Sections Survival and Other Utopias
Brooklyn, United States

Small Utopias: Dreaming of #anthrocommune

Danya Glabau

plants growing under plant lights

Photo credit: Jacklyn Lacey, 2020.

As unlikely as it may seem, small utopias are all around us. From indoor gardens illuminated by ghostly grow lights, to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle formed during protests against police violence and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, to the strengthening and spreading of mutual aid networks providing food and bail money in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are, perhaps, in a golden age of building infrastructures for futures yet to come.*

As a scholar who studies the production of scientific knowledge and new technologies, I wonder what kinds of know-how will be crafted with and through these projects, artifacts, and networks. Will the proliferation of small utopias provide new models for social behavior that center cooperation and the pursuit of justice for all, instead of competition, self-interestedness, and resource scarcity? Will these renewed experiments in protest culture and mutual aid produce openings for knowing society differently, beyond limited laboratories of hope within activist communities? I am hopeful that the answer may be “yes” for many reasons, personal, political, and scholarly, in the current pandemic moment.

* I almost missed these small utopias. I have friends and allies on Twitter — the so-called “hell site” — to thank for pointing these out to me. Perhaps there is a lesson here I should carry with me about hope persisting in the interstices of disaster. Thank you to Jordan Kraemer, Aimi Hamraie, Scott Ross, Shweta Krishnan, Anar Parikh, Winston Hearn, Neil Maclean, Jonathan Flowers, and Rebecca Ariel Porte for dispelling some of my despair and making this essay possible to write. See the discussion here:

At the same time, informed by history and my research as a scholar, I am careful to make predictions. While the conditions seem ripe, utopian projects have a dubious track record when it comes to delivering on promises of equality, justice, and leisure. My own motives for desiring utopia, then, are suspect even to me. The networks I would draw on to carve out a tiny slice of paradise for me and mine; the scale, in time and space and headcount, at which I am willing to work to build a better world; the familial and cultural legacies that shape my practice of envisioning the future. More often than not, utopians end up staying with the trouble of today, rather than transcending the problems to come.

Critical Interventions

New models for inhabiting society seem sorely needed, especially in the current moment of viral crisis. Pandemic-era conversations about who deserves extended pandemic unemployment benefits provide evidence of growing resistance to the idea that work is intrinsically better than non-work. Critiques of people going out for recreation during the current pandemic are careful to specify that those who are being criticized are not the workers who would lose their jobs if they requested to work from home, pointing to growing awareness of the need for class solidarity. Beyond the pandemic, critiques of the nudge-focused behavioral models of human behavior that drive public policy in the United States in the opening decades of the twenty-first century are spreading beyond the fringes of the political spectrum. Mere behavior, in other words, is becoming complicated in the public discourse by a more robust understanding of identity and history as factors shaping everyday life, in pandemic times and otherwise. Rather than knowing society just through the numbers and enforcing normative expectations of productivity through financial incentives, economic justice and white supremacy are becoming watchwords for how to tell true and urgent stories about society.

Feminist science studies theorist Donna Haraway famously characterized modern, Western scientific knowledge about biology as a white, patriarchal “eye [that] fucks the world to make techno-monsters.” Taken to its logical conclusion, this violent gaze explains the richness of human social life through genes, hormones, brain chemistry, and morphology. Fields like population biology, eugenics, social work, and primatology led the way in establishing this view of society, and it persists in education science, public health, evolutionary psychology, and economics. Biological explanations too often mark those who don’t achieve to the standards of cis, straight, white men due to structural racism, sexism, ableism, and other oppressive structures as indelibly deficient. “They cannot help but be inferior!” the science seems to say. New sciences, like the digital algorithmic techniques surveyed by Ruha Benjamin, remain firmly in the grasp of these outdated ways of theorizing society. They use past data to model present and future social action, so they cannot escape the bad thinking of history. It is an impoverished view of human behavior, yet one which is hard to deracinate.

Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575–99.

Benjamin, Ruha. 2019. Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Cambridge, UK and Medford, MA: Polity Press.

My hopes for revolutionizing common sense about what holds societies together, how we know each other, and how we progress together are inspired by scholarship as well as by what has happened on the ground in the demonstrations and mutual aid efforts of 2020. Radical critiques for re-assessing the production of knowledge about society have come from academic fields like Science and Technology Studies and Anthropology at an accelerating pace in recent years. Yet some of these fields themselves, especially anthropology, are implicated in establishing the status quo notions of society and social behavior. Emerging through and with colonialism, early anthropologists contributed significantly to the biologization of social life. Later on, they proposed static and bounded theories of “cultures” that do much of the same conceptual work of classifying who in society is the most “fit” for modern life while offering non-racist and non-racialist cover to those who adopt cultural explanations of inequality and violence.

