Ahead of my presentation on ‘The Catastrophic Function in Contemporary Culture’ at the ‘Fragments of Time’ conference on 16th October, here’s my article on contemporary utopianism, which forms the backdrop to the ideas I hope to develop there. I’m looking forward to returning to some of the tentative suggestions I raised about science fiction and the supernatural in the short coda to this article. Although not directly related to the topic of pedagogy and education, I was tempted to return to the theme of the “dead/undead” as a political category following my appeal to the possibility of “zombie zones of action” in relation to the crisis of contemporary education.
This article was originally published in Volume 18 (Winter 2010) of Studies in Social and Political Thought and based on a paper I gave at the ‘Utopia, Dystopia and Critical Theory’ conference in May 2010, hosted by the Centre for Social and Political Thought and the Centre for Literature and Philosophy at the University of Sussex.
Utopia and Its Discontents: Dreams of Catastrophe and the End of ‘the End of History’
The early Anglophone reception of Ernst Bloch’s utopian philosophy in the 1960s was undertaken primarily by liberal, left and existential theologians in North America, and the first English translations of his work were, accordingly, sustained reflections on theology from his mature writings, Man on His Own and Atheism in Christianity, translated in 1971 and 1972, respectively. Until the republication of the latter in 2009, both texts were out of print for many years. This early theological reception can be distinguished from a more recent and distinctly aesthetic Anglophone recuperation of Bloch’s work that began in the 1980s. Although Fredric Jameson’s Marxism and Form (1971), and his edited collection of exchanges from the 1930s, Aesthetics and Politics (1977), provided a crucial stimulus for this reception, it is with Tom Moylan’s Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (1986) that the contours of this emerging field can be traced.
Demand the Impossible draws on Jameson and Bloch, as well as Herbert Marcuse, to construct an account of the utopian imagination in order to analyse American science-fiction of the 1970s as offering examples of ‘critical utopias’. Such texts are marked, Moylan argues, by “the awareness of the limitations of the utopian tradition”, rejecting “utopia as a blueprint while preserving it as a dream” (1986: 10). This feature is also characteristic of much of the work that follows Moylan in the field of utopian aesthetics, which has over the last decade become institutionalised as the discipline of ‘Utopian Studies’.
This emergence can be traced back to the publications of Moylan’s Demand the Impossible, the first English translation of Bloch’s The Principle of Hope in 1986, and a collection of Bloch’s essays in The Utopian Function in Art and Literature, which appeared two years later. In the following two decades, a slew of further books and collections on utopia, dystopia and science fiction have appeared, culminating in Jameson’s own return to this theme in his Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005). Since 2000, we have seen English translations of Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia and Traces, the inauguration of the Ralahine Centre for Research in Utopian Studies (which has to date published five volumes under its ‘Utopian Studies’ imprint), the launching of a Masters in Research degree in Utopian Studies at the University of Plymouth, numerous journals and conferences organised by both the European and American societies for Utopian Studies, and research on utopianism in contemporary art emerging from cultural studies and art departments such as Goldsmiths and Chelsea.
This discipline of Utopian Studies remains relatively small, but it is worth examining because the historical and political landscape under which it has emerged imposes, I want to argue, a kind of discontent or uneasiness upon the contemporary recuperation of Bloch, one which masks a deeper philosophical problem. For the resurgence of utopianism in the last few decades is premised upon both the collapse of existing socialist alternatives to Western capitalism, and a liberal rejection of those specific forms of actually-existing socialism in their associations with Stalinism in particular, and the Party and State in general. This produces the appearance of stasis and closure, or what Mark Fisher has dubbed a ‘capitalist realism’, which the appeal to the utopian imagination seeks to circumvent. At the same time, its broader opposition to any neo-Hegelian ‘end of history’, in either its right or left formulations, is internalised as an imperative against all concepts of closure and totality. This is perhaps reinforced by the institutional location of Utopian Studies, to the extent that theology – as opposed to aesthetics – tends to be more comfortable with philosophical and metaphysical reflections upon infinity, totality and fulfilment.
To give some brief examples, in Archaeologies of the Future, Jameson notes how, in the wake of the Cold War, the concept of Utopia becomes synonymous with Stalinism, and with political programmes that involve a commitment to closure and thereby to totality (2005: xi; 4). This commitment is, virtually by definition, lacking in what he distinguishes as an obscure yet omnipresent Utopian impulse, associated with Bloch’s work (ibid.: 1-9). For Moylan, the utopian impulse recovered in contemporary science-fiction is one that resists closure and systematisation, for which there are utopian expressions but no Utopia (1986: 28). Similarly, Lucy Sargisson, writing in the first volume of the Ralahine Utopian Studies series, argues that perfection, finality and stasis should not be taken as defining features of Utopia, and that contemporary science-fiction is politically exciting precisely because its utopias are incomplete. Instead, they “lie on the horizon, or, as Ernst Bloch puts it, in the ‘Not Yet'” (Sargisson, 2007: 37).
