Tuesday, March 1, 2016

[Friday Seminar Recap] Utopian Communities: Making Better Worlds

Utopian Communities: Making Better Worlds

Speaker: Martin BOEWE (PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong)
Date: 1:00 – 2:30PM, 19 February 2016 (Friday)
Venue: Room 401, Humanities Building, New Asia College, CUHK

On 19 February, Martin Boewe, our PhD candidate, gave a seminar on “Utopian Communities: Making Better Worlds”. He discussed the social implications of utopian communities by describing three communities he had been doing field research on: Life Chanyuan in China, Christiania in Denmark, and Damanhur in Italy. He described utopian communities, which were intentionally formed, as social laboratories demonstrating an alternative way to live and challenging the dominating paradigms of society.

Martin Boewe
Life Chanyuan, Boewe said, practiced religious syncretism with its ideology coming from Christian, Buddhist, Taoist and the New Age religions. The charismatic community founder promoted an egalitarian lifestyle and taught about the purpose of human life, self-refinement, and emotional and material detachment. As Boewe put it, Life Chanyuan was a communist utopia that criticized the urban-based Chinese modernization model. It addressed the problem of social alienation, and sought to establish a heaven on earth based on communism and free love.

Christiania was a political community that practiced self-administration and participatory decision making. It embraced the ideology of freedom, and was against neo-liberalism and the concepts of leadership, hierarchy, and domination. Community members included activists, pushers (drug-dealers), and social drop-outs. Christiania members were concerned about humans’ losing control against forces of global capitalism, and attempted to build an anarchist place of freedom.

Damanhur was more hierarchical and focused on lifelong spiritual development. It emphasized rituality, which was manifested in its monastic lifestyle. The interplay of humanity and divinity within the community was central, as it blurred the boundary between story-telling and reality sometimes. Damanhur used alchemy and magic as tools of war, and fought against state, church and capitalism. Its ideology was in opposition to global capitalism, and it addressed the question of how to live better life by looking for the divine in oneself and in society.

The audience
Boewe also talked about the value contests in the three surrounding societies, which were addressed by the communities. The path towards modernization in China alternates between collective and individualistic approaches. Denmark as a tiny nation at the fringe of the European Union is engaged in a search of a new identity in the globalizing world, and is caught between a conservative longing for the egalitarian and ethnically inclusive life of the former village collectives and global capitalism. In Italy idealistic models of a unified nation contrast with a pragmatic model of statehood, which always led to factionalism. His analysis showed that all these utopian communities acted as distorted mirrors of their societies and were historically specific to them. They all had a message to their respective societies about how life could be better.

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