- Everyday Utopias: The Conceptual Life of Promising Spaces by Davina Cooper
Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2014, 283pp.
In Everyday Utopias: The Conceptual Life of Promising Spaces, Davina Cooper unsettles assumptions. Cooper examines “everyday utopias” as a means to investigate the way we think about, and potentially act toward, social change. Her book offers six topically unrelated case studies, each illustrating some aspect of enacting alternative ways of being social in the world. The cases are, in order of examination in the book, the “equality governance” program in United Kingdom under Tony Blair, 2009–10; public nudism; the casual sex environment of the Toronto Women’s and Transgender Bathhouse (TWTB); Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS) initiated in the UK in the 1990s; the Summerhill School, a private alternative residential school on England’s eastern coast; and Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London. Each of these sites or practices seeks to shift some aspect of everyday social relations. At the core, what unites these case studies for Cooper is that they provide a means to think about concepts, or everyday understandings and ways of knowing. Cooper wants to shift the meaning of “concepts” from being mostly about ideas, to being primarily about the interplay between imagining and practice, as a way to understand how social change occurs. As a theoretical framing of the dialectic between ideas and practice, concepts, then—or “conceptual lines,” as Cooper refers to these concepts-in-process—are especially evident in the practices of [End Page 146] alternative modes of living, or in utopias of emerging social change that the six case studies represent.
Utopias provide the empirical lens for Cooper because of their emphasis on alternative futures. Drawing on a rich literature in utopian studies, Cooper argues in her introduction that the alternative spaces and practices of everyday utopias integrate visions for alternative modes of living into daily life practices, “creating the change they wish to encounter” (2). They are “everyday” because they are experienced and enacted in the present in ways that express and enable everyday life activities—trade, social programs, schooling, speech, etc.—in alternative forms. The striving for difference embodied in each of the six case studies highlights the ways that everyday utopias unsettle taken-for-granted assumptions and modes of life. In so doing, they offer a means to rethink and be in new ways.
Cooper’s second chapter, “Towards a Utopian Conceptual Attitude,” builds on the discussion of utopias from the introduction by emphasizing their enactment of new modes of being and doing. In particular, she traces through utopian practices as a way to rework the idea of “concepts,” as foundational ways of understanding in the world. Since her six case studies represent alternative, marginal, or new practices, she argues that they illustrate “new conceptual lines” of understanding. For Cooper, conceptual lines develop ways of being as much as of knowing; they are the “oscillating movement between imagining and actualization” (11). Everyday utopias both imagine alternative ways of being, and enact –or actualize—them. But the tacking between imagination and practice requires some recognition of the goals, core ideas, and reformed ways of being that proceed through utopias. Thus, for Cooper, for successful conceptual lines to develop through everyday utopias, recognition of transformed ways of thinking and being are crucial. The constant shifting between imagination and actualization means that practices are beyond solely linguistic registers; they are embodied, and felt as much as—or more than—spoken and discussed. Further, the utopias of the case studies are not fully transformed spheres; if they were, they would be fully integrated into social life. It is their more marginal status that marks them as potential sites of social transformation, and therefore bases for conceptual innovation—concepts, again, as emerging practice as much as ideational.
In the empirical chapters that follow this theoretically rich exploration of conceptualization itself, Cooper upends conventional modes of understanding and analysis by pairing a familiar social concept—such as touch, equality, care (feminist ethics), trading, property, and markets—with each of her six case...