11 Nov 2008, 1:31pm

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Only a few days ago, Americans chose to elect Barack Obama as President of the United States, underscoring the degree to which “change,” “hope” and “progress” animate the present national discourse.  Media coverage of both the Democratic primaries and the National contest has attributed much of Obama’s success to his ability to articulate a coherent and compelling “vision” for the country. Though the vision presented by his campaign conjoins the desire to end the war in Iraq, rebuild our infrastructures, and renew our credibility abroad, the widely hailed “vision of the future” lauded by pundits and voters alike is more an image than a policy platform. What exactly is coherent about a “vision”? For projects like Ecotopia Revisited, this question can be rephrased theoretically: how might social scientists account for the meaning and role of a national political “vision”? Praise for Obama’s “vision” is nominally directed towards his policy positions, but such praise supposedly (though ambiguously) captures a loftier characteristic of his capacity for leadership, a strategic rather than a tactical dimension of his politics. What is this unarticulated element of modern politics that lies beyond policy?

Allow this researcher a quick thought experiment: suppose that when the word “vision” is applied to the Obama presidency, it carries not a specific content, but rather an openness to possibility itself. Perhaps we can reread the endgame of the electoral season less as the validation of a particular set of policy prescriptions (e.g. as a combination of health care reform, an economic stimulus package, and funding for renewable energy infrastructure) than as a public endorsement for the basic kinds of possibilities that the Obama Administration represents (i.e. radical transformation rather than reformism, the politics of reconciliation rather than old-fashion bipartisanship, etc.). If this is the case, than it seems reasonable to suggest that the emphasis placed on “vision” in this election points to a cultural moment that rests on “hope.” The Obama campaign’s message resonated with Americans, perhaps, because it recognized that many Americans make their decisions (about lifestyle, politics, or friendships) based on faith, a faith not in something specific, but in possibilities, optimism (or pessimism), and potential. Theologically speaking, this difference resembles the difference between “belief” and “faith.” Belief signifies a tenet that religious adherents either affirm or deny, whereas faith signifies a disposition that makes possible belief and disbelief. Such a fanciful line of analysis suggests that on November 4th, Americans took a leap of faith, hoping that the vision described to them over the last year and a half of campaigning promises something authentically different than the status quo.

What does this suggest for Ecotopia Revisited? To begin with, it suggests that we might hear different responses about what the future holds were we to conduct new, post-election interviews. More to the point, however, this rumination of the ambiguity of political “visions of the future” underscores a well-travelled difference between two kinds of utopias: blueprint utopias and process utopias. The former is a type of literary utopia in which the necessary “ingredients” of an ideal society are listed and explained in systematic order, with Thomas More offering the prototypical example. The latter type of literary utopia, the processual, rejects the idea that utopia is an assemblage of certain social, political, or environmental content, but rather advocates an open-ended process that moves towards perfectibility. In sum, the salience of “vision” in the 2008 electoral cycle seems to indicate that the utopian dreams at the core of contemporary American political discourse is more process-oriented that it is blueprint-oriented. Much like the American choice of Obama as a leader who promises to “help move the country in the right direction,” the open possibility of the future guides many of our respondents’ thinking about local, regional, and global issues. When words like “vision” seep into our discourse, we do well to notice the subtle emphasis on form over content, hope over practicality, and possibility over actuality.

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