What’s The Difference between Utopia, Eutopia and Protopia?

Eutopia? Protopia? Everyone seems to be using these terms nowadays, but what do they actually mean? What’s the difference between these new ones and good old utopia? And are they just buzzwords?
If you want to know the difference and discover what’s behind the hype, and if you want to know how we may finally manage to venture beyond the modern mirage of utopia, this Hanzi article is for you.
“Protopia constitutes what I hold to be the best term for the massive set of interlinked projects of activists, thinkers, and practitioners around the world who seek to contribute to the necessary and desirable transformations of societies around the world.”

Intro: Utopia, Eutopia, and Protopia

Is it appropriate to be a Utopian these days?

Yes and no. Or rather, we may need a term that gathers bold dreamers, thinkers, and doers into an energized force for the necessary and timely transformation of societies around the world - but still avoids the pitfalls of 20th-century utopianism.

What, then, can be “better than Utopia?” It turns out that vast landscapes do indeed open up to us if we allow ourselves to ask that question.

Let us journey beyond Utopia.

Our first stop on this journey of the mind we can call Eutopia. But the journey continues farther afield - into what we may call Protopia. And strangely enough, Protopia is much closer to our reality than we think.

“Utopia” means “nowhere” and denotes a static state of cultural and political perfection: society when it has become as good as it possibly can get. As nebulous and dreamy as Utopia might seem, it always implies a certain attained perfection of society. As such, there is the “bad” now and the “good” future - and the path from darkness into light. It’s ideological in the negative sense of the word, i.e. tunnel-visioned according to a scheme of good and evil (today’s grim capitalism, tomorrow’s humane socialism; today’s cold, extractive materialism, tomorrow’s ecological coziness…)

“Eutopia” (if you read this article out loud to your kids, you’ll have to say “utopia-with-an-E” every time you pronounce it) is an increasingly popular neologism that seeks to replace Utopia; it means “the good place” (there’s even a Netflix comedy show with philosophical themes titled The Good Place, which arguably reflects this shift in our ways of dreaming up better worlds). Arguably, it suffers from similar problems as Utopia: it’s ultimately impossible, it’s static, and what you deem as “good” I might find “bad”.

“Protopia” is another recent term, coined by futurist Kevin Kelly and it is defined as the opposite of a “Dystopia”. In Dystopia, people are stuck in some kind of recurring pattern of suffering (like George Orwell’s “foot trampling a human face - for ever”, as in 1984). A Protopian society, then, is one where people are free from such gridlocks and can thus work actively to improve life. It’s a more carefully stated form of a dream of societal transformation: It doesn’t say that “everything will be good for everyone”; it focuses not on the state-of-things-at-a-given-moment, but on the possibility - the shared capacity - to move in mutually desirable directions. Simply stated, one could say that a Protopian society is one that has the capacity to become incrementally better as a result of the freedom of its members.

Utopia: Modern // Eutopia: Postmodern // Protopia: Metamodern.

Conceptually, we can connect Utopia to the “modern project”, i.e. to the growth of rationalism since the fifteenth century, Eutopia to the postmodern critique thereof, i.e. to the many ways that artists and intellectuals have picked apart the modern behemoth since the 19th century, and Protopia to what I call the metamodern synthesis (of modern and postmodern thinking) - and thus to the cultural currents that are growing in today’s digitized world.

I thus argue that Protopia, properly understood, is - somewhat paradoxically - the synthesis of “nowhereland” and “the good place”. I will start from Kelly’s way of defining the term, expand upon it, and invite people to take it up as a concept to carry our shared dreams all the way to fruition.

As such, Protopia constitutes what I hold to be the best term for the massive set of interlinked projects of activists, thinkers, and practitioners around the world who seek to contribute to the necessary and desirable transformations of societies around the world.

I have written extensively on such visions myself; often centering on the shift from a Modern to a Metamodern society. One way or another, I believe that idealists with vastly different projects are contributing to a Metamodern planetary society and its cosmo-local expressions across different world cultures.

This article is a call for Metamodernists (and similarly inclined people) to gather around the Protopian project (or set-of-potential-projects-to-be-discovered-and-enacted); a project that resides at the crossroads of fact and fiction.

Protopians of all walks of life —unite!

