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.”