domenica, marzo 23, 2014

Talking with Utopia: Blessing Quiet Moments In Turbulent Times

Issued on March the 9th 2014
Class of Creativity and the Economy 
Master in Cultural Economics and Entrepreneurship 2013-14
Erasmus University of Rotterdam

The walk had been long enough when I first called Utopia. Despite the map and my memories of previous tours in the area, I had lost my way several times. A few crossroads were not clearly marked and I was as absent minded as usual.  Finally I was up to the top of the waterfall as  planned. First with some friends, then alone, I had resolved the uncertainties about the route by following the steepest way. One of my favorite reporters, Tiziano Terzani, offered this suggestion at the end of his life. I thought it was a good one to come to the meeting with Utopia.
There I was in the end, high enough to start my conversation. It was not such a unique area, but one that I had explored several times before to start departures or reflect on returns. Like a tree, I had followed my roots to stretch my branches.

“Utopia, are you there?”, I called out aloud.
No answers arrived. I called her again. A few seconds passed by and finally a voice came in.
“I am not supposed to talk to you – she said, almost disappointed – I am something you must create, not someone you can have a conversation with”.
“I know, I know” – I replied humbly – “I know the rules of the game.  According to the canon, you are a place somewhere or a story that someone reports. I thought, however, that for once you might love to discuss the creation of yourself. I will do the bulk of the job, but I would like to have you in for company now and continue the work afterward. Perfection, as an idea, can stay forever, but perfection as realization cannot. I would rather talk to you over the idea rather than embody you here and now. Can we agree on that?”.
“I am not used to it, honestly. I'm flexible as you can desire, but I have no experience in self determination. Not sure I can actually make it”.
“Well, I'm sorry but I have to push a little more. Take my standpoint. I'm about to start a free process of creation, and the first step cannot be a denial. Take the challenge, please. I don't want you to determine yourself, you will see. But in my Utopia, you must be a guide. No one will ever reach you, but everybody will include you in his orientation and place you somewhere as the fifth cardinal point”.
“That's still strange, Silvio, but it sounds much better already. Mostly I have been reduced to a place or a government. Being a star flatters me!”
“That's what I wanted to hear. As my personal star, you are very welcome to help yourself to a glass of wine”.
“I've never had one. No one has ever offered. Should I?”.
“You don't need to, but I do suggest you to try it out. It is one of the best Sangiovese you can get around here. A friend of mine made it. It has been five years in an oak barrel, it is red and strong, but still smooth to taste. When it is in your glass, it gives you a better mode of speech. I think we may actually include it along with a good smoked whiskey in my cellar. Definitely at home, in my very hometown, where all the books with my highlighted sentences are preserved, but some wine and some cheese will be a plus even here in my temporary locations.
Yes, although I do not need to own them, I do need many temporary locations. No matter how important the center is, alone it does not provide me all I care about. I need to restart my thoughts, changing my surroundings. I'll give you some examples but don't dare to close the list; A loft above the lights of Manhattan, a roof terrace on the Medina of Fez, a hut in the tropical forest of Munnar, a balcony on the square of Siena, a warm refuge in the Alps. In all these places, along with wine and cheese, I will include some local delicacies if I can be a little more creative”.
“You can be as creative as you like, Silvio. You can shape me as a never ending Sultan's banquet of an Eastern short story, if that is what you dream”.
“Never ending? My goodness, no. I may rest on those banquettes a little longer than I have recently done, but each of those happenings must have a story to celebrate. The wine can bless a conversation with those you care more about - your family but as well the people that have come very close to your for interests and experiences - only when the conversation comes at a quiet moment arching over a turbulent time, across ideas, reflections, new places, foreign languages, and different perspectives”.
“It sounds a little exhausting. Are you sure?”.
“For sure, my Utopia is not a world on-demand. Constraints are the only determinants of pleasure. Be ready to save all the resilience that this old world has made us used to. A twisting steep pathway to walk up to the top, as well as a mathematical equation that does not come to a solution or a piece of marble hard to carve”.
“That's easy. If you don't mind, I copy and paste from the old world, then we work together on the details”.
“Keep going, no problem, so you can concentrate on the harder part. I have made you talkative ‘cause you must talk and inspire many different little worlds and the people that work to shape them. Provide everybody a hint but not be assertive. Take your inspiration from ancient  monasteries, colorful hippie communities, hectic nuclear physics laboratories, and internet games communities”.
“You don't want to pick up one form and elevate it over the other ones? Some of the examples you have mentioned have turned out to be so fragile and short sighted”.
“Utopia, you talk like me in the worst moments, cynical and realistic as a boring accountant. Have some more wine and be less restrictive. My social sphere cannot be too stable. I like to reinforce some special links, but mine has to be a cloud in a changing sky. I like the anarchist struggling for political freedom as well as a local activist tracing the history of its community. They are both intriguing lenses to filter the world. We have our stability, the starting point. We can thus allow some experimentation later on. And we will save fragility as well. We've got little space and little time to let everything be forever. Someone else must enjoy it, some one new must set forth his solitary journey or strive for his communitarian dream. In the end, in my Utopia, these are indeed the two options that I will let people experiment on.
Even better, I'd say that the two experiments must converge somewhere, sometimes. In my Utopia, even the most solipsistic exploration must end up with a report. Even a cloistered nun should talk by the end. She must contribute to the talkative wine session with my friends after all”.
“Noted. If I get it right, freedom to organize communitarian life at a local level and symposia to comment on the on-going results. Talking seems quite relevant, it seems the most relevant stuff so far”.
