a ritualized political process, both for its day-to-day functionality and for its ideological coherence and legitimacy. Elections are rituals. The forms of democracy under which Erik Olin Wright conceptualizes utopias rely on ritual elections and signifiers of power.[19]  The legal system is replete with ritual; legislative and judicial action derive legitimacy in the eyes of the public from ritualized processes of election (in the former case) and adjudication (in the latter case). Heterotopic organizations like Mondragon and Wikipedia may not be governments, but the functionality of these organizations surely relies on repeated, ritualistic processes that facilitate decision-making and that govern the distribution of responsibility among members.[20] To be sure, not all concrete utopias depend to the same extent on rituals – structures of, for example, representative democracy perhaps contain more layers of ritual than a direct democracy would. Nevertheless, ritual structures are already embedded in the functionality of concrete utopias. Concrete utopias could self-consciously foreground ritual such that it is treated not as afterthought or as a means of enabling civic structure, but as a critical method of ideological regeneration.

Such consciousness of ritual could also help prevent the abuse or political manipulation of ritual in concrete utopias. We have seen what happens when a foundational ritual is challenged and the legitimacy of the ritual space is attacked. Former president Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread election fraud were intended to undermine the legitimacy of a particular election result, but they also threatened to corrode the legitimacy of our election ritual as a whole. Two years later, we are still dealing with the fallout from this political weaponization of ritual as we collectively try to rehabilitate the legitimacy of our election rituals in the eyes of those who have come to distrust the ritual. Ritual can, as in this case, be designed to create change, and to be more durable than any of the individuals who perform it. The more conscious a community is of its rituals, the more difficult it should be (one hopes) for bad actors to undermine those rituals.

Ritual and its Consequences suggests in passing the possibility that a true utopia (in, it would seem, Thomas More’s sense of the word) would negate the need for ritual.[21] Seligman and company suggest that ritual, by creating “a new world…in self-conscious tension with the unritualized world”, serves to mend things we feel are broken in the real world, if only temporarily.[22] If ritual is our way of fixing a broken world, the thinking goes, utopia would negate the need for ritual because in a utopia there should be nothing broken that needs fixing. Until then, in our concrete utopias – and our heterotopias, and our theoretical utopias – we may need ritual to negotiate the dissonance between what is and what could be, between the utopia and its surrounds. The ritual ends, again and again; the ordered ritual world collapses back into the fractured world of lived experience. But it always regenerates. The repetition of a ritual of utopia could make possible a dynamic and evolving kind of utopia, one that anticipates and even celebrates each instance of its own demise, always knowing a new utopia will take its place.


[1] Utopia 1/13 lecture.

[2] Id.

[3] I think another interesting direction to go with this would have been considering how a bodily practice of utopia – or utopia as ritual, for that matter – starts to sound more and more like a religion. That seems like a larger topic, though, for another day.

[4] Adam B. Seligman, Robert P. Weller, Michael J. Puett, and Bennett Simon, Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (2008).

[5] Id., 20.

[6] Id., 21

[7] Id.

[8] Id., 26

[9] Id., 27, quoting Jonathan Smith.

[10] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces”, 3-4.

[11] Id., 5.

[12] Seligman et. al., Ritual, 20.

[13] Foucault, “Other Spaces”, 4.

[14] Utopia 1/13 lecture.

[15] Seligman et. al., Ritual, 52. “That ritual…implies repetition is a matter of definition”.

[16] Seligman, Ritual, 120-121.

[17] Étienne Balibar, “Uncovering lines of escape: towards a concept of concrete utopia in the age of catastrophes.”, 27-28.

[18] Utopia 1/13 lecture.

[19] Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (2010), 152.

[20] Id., 194; 240.

[21] Seligman et. al., Ritual, 99.

[22] Id., 21.