The Floating Laboratory of Action and Theory at Sea (FLOATS) held its first open meeting on the Greek island of Lesvos in July, with the objective of exploring the practices and theories of utopias at sea. The full index for PoLAR’s conference report is here.
By Katy Budge
Many of the contributions to the FLOATS meeting explored the critical and emancipatory potential of thinking about utopias at sea: from poetic reflections on how a “thallassocentric” approach might enable togetherness and solidarity, to rousing calls to embrace the radical and resistive possibilities of imagining utopia.
During the 3-day meeting the sea was invoked as a space of light and dark; shallows and depth; clarity and obscurity; creativity and destruction; purity and pollution. The contributions exposed how in the sea we can float or sink; find hope or despair; create or destroy. We were reminded that the sea is a space charted by the fleets of modernity, capitalism, colonialism and imperialism, and thus provides for both escape or oppression; resistance or conquest; solidarity or separation; mobility or containment; daydreams and nightmares; rescue and violence; life and death.
Utopia and dystopia.
This was perhaps most starkly illustrated by the contribution from the Forensic Oceanography team at Goldsmiths University, which seeks to use Oceanographic techniques to locate migrant boats in distress and chart the dangerous effects of enforcement on the sea. Their intervention reminded us of the violations and violence being perpetrated both at and through the sea—of the deaths, the bodies, and ghosts. Meanwhile, other speakers such as the co-organizers Nikolas Kosmatopoulos and Marwa Elshakry reminded us to recognize and respond to the interconnections, sometimes interdependencies, between the existence of such dystopic realities and the pursuit of utopian idea(l)s.
Such reminders pose vital and unavoidable questions about what it means to think about utopias in the context of a dystopian space and time, one in which the Mediterranean has become a space of domination and death, where mobility is restricted, the value of human cargo is determined by its place of origin, and the waters off the coasts of Europe recall the River Styx of Greek mythology.
And such reflections inevitably require contemplation of the spatial and temporal context of the FLOATS event. While the meeting appealed for a rejection of terrocentrism (a focus on the land), Lesvos is undoubtedly an island where the land, and not only the surrounding seas, have been appropriated in projects of exclusion, violence and containment. This is an island on which the brutality of the European Union’s (EU) border control policies are acutely and unavoidably evident, where those who do survive the violence perpetrated in the Aegean Sea are contained by a geographic restriction which condemns even the most vulnerable of new arrivals to a precarious existence in wholly inadequate conditions. The project to contain and confine new arrivals on Lesvos and other Aegean islands has also demanded a degree of “hospitality” from the local population which was eventually shown to be unsustainable.
Islands have long provided the setting for imagined utopias, as in Ibn Tufail’s 12th century tale Hayy ibn Yaqdhan and Thomas More’s Utopia of 1516. But the island of Lesvos could be described neither as a “utopia”, from the Greek “no” and “place” nor a “eutopia”, from the Greek “good” and “place”. If we start to explore the idea of EUtopia (as in European Union-topia), however, I think we might find ourselves better able to understand, and resist, the dreadful realities of the island. EUtopia is a term first introduced (as far as I know) by Kalypso Nicolaidis and Nicholas Howse (2002” 767-92) to describe the projection of “Europe’s Utopia” to its citizens and the rest of the world, and I use it here to capture the EU’s self-representation as a particularly “advanced” and uniquely ethical political entity informed by principles of inclusion and human rights.
An understanding of the dystopian practices that are deemed necessary to protect and protract (both temporally and spatially) the EU project, however—practices which are acutely evident in the Mediterranean and on Lesvos (and of course beyond)—recalls for me Ursula K Le Guin’s (1992) “utopian” city of Omelas.Greece (Lesvos Island)-View of Petra and its castle. Photo by Güldem Üstün. CC BY 2.0.
Omelas is Le Guin’s bright-towered city by the sea, where the happiness of the people (not “bland utopians” we’re told), the beauty of their city, the health of their children, and even the abundance of their harvest depend wholly on one child’s abominable misery. All the people of Omelas are aware of the suffering of the child, who is detained in a dark, damp, dirty basement three paces by two. Each of the young people of Omelas have visited the basement, and they are always left shocked and sickened at the sight of the child. Initially they feel outraged and would like to release the child, to offer it food and comfort. But their anger turns to impotence as they accept the explanation that the prosperity and beauty of Omelas depends on the containment and suffering of the child. Eventually, also for those who brood upon this terrible paradox a little longer, many convince themselves that even if the child could be released it is by now surely too degraded and uncouth to know joy or respond to humane treatment. Indeed, they reflect, “after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it…” (a quote that itself recalls the EU’s walling of its borders and its spaces of confinement, of which Moria—the refugee camp and “hotspot” on Lesvos—has become paradigmatic).
For me the ‘terrible paradox’ of Omelas is analogous to the EUtopian logic that makes structural violence at the EU’s borders (and beyond), at the edges of and on the Mediterranean sea, the necessary corollary to the happiness, prosperity, cultural identity, and “values” of the EU and its citizens. Yet, thinking about the potential problems and contradictions of utopian projects, and the ways in which they can be used to justify dystopian practices and policies, should not cause us to abandon the exploration of utopias more broadly. Instead that exploration could—indeed should—prompt us to adopt a critical approach. A recognition of the dystopian realities of the space and time in which we theorize utopia can mobilize us to realize the potential of imaginings that venture beyond the given; beyond the exigencies, logics and perceived possibilities of the present order of things. These are imaginings in which we might “walk away from Omelas” and engage in a radical critique of the present in order to pursue a different, and dare I say better, way of being in the future.
Katy is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex where she explores the concept of ‘Cosmopolitan Europe’ in the context of the European Union’s policies on mobility, migration and asylum. In addition to her research, Katy works with projects that collaborate with refugees to improving living standards, educational opportunities and community well-being. Before starting her doctoral studies, Katy spent ten years working for the UK government, most recently as Head of Constitutional Policy at the Cabinet Office.
Le Guin, Ursula K. 1992 The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Minnesota: Creative Co
Nicolaidis, K. and Howse, R. 2002 ‘This is my EUtopia…’: Narrative as Power Journal of Common Market Studies 49(4)