Author:
Lukas LeyMax Planck Institute for Social Anthropology ley@eth.mpg.de

Search for other papers by Lukas Ley in
Current site
Google Scholar
PubMed
Close
https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8423-0011
and
Nikolai Ssorin-ChaikovHSE University, Russia nssorinchaikov@hse.ru

Search for other papers by Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov in
Current site
Google Scholar
PubMed
Close
https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7521-6912

Jean-François Lyotard's famous characterisation of the postmodern condition as the ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ (1984: 23–24) has been influential in the anthropology of the 1980s, both in the sense of its internal methodological scepticism and as critical realism that questioned the post-utopian state of the external world that anthropology explored. The anthropology of globalisation and neoliberalism that followed from the 1990s onwards has also stressed presentism and the contemporary as qualities that were to be lived as well as researched without assuming their teleological ends. As observe the guest editors of Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale's special issue ‘Curious Utopias: Dreaming Big Again in the Twenty-first Century?’, Ruth Prince and Tom Neumark, human expectations seemed to have undergone a ‘seismic shift’ away from grand dreams and narratives. But they also note that there has been a ‘concurrent and apparently countervailing trend: a return toward ambitious, even self-asserted utopian imaginations and schemes of economic, political and societal transformation’. Now, this is curious: discredited visions of utopian futures celebrate a return in the worlds studied by anthropology. Using curiosity as both a mode of anthropological inquiry and as a state of utopian imagination, this special issue tries to find a new home for utopia within anthropology.

Jean-François Lyotard's famous characterisation of the postmodern condition as the ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ (1984: 23–24) has been influential in the anthropology of the 1980s, both in the sense of its internal methodological scepticism and as critical realism that questioned the post-utopian state of the external world that anthropology explored. The anthropology of globalisation and neoliberalism that followed from the 1990s onwards has also stressed presentism and the contemporary as qualities that were to be lived as well as researched without assuming their teleological ends. As observe the guest editors of Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale's special issue ‘Curious Utopias: Dreaming Big Again in the Twenty-first Century?’, Ruth Prince and Tom Neumark, human expectations seemed to have undergone a ‘seismic shift’ away from grand dreams and narratives. But they also note that there has been a ‘concurrent and apparently countervailing trend: a return toward ambitious, even self-asserted utopian imaginations and schemes of economic, political and societal transformation’. Now, this is curious: discredited visions of utopian futures celebrate a return in the worlds studied by anthropology. Using curiosity as both a mode of anthropological inquiry and as a state of utopian imagination, this special issue tries to find a new home for utopia within anthropology.

One of the most interesting implications of this is to frame ‘utopia’ as a question, rather than an answer. For instance, what are the temporalities within utopia? Classical twentieth-century visions of the future were built on the notions of social, political and technological progress. Yet, a ‘successful technical revolution … presupposes a minimum of stability’ which, in turn, ‘rules out sociopolitical revolution’, notes Tom Neumark in his contribution to this special issue, quoting Reinhart Koselleck (2004: 44). Neumark charts socio-technical and financial assemblages of solar electricity in Tanzania that ‘leapfrog’ grid infrastructure and grid modernism. They also leapfrog into an environmentally sound futurity while being at the same time embedded in the enduring and past-oriented logic of kinship and homestead (boma). Peter Redfield's article interrogates utopian expectations and temporalities of waiting. He shows how the inhabitants of South African slums and informal settlements wait for better housing and municipal services while having their homes turned into iShacks equipped with small-scale solar power generators that are sufficient for lighting, television and mobile phone chargers. While Ruth Prince wonders about the side effects of utopian universal health coverage in Kenya, Ursula Rao explores their implementation in India. Rao shows that among the effects are more surveillance entailed by the collection of patients’ biometric data. Prince finds that universal health coverage can produce hope and expectations that sustain, if not exacerbate, social inequalities. The article by Jamie Cross and Alice Street brings the two lines of inquiry (health and energy) together as they explore portable, point-of-care diagnostic devices and solar-powered lanterns. They argue that humanitarian entrepreneurs who distribute both of these tools in South Africa become agents of combining minimalist biopolitics with a maximalist, universalising utopia of health and energy.

In their article, Kevin Donovan and Emma Park describe another powerful, and indeed global, utopia of financial inclusion with a case study that focuses on Kenya's pioneering person-to-person mobile money platform, M-Pesa. It was one of the first companies to allow mobile-phone-based withdrawals of cash money, effectively turning mobiles into digital wallets. Donovan and Park explore how what started as a means to send remittances to families back home became a fully-fledged instrument for financial loans and services. Along with other instruments, it generated what they call ‘algorithmic intimacy’, where financial big data follows, illuminates and constructs personal and kinship ties. Also focusing on economic flows, Theodoros Rakopoulos looks at elite enclaves in Cyprus, where ‘golden passport programmes’ allow expats to generate utopian locations of offshore safety. Noémi Tousignant examines the transformation in the Niakhar area of West-Central Senegal. In the early 1960s, it had been earmarked as a location for releasing the full potential of the postcolonial nation. But throughout the 1960s and 1970s, it became instead a site for longitudinal demographic, health and social research effectively extracted from the nation state of Senegal and integrated into a global and in many ways utopian research imaginary.

In their introduction to this special issue, Prince and Neumark argue that the moves that are visible in all articles – those of small-scale technological fixes on the one hand and large-scale societal ambitions on the other – are closely intertwined. They suggest that they deserve ethnographic attention, however ambivalent or unsure we as scholars might be about these projects’ actual implications. They deserve attention precisely because they articulate different ambitions that nevertheless need to be explored on a par, and in contrast with, classical twentieth-century state utopias. Thus, the scope of this special issue is resolutely ethnographic, including having a close eye on the practical outcomes and implications of these visionary projects that take place despite or perhaps indeed because of their lofty ambitions. With its case studies focusing on Africa, India and Cyprus, this special issue draws attention to how experimentation eclipses the significance of place while also privileging particular regions, especially in the Global South, as sites of such innovation. Yet this experimentation involves global networks that include humanitarian and financial entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley (Donovan and Park) or Massachusetts (Cross and Street). Does this imbalance speak to the conditions that are needed for utopias to emerge? What are the rhizomatic, global relations that produce socio-technical questions with utopian horizons?

What does ‘curious utopia’ as an analytic allow us to see? First, as Prince and Neumark observe, the market figures much more centrally in these diverse efforts to create a ‘social good’. Second, they register that the very notion of social or public good itself has shifted. Its locus is no longer the national collective but a fragmented social body. It features selective and partial yet also broadly diffuse publics. Third, these projects articulate a different and very particular relationship to failure. They do not merely fail like in the case of high modernism (Scott 1998) but incorporate failure through a variety of feedback loops. In doing so (fourth), they articulate a distinct modality of politics of knowledge, evidence and evaluation. By bringing together rich ethnographies that elaborate and add to these conceptual observations, this special issue makes an important and distinct contribution to the ethnographies of utopian imaginaries, practices and temporalities.

References

  • Koselleck, R. 2004. Futures past: on the semantics of historical time. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Lyotard, J.-F. 1984. The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Scott, J. 1998. Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

Contributor Notes

Lukas Ley https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8423-0011 ley@eth.mpg.de

Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7521-6912 nssorinchaikov@hse.ru

  • Collapse
  • Expand
  • Koselleck, R. 2004. Futures past: on the semantics of historical time. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Lyotard, J.-F. 1984. The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Scott, J. 1998. Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 466 466 9
PDF Downloads 324 324 5