“To some extent. Don't make it too restrictive, however. Let's say that everybody has to share the way he is going to. Some words seem required to me, but other forms of expressions are very welcome. Indeed, I would like to work on it myself. I'm always intrigued by the way people – individuals or groups – find their way through the world combining what they know with the place they live in or the one they move to. I love to step down to the field, explore what they do and make a little story out of it”.
“An explorer, that's what you would like to be? A pirate, a mountain climber, a gold miner?”.
“Yes, long nomadic moments must be there. I think it's very healthy to be a stranger for a while. For you, since you get rid of your habits, including most of the achieved privileges. But for those that you visit as well. To strangers, people are more explanatory. They invest time to portray what they do, and they take the chance to reflect on what they normally take for granted. I find they are often pleased to tell their stories. And I find them so rewarding”.
“I agree with you on that. I have long experience in human dreams and sometimes they are surprising. However, sorry, I interrupted you. You were commenting on your erratic times”.
“Yeah, I was adding on that. Exploration is just half of the story. The other one has to do with books, relationships, and social engagement. Like an anthropologist, I like digging into the variants that I explore to find the invariant that I think about. And like someone that enjoys playing with culture, I like creating new rituals, new events showing the variants and inspiring the invariants. You feel something special in the air when an Australian didgeridoo is played in a medieval Italian town, when an actor performs in an abandoned settlement, when different languages are intertwined. It is the attention of the public on the one side. And it is the social work you do to assembly the ritual. Great clashes may arise in the process, but sometimes the people you engage turn into acquaintances. Some may indeed become a friend and join you in your wine and cheese session. When everything works, it is a clockwise win-win-win game. For you, for those who contribute to it, and for those who provide attention and get inspiration”.
“Sounds ambitious. Not my role to tell, but a little pretending as well, Silvio”.
“Wait: Be tolerant. First, it matches with what I discussed with my fellow students. They say I have a strong focus in personal values and I am practically oriented in organizing stuff. So, I've got evidence to pursue that way. Second, you're Utopia. If I don't take the chance even here, it's better to give up. Finally, consider that I don't even ask you to remove the constraints. My Utopia will stay as challenging as the real thing so far. Maybe with just a little change”.
“So, relief. Every Utopian before you has introduced revolutionary rules!”.
“Nothing really revolutionary. I would suggest one rule to correct a problem. I find that the people engaged for too long in the same activity tend to become unhappy, uninspiring, and sometime even rough or harsh. I might project on them my feelings, but I see their condition as the antithesis of the utopian view we are discussing here. They don't look at you, Utopia, anymore, they are sadly purposeless, they simply do what they have become used to. No desire to contribute to themselves or to their community any longer. I guess they often feel outmoded and scared. Don't you believe that some help and pressure to move on may help?”
“Do you propose a time limit?”.
“Sort of. Anything that can keep them critical about what they are doing. A touch of Eastern philosophy may help: intentions rather than actions. I feel that if you do the same action for too long, you lose your intentions. There are remarkable exceptions, but you pick them up easily. We can make an exception for them, but everybody else in my utopia should instead move on and, during the change, reflect on what makes sense in that moment. That change should help them to look at you again.
We could even organize the market of experience. A big fair where all the people up to something join to be advocates for what they do. Not to sell what they produce, but to share their process of creation and engage in it those who are fascinated by it. The pluses and the minuses, the joys and the pains, all will be discussed. Time and not money will be the currency of that market”.
“It could be one of your events, Silvio. A market of experience. Quite a nice idea, I admit. You care to give people a way out. Nonetheless, your Utopia is change over change. Everything is moving, every body is experimenting. You are defining a new Plato's cave. A smart version of it. Every body there looks up at me and if he stops we kick him out of his habits. I guess someone will complain about it”.
“You may be right. But I've made this chaos for quite an idealistic purpose. To keep people looking and to create harmony as a temporary result of long collective research. I find it nicer than an imperative. Someone would have to drop his uniqueness to come in under a fixed order”.
“No passport then to come in?”.
“We may take the model of Santiago's way, the Spanish pilgrimage. A collection of stamps that increases in value with experience. Each experience one stamp. Stamps for places, skills, accomplishments. Each stamp released by the stamp masters of the field. A minimum amount of stamps will be required to access the election of the central committee overseeing some major decisions, on topics such as environment, energy supply, ethics, and culture. Even more stamps will be required to access the committee itself, with temporary roles of course”.
“No general elections either then?”.
“Ineffective for the purpose. They select people that are better at the game of election than at the game of governance. Better a bottom down approach. You do what you like and once you are skilled enough, you give a contribution to the field on an international basis for a short time”.
“I can call you the Eraser! You were quiet at first but now in two shots you have cleared out the government”.
“I did not mean to be rude. Just a reaction. Having being engaged with the government for quite long, in my Utopia I have focused more onto the personal and social life. The wine and the cheese are indeed a culinary metaphor to safeguard the importance of qualified and moving social life”.
“Since, you made me talkative, will I be invited to join that social hub as well?”.
“You will be often there. Some of my closest friends have been talking of you for long already. They say you are something that it is not yet, but that can be with some effort. They may love to talk to you. I have made you talkative so just to update and extend this conversation”.
“I have some notes I'd like to discuss in more detail, indeed”.
“Already? You've got very well into the role, Utopia. Well, we'll resume it soon, I promise, but now let me walk back and hand this conversation in. The deadline is coming. The copy and paste of the constraints from the old world have worked perfectly”.

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