P 22

Connections in Time: Utopia Between Past, Present, and Future

Panel abstract
If we are following the present media discourse about the African continent we are witnessing a deep disillusionment caused by ongoing crises. These crises are seen as causes of migration, whereby people want to leave their crisis-ridden countries. Due to corruption, insufficient civil services, social or economic disparities and the ongoing fight against poverty, some scholars argue that long-term imaginations of the future seem to be engulfed by continuous present and experience of recent crisis. In contradiction to this widespread image we are experiencing that people are developing capacities to cope with emerging challenges. In resistance to the state (and/or the market economy) or in contrast to the supposed mainstream society, at urban or rural places where the state and market are not sufficiently present, different actors develop utopian ideas on how a society should be and experiment with new forms of living, decision-making or production. But not just citizens are developing utopian ideas to improve their society in a future perspective, also politicians, artists, activists or other social actors are involved in these processes.
Utopia draws our attention to the agency of different social actors to cope with the undesirable present, to condemn or glorify the past and to imagine an alternative future. Utopias reveal connections in time: past and present are shaping future imaginations. This also includes considerations to what extent different spaces, special contexts or connectivity are conditions for ‘utopian’ thinking and if - for example - digital media can open up new spaces for utopia.

Time: Thursday, 28/06/2018, 8.30 - 10.30 am
Venue: Hörsaalgebäude, HS 16

Antje Daniel (University of Bayreuth)
Johanna Rieß (University of Bayreuth)

Astrid Bochow (University of Göttingen) and Rijk van Dijk (Leiden University, Netherlands)
Edward Powell (Independent Scholar, Basingstoke, UK)
Kwazema Martins (Abo Akademi, Turku, Finland)
Serawit Bekele Debele (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen)


Paper abstracts

Astrid Bochow and Rijk van Dijk
After Utopia? Disconnections, Imaginaries, and the Future of the ‘After Crisis’

Our contribution starts with re-thinking ‘crisis’ by examining and conceptualizing its future. In moments of crisis politicians, international organizations, activists, and religious leaders are calling for ‘action’ in order to enhance living standards, medical treatment, educational opportunities, and overall societal morals. By doing so, they put forward visions of a future and utopian ideas of a socially and politically just society. Thereby, actors, each according to their social and financial capacities, work on introducing new structures, resources, knowledge, and expertise in their respective local contexts. These processes are often supported by international donors who mobilize resources in response to life-threatening conditions. But what happens when crises are over? This has recently been the case with the HIV/Aids crisis: In view of the mostly successful introduction of treatment for large parts of the population in many African countries, major international donors such as PEPFAR have been withdrawing donations from 2009 onwards. How are actors dealing with the retrenchment of infrastructures, expertise, and knowledge ‘after the crisis’? How do activists, NGOs, and religious leaders return to normality and how does ‘normality’ look like after the crisis? What visions for the future do activists, NGOs, and religious leaders develop? The contribution will re-think the crisis by studying its future – a future which has been imagined in times of crisis. It draws from our ethnographic insights on the HIV pandemic in Botswana but it is conceptual in nature.

Edward Powell
Space Exploration and Technophilic Eutopianism in Contemporary Anglophone African Speculative Fiction

This paper explores the ambivalent perspective in African speculative fiction (SF) towards technophilic eutopianism – the belief that techno-scientific advances will eradicate social inequality, injustice, and division. The depiction of technologically advanced African societies in African SF challenges the widespread preconception of Africa as a region of perpetual underdevelopment; and, in some cases, even the dystopian image of the continent – pedalled by Kodwo Eshun’s futures industry – as a region of perpetual crisis, instability, and neo-colonial dependency. This latter mode of depiction often echoes the longstanding, influential technophilic tradition in Eurowestern SF that posits technological development as a barometer of social progress. Just as often, though, African SF portrays technological advances compounding the inequalities, injustices, abuses of power, and underdevelopment affecting many Africans today. This paper considers how African SF imagines Africa’s place within the kind of techno-scientifically advanced futures envisioned in Eurowestern SF and the extent to which these futures hold the same allure for both. In particular, I focus on depictions of African involvement in space exploration, colonisation, and commerce, an especially salient leitmotif in popular Eurowestern technophilic eutopianism. This involvement is often portrayed in African SF as a key indicator of social development, despite the often imperialist overtones of Eurowestern narratives of white, cis-heteronormative men colonizing celestial bodies (and alien peoples). Do these African space explorers, then, participate in a thoroughly Eurowestern dream? How do writers like Nnedi Okorafor, Deji Bryce Olukatun, and Mandisi Nkomo reimagine space exploration as something other than the present neo-colonial order extending into outer space?

Kwazema Martins
Poststructuralizing the African Utopia: Introducing a Conceptual Framework

Consistent alternative critical futures for Africa must develop from a history, a written account in the present based on bits and traces inherited from the past. Similarly, utopian thought calls upon an inconvenient perusal of a rich literature explicating the meanderings of present reality. In this light, this paper introduces a conceptual framework through which utopias for the African continent can be imagined in a way consistent with the challenges of its present sociocultural, economic, political, and developmental states. The paper highlights the importance of post-structuralism as both a theory and method towards thinking of the ideal African society. It achieves this by advocating a new role for scientific historical research as a powerful tool beyond only documenting the past, but also investigating past futures. Through this approach towards critical utopianism, research tools in futures research can be applied to scientific historical research thereby infusing robustness in developing or imagining possible, probable, or desirable utopias for Africa. Finally, the paper highlights the potency in applying causal layered analysis, a futures research theory and method in the problematization of the present, towards the development of African utopias. CLA derives its epistemology from postcolonial multicultural theory, post-structuralism, and macrohistory. Its strength lies in coalescing horizontal investigation of phenomena with vertical analysis of embedded assumptions, worldviews, myths, and metaphors within statements or images of the future through four layers of critical research: litany, social/causation, worldview, and myth.

Serawit Bekele Debele
Marriage as a Site of Imagining ‘Utopia’ in Post-Liberation Ethiopia: Reading Addis Zemen Newspaper

Following its liberation in 1941, Ethiopia embarked on a huge project of nation state building that partly drew on borrowing aspects of ‘Western civilization’ while still attempting to adhere to local ‘traditional values’. The idea of a strong, prosperous, and stable nation state was imagined through strengthening already existing institutions and establishing new ones that were geared towards responding to this grand project. Marriage was among the institutions that were brought to the fore of producing disciplined, responsible, and capable subjects the nation building required. Located between an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian informed ‘traditional values’ and the ‘modern’ notion of monogamy, marriage was presented as a sacred institution through which not only building but also perpetuating the nation state was envisaged. The role of media in disseminating the idea of marriage and its indispensability to a respectable family life, also by extension to nation building and sustainability, is inestimable. Addis Zemen Gazzetta, the Amharic newspaper that was introduced right after liberation, was one such media outlet that was preoccupied with passing this message. In this paper, I offer a panoramic view of the publications to argue that marriage was depicted as a site of imagining a ‘utopia’ that was, among other things, contingent on the ideal covenant between two people.