… But before that, let us properly define Protopia. The unity we speak of here is a fairly abstracted one: to be part of the same great shifting patterns of the world. To do that, we need to revisit Utopia and Eutopia.

Part 1: Modern Utopia

At the Right Distance from Nowhere

“The Prologue and the Promise” by Robert McCall (1919–2010). A mural commissioned by Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center in Orlando, Florida.

Even long before Thomas More’s coinage of the term “utopia” through the 1516 “social-science-fiction” novel with that word as its title, utopias (by whatever name these dreams may have taken) have exerted an influence on the sociological imagination of people around the world: how could society be different than it is? Not just different. Radically, dramatically, breathtakingly different, for the better — in a manner that breaks out of the confines of ordinary existence and into the tremendous, that which lets the spirit soar?

“Utopia” was an astute play-on-words, a literary sleight-of-hand on More’s side: The word translates to “no place”. The perfect land of yonder was nowhere to be found. No doubt, More must have been inspired by the European “discovery” of America about two decades earlier: If there are indeed faraway lands on shores so different — could there be, under the sun, genuinely other ways of life, even of large-scale, urbanized life? Ways of life that would seem worthy of the human spirit and not just another grim parody of a society’s own values and goals?

Utopia: The farther away, the closer you get

“Utopia comes alive because of our distance to it”

We all have an inherent tendency to believe that great changes in ourselves, our archetypal “hero’s journey” of inner transformation, requires us not to look under the nearest rock or in the neighboring village, but travel to a faraway shore— be it the Far East, the vestiges of a glorious past, the rollercoasters of psychedelic weirdness, or mind-bending koans in the shape of quantum mechanical equations — for the transformation to occur in full and earnest.

We tend to believe that a more profound transformation requires a proportionally longer stretch of travel (and, of course, then “outer space is the final frontier”). By the same logic, More places his land of sociological perfection, Utopia, at the farthest reaches of the known world, so far away that it practically becomes “nowhere”. To be perfect is to be far away.

It’s not unlike women in early fantasy writers like J.R.R. Tolkien: the feminine appears as mysterious, pure, distant, ephemeral, light, and beautiful creatures, barely real at all but all the more wonderous for it. In writers on the other side of the spectrum, like Charles Bukowski (who probably met with a lot more women than Tolkien but perhaps under less emotionally nourishing circumstances), the feminine is flawed, dirty, horny, oscillating between the alluring and the repugnant, and always all-too-human.

No utopian dream is possible without distance: In film and literature, fantasy and social realism are each other’s opposites. Distance and utopia depend upon one another. Utopian projects all attempt the impossible: to place fantasy at the heart of the grueling complexities of an admittedly social-realist life, revolutionizing it by magically imbued technology, by fate or by faith, by revealing some kind of secret passage from the “ordinary world” of actual reality to the extraordinary realms of potentiality… Or — at the very least — enchanting an otherwise disappointing life with the sense of clarity and hope of what is, after all, truly possible.

In fact, Utopian dreams paradoxically seem to gain momentum from moments of social realism. From the plight of workers and peasants in destabilized and backward Romanov Russia, to the sparks of the fever-pitched communist frenzy of the Khmers Rouges as the guerillas were stuck starving, sweating, and malaria-stricken in the jungle, to the popularity of millenarian and Age of Aquarius messages among the discontents of today’s globalization — a harsh here-and-now has been fertile soil for a wonderous yonder-and-tomorrow.

Likewise, More’s Utopia would likely never have been written, had not the author found the institutions of his own day and age lacking. Again, Utopia comes alive because of our distance to it — of course, combined with the insight that the world is changing, which grants sense of possibility, an untapped keg of potential.

Such change can be circular (“after this Iron Age we shall enter a new Golden Age”) as is the case on the far-right political spectrum, or it can be one of progression into the unprecedented (“something will arrive after capitalism, something more worthy and humane!”), such as on the Left of the political imagination.

The nowhereland of Utopia thus grows from the very-here-and-now-land of “my life bloody sucks and yours probably does, too”. Through the suffering and belittlement of everyday life, there is, of sorts, a baptism of fire — one that leaves a pure but hardened kernel in the human soul: Life can be different; it must be. The current status quo is barbaric; viewed from a future vantage point, it would be criminal. It must be brought to an end — even if the path to toppling it is dangerous. And since society is changing, since it is going somewhere, the road seems to lead away from here and into the realm of what’s possible. The misery of here-and-now is a pointer towards the glory of yonder, of the future.

