Beautiful Gestures & Utopic Fragments

A morning spent sharing our work is rarely a morning wasted. Doing with a group who have come together for several months against the backdrop of a “Temporäre Schule zur Entwicklung schöner Gesten(Temporary School for the Development of Beautiful Gestures) im_flieger was definitely not wasted: a dynamic group willing to help us undertake an experiment in futurecrafting while we shared the ways and means of what it is that we do.

We are essentially optimistic. There are apparently genetic biases for optimism. We imagine that the idea is somewhat based on the following massive simplification, an evolutionary “just so” story. There are two types of people; pessimists and optimists. There are two types of things that happen: good things and bad things. Bad things mean you don’t reproduce. So there are four classes of people. Optimists who have good things happen to them, optimists who have bad things happen to them, pessimists that have good things happen and pessimists that have bad things happen to them. The only ones who survive are those that have good things happen to them. Optimists who have good things happen to them learn to trust their instincts and pass this on. Pessimists who survive don’t trust their instincts so remain in some kinds of depressed state. The optimists who were wrong and the correct pessimists are not around to affect things. So optimists manage to dominate through a mixture of genetics and learnt behaviour.

We, as in Time’s Up, also take the idea seriously that dystopias and apocalypses are, as creative processes, somewhere along the easy-boring spectrum. A well-imagined “used” utopia has enough of the elements that keep our interest in speculative thinking ongoing, to maintain a sense of value in what we do.

So when we were asked “How dare you be utopian, visionary and positive in devastating times like the current ones?” (German only) we replied with this sort of answer. But remained unimpressed with ourselves. With the latest IPCC report and the Ukrainian situation, we really began to wonder how we dared. But the question was less one of daring, which had, we understood, more to do with the shock that this person had that we could remain as we were, but rather we began to ask ourselves how we could maintain this feeling of positive visions, of hope and optimism, in times like these.

Speaking of hope, one is, in times like these, never far from quoting Rebecca Solnit. So let’s do that.

“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor & marginal…
To hope is to give yourself to the future –
and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”

Rebecca Solnit – Hope in the Dark

Perhaps our questioner was more fearing that we were using passive hope, the hope of the lottery ticket, as our way to hold on to the Status Quo, as it unfortunately can be seen in many decision-making levels. No, our hope was not this type. The type of hope we aim for is a valid and useful hope. Valid in the sense that when we say “we hope X” there is an implicit or explicit “because Y” and this Y has some substance to it. The techno-solutionist Y in this case is usually something like “because we as a society have managed to fix our way out of all our problems so far” but that just feels a bit like the optimists in the “Just So” story that we outlined above. We prefer to have a bit more validity. And we like our hope to be useful, in that the axe is actually strong enough to bash the door down. In spite of the possible ridiculousness of certain ideas being part of the way forward, if they inspire action and turn out not to be useless, then they are forms of hope that are useful. So we ended up with an internal re-phrasing of the question as:

“How do we maintain valid and useful hope in times like these?

Preparing to co-facilitate José Ramos’ Mutant Futures Program in May in Vienna, we did the MFP process with him. Both as a way to be read to support his process, but also to gain an understanding of the subjective experience of participants so that we can best support participants doing the program in May. Experiencing the program again, we were interested to note that the visioning processes work even in repetition. It was also interesting to note and reflect on the ways that the program varies, from developing a version based up the description in various papers, to the self-guided online process and the shared group process. One of the core points of the process is thinking more deeply about the double bind, the damned if you do, damned if you don’t element in an interesting question. We were concerned with maintaining hope; if we drop it, something bad happens, if we carry on regardless, something else bad happens.

The response to a Gordian knot is always to do a third thing. The anticipatory experiments that emerged in the mutant futures program process had us playing and dancing with the realities and ideas that confront hope thinking. To entertain these ideas without necessarily believing them; an idea attributed to Aristotle, but more likely a summary of his Nichomanchean ethics around living a flourishing life. And perhaps to do so in an entertaining way.

And thus we arrived at the ingredients for a very short exercise, aimed at demonstrating our techniques as much as to talk about them, dived in the deep end. Jem Bendell in the Deep Adaption essay starts with

“The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of what I believe to be an inevitable near-term societal collapse due to climate change.”

Jem Bendell in the Deep Adaption

We dived straight into this with our group, talking about issues of denial and using the expression “we’re fucked” at least once in the process. We then began actively working with the group. Collecting examples of things that they felt were appropriate for the Deep Adaptation Four Rs of Resilience, Relinquischment, Restoration and Reconciliation.

Collecting these examples, brainstorming, then a bit of positive energy emerged, but it was still very head based and a bit abstract. Only when we took the group through an adaptation of YKON’s Match-Match process did the participants begin to feel the lightness of imagining, crossed with the ease of dealing with concrete, small, everyday utopic fragments, did some joy re-emerge.

We could have debriefed for ages; the feelings of subtle and not so subtle joy were palpable and wonderful. One participant reported feeling overwhelmed by the idea of a vision or a utopia; these were things that were too big and reminded her of her feelings of incapacity, a self-reinforcing spiral. At some point in the process she was able to reorient herself and took on something that we have previously learnt and forgotten: wishes and dreams are every bit as powerful as visions or utopias, but a lot less scary.

If we can break down utopia to utopic fragments and imagine how they might be part of the everyday, then perhaps we might be able to begin to be in a position to think them through.

Image taken von Anita Kaya or Claudia Heu @ im_Flieger

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