Towards a utopian vision

The Institute for Humanities at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and its affiliated publication Contours Journal will be hosting Utopian Spaces, a free conference organized and led by SFU graduate students and open to the general public.

The two days of presentations and discussions, on Nov. 23 and 24, will aim to open up dialogue about the concept of “utopia,” specifically both physical and imaginative spaces that can be considered utopian.

Looking forward

Ajamu Nangwaya, PhD and lecturer at the University of the West Indies. | Photo by Errol Young

The conference will be an opportunity for constructive discussions about both our present world and different futures we can imagine for it.

“This idea,” says Morgan Young, chair of the conference’s graduate committee, “that there are alternatives to what there is now, we think it’s an important topic to speculate about at this point in time, and important to look at concrete examples that can be considered utopian attempts at making the world better.”

Given that it’s all about a better, more desirable world, the term “utopia” has some large negative connotations attached to it.

“There is a history of what I would call ‘bad utopias,’” says Young. “These are conceptions of perfect or idealized societies that have been exclusive, or built on the suffering of others. I think that particularly after the Second World War and the Holocaust, ‘utopia’ earned a bad rep, deservedly. The perfect world that is only perfect for a few stigmatizes, marginalizes or actively destroys others.”

Examples like that lend themselves towards a more dystopian image when looked back on, and Young sees that as a problem for genuinely utopic ideas. If utopian ideas are seen only as problematic, that means less opposition for negative, destructive dystopian views, she says.

“We feel to a certain extent that the dystopian idea has become dominant in the media,” says Young. “We feel it is important to discuss practical attempts people are doing to make things better, and see a different way we could live in the world. At this current moment in time, things can seem pretty hopeless, and people can feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of problems we face globally, so discussing what we can do is very important.”

And besides providing a forum for more positive, forward-thinking conversations, Young sees Utopian Spaces as an opportunity for herself and her fellow students to make useful connections with each other.

“It’s an opportunity for us as graduate students to meet and talk to each other and share our ideas,” she says. “We’re still working things out, we’re still researching and deciding on things and learning things. That’s part of what we want this conference to be: an exploration and us all talking together, talking through these ideas together to open up possibilities.

Practical plans

Ajamu Nangwaya, PhD and lecturer at the University of the West Indies, will be one of the keynote speakers at the conference. His speech will focus on the practical issues of a utopian society: what we – as a society – can do today to facilitate and prepare for what we want to build towards.

“It’s not enough to complain,” says Nangwaya, “what are we for? And how can that manifest itself in the lives of the people? How can the ideas that we have get translated in concrete ways, in the here and now, to the people who are suffering?”

Nangwaya believes that in order for us to make real progress towards a truly utopic world, we have to first find a way to overcome the negative, pervasive structures that still exist in our society.

“We have to wean ourselves off the dominant ideologies in our world,” he says. “Racist ideologies, patriarchal ideologies, heteronormative ideologies…they will negate a humanistic future we’re trying to build. Any ideas that go against human freedoms, we must wean ourselves off of them.”

Like Morgan, one of the key benefits of the conference Nangwaya is looking forward to is the opportunity to connect with those who attend.

“Like-minded people can see hope, and see how we can be better organized to execute this utopic vision we have. It’s a learning experience, and a network we can generate from like-minded people together. The more we work together the stronger we will become,” he says.

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