Yet the aspirations of anthropology, in Anand Pandian’s telling, “cannot help but unsettle and displace” racialized and racist understandings of humanity. “The trouble,” he writes, quoting fellow anthropologist Zoe Todd, “is that the old structures are just clinging for dear life. You can feel the bony white hands of the forefathers trying to claw us back. How do we break that grasp and allow ourselves to float into the wide blue ocean?”

Pandian, Anand. 2019. A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

A new generation of scholarly practitioners, more economically precarious, more publicly queer, and claiming more space as and for Black and Brown and Indigenous people, is trying to exorcise anthropology of its extractive and racist colonial tendencies. This intellectual effort offers important lessons to the aspiring utopian. A recent essay by Schuyler Marquez in the Footnotes anthropology blog explains that “much of academic culture remains rooted in practices that promote hierarchical relations, the separation of anthropological subjects from objects, and exalt the lone researcher as the ideal producer of knowledge (Navarro, Williams & Ahmad 2013; Allen & Jobson 2016). These practices erase the permeable and collaborative nature of scholarship and are academic manifestations of settler-colonialism, neoliberalism and racial capitalism (TallBear 2019; Navarro 2017; Todd 2016).” Collective thought, research, and action rooted in anti- and decolonial praxis that undermines the perpetuation of capitalism as we know it is fundamental to any just future for this discipline—and for every discipline.

But a glance at the racist, sexist, elitist, and otherwise abusive content shared through anthropology’s official message boards suggests that those who ought to attend to such critiques aren’t listening. And beyond the bounds of the discipline, the words of junior, marginalized, and oppressed anthropologists reverberate on the open air, never reaching a willing receiver. For those of us who bridge theory and practice, academia and public spaces, and otherwise try to apply thought to life, knowing society in ways that respond to the demands of the times seems to demand another society for ourselves, new forms of knowledge practice, and therefore new ways to know each other.

a path leads into the woods

Photo credit: the author, June 2020.

Dreaming of #anthrocommune

Against the backdrop of these disciplinary and current events, I revived my own utopian dream, #anthrocommune. Facing a second round of burnout and the end of my just-barely-started academic career late in 2018, I began to imagine my own small utopia. A dream of a place, germinated in the digital space of Twitter threads. The origins of #anthrocommune are in the network, a web of shared dreams amongst me and my colleagues geminated across the space of digital communications, a revolutionary impulse against the violent institutions we find ourselves upholding day to day in a terrain largely ignored by the powers that be. The persistent hashtag signifies an intrinsically networked dream, even in spoken language.

I started by going back to my roots growing up on an organic farm in rural Maine. While today I am the very stereotype of a striving, overeducated urban professional living in New York City, I grew up in the hazy afterglow of the back-to-the-land experiment of the 1970s. I arrived on the scene in the 1980s, after the collectives of my parents’ friends had split into couples with children, the land had been divided up, and some of the settlers had gone on to careers in insurance and law. Heteronormativity and anticipation of the late capitalist decay of the welfare state won out over utopian dreams. My mother was, as far as I know, the only Black person in their little congregation, though there were more people like her scattered through the countryside than the official histories let on.

I dream of an upgraded version of how I grew up. For most of my childhood, my family lived on an organic ornamental plant farm. Shoes were optional. The workers, college students and middle-aged alcoholics, were my “big brothers.” But many nights, dinner was carefully portioned among us because there was only so much food to go around. In my utopian fantasy, instead of a trailer, we would live in a farmhouse on a hill. Instead of working the soil for my livelihood, working as a part-time wordsmith and gardening for the delight of it. Instead of the kind of poverty where two cups of cooked rice are rationed among four people, the kind of poverty where one buys in bulk from the nearby co-op market. And beyond a nuclear family core, a bumptious litter of adults, babies, children, dogs, chickens, vegetables, flowers, and trees.

I recognize my class position in desiring all this because I’ve clawed my way out of my rugged start into the elite, intellectual bourgeoisie. I know well that even the most genteel poverty won’t feel as romantic when I am living it. I’ve lived in New York City long enough that I know I’ve become a shallow and craven consumer, especially of home goods and specialty vegetables. I would struggle with giving up the hustle and the high-end athleisure pants. I am anxious and guilty and impatient all at once in writing down the fact that I’ve even toyed with walking away from it all.

Nevertheless, in the summer of 2020, I trolled Zillow for the perfect dilapidated farmhouse on the Maine coast — or maybe on an inland hilltop, I wasn’t too picky. My Millennial real estate browsing compulsion gave me a virtual vantage point into towns I had never even heard of before: Milbridge, an old Downeast coastal town for the summering classes; Brooksville, on the peninsula that also includes hippie haven Blue Hill and the town of Stonington, of the foods company. One house had charming blue kitchen cabinets and a Viking six-burner range. Another had five bedrooms and a second kitchen in the old root cellar. Just the sight of it conjured up the scent of frying ramps and roast pork.

