My kind of history: the anthropology of utopia – part I

The Backs entrance to Clare College, Cambridge, with King’s College ‘chapel’ (looks more like a cathedral to me) in the background. Stock photography of Cambridge University.

For many, the onset of Autumn signifies the start of the new academic year. For some, including myself, it rather means the beginning of the Sisyphossian labour called ‘university applications’. As I have to write a fresh research proposal in the coming weeks, I would like to dedicate this blog post to putting some thoughts on paper about the kind of research I can see myself doing in the coming years, in a relatively ‘safe’ and informal environment – as a kind of exercise in self-help. What kind of issues trigger my interest most within the intellectual space comprising Classics, Political Thought, and the Humanities more broadly? Is there a pattern discernable within the topics I have already worked on in the past? Is it possible, in the course of this blog post, to come to a rough sketch of my research proposal?

History as anthropology

One of the things that attracts me most about historical inquiry is its anthropological potential. History, for me at least, is never just about finding out ‘the truth of what has happened’, but also about (re-)discovering mental world-pictures. It is often claimed that a bi- or multilingual education allows one to think far more flexibly about both deep and abstract questions and everyday dilemmas. As far as I can tell, the same is true for being reared under different intellectual regimes. Studying the theoretical underpinnings of Nazi-Germany in one year and Confucian political thought the next is more than just the sum of knowledge about two discrete historical contexts. It amounts to the attainment of creative possibility and mental freedom that were inaccessible before, by enabling cross-referencing of two completely different vocabularies. It is this kind of treasure that I count as the little ‘wisdom’ I possess at this age: the possibility to relativise by temporarily freeing oneself of ingrained prejudices. If I cannot continue to accumulate this kind of insight during my future studies, I will give up before long.

But the story becomes more specific. Not only do I enjoy the thrill of arming myself with yet another way-of-seeing-the-world, but especially that part of it that concerns itself with questions about the best way for human beings to get organised socially. One might ask at this point: ‘Isn’t that the same as saying that you are interested simply in political ideas in the past?’ However, my instinct says that there is a subtle difference between (1) questions about the best way for humans to get organised socially and (2) things or ideas political simpliciter. Let me try to explain.

History as utopian studies

The crucial difference, I think, lies in my use of the word ‘best’ and the phrase ‘to get organised socially’. I have never written about strategies of organisation for and by the excluded in a particular society, or about political history as it was understood a century ago (that is, the history of leaders, battles and treaties). Instead, the themes I have found myself returning to over and over again in the past almost always lie in the domain of sublimated ideals and positive mental constructions. I have been interested in ‘real’ political developments only insofar as they can be considered responses to transformative and systemic projects. Theory over practice, if you will – but ideally, the impingement of theory on practice. The most awe-inspiring and terrifying episodes in history have been the product of the loftiest ethical standards smashing into the quagmire of human imperfection. This is why ‘best’ matters in the phrase ‘the best way for humans to organise socially’.

What about ‘to organise socially’? I understand this as a further qualification to my area of interest, in that it discriminates between ethical norms that are ‘merely’ wishful and those that are meant to be actually realised in the foreseeable future. For instance, I am less interested in the history of the idea of global disarmament, or in the history of human rights, than in, say, seventeenth-century English republicanism or the idea (as modern as it is ancient) of an Islamic State. There is something about the poetry – the language – of mental constructions of ideal worlds that always seems to strike a special cord. When I read Mozi (a Chinese thinker after whom Mohism is named) during my undergraduate studies, I remember being absolutely stunned by his image of a tree representing his ethical philosophy. Similarly, anyone who has read Plato (in Greek or otherwise) should be struck by just how incredibly powerful his use of language is.

In a word, I care about utopia. I find that there are few human enterprises that better illustrate the raw power and creativity of the mind. But if I believe this to be the case, then I must also believe that subsequent generations should be somehow influenced in important ways by the utopian designs of previous thinkers. If I truly want to pay homage to the power of Utopia, I must demonstrate its traces in the societies that survived its direct engineers. This, finally, comes close to the kind of project I can see myself pursuing for the coming years (decades?): to investigate the rudimentary political beliefs and practices left behind by the utopian schemes of preceding generations.

An example: the Soviet Union. If I were to apply to a PhD in History at the University of Sheffield next year, I would make sure to steer clear of such questions as ‘Why couldn’t the Ukrainians mount any successful resistance to the Soviets’ genocidal policies in the first half of the 1930s?’, or ‘What mark did Stalin’s opponents make on the agenda of the Soviet Union after Stalin had taken control of the most important state apparatuses?’ Instead, I would pursue a question such as this: ‘Which models of empire and expansion did Stalinist Russia hark back to, and in what way?’

I think this comes close to capturing at least the general framework in which I seek to study history. In a next blogpost, I will try to specify which period and which approach within this framework I am most partial to. To be continued…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s