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Protopia: Beyond Utopia




  • A Protopian society, then, is one where people are free from such gridlocks and can thus work actively to improve life. It’s a more carefully stated form of a dream of societal transformation: It doesn’t say that “everything will be good for everyone”; it focuses not on the state-of-things-at-a-given-moment, but on the possibility — the shared capacity — to move in mutually desirable directions. Simply stated, one could say that a Protopian society is one that has the capacity to become incrementally better as a result of the freedom of its members.
  • Or, another way to say it, drawing on the chaos theory tradition: Protopia is not the constant (linear) improvement of society from year to year, but an improvement of society’s “phase space”, i.e. a shift of which phases society can enter into as it evolves: desirable and undesirable phases included.
  • And so, if we are to mine the concept of Protopia for a deeper meaning — one that is worth rallying around across sectors and across projects, over different cultures, and across longer stretches of time — we may need to expand upon Kelly’s original formulation. I would claim, however, that the below suggested expansion carries forward the spirit of the original meaning, just adding more layers to it.
  • That is to say, you begin to allow yourself to believe in grand schemes again, even if you know that your “Utopias” are fictional and possibly dangerous. There is a recognition that the lack of a great story to weave reality with, is just as dangerous. You start looking for the pattern that connects the many little Eutopias — The Good Place found in strange corners and exceptions — and in that pattern, you begin to see the vast field of potential of many different social realities that have been, that could be, and that should be.
  • That is Protopia: the non-arbitrary pattern that connects the multiplicity of Eutopias; it is the search for the conditions that generate Eutopias — i.e. the “generative conditions” of Eutopia.
  • With the Protopian stance, no compromise needs to be made: The faith, the zeal the revolutionary is there for the taking, but the path towards it is always by learning more, by listening in to the hidden potentials of everyday life that the multiplicity of human experience (and/or that of other lifeforms).
  • Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Protopian activism requires some different basic assumptions about reality than Eutopian activism. In a sense, the Protopian vision breaks the one great taboo of the Postmodern mind: to order and organize different perspectives into a grander scheme. But it is no longer the scheme of a 3D world with a certain goal in the distance — it corresponds, rather, to folding through a fourth or even fifth dimension, showing how many different goals are possible, yet complexly interlinked on a more abstract plane of analysis.
    • The Utopian believes in progress. The Eutopian believes in critique and a rediscovery of simpler wisdoms and relationships. The Protopian believes that progress can be enacted by understanding how the many critiques and rediscoveries of wisdom are interconnected into a larger whole.
  • The Protopian believes that progress is inherent to the universe, but that it always comes at a terrible price — of new problems emerging, and of old beauties lost.
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