Category: Imagining Better Worlds

Haunting Images: Cyborg by Lynn Randolph

I am sure lives can get shaped through imageries as much as words. For some – the artists, the film makers, the photographers- this may be the key to their lives. But most people live with imageries in their life. How we see our world has consequences.

I hope and plan to show a few of my favourite imageries on this site from time to time. And here is another long term favourite: it is Cyborg by Lynn Randolph.

It is an image that I have lived with for 20 years and used a lot in my work. It has been much discussed in gender courses as it was used and discussed by Donna Haraway in her work The Cyborg Manifesto (1985).  It captures a mood and tone from a period of my life – a postmodern moment. It captures the work of a new friend- Lynn Randolph who I first met in 1987. But above all for me it captures, condenses and confuses, in a deeply ironic fashion, our ‘humanity’: our location as unique human beings in a world of machines, and stars, and animals: the universalities of connections in our unique moments.

See Lynn’s work on:

Pessimism, Hope and Real Utopias

Imagining Better Worlds? Pessimism, Hope and Real Utopias I have recently been reading two books with hugely different claims. One is by by the arch conservative philosopher Roger Scruton; the other by a long dead and much admired Marxist, Ernst Bloch. The conservative is arguing for The Uses of Pessimism – the importance of pessimism…

Inspirations: William James

I first encountered the work of William James as an undergraduate in the 1960’s through his ideas of The Self.

Later, I read more and more of his work. His ideas of pragmatism, the plural universe and kindness have been been important to me.

Nowadays I read him often.

Below are a few of his sayings that have inspired me.

William James (1842-1910)

William James asks his uncle : What is a life for? And is told: Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind. (cited in Robert Coles: Handing one Another Along (2010) p241.)

Now the blindness in human beings … is the blindness with which we are all inflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves. We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his (sic) own duties and the significance of the situations that these call forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of their lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to deal in an absolute way on the value of other person’s conditions or ideals…What is the result of all these considerations…?  It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly happy and interested in their own ways, however unintelligible they may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he (sic) stands… William James, On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings…. James (1899/1913).

These then are my last words to you. Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.  The Will to Believe. (1896)

What most horrifies me in life is our brutal ignorance of one another… William James, in Richardson 2006 p381

The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me…William James

I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride. William James: Letters; and also cited in Biography” by Robert D Richardson   2006/7   p384

Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World

Musicals: Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World “I don’t want to philosophise. I just want to tell a story”  says one of the singers in this new musical production. Last night I went to the opening of the spectacularly talented’s National Youth Music Theatre production of Jason Robert Brown’s review/song cycle Songs for…

The Olympics: Lest We Forget

Dark Hope And Dreaming Ahead In Perpetually Troubled Times

I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will. 

Antonio Gramsci  Letter from Prison (19 December 1929)

 What we can do is…make life a little less terrible and a little less unjust in every generation. A good deal can be achieved in this way.

Karl Popper, 1949

 ‘Dreaming ahead’ (Bloch)


The Olympics bring us a dark hope. Along with a billion or so other human beings I watched with rapture at the opening of the Olympic Games last night, and especially the glorious march by of 203 nations. There were wonderful  and extravagant moments. Yet the Olympics is also a moment of huge contradiction: of the promotion of human co-operation through competition and conflict; of the  celebration of internationalism through nationalism;  of the search for the ordinary man through the search for celebrity. And not to mention the claiming of the inevitability of ‘austerity through cuts’  while wallowing in extravagant major expenditures. Or the fear of terrorism justifying the extension of state power. Despite this, maybe for  a moment we can and should celebrate the good side of humanity which the Olympics is meant to symbolise and seek it across generations and the future. .

But we should also never forget. Human beings always live in troubled times: in the past, in the present and in the future. One of the lessons of life is that troubles are indeed our lot. The world is in perpetual crisis though more so at some times than others. Experiments in creating better worlds often fail and frequently presage disasters; grand plans are rarely achievable; good deeds have unintended consequences; often we confront fatal remedies and pyric victories; the world is aleatory. And meanwhile human beings suffer in their billions.  A glancing eye on history and recent times cannot encourage much optimism.

Take the very current moment. It is stuffed full of its own problems, though all may simply be versions of universal and long lasting issues. As I write, we confront:

Conflicts, war and armed crisis  – usually sectarian and often religious across countries such as Afghanistan, Burma, Colombia, Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and the so called ‘Arab Spring’. The search is on to understand – and maybe alleviate- perpetual violence and conflict and the peace process.

