In the Regions of Utopia

Newcastle University, UK, 28-30 June, 2015

What place is there for the unique and multifaceted identities of regions in a globalised world? How might we theorise a sustainable concept of the local that could survive into the future?How do online communities affect our experiences of the local?

The second symposium of the ‘Imaginaries of the Future’ research network sought to investigate what the concepts of local and regional identity might mean in the future. One of its key objectives was to explore these concepts in a way that avoids the risk of becoming either exclusionary and inward-facing, a mere neoliberal branding exercise, or morbidly nostalgic. Cities across the world from Bilbao (Spain), to Newcastle-Gateshead (UK) to Baku (Azerbaijan) have paradoxically attempted to assert their identity through a kind of ‘sameness’ by the construction of so-called ‘icon’ buildings and the attraction of multinational chains to every high street. In this context, are the concepts of local and regional identity hopelessly utopian in a negative sense as inward-facing or morbidly nostalgic, or can they open up a utopian prospect in the more positive sense of being dynamic, inclusive and provisional?

Politically, a focus on the local is not without risk. Local communities may gather in a particular location precisely as a means to create an enclave of acceptance, recognition and support within an intolerant society. The ‘temporary autonomous zones’ of protest movements from Copenhagen to Kowloon are anticipatory, establishing sites of pre-figurative transformation.Yet both can often seem unable to affect broader and lasting social change. More problematically, identity politics based on “dwelling” and belonging to a fixed social group or place can easily slide into a hierarchical politics of insiders versus outsiders. Such issues are rooted not only in academic theory, but also in the embodied experience of the everyday or quotidian. How do communities (whether in cultural forms such as theatre, in person, or virtual) maintain and promote a sense of locality through everyday interaction?

While regional identity can be a product of and represented by such things as the built environment, topography, local dialect and languages, visual arts, music, dance, film, literary expression or cuisine, none of these things alone, or even together, guarantees a survival of the local, which suggests that something else must be in play. It is precisely this problem that the symposium sought to understand.

The programme can be found here [.pdf].