Utopia: Off with their heads!

“The more light, clear, and fever-pitched the Utopian dream, the darker and more abominable the deject seems to the Utopian mind — and the more murderous an undercurrent comes with it.”

Perhaps More never meant for his Utopia to be more than a parody-by-reversal of his Renaissance or Early Modern England — a looking glass through which the imperfections and unenlightened practices and norms of his society became apparent. Likely, More himself intended for the distance to be kept; his tone is hardly one of a fiery revolutionary. But already in his days, Protestant leaders were fanning the flames of peasant revolts against all authority on the European continent.

The longing for and premonition of Utopia seem to propel the human spirit to more than More’s wry commentary and critique of social irrationalities and injustices: these motives behoove us to dream, to create, to experiment, to rebel, to subvert, to start anew — but also to risk our lives… and those of others: to kill, to search and destroy.

Beyond More’s spirited novel Utopia, there are the real utopias; serious, entirely unironic attempts to defeat the mundane world we know and to somehow conclusively transcend it once and for all. At once unimaginably bold and vain, such intentions have animated humans in their worst and finest hours, often both at once. Oh, wet communist dreams of a just society! Oh, the elevated spirit of Rousseau, who first noticed that modern life needn’t be this way — that another world is possible! And this Enlightenment thinker was read religiously by the Jacobins of the French Revolution, the architects of The Terror.

The modern ideology of conservatism grew as a direct response in early 19th century Europe to the French Revolution and the utopian dreams of the time. The conservative mind points out — and really has a point in doing so — that all societies have grown organically and not according to schemes, never entirely according to the plan of an architect. Anarchists have their own way of saying something similar: If the project is to recreate society in the mental image of a few visionaries or leaders, it always leads to disaster. Our postcolonial heritage around the world is a case in point — certain plans of new societies and social orders have been pressed upon the world by Europeans, in turn destroying entire cultures.

Utopias have been based on spiritual premonitions gleaned from our peak moments and epiphanies, on rational calculations of what would make sense and should reasonably be within the realm of possibility — and sometimes Utopia is born at the strange crossroads between the religious and the rational: spirit and mind, magic and science, faith and social engineering. Utopian societies set up by Europeans in America always gathered around certain religious denominations — projects that to this day define American culture and its heritage in the birthing planetary culture of our day. Since Antiquity, hermetic and gnostic traditions have mingled with the sense of wonder that technology brings — the mystical with the rational, the ghost in the machine, what Erik Davies called the “trickster of technology” has beckoned us towards Utopia. In today’s world, this technologically mediated hope for a drastic transformation takes forms such as fully automated luxury communism and other visions of post-scarcity, the singularity, transhumanism, and the techno-libertarianism of hackers.

When utopian projects have been acted upon in reality, in real, historical, societies, they have inevitably collapsed — if not destroying their entire populations, at the very least ruining the institutions of society and causing great harm.

Perhaps most importantly — and I am far from alone in pointing this out — this is due to the static nature of Utopian visions: a destination describing how things should be arranged in society. Even more perniciously, there are societies — from socialist people’s republics to downright delirious cults — who declare themselves to be so well on the path to Utopia that they in practice already are the Utopian society; and hence, “nothing can be wrong with it”. But naturally— there is always trouble in paradise. And every such trouble must then be explained away with some exception (because, by definition, this already is the perfect society, right?): class enemies, contra-revolutionaries, traitors, unbelievers in our midst, dark cabals, conspiracies against the public! And what do you do with those? The Queen of Hearts has the answer.

So you can’t have Utopia without “the deject”. The stuff you’re getting rid of. The stuff you’re “throwing away” (that’s what the word “deject” implies). The more light, clear, and fever-pitched the Utopian dream, the darker and more abominable the deject seems to the Utopian mind — and the more murderous an undercurrent comes with it.

Utopia: It’s weaved into every modern person’s mind, Ever

“All said and done — Utopia is bound up with modernity itself. As long as the modern project exists, Utopia will keep beckoning, in spiritual, secular, or tech-spiritual forms.”