Economic crises linked to the breakdown of neo –liberalism and capitalism –evidenced all around the world but currently notable in the Eurozone and Greece, Spain, Italy. The search on to provide a sociological account of a new or transformed human economic system which will not cause so such human damage.

Criminality, violence, and lawlessness across the world – Robbery in Cape Town, Drug wars in Mexico, Homicide in Rio & San Pedro Sula, Kidnapping in Grozny, Checnya, violence in Baghdad, lawlessness in Magadishu, Somalia.  The search is on to understand crime not as a simple problem of individuals in themselves but to see how sociologically crime is so very bound up with the very conditions of the way a society is run – and to seek changes within the society.

Abject Poverty and extreme inequalities across the world – evidenced in slum cities, feral societies, and the manifest differences in lives between the mass outcast poor and the elite ‘super-rich’. The search is on to understand and to find the means to lift the poor out of their poverty and examine just how much wealth a life really needs. There is an obscenity on the planet when we live and ignore so much abject poverty of the many along side the luxuriant and wasteful lives of the multi billionaire few.

De-secularization and Global violence over religion – The Global Jihad, Buddhist Revolts in Asia- Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Tibet; Hindu Nationalism; Pakistan Conflicts; Pentecostalism  in African countries; The clash of Fundamentalisms. The search is on to understand and change the dynamics of both inter and intra religious conflicts and violence –and their possible expanding futures in the world.

Gender and Sexual Violence across the world – Widespread domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, sex trafficking, female infanticide, rapes of all kinds (including war rape, work and sexual harassment, dowry abuse and sexual murder. And over 80 countries still outlaw homosexuality – some with the death penalty. Transgender issue remain an anomaly in many countries. The search is on for to understand and change gender and sexual inequalities across the world amongst many countries and groups who actively promote this kind of hatred and discrimination.

The World Crisis of the Environment and Population  – climate change, expanding waste, water shortage, energy crisis, endangered species and population expansion with ageing populations are all putting planet earth and the people who live on it in jeopardy.  The search is on to understand this ‘new catastrophism’ , to see what it is doing to human lives around the world, and to seek change.

Democratic Failure and Political Crisis – dictatorships in North Korea, Sudan,  Zimbabwe, Burma; genocide in Myanmar, Syria, Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia; restrictions of freedom in China, especially in the media; a lack of equality, widespread corruption, a lack of free and fair elections. The search is to see how authoritarianism is still prominent, inequalities pervade and how democracies – after all this time, still fail and fail badly.

And so the list goes on and on……

Contemporary humanists and sociologists are charged with documenting all this bad news. It is hard to miss the wider tales of genocide, the long history of violence, wars, of gross global and local inequalities, of economic breakdown, of endless political corruption, social exclusion and environmental breakdown.  It is indeed part of the wider social imaginary that we live in ‘crisis’, ‘bad times’, or as Wallerstein once put it, ‘The End of the World as We Know it’. Our newspapers, television and pundits tell us this every day.  Indeed sociologists should perhaps spend more time critiquing this widespread view instead of simply mirroring it in the language of yet another damn crisis.

So here comes a problem: with all this, sociology can easily become the moaning, grumbling discipline. Excessively critical, we only look on the dark side of life. Much sociology becomes almost obsessively miserablist (espousing the philosophy of pessimism), misanthropic (cynically believing the worst of human nature and motivation) and melancholic (a mental state characterized by deep depression, sadness and gloom).  Some sociologists are modern day doomsayers and apocalypse forecasters.

 But dark as it indeed is, this is not the full story.

We also need a human sociology to take seriously the idea of hope and the future. Part of our work should routinely be the emancipatory project of imagining better human social worlds for all; and to engage in discussions about the values and practices which need to be developed to nudge us towards this potentially better world. As Ernst Bloch outlines in his magisterial volumes on The Principle of Hope (1938-47), we need a sociology of hope which might help provide some ‘outlines of a better world’.  What might this project look like?  The Olympics might bring a little of this? And I hope bits of this new web site will.

Watch this space.

footnote: The image is of the film of the 1936 Olympics made by Leni Riefenstahl. She is considered one of the greatest film makers of the twentieth century. They also capture the world of Hitler’s dreams.

The phrase ‘Lest we forget’ comes originally from a refrain in  Kipling’s poem “Recessional’.

