Beyond Utopia? Art, Theory, & the Coming of “Spring”
Opening Remarks, April 27, 2012
Lauren M. E. Goodlad

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

[On April 26-27 the Unit for Criticism, the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities and affiliated colleagues in Sociology and Art History convened Beyond Utopia? Art, Theory, & the Coming of “Spring,” the end point of our semester-long faculty/grad student seminar on this topic. Below, the first post in a series from the event, is Lauren Goodlad’s opening remarks.]

"Opening Remarks," Day 2: April 27, 2012

Written By Lauren M. E. Goodlad (Unit for Criticism/English)

Welcome everyone to the Unit for Criticism’s co-organized conference, Beyond Utopia: Art, Theory, and the Coming of “Spring.” I’m Lauren Goodlad, Director of the Unit and it’s my very great pleasure to welcome you here. Yesterday you heard from Dianne Harris who directs the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, and who, along with J. B. Capino, Nicholson Associate Director of the Unit; Zsuzsa Gille, affiliate of the Unit and associate professor of Sociology and Global Studies; Irene Small, affiliate of the Unit and assistant professor of Art History; and Markus Schulz in Sociology and Transnational studies (in Germany right now but still with us in spirit)—worked to convene the events of yesterday and today.

Since its first iteration by Thomas More in 1516, the term utopia has been marked by deep-seated ambivalence. Etymologically the word conjoins the Greek for “no place” with the homonym eutopia, or “good place.” The potential for making the world a “good place” has, to be sure, motivated a variety of modern standpoints including democratic, equalitarian, and socialist political philosophies; Cold War-era modernization theories; and even the fascist vision of a millennial Reich. In his 1967 essay, “The End of Utopia,” the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse defended the term against accusations of unrealizability. Post-structuralism and postmodernism ushered in new kinds of critique which saw universalistic notions like “utopia” as, by and large, eurocentric and teleological tools of the powerful.

Utopian ideals have continued to inspire movements aimed toward resisting economic injustice; decolonizing the so-called developing world; instituting human rights; achieving racial, gender, and sexual equality; stewarding the environment; and ensuring world peace. Yet, the idea has seemed unlikely to regain the central place in avant-garde politics and art which it claimed in transitional periods such as the late eighteenth century, the turn of the twentieth century, and the 1960s. In his 2000 polemic, The End of Utopia, Russell Jacoby argued the “dream of a future qualitatively different from the present” has all but died. His words came at the end of an era in which capitalism’s ostensible triumph over socialism had prompted Francis Fukuyama to proclaim “The End of History” in a much-discussed 1992 book.

Who reading Jacoby or Fukuyama could have anticipated the advent of popular uprisings in the Middle East alongside street protests and “occupations” across Europe and the United States? As the historian Mike Davis wrote last year, “the electrifying protests of 2011—the on-going Arab spring, the ‘hot’ Iberian and Hellenic summers, [and] the ‘occupied’ fall in the United States”—have provoked comparison to “the anni mirabilis of 1848, 1905, 1968, and 1989.” Yet, Davis also worried that “spring” was becoming “winter” all too soon.

In response these historical and intellectual currents our conference poses “Beyond Utopia?” as an open-ended question for multi-disciplinary exploration. Along with some of the most exciting scholars in anthropology, architecture, art history, cinema studies, art history, political theory, sociology, and the visual arts, we in this room want to consider the relation of art, politics, theory, and new social movements: asking whether how today’s revolutionary aspirations reaffirm, reinvent, or renounce the utopian conventions of earlier generations. I thank our distinguished guests for joining us today and you in our audience for being here.

Let me thank just a few more people individually. As many of you know, every spring the Unit works with the director of another unit along with individual faculty members to create a semester-long faculty/graduate student seminar and an associated series of events leading up to a state-of-the art conference. This year’s theme was chosen partly to resonate with this year’s co-organizing unit, IPRH and their 2013 theme, “Revolution.” More than 50 grad students and faculty members, from UIUC and neighboring campuses, took part in the seminar in some fashion and it’s my pleasure to thank the participants who led the various sessions along with the co-organizers: Abbas Benmamoun, Kevin Hamilton, Sharon Irish, Hina Nazar, Melissa Orlie, and Bruce Rosenstock.

At the Unit I rely greatly on the help of JB and our wonderful graduate research assistants Mike Black and MC Anderson. I also want to thank Nancy Castro who became Associate Director of the IPRH a few months ago and has been a welcome member of this team. Finally, I want to thank the various sponsors who provided the financial support necessary to a conference of this size: The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the Center for Advanced Study, the School of Architecture, the Program in Jewish Culture & Society—both of which are co-sponsors of this morning’s keynote lecture--the Department of English, the Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy initiative, the Department of Anthropology, the Department of Sociology and the Transnational Sociology Area, the Department of Religion, the School of Art & Design (another co-sponsor of this morning’s keynote) , the Center for Global Studies with the aid of a U.S. Department of Education Title VI grant, the Department of Political Science, the Center for South Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, and the Sustainability Studies Initiative in the Humanities.

Without further ado, let me introduce this morning’s introducer.


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