What unites these writers is the advocacy of a ‘Utopianism without Utopia’: for Sargisson, this takes the form of a pluralism in which no single utopia can become the Utopia (Sargisson, 2007: 37); Darko Suvin refers to a horizon of unlocalised possible worlds (Suvin, 1997: 132-137); Jameson invokes the idea of a federalism of utopias (Jameson, 2005: 224). This critical utopian impulse has a longer heritage, of course, but its affirmative commitment to open-endedness, partiality and plurality registers the more explicit and direct lineage of Bloch within contemporary Utopian Studies. Indeed, it is Bloch’s failure to properly resolve the theoretical tension between these two aspects – between Utopianism and Utopia – that makes his work so amenable to the kind of jettisoning of the Utopia in its historical form that is currently being performed. For, as Jameson and Moylan point out, Bloch’s utopianism, even at its most generalising and ahistorical, already had a concrete historical Utopia, namely, the Soviet Union (Jameson, 2005: 3, n. 3). In The Principle of Hope, that which Adorno describes as the innermost antinomy of Bloch’s thought is stretched so wide that it appears as if one problematic half can simply be lobbed off, and the other half uncritically taken up by Utopian Studies (cf. Adorno, 1991: 213).
We are now educated to be suspicious of the linear, teleological – ‘Christian’ – aspect of Bloch’s utopianism, of the Enlightenment tropes of maturity, freedom and perfection coded into his evocation of the ‘upright gait’ (accepting there are other, more nuanced and interesting aspects of Bloch’s work, including his work on history, that are important and worthy of further consideration). But what is philosophically problematic about Bloch’s thought is not resolvable by simply omitting the optimistic faith in communism in general or the Soviet Union in particular. Indeed, too much is lost by throwing out any specific attention to the content of the political in order to embrace the empty formalism of a ‘pan-utopianism’ in which the imaginative surplus of the fantasy-principle triumphs over the capitalist reality-principle. Still required is a rethinking of the theoretical relationship between communism and history, not the rejection of history altogether.
Furthermore, because the problem relates to the phenomenological hermeneutics underlying Bloch’s utopianism, uncritically adopted by much of Utopian Studies, this cannot be resolved by simply ignoring his own political and historical Utopia. While David Kaufmann claimed (echoing Jürgen Habermas’ criticism of Bloch as a ‘Marxist Schelling’), that there is “too much Schelling and too much Stalin” in The Principle of Hope (Kaufmann, 1997: 35), the institutionalising of Bloch over the last few decades perhaps too easily ignored the Stalin and too readily embraced the Schelling.
The Phenomenology of Utopianism
I want to elaborate upon this point in specific relation to Bloch’s concept of ‘anticipatory illumination’ [Vorschein], by considering it in relation to the utopian element of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. The darkness of the lived moment is illuminated, for Bloch, by the daydreams of the not-yet-conscious. This is a supplement to Freud’s methodology for the interpretation of dream-symbolism, one which is necessary in so far as Bloch seeks to overcome the limitations placed on the interpretation of the cultural superstructure by Marx’s narrower reflections on ideology. Just as Freud’s concept of the unconscious would encourage him to dismiss the psychotic fantasies of the schizophrenic as a purely regressive collapse of the reality-principle – unanalysable and therefore unredeemable – Marx’s concept of ideology led him to dismiss the utopian fantasising of the 1849 revolutionaries as comparable to those of the madman in the asylum, caused by a past, obsessive and regressive fixation (cf. Freud, 1995: 69-70; Marx, 2002: 21).
Bloch’s Marxism sought to secure the ‘objective element’ of utopian presentiment by distancing it from the pathological implications associated with a place in the Freudian unconscious. Because the not-yet-conscious is not the unconscious, anticipatory illumination may contain its own kind of anticipatory symbols associated with consciousness, reason and freedom. Bloch compares this to the “cultural surplus” Marx describes when the interests of a rising class are expressed in terms of the needs and aspirations of humanity in general (Bloch, 1988: 111). The meaning of the utopian has an implicit futural dimension, produced by a surplus of intentional expectation, whose significance overshoots the ideological workings of false, mystified consciousness.
Wayne Hudson’s The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch charts the philosophical influence of Brentano’s recuperation of the scholastic theory of the intentional object, Meinong’s work on intentional inexistence, as well as Husserl and Scheler’s development of phenomenology on Bloch’s formulation of the ‘not-yet-conscious’. Bloch made contact with the latter via his study of empathy psychology under Theodor Lipps at the University of Munich in 1905, but from 1907 onwards, Hudson claims, Bloch’s emphasis “fell on the directedness of consciousness to objects and its intentionality to future possibilities”, extending “Brentano’s doctrine that all thought acts were directed to objects to cover intentionality towards objects which were ‘not yet'” and utilising Meinong’s Gegestandstheorie as “a model for a theory of directedness towards non-existent objects” (Hudson, 1982: 6; 22-24).
This intellectual movement from phenomenology to a concern with intentional inexistence is reflected in Bloch’s discussion of phenomenology in The Heritage of Our Times, where he argues that Gestalt theory should be detached from the “scholastic-objectivist component in Husserl” (Bloch, 1991: 278). Husserl, Bloch argues, mistakenly augments the subjectivity of the (bourgeois) ego with the objectivity of a ‘contemplative’ construction derived from scholastic and neo-Platonic mysticism. This sought a graphic intuition of essences in which, following the initial bracketing of existence, the “bare species of intention [. . .] is ‘fulfilled'” (ibid.: 275). Bloch proposes that, in contrast to phenomenology, Gestalten should be conceived not as fixed laws but “figures of tension, as tendency shapes, as experiments of the unknown life-shape”. This accords, he says, with Meinong’s understanding of melody as a “quality of shape” (ibid.: 278).
The Epoch as Catastrophe
Bloch’s anticipatory utopian consciousness