Upcoming Workshop: 17th & 18th of March 2022

Together with Davina Cooper, I am organizing an informal workshop entitled “Fail Again, Fail Better? Utopia, Memory, Radical Politics, and Radical Research“. This is a key output of my ongoing Leverhulme Research Fellowship.

The schedule and description are below. If you want to participate, please email me (mathias.thaler (at) ed.ac.uk) and Davina Cooper (davina.cooper (at) kcl.ac.uk).


17th of March 2022 – 9:30-11:30am GMT 

  • Sixtine Van Outryve d’Ydewalle (UC Louvain): This Is The End? Failing at the Elections for a Municipalist Strategy 
  • Heather McKnight (Sussex): Anticipatory Failure: Sustaining Hope as Collective Care in Digital Campaigning and Online Activist Spaces 
  • Cristy Clark (Canberra) & John Page (Southern Cross): Reconceptualising “Failure” in the Utopias of the Lawful Forest 
  • Neil Walker (Edinburgh): One-Shot Utopias 
  • Lee Stickells (Sydney): Cold Showers: Architectural Experiments in Eco-domesticity 

18th of March 2022 9:30-11:30am GMT 

  • Tom Moylan (Limerick): Vectors of Utopian Failure 
  • Aoife O’Donoghue (Durham) & Ruth Houghton (Newcastle): Failing Upwards: Utopias, Imperialism & International Law 
  • Mark Schmitt (TU Dortmund): Letting Be: Pessimist Epistemologies as/and Failed Utopianism. 
  • Shona Hunter (Leeds Beckett): The Distribution of Power Through Fantasies of Institutional Success and Failure 
  • Mathias Thaler (Edinburgh): Failure and Success in Social Dreaming 

Introduction to the seminars 

The relationship between utopia and failure is a tricky one. Historically, conservative critics have treated utopias as necessarily doomed to failure. For the left, failure lies in the inability to achieve desired utopian ideals of democratic, egalitarian worlds of care, leisure, and ecological stewardship. But failure is not necessarily a failing. For many champions of utopianism, failure is an intrinsic part of social dreaming. This is so for two reasons: On the one hand, the alterity toward which utopian projects strive cannot, strictly speaking, be imagined or enacted. On the other, social dreaming and failure are often bound up with each other, as José Esteban Muñoz observes in his analysis of queer futurity.  

From the perspective of utopia, radical politics, and radical research, failure is an important topic for discussion. In this roundtable, we want to examine the vexed relationship between utopia and failure from several angles. On a conceptual level, our interest lies in more clearly articulating what failure entails for utopianism. If Samuel Beckett’s dictum “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” serves as an inspiration to ideas and practices of social dreaming, what may be learnt from various studies of failure in different academic disciplines? In what ways is the failure to imagine and enact alternatives also entangled with powerful social affects, such as discomfort or wilfulness?  

Methodologically, we hope to explore how academic research builds failure into its projects. Prototyping assumes that many experimental processes and outputs will disappoint or not be fit for purpose. What can we learn from experimenting with failure in undertaking research? Historically, we might try to understand better the specific causes behind, and concrete manifestations of, failed utopias. While the literature on the rise and fall of totalitarian ideologies in the 20th Century is vast, much less attention has been paid to “minor” utopias, “everyday utopias”, or social movement agendas that unravel. Are there lessons to be drawn from when and why these initiatives have run into trouble? How does the memory of failed utopias inform and shape current expressions of the desire for other ways of being and living?  

Finally, our goal is to explore the ways in which imagining and enacting alternatives can productively cope with failure. Recent research has emphasized the precariousness of prefiguration as a transformative process concerned with both counterhegemonic practices and concepts. Given the utopian character of prefiguration, what is the status of failure in the politics of radical alternatives? To what extent are judgements of failing or succeeding tied up with mainstream standards of normativity that should themselves become the object of critique? These questions and others will be discussed at this informal roundtable as we share the ways in which failure informs, provokes, stimulates, and troubles our work.





“I am offered the Grand Inquisitor’s choice. Will you choose freedom without happiness, or happiness without freedom? The only answer one can make, I think is: No.”
Ursula K. Le Guin