And this brings me back to the idea of Modernity and its inherent connection to Utopia. Modernity is, fundamentally, as I argue in my upcoming book The 6 Hidden Patterns of History, the principle of triangulation: comparing your viewpoint to mine, we can either verify or falsify my claims. This principle originates (pre-conceptually) in the arts of the Renaissance in Northern Italy of the fifteenth century: the arrival of mathematical correct perspective in paintings and illustrations. Here, the natural universe is torn away from the social or cultural world: The king is going to be smaller if he is “farther away” in the painting, even if he happens to be socially more important than other characters in the painting. Everything — and everyone — is placed within a 3D space with one disappearing point at the center of the painting.

Now, what I mean is that — in the mind of its followers and enactors — “Utopia” is such a “point towards which everything else seems to point”. Everything, including the picture of the here-and-now, is situated in space in relation to this point at an infinite or unknowable distance. The structure of the Modern mind itself thus implies some kind of Utopia, some kind of end-point, always present in the worldview itself— albeit one always disappearing into the distance.

Interestingly enough, then, even conservatives and anarchists — who are nominally critics of grad schemes — formulate utopias, as these ideologies are also spawns of Modernity. The conservative formulates the utopia of progress according to society’s already existing institutions (libertarians like Johan Norberg and centrists like Steven Pinker also represent similar views in today’s public debate), and anarchists formulate how people could collaborate their way into a society that is kindlier, more just, working in accordance to the shared will (and goodwill) of the many.

All said and done — Utopia is bound up with modernity itself. As long as the modern project exists, Utopia will keep beckoning, in spiritual, secular, or tech-spiritual forms.

But the modern project, of course, does not lead to Utopia. It’s a mirage. One that has been very understandable and perhaps historically necessary, but an illusion in the distance, no less. Rather, modernity with its “progress narrative” leads to its own demise — to civilizational collapse — due to inherent systemic limitations we shall refrain from discussing here. The striving towards Utopia only accelerates that process of decay.

A static vision of the future, of society perfected, cannot materialize. And the Modern mind, by its very way of structuring reality, drives towards this impossibility. Bold and adventurous as this striving is, it can only lead to collapse. Utopia always was, and always will be, a failure — a road to hell paved with good intentions, as the saying goes.

Part 2: Postmodern Eutopia

The Secret Corner Good Place?

A house in the self-governing anarchic commune Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark.

If Modernity, in its deeper sense, originated in the emergence of “perspective” in the visual arts, in the Renaissance paintings of Northern Italy — it only began to fully come into fruition around the early 19th century in Europe, with industrialization and the rise to prominence of the scientific-rational worldview. And, of course, with the Enlightenment beginning to shape society as a whole.

Eutopia: Two counterreactions to Modernity

“If Modernity tore nature loose from its social confines, then Postmodernity places the view on nature back into its social and cultural context — a context it never left.”

From around this time onwards — when Modernity was beginning to bloom in full — counterreactions to the Modern project started to appear. These reactions came from two distinct sources. One was the resistance of the colonized, of slaves, of indigenous peoples, of non-European civilizations and traditions around the world. New such sources of questioning, resistance, and attempts at redefining knowledge, reality, power relations, and nature itself have emerged ever since. In today’s world, for instance, Indian dalits struggle to influence the official definition of themselves on Wikipedia in an uphill battle against mostly white, Western, male experts, while indigenous tribes of the Amazon seek to protect their lands from extractive exploitation by international corporations. Following the postcolonialist feminist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, we can employ an umbrella term for this kind of counterreaction: the subaltern (although the term was initially coined by the cultural Marxist, Antonio Gramsci).

The other source of counterreactions grew from within Modern society itself — the impulse of Romanticism that reacted against the cold rationality of the Modern project (through literature, through paintings, through philosophical stances, and through social and spiritual movements) became the first in a long series of counter-cultures that came from the “most Modern” strata of society, often the most cultivated and educated. Indeed, many of these counter-cultures became so important that they flavored Modernity itself — just consider, for instance, the influence of the American Beat Generation on popular culture and thus on the Hollywood-saturated mainstream of Western culture and beyond. In a very general sense, there is thus an intimate connection between such widely disparate phenomena as Romanticism, socialism, feminism, anti-racism, expressionist and dadaist art, critical theory and sociology, and hippies: They all somehow grow from and react against the confines of that assumed 3D background space of Modernity and its purported sense of objectivity and implied directionality. That is why we can meaningfully understand these as expressions of the Postmodern mind — one that breaks away from Modernity and its static perspective where nature and culture are separate.

