When I originally applied to the position of Gaudino scholar, I had no idea how dystopian things could get. But even in the long-ago days of 2019, I had the sense that many of us—not just in the US but in the larger world as well—were currently facing exceptionally difficult and uncomfortable times. Every news cycle, then as now, seemed to bring fresh accounts of new atrocities such as mass shootings, ecological catastrophes, sexual harassment cases, or yet more examples of racially-motivated violence.
It is understandable that, faced with global pandemic, anthropogenic climate change, economic turbulence, and political polarization, many people seem to have lost their capacity to imagine better futures. We as a society have no problem picturing the end of the world—imagined dystopias and future apocalypses are abundant in contemporary films, novels, and even political speeches—but we seem to have given up on imagining utopias. This is a problem because, as numerous political theorists have observed, it is hard to organize meaningful change around cynicism, nihilism, or political grievances. Yet we will never solve the intertwined catastrophes of the present moment if we do not exercise our capacity to imagine better futures. So it seemed to me that, in these apparently dystopian times, it is even more important to imagine a better world; yet such conversations are often the most difficult and uncomfortable to have.
So my Gaudino project has been an attempt to scatter some different utopian (or more “eutopian”) seeds. Not that I have some singular vision of how the world could be better, but rather that I want to encourage people in general to focus on collectively building brighter futures. My original plans for student-facing activities were, ironically, wiped away by the pandemic this year (2020-2021). We have managed to sponsor a student faculty reading group (led by visiting scholar Shoan Yin Cheung). But mainly I’ve been doing a lot of productive writing/research, teaching a course on “What is Power?” (which is central to the question of utopia/dystopia) and more importantly putting things in the pipeline for the following academic year.
I’m excited to share that in the 2021-2022 academic year there will be a whole slate of courses taught on utopia. Although the list is being finalized, it will cover everything from utopia in fiction to utopian art to political solidarity to queer and afro-futurist utopias. Faculty in these courses have begun coordinating to bring a range of high-profile speakers and guest lecturers to the college and some of us have been discussing exhibits at local museums. Following the suggestion of Randy Thomas of the Gaudino board, we’ve also been discussing the possibility of a Gaudino summer fellowship for students. Returning to shared life after the isolation of a pandemic will already be a relief after the tumult of 2020. Perhaps this is the perfect moment for planning and discussing how to actualize a better world on the bones of the old.