What would I do in my small utopia? I have some ideas. A live-work space — but one that would resist the neoliberal call to self-perfection and never-ending labor, more of a living space where work could happen if one was so moved. A retreat for feral graduate students and wayward postdocs, somewhere to be embodied as a writer, in companionship as a thinker, with toes on and in the Earth. A way to drop out of the New York City rat race, raise children without subjecting them to the standardized testing hell of the New York State education system, and tune into the cultivation of multi-species ethics. I can picture my future toddler barefoot and happy, snaggletoothed, showing off grubs and snails to any adults that happened to be around (always more than a nuclear family’s worth), much as I was at that age. Our mascot would be a fluffy white chicken with a bright red wattle.

I fear my small utopia is excessively solipsistic for this moment of collective rebellion. It may be merely the return of the much derided hippie burnouts who opted to leave the cities and suburbs for strange rural experiments instead. Too rich, too white, too remote to count much toward the revolution. With my status as a Black woman contested and with the benefit of support from my white partner’s intergenerational wealth, do I myself represent enough of a challenge to the figure of the white, urban back-to-the-lander to make a situation like #anthrocommune a site of struggle and resistance?

But reflecting on the small utopias all around me makes me wonder if such a gesture could still matter. I think it could especially matter as a framework for knowledgecraft — as a place for nourishing slow scholarship, a practice one of my mentors, historian Sara Pritchard, has long advocated. Scholarship slow enough, moreover, that it could be responsive and accountable to other utopian projects and protest movements. The modern academy provides no spacetime for careful scholarly practice. From their first tentative steps in graduate school, scholars are impelled to produce: papers, citations, conference talks, new courses, modules, workshops, high marks on course evaluations, recommendation letters, grant proposals, grant dollars. Little time is left, then or later, for thinking or for browsing the archives. Few rewards come from acknowledging and building the community that produces the ethnographic and experimental work that really counts.

While pockets of mutual aid and anti-capitalist, non-productive political action ferment throughout the United States, those of us who theorize care, community, and anti-capitalism are stuck inside and scrambling as ever to prove our metric worth just to keep our jobs in the dying institutions of late capitalist academe. Perhaps the #anthrocommune dream could offer a way out.

a garden behind a chainlink fence

Photo credit: the author, June 2020.

Abundance in Walled Gardens

My colleague and friend-of-the-heart Rebecca Ariel Porte — a gifted utopian — wrote about paradise in the 2018 essay, “A Lost Plot: Paradise.” She is my guide to thinking about the goodness of small pleasures. She writes: “The word “paradise” suggests then, in the strictest sense, not deathly austerity, but life sustained in abundance; not an amorphous state but a position conditioned, if not simply by containment within walls, then by a relationship to form, rule, boundedness; not an atmosphere but a location, precise, even if unknown, like the variable in an algebraic equation. About the temporality of paradise—its duration in time, its coordinates in past, present, or future—the etymology gives us less to go on.”

Porte, Rebecca Ariel. 2018. “A Lost Plot: Paradise.” Dilettante Army. 2018.

Abundance is key to the dream of #anthrocommune. Abundant time, first and foremost, to sit and think and make good on the promise of ethnographic methods, ethics, and thought. A time after “these troubling times” we are in with the pandemic: a plan plotted out in anticipation of better times. It is also a dream of abundant community: life amongst a much more than nuclear family, embedded in, one hopes, a network of communal sites for anthropological thought that interface only loosely, ideally parasitically, with the traditional academy. Abundant inputs of care and compassion and limited outputs of texts and dollars and satisfactory audits, but abundantly available when they come, not trapped behind walls.

It won’t be perfect. As Porte writes, “any given image of a perfected world must exist in some relation to the conditions of the given world—its capacities for justice and injustice, beauty and terror and the rest—some relation, whether by analogy, amplification, diminishment, reaction, recombination, or reconstitution.” The specter of whiteness in the history of utopian movements in the United States and the fact of settler colonialism as my context for returning home means #anthrocommune would start already tainted. To make things good would be a daily struggle. But the pursuit of abundance as a precondition for better thought seems worthwhile to me.

A single paradise is not utopia. Utopia is an ongoing, collective project. To quote Porte for the third and final time, “plots,” which #anthrocommune certainly is, “share, to one degree or another, a stake in the set of vital questions about (among other things) the ethics of cultivation, the politics of property… subsistence and abundance… and the precarious sense that the materials of this world are thick with the potential for different forms of life, the flourishing of fruits and flowers of a kind we’ve not yet tasted.”

#anthrocommune is a plot, telescoping in time and space until it comes concretely into being, and in the meantime a tool for incubating the production of anthropology otherwise. It is the plot of my own life, in which anti-work politics is always deferred until after the next thing, the next thing, and the next. And it is the condition of flourishing for the generations yet to come, for my colleagues and juniors coming into our own and for my soon-to-be-embodied, dirty-faced toddler child.

As a plot, #anthrocommune tells a story and describes a place yet to be. Who will join me in this small utopia?

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