[Please note that I’m not using the term “Postmodern” in the conventional academic sense here, i.e. specifically relating to certain philosophical currents in the 1970s and onwards, but as a general structure of mind and society that emerges as a critique of Modern society, as discussed in my book, The Listening Society.]

If Modernity tore nature loose from its social confines (again, space itself, not social roles, define the perspective, and so the king will be smaller if he is farther away in the painting with a mathematical correct perspective), then Postmodernity places the view on nature back into its social and cultural context — a context it never left. After all — who’s looking? Whose gaze is it that describes reality in a certain way? The direction the gaze is looking will always define the direction, the horizon, the Utopia of this particular viewer. Does the photo realism and mathematical correct perspective of a Renaissance painting (and, by extension, of Newtonian mechanics, of the scientific method, of market liberalism and representative democracy) truly encompass the perspective of, say, arts and rituals in the Yoruba traditions of West Africa? Do not women, on average, think less spatially and more relationally than men — and if so, does this background assumption not subtly exclude feminine perspectives? We can call this second category, simply, the countercultural.

In many cases, these two currents — the subaltern and the countercultural— have intermingled and drawn upon one another. Sociological understandings of how knowledge is constructed in society (a countercultural understanding) have, for instance, benefitted from the outsider perspectives of Amazonian tribes (in Claude Levi-Strauss’ structuralist anthropology) and W.E.B. DuBois’ early studies of African-Americans. Conversely, today’s subaltern movements from different cultures gather around the ideas such as Multitude, i.e. the larger network of diverse social justice movements. Regardless of how they are combined, they all entail some kind of breach with the Modern project itself and its Utopia, its grand narrative(s). What you get instead is the search for the good life, for a better society, in the exception.

Eutopia: Breaking out of the Renaissance painting

“Where the Utopian sees a distance between the misery of here-and-now and the promised land on the horizon that seems to logically follow from the here-and-now, the Eutopian notices how close, how utterly present The Good Place already is, and how it needs only be revealed.”

In terms of societal visioning, of the release of the sociological imagination as a force for transformation, this shift from Modern to Postmodern worldviews entails a corresponding shift from Utopia to Eutopia — from nowhereland to “the good place”. The Postmodern mind holds that “the good place” is not somewhere distant, nor a static vision like Plato’s Republic: it’s here and now — but it is more contextual, more local, more momentary, more subversive. The Good Place is hidden in plain sight, as it were. You don’t get there by following the yellow brick road towards the static Utopian horizon, but precisely by breaking away from that “Modern 3D” framework altogether. Phonetically, Utopia and Eutopia sound the same — but the different spellings reveal a shift — away from the spatial journey to Utopia, and towards the perspectival sleight-of-hands that reveal the little Eutopias that were there all along; the worlds that were forgotten, suppressed, made invisible.

The Eutopian (not to be confused with the European or the Ethiopian — yes, I know it’s a weird term, bear with me) striving is, in a profound but difficult-to-spot manner, a direct reversal of the Utopian one: Where the Utopian sees a distance between the misery of here-and-now and the promised land on the horizon that seems to logically follow from the here-and-now, the Eutopian notices how close, how utterly present The Good Place already is, and how it needs only be revealed. Utopia feeds on distance, Eutopia on closeness: on that which was too close to be properly seen as long as eyes were staring into the distance.

And so Eutopia is sought in the commons (these solidary forms of economic organization that predate capitalism and exist in most traditional societies to this day), in the relative happiness of e.g. San hunter-gatherer societies, in different Shangri-Las of local communities of care in downtrodden neighborhoods, in solarpunk collectives, in the rugged camps of Occupy Wallstreet and the spirit that animates them. The Eutopian is convinced that if you look hard enough at foreign cultures and civil society, at the intellectual voices that are decidedly non-Western, non-mainstream, at the many movements of social justice around the world, at the most experimental communities of Kibbutzes and Mexican Zapatistas and the Kurdish Rojava and Spanish communist villages and experimental cryptocurrencies… then you’ll see it: a fleeting but all-too-real proof that another world is possible, a genuinely good place. Eutopia.

