Reading Group, Meeting 1: September 30, 2015
Reading: Davina Cooper, Everyday Utopias: The Conceptual Life of Promising Spaces (2013) – chapters 1-2 (introduction and conceptual attitude), 4-5 (public nudism and feminist women’s and trans bathhouse), conclusion. Other chapters optional.
- How do historians utilize the term “concept”? How can we use it differently, going beyond the simplistic “overcoming of a binary.” Is her reading of "concept" too reductive? How does Cooper use the term “concept” compared to other theorists, going back to Kant?
- Utopia versus counterculture: What are the differences? How are they relate to the concepts of transgressions and boundaries?
- How do bodies in a stratified world experience these utopias and the concepts differently?
- How does “queering the lines of inquiry” work? This destabilizing effect on the narrative can be a form of discursive utopia in and of itself, but is it always effective?
- Why use the term “utopia?” Does the concept become so broad that it becomes diffused and essentially meaningless? Can these case studies be considered utopian if they are possible and realized, or does utopia need to be unrealizable?
- Are the spaces discussed in the book really “everyday”? In what way are these spaces outside of the everyday? Is it subversive, or is it just reinforcing the limits?
- How can we use this as historians?
- Her description on pp. 2 focuses on the global North: this is due to her scholarly limitations, but how does this affect the content of the book?
- The “utopian” nature of these spaces is only defined in resistance to a very specific neo-liberal, capitalist framework. Do they end up reinforcing that neo-liberal order?
- Can utopian projects aim to become hegemonic, or are they required to exist on the margins?
- Where do we draw the boundaries of the “utopian” and the “everyday”? If we can’t distinguish where the boundaries end, then how do we apply them analytically?
- How has the realization of utopia changed in the post-1989/1991 world?
- What is the role of politics? Why do all of the examples have to be on the political left? Aren’t countercultures/everyday utopian movements on the right just as salient? Her answer seems to be that utopia is inclusionary and democratic, but every person would have a different view of what is utopian.
- What is the role of labor? Many of the examples—with the exception of the bathhouse—don’t involve labor.
- The idea of “concepts” matters so much because concepts then go and do work, therefore having a transformative effect. Does she argue that the transformation occurs only within the space itself, or does it have a wider effect (i.e., do ideas about property change because of spaces like the exchange)?
- “Epistemology from the margins” ends up helping us define what is hegemonic, because it is a reaction. Do these spaces end up creating a new epistemology?
- How does she use queer studies? How does this affect her use of the ideas of the margins?
- How does she critique the idea of identity politics? Does this make it not only a post-1989 book, but also a post-1960s book?
- Cooper doesn’t mention Foucault often, but her idea of focusing on small forms of resistance seems to fit very well within a Foucaultian framework. Can these spaces be considered heterotopias?
- How does inequality fit into her discussion of care? How are some forms of inequality strongly analyzed, while others are largely moved to the background.
- Does the book practice “thin description”? To what extent is this trying to move beyond practicing ethnography, and to what extent does it limit her analytical potential?
- What is her role as researcher? What was her relationship to the figures she interviewed? What type of people come to these spaces? Could the book be improved with details on the people involved in these projects? Does this interrupt the myth of closeness that many who do oral history have with their subjects?
- How does she use “non-linguistic concepts”? How can we move beyond language and look at embodied forms of knowledge? How do we ethically study it?
- How can we use this book as historians? It does open up what we can consider to be “utopian”; is this opening up analytically helpful?