Craft and utopianism

“Many things would be easier if we could eat grass”, remarks Ernst Bloch rather unexpectedly in his monumental work The Principle of Hope. Indeed, this sounds very timely in the face of the hardships of current ‘economic slowdown’ and it doesn’t take too much to imagine that many would heartily agree. As poignant as Bloch’s momentary groan might sound though, it is as far from the central message of this magnum opus of utopian scholarship as it possibly can be.

The Principle of Hope is all but an account of the easy ways to get by. Quite on the contrary, it draws us into the labyrinth of imaginative curiosity, anticipation and the aspiration to cross over the limits of the up to now experience and explore what lies beyond. Utopia, in Bloch’s terms though, is not a country that no one has ever been to. Rather, it is the hopeful, if often intricate, journey from our deepest (day-) dreams toward their possible realization.

Is it possible then, that utopian thinking and craftwork might actually have a lot in common? Do craft and utopianism, perhaps, share the curiosity and also the courage to ‘begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing’ as Ruskin writes in Stones of Venice. Or could their willingness to take the risk of thinking and working at the limit of one’s own competencies be a connecting point too? The history of social and political debates in which craft played a catalyst role for re-imagining the status quo suggests that craft and utopian quest for a better future have often walked hand in hand.

Let’s think of the significance of craft in the history of intentional communities – Quakers, Shakers or Amish people – to name several obvious examples. Remember craft’s crucial role in utopian socialism and in the reform started by Ruskin, Morris and continued by the Arts and Crafts Movement later on. Moving on to the twentieth century, start with the emphasis put on craft in guild socialism, craft’s importance for the Indian Independence Movement and its role in the late twentieth century DIY culture. The most recent examples would surely include the craftivism movement, that has, quite fittingly in this context, been given a whole recent issue of Utopian Studies – the journal of the Society for Utopian Studies, and perhaps even steampunk phenomenon – the theme of the current JMC issue.

Surely, another analogy between craft and utopianism could be exemplified on the never ending tension between the ‘make do’ and ‘make better’ -the dilemma between the instantly practicable solutions versus the desire for the ideal, that has long been haunting not only social reformers and activists but generations of craft theorists and practitioners alike.

In short, neither utopian thinking nor craft necessarily offer the easy way scenarios. But, shall we agree that the common strength of both might lie in a determination that is well illustrated in the following extract of one of the stories from the 2008 anthology of steampunk literature (Brown, Molly: The Selene Gardening Society, in: Vandermeer, Jeff and Ann eds.: Steampunk, Tachyon Publications, San Francisco 2008, cited in: Steampunk Magazine n7, 2011, p. 3)?

“Calm down, Maston,” said Mr. Barbicane. “I merely said it was impossible. I never said we wouldn’t find a way to do it.”

9 thoughts on “Craft and utopianism

  1. Yes, beautifully written, congratulations! The relationship between craft and utopia is interesting in current times, particularly as their appears a desire for local manufacturing and small specialised industries to revive struggling economies. I’m interested in how the notion of local or regional crafts might be understood as a material expression of contemporary citizenship, where ideas and practices of craft may provide a common bond.

  2. Thank you very much, Cate, Tanya and Stephen. A couple more posts on this topic shall follow in some next weeks, so it would be a great pleasure to see you back and hear your thoughts.

  3. Stephen, thanks again for an inspiring comment. I would be very interested to know more about your thinking on this. Do you believe the comeback of local manufacturing and small specialised industries could really prepare a way to revive struggling economies, or is it (just) a wishful attempt to gain independence from these, creating of a world within a world? What role does nostalgia for good times past play in the emerging desire to know your butcher or in the fascination by the sight of your local dressmaker sewing at her/his house window? Are we finally building a ‘new and better world’ here or only tilting at windmills again? A view of an economist would be rather interesting too, perhaps.

  4. Hello Mila, I agree I think my comments are more wishful than a reality, in current climate I don’t see how local craft manufacture can compete against the might of global production and economies. I’m not an expert here so only expressing some thoughts but I do think local craft manufacture can reduce alienation and bring one into a sense of community and place by working alongside and with others. The coal mining communities I’ve been looking at recently seemed to have this interdependency on each other, above and below ground, that all trades and crafts jigsaw into each other, and (this might be pushing it too far) seemed to have respect for this interdependency. These thoughts do bring me back to something Simmel and the Frankfurt School were touching upon, and yes an economist view would be interesting on this.

  5. Thanks, Stephen. I dare to say many at this forum (me including) do undoubtedly share your “wishful thinking”. Yes, we are still fighting the very same battle that made William Morris become a man of many compromises. Is there, however, a light at the end of the tunnel in prospering small businesses like this – Ruskin inspired – one: ?

  6. Great piece of writing Mila and important.
    I personally feel much of the contemporary craft scene has rather left its radical roots behind. Whenever there is an economic downturn people start to asses what they actually want out of life, what constitutes meaningful work etc. When the money is flowing it seems all these questions are on the backburner as everyone scrambles for their share of the consumerist orgy.
    The time is undoubtedly right to look at these issues again and as you suggest not just as an alternative escapist thing but to question what it is about craft that is good and how that can be incorporated in mainstream life. I think our whole mode of production needs looking at critically and reassessing. The solution is not go back to some rose tinted vision of the middle ages but to go forward using the best of our knowledge of the past to make the best future we can for our grandchildren. This ties with climate change, the environmental agenda, the occupy movement even the Arab spring, all are about wanting a better world tomorrow. The world has suddenly become truly global as we individuals can communicate directly, memes become more important than genes, lets spread the meme of real craft utopianism.

  7. Great piece Mila. I believe that the type of community and common bond that Stephen expresses a desire to see realized can be achieved at least on a limited basis. But this goes beyond what may normally be thought of as the traditional craft sector with its historical weight. The makers/DYI movements are motivated by an entrepreneurial spirit as well as a rejection of the corporate modal. It is no longer about segregating themselves away in isolated mountaintop communities, but being in the thick of it in cities. The makers spaces that are cropping up here in the US are focused on revitalizing local economies. They are not hampered by notions of defining craft or limited to the tools and materials associated with craft. Its kind of like the notion of a Silicon Valley start-up, but without the expectation of getting rich doing it, just making a decent living.

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