While the Eutopian avoids the grand schemes and fixed sense of direction inherent in Modern Utopia, there is a certain limitation to it: If “the good place” is always found in an exception, in the uniqueness of a situation, the Good Place is never successfully generalized and transferred across time, space, and cultural differences. The Eutopian reveals that ways of life already exist that are even preferable to whatever Utopia the masses of the Modern mainstream have been imagining — if only we can shift our perspectives and stop staring at that disappearing point in the distance. The Eutopian turns every stone, scours history, archeology, and anthropology to find glimmers of hope, and then beckons: if this was possible, imagine then what could be possible for all societies across the world, if only we escaped the shackles of our limited ideas of the world!

But, alas, the search for Eutopia never ends — it never settles, it never locks on target and builds momentum; it never starts the positive feedback cycle that marks the growth of all living systems; it never translates across different scales. Fireworks of enthusiasm spark, again and again, energizing Eutopians to believe that a great shift of perspective is coming, a new set of ideas, a new project, a new struggle, a new subtly exotified other in a distant village or rural land, in the favelas or banlieues. But for all the intimacy with indigenous wisdom, for all the experience in social justice movements, for all the studies of Eastern Traditions — the Eutopians never come up with solutions to the great challenges of the Modern project. To the Eutopian, it feels as though the great transformation is always just around the corner; and so the relentless search continues indefinitely.

Eutopia is necessary for our dreams of a better society to become multi-perspectival, inclusive, and integrative of many perspectives — but it ultimately asks the wrong question. It still looks for The Good Place. Certainly, depending on what criteria are being measured for, such “good places” do indeed exist in secret corners of the world, even if they are always bound within limited confines of space, time, context, and a limited set of criteria of how the “good” is measured. The problem is that Eutopia is always defined in opposition to whatever is perceived as Modern and mainstream — and, as such, it misses the mark on the greatest challenge of all: to find the generative conditions that increase the likelihood of many Eutopias across multiple contexts.

We all know we’re not headed towards a solarpunk world, or a techno-libertarian crypto world, or an afro-futurist world, or one run by cozy cooperatives — but the multiplicity of such Eutopias, and their interconnectedness, means everything. Together, a thousand such islands of new ways of life can be lifeboats for millions or billions of people — and together, they can redefine the way the planetary system works.

Part 3: Metamodern Protopia

 To Touch the Event Horizon

Photo by note thanun on Unsplash

In its original, minimalist — and admittedly rather lacking — formulation by Kevin Kelly, Protopia is simply a term that denotes the gradual improvement of society over time, without claiming either perfection or the reaching of a point of stability. If we cannot allow ourselves to believe in a future paradise that has stabilized around a blissful state of affairs (Utopia), and we find it insufficient to look for those beautiful little exceptions of what life and society can be in certain regards under specific circumstances (Eutopia), perhaps we can more cautiously and realistically allow hope and faith in gradual but over time substantial improvements of society. As mentioned earlier, Kelly views such a capacity to improve as the true opposite of Dystopia.

That’s Kelly’s original take on the term, Protopia. We could stop there, but frankly, it’s not a particularly enlightening or inspiring prospect in and of itself. Still — it’s a helpful point of departure.

There are more and less generous ways to read Kelly’s take on Protopia. Naturally, if improvement is constant and there are never any setbacks, that’s also an unchanging state of affairs (like Utopia’s static vision)—the derivative of an even slope is still a line. If that’s how we interpret Kelly’s idea — as literally an improvement on key measures from year to year, indefinitely — it would be equally or more unrealistic than Utopia’s static “perfect world”. Likewise, this would mean that whatever direction in which society is “improving” needs to be constant and correctly defined for all time — that its direction can never shift. That is also untenable: The measure of a society’s “success” necessarily shifts over time, and thus the vectors of what is considered to be an improvement must shift as well.