Better Worlds: On Human Potentials, Capabilities and Rights

On Human Potentials, Capabilities and Rights   “What is each person able to do and to be?” (Nussbaum, 2011: p18). A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What one can be, one must be.  Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970)…

Political change and Avaaz: Imagining Better Worlds

On Avaaz I subscribe to and get messages and petitions to sign about their regular campaigns to change the world to a better place for all. Avaaz—meaning “voice” in several European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages—was launched in 2007 with a simple democratic mission: “Organize citizens of all nations to close the gap between the…

What I Have Lived For

Bertrand Russell; from the opening of his Autobiography

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

 I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

 Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

 This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

 Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) won the Nobel prize for literature for his History of Western Philosophy and was the co-author of Principia Mathematic. When  I was young he was the most talked about and read philosopher. Now nobody ever seems to speak of him. That is the way of ideas and life!  But I still keep his highly readable History of Western Philosophy by me ( even though he was not keen on pragmatism!).

Bertrand Russell as a young man

What does the Humanist quest for unity in the midst of difference mean for us today?

In this web blog, I will piece together various view on humanism and recently I have just come across a short  essay on humanism by the sociologist Richard Sennett which is of some interest. He concludes:

I have wanted …. to explain in this essay why the label “humanist” is a badge of honour, rather than the name for an exhausted worldview. Humanism’s emphasis on life-narratives, on the enriching experience of difference, and on evaluating tools in terms of human rather than mechanical complexity are all living values—and more, I would say, these are critical measures for judging the state of modern society. Looking back to the origins of these values is not an exercise in nostalgia; it is rather to remind us that we are engaged in a project, still in process, a humanism yet to be realized, of making social experience more open, engaging, and layered.

‘Humanism’    Hedgehog Review Summer 2011

Hedgehog Review

Imagining Better Worlds For All : Opening Imageries and Poetics

Everard Longland: Butterfies-Escape-The-Web(2011)

Over the coming weeks I am hoping to put together  some short pieces about a better world.

I have for some time been concerned about the failures of the modern world and our endless critique of it.We need some sense of a positive future thinking.

Although I am no simple utopian, I do like the idea of ‘thinking forward’ –  of Dreaming of a Better Social World for All.

Something has gone terribly wrong with our current values of markets and money.

The following captures a little of  what I think. It was presented at my British Sociological Presidential Lecture at the British Museum in October 2011. 

I am against a world riddled with the values of the market place
I need Cosmopolitan Hope – a dreaming forward-
in a world of often unbearable darkness.

I need Wisdom – experience and science ands art-
in a world of chaotic complexity.

I need Empathy- my bridge to the others –
 in a world of monologic terrorism.

I need a Human Flourishing  – a potential developed for all-
in a world of wasted lives.

I need Social Justice for all- a fairness and freedom and equality-
in a world ruled without justice

I need Meliorism – those practical actions
which will make the world a better place.

Above all: recall the golden rule:
Treat others as you would be done by.

And Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.


Table: Dreaming of a Better Social World: In Defence of Social Values over Economic and Nationalistic Values  (in process)

Feature of Society and People to be developed Value Literature ‘Enemies’ to question & challenge
Hope; Melioration; Progress Progress; cautious optimism Science Fiction
Despair, nihilism
Role taking, empathy & dialogue Sympathy The Empathic Society; Dialogic ethics, Recognition theory, Monologic Terrorism; lack of empathy; a certain blindness in human beings
Altruism – concern with others Compassion, kindness & care Feminist Care TheoryThe Compassionate Temperament CrueltyViolenceSelfishness
Justice, Democracy and Social Rights Fairness, Freedom, Equality The Philosophies of Justice and Human Rights Authoritarianism; Tyranny of others, Elitism, Scapegoating, Bullying….Slavery, the Unfree, Unjust. Unequal
rights denied
Human Flourishing ‘The Good Life’ & ‘The Virtues’ Human Capability Theory with Rights and Flourishing Neglect, ExploitationDenial of opportunities,Incapacitation. Societies based on economic values centrally.
Cosmopolitanism Acceptance of differences Cosmopolitan theory/ Difference theory NarrownessEthnocentrism
Humanitarianism Societies based on caring for the others The Humanitarian Society Cruel, violent, genocidal societies
Wisdom Experience– both historical and personal;Science – both hard and soft;Imagination – both limited and unlimited Confucius and all the ‘wise thinkers across cultures and throughout history Folly , Stupidity (which is not the same as ignorance); Blind science, blind rationality.


Coming Tales

        1. The Hopeful Society
        2. The Empathic Society
        3. The Kind, Compassionate Society
        4. The Just and Rights Society
        5. The Flourishing for all Society
        6. The Wise Society
        7. The Humanitarian Society
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