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  • Funding Utopia: Utopian Studies and the Discourse of Academic Excellence
  • Adam Stock (bio)

As an academic field, there is in some important ways nothing special about utopian studies. Granted, our object of inquiry may look beyond the present toward what Ruth Levitas terms the Imaginary Reconstruction of Society, but we are still workers in what Darren Webb calls the “corporate-imperial” university.1 Webb argues that within the university we can at best protect “bolt holes, breathing spaces, and places of refuge” that can function as “fleeting, transitory, small-scale experiences of utopian possibility.” As academics, our greater value to utopian politics therefore involves using our “knowledge and resources . . . in the service of a collaborative process of memory- and story-making, pulling together disparate inchoate dreams and yearnings in order to generate a utopian vision that can help inform, guide, and mobilize long-term collective action for systemic change.”2 Such work uses resources and the products of labor within the academy in the service of ends beyond and at times against it. In other words, utopianism within the academy is necessarily complicit in the academy’s constitutive material relations, but it can also be oppositional in intellectual and—more importantly—activist senses to the academy’s ideological form. In other words, whether or not a given [End Page 517] project in the field of utopian studies is politically utopian does not depend on its material basis (i.e., how it is funded) so much as its content, in the senses of both the work that it does and the ways in which it captures and mobilizes available resources. Hence it is possible to imagine both regressive and emancipatory research projects in our field that capture or co-opt additional resources, including both internal and external funding. It is, however, a mark of emancipatory projects that they will use these resources to the ends Webb describes.

Implicit in Webb’s argument is an acceptance that politically useful utopian work should be socially engaged beyond the confines of the university campus. However, engaging in utopian politics from within inegalitarian university structures (via what is institutionally termed “outreach” and “engagement” work) should be pursued with caution. Even researchers and educators acting in good faith can easily end up exploiting or causing damage to social movements, support groups and activists. Good allyship and effective support cannot be reduced to institutional mechanisms like ethics committee compliance or equality, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) initiatives, even when these go beyond “lip service” to become meaningful acts.3 For projects involving external collaborators with a connection to the sort of “long-term, collective action” Webb describes, research design must walk a tightrope between being supportive of utopian politics beyond the university and responding to instrumental pressures within it.

Here I suggest as an academic field utopian studies is at least a little special as it mediates dialectically between theory and practice at one level while developing a conceptual framework of the dialectic between theory and practice at another. Within what Richter et al term “the paradox of universities as colonizing and liberatory spaces for community engagement and activism” the utopian method is well placed to ask questions about how we engage with the given conditions of the academy, including competitive research funding grants.4 I begin below with a discussion of the relationship of theory and academic work to the social with reference to utopian theory and then apply this to questions about our wider complicity within a discursive regime I term “academic excellence.” I argue this regime is central to the “prestige economy” upon which some of the structural inequalities of our sector are based. I conclude by suggesting that working within the constraints of the given while remaining orientated toward utopian politics in an ethical manner requires close attention to how we navigate the relationship between utopian theory and political practice. [End Page 518]

Theory, Praxis, Practice

In the final chapter of his recent monograph Becoming Utopian, Tom Moylan forms a cogent argument about the praxis of utopian-oriented politics with reference to Saul Alinsky’s community organizing and Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed.5 The writings of both figures are grounded in...