At the very least, then, a more generous interpretation of Kelly’s Protopia — one that gives it more intellectual credit — would grant that it allows for society to fluctuate between good and bad periods, but that it has the capacity to shift into oscillations that, as a whole, are preferable to what existed before. There is improvement, but not necessarily every year. Rather, in the pattern of how good and bad events play out. And, of course, that a society’s way of understanding itself and what it means to “improve” things becomes “wiser” over time. If we use a convoluted term from philosophy, we could say that Protopia allows for authentic dialectics: for good and bad things, as interpreted from widely different perspectives of the good and bad, to emerge together in ever-surprising but ultimately non-arbitrary manners.

Or, another way to say it, drawing on the chaos theory tradition: Protopia is not the constant (linear) improvement of society from year to year, but an improvement of society’s “phase space”, i.e. a shift of which phases society can enter into as it evolves: desirable and undesirable phases included.

Let’s use the more gracious interpretation as we go on.

Protopia: Beyond Kelly’s original definition

“You start looking for the pattern that connects the many little Eutopias — The Good Place found in strange corners and exceptions — and in that pattern, you begin to see the vast field of potential of many different social realities that have been, that could be, and that should be.”

The correct synthesis of Utopia and Eutopia should be able to do more: It should inspire hope and spark the imagination beyond what reforms and gradual improvements can; it should bring a coordinating shared sense of direction for millions of unique but inter-related collaborators who are somehow part of the same societal transformation across sectors (tech, arts, spirituality, business, politics, movements, academia); and it should combine the sense of the tremendous, the open horizon of Utopia and the vision of a world so much better than all we have known, with the multi-perspectivalism and curiosity of the Eutopian search for the hidden-in-plain-sight beauties that we’ve looked past. In brief, it should be able to combine the best of both worlds while avoiding their respective pitfalls.

And so, if we are to mine the concept of Protopia for a deeper meaning — one that is worth rallying around across sectors and across projects, over different cultures, and across longer stretches of time — we may need to expand upon Kelly’s original formulation. I would claim, however, that the below suggested expansion carries forward the spirit of the original meaning, just adding more layers to it.

We are now thus taking a turn into the Metamodern: we must coordinate the sense of direction and progress of the Modern (Utopia) with the sensitivity and critical awareness of the Postmodern (Eutopia). Metamodernism is that which emerges from the skepticism of Postmodern skepticism. As Jason Ananda Storm has argued, the Postmodern mind is skeptical of everything but its very own skepticism. Once you begin you question your own skepticism, you come to embody the position of sincere irony, or informed naivety. That is to say, you begin to allow yourself to believe in grand schemes again, even if you know that your “Utopias” are fictional and possibly dangerous. There is a recognition that the lack of a great story to weave reality with, is just as dangerous. You start looking for the pattern that connects the many little Eutopias — The Good Place found in strange corners and exceptions — and in that pattern, you begin to see the vast field of potential of many different social realities that have been, that could be, and that should be.

So The Good Place does happen — but not arbitrarily. It happens given certain circumstances. It flickers past in history, in moments in our lives, in special places… But what then are the best possible conditions for the increased likelihood for such little Eutopias to emerge — always unique, always context-bound, always unexpected, by their nature impossible to predict? That’s the question. To the extent it can be said that we are still looking for a Utopia, a grand direction, it is the abstract direction that will create the greater number and intensity of little Eutopias flickering by in the cosmos.

That is Protopia: the non-arbitrary pattern that connects the multiplicity of Eutopias; it is the search for the conditions that generate Eutopias — i.e. the “generative conditions” of Eutopia.

This Metamodernist mode of seeing potentials in the world begins from studying the many possibilities, the Eutopias, each of which offers a unique perspective and critique of the status quo. But it doesn’t simply leave all of those Eutopias as disconnected fragments floating about in a larger void of meaninglessness. It lets the different Eutopias inform one another. It weighs and pits them against one another; it triangulates from their conflicting insights and ways of life — and as such it develops a context-sensitive form of utopianism, of dreamy faith. Or should I say: Protopianism.

With the Protopian stance, no compromise needs to be made: The faith, the zeal the revolutionary is there for the taking, but the path towards it is always by learning more, by listening in to the hidden potentials of everyday life that the multiplicity of human experience (and/or that of other lifeforms) offers.

Protopia: Another set of assumptions generate another set of futures

“Protopia is a “vision of visions”. It works not with one future, but with the entire event horizon of all possible futures.”

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Protopian activism requires some different basic assumptions about reality than Eutopian activism. In a sense, the Protopian vision breaks the one great taboo of the Postmodern mind: to order and organize different perspectives into a grander scheme. But it is no longer the scheme of a 3D world with a certain goal in the distance — it corresponds, rather, to folding through a fourth or even fifth dimension, showing how many different goals are possible, yet complexly interlinked on a more abstract plane of analysis.

It is a horizon opening up as the Protopian perspective unfolds, but not a singular horizon, but a multiple horizon. It is the horizon of the property space of all possible events — what one might term an “event horizon” (drawing and analogy to the warped space-time around a black whole, where time collapses so that all events occur simultaneously; a real cosmological phenomenon). Somewhat more poetically put — to be a Protopian is to try to touch the event horizon.

Hopefully, then, readers will agree that Metamodernism needs Protopia and vice versa, that the two concepts seem intertwined, and that the Metamodern mindset unlocks the great adventure of Utopian dreams, albeit in a space of playful experimentation with coordinating the many lessons that come from transcending and transgressing the limitations of Modern society and its trajectories. Let me simply end by highlighting a few key differences between the Utopian, Eutopian, and Protopian stances on societal transformation.

  • The Utopian believes in progress. The Eutopian believes in critique and a rediscovery of simpler wisdoms and relationships. The Protopian believes that progress can be enacted by understanding how the many critiques and rediscoveries of wisdom are interconnected into a larger whole.
  • The Utopian envisions a linear path towards a brighter future. The Eutopian believes that pearls of happy and sane society are found precisely by looking away from the trodden path. The Protopian envisions a non-linear pathway to a wider range of possibilities, a chaotic or strange attractor, which in itself constitutes the wider map of potential futures (or the “phase space” of society’s evolution), but where it is impossible to foresee which future will actually occur. So: from linear, to non-linear, to chaotic thinking.
  • The Utopian is driven by sincere faith. The Eutopian is driven by an ironic distance to plots and plans and only trusts the genuinely surprising. The Protopian is driven by a sincerely-ironically held faith — not in the actual future (that may fly or fall, as things do) but in the potential of what marvels are always-already possible.
  • The Utopian believes in the future. The Eutopian believes in alternate timelines. The Protopian believes that alternate timelines can and should be skillfully weaved into a multiplicity of beautiful futures — but that it is not determined that they will be. The Protopian relates to what we may call the “topology of timelines”.
  • The Utopian believes that the games of life, competition, strife, pain, will wither away once Utopia is achieved. The Eutopian believes that a resting place is already available if we could only look away from the grand narratives that have enthralled us, that the games of life are actually only an illusion to awaken from. The Protopian believes that the games of life are real and just as hurtful as we experience them, but that they have been changed throughout history, they can be changed again, and they very likely will be at one time or another. The Protopian believes in Game Change and what I have formerly called “relative utopia” — if slavery did end and democracy did prevail, why shouldn’t corresponding leaps be possible in the future?
  • The Utopian believes that the world gets better if people work to improve it. The Eutopian believes that people ruin the world more than they help it by all their plans, plots, and attempts at controlling everything. The Protopian believes that progress is inherent to the universe, but that it always comes at a terrible price — of new problems emerging, and of old beauties lost.

Consider the above list carefully before you get a tattoo.

In brief — let us tread the multiple but intrinsically interlinked paths to Protopia, while keeping an ironic smile at our own self-importance. Protopia is a “vision of visions”. It works not with one future, but with the entire event horizon of all possible futures.

We know it won’t work, that a thousand surprises will corrode whatever paths we may cut. But it is the very knowledge of certain failure that guarantees our non-linear victory and the emergence of Protopia in the world — that is to say, a real improvement over time. That’s why Protopia is more than a fairy tale.

And that’s a good enough reason for Protopians around the world to unite. The quality of Protopian unity is not that of the monolith, however, nor of the bundle of rods. It is the unity of mycelium: infinitely interconnected, always in flux, busy breaking down the dying while creating soil for the new to blossom.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.