Looking for Utopia: Smriti Srinivas

By Tory Brykalski - Anthropologist Smriti Srinivas is searching for alternative futures—in the present. With today's urban spaces facing problems of waste, pollution, and uncontrolled growth, how, she asks, can we lay the foundations for humane and livable cities of tomorrow?

“We of the present generation are at a parting of ways. The future we can see but dimly. The more sharply we can outline the past in the present, the more clearly may we discern the image of the future.” – Victor Branford and Patrick Geddes, The Coming Polity (1917)

Researching her new book A Place for Utopia: Urban Designs from South Asia (published jointly by University of Washington Press and Orient BlackSwan), Dr. Srinivas turned to a Scottish urban planner, a Sri Lankan theosophist, garden designers, guru-based movements, and some progenitors of California's counterculture movement.

Through her research, she discovered that proto-utopias can in fact be found in many places—in forgotten city plans, novel gardens,experimental conversations across cultures, and roadside shrines and hermitages of gurus. Paying attention to these utopias, she argues, helps us understand how to live better in a fraught and precarious present.

The project shares theoretical concerns with Dr. Srinivas's previous work—concerns about the body, religion, forms of comparison, and the urban. But A Place for Utopia approaches them in a new way. Inspired by Scottish sociologist-biologist Patrick Geddes to think about utopias not as unattainable "no-places" but as "eu-topias" ("good places"), Dr. Srinivas explores previously neglected traditions to trace the ways in which people continue to create and maintain such places. Those traditions include Scottish bio-centric philosophies of design, theosophical gardens, designs for Vedanta in California, and the development of religious sites amidst new infrastructures in Bangalore.

New modes of thinking

Geddes provides more than just a theoretical inspiration for A Place for Utopia. A Scottish biologist, sociologist, urban planner, and designer, he traveled to India, worked with Indian surveyors, and wrote perhaps 50 town planning reports on Indian cities. A keen interest in ecology and botany informed his thinking as he sought, in the interwar period, to imagine potential paths out of a dystopic era created by destructive sciences, technologies and ideologies.

For Dr. Srinivas, Geddes and his interlocutors provide a mode of thinking about what might come next in a dystopic world. Eu-topias are realized, Dr. Srinivas writes, not through abstract, imagined futures, but through "local citizenship, in volunteering for peace, in attempts to renew or heal 'Life,' whether through gardens or public health, and in the revitalization of knowledge and practice."

Eu-topic practices aren't merely about designing new worlds or imagining perfect futures. Rather, they seek to locate spaces of transformation within existing sites. Geddes' design practices, and the critiques of imperialism that stem from them, continue to be crucial for social scientists today.

While current discussions of utopia are typically located in literary fiction or abstract Western traditions, A Place for Utopia focuses instead on South Asian histories of utopia, which can also be traced back to Buddhist writings and traditions. The book asks: where are we already engaging in eu-topic practices? How can we explore the ways in which practices of local citizenship are renewing and healing "Life"?

Telling other histories

By attending to the lived experiences of designers, gardeners, and workers in South Asia, Europe, and Northern California, Dr. Srinivas attempts to answer these questions. At the same time, she rethinks the kinds of stories social scientists tell.

"One can write other histories for the present by tracing different paths, both backwards and forwards,” Dr. Srinivas explains. Foregrounding the lived practices of workers, pilgrims, children, or other oft-ignored subjects in both her past works and her current book, she believes these “other histories” can help us to think differently about agency and power.

"I want to tell the stories that have been lost or overlooked," she says, "because I think that we, like Geddes, are at a parting of ways."

Dr. Srinivas’ work challenges social scientists to broaden the kinds of stories they tell, and to rethink what those stories can do. 

For more information about Dr. Srinivas's current work, visit the Reimagining Indian Ocean Worlds initiative. This collaborative, multidisciplinary research initiative asks how different approaches to place-making and practices can enable wider visions of what constitutes the Indian Ocean, as well as what counts as methodology.

Smriti Srinivas is a professor of anthropology and director of the Middle East/South Asia Studies program at UC Davis. Learn more at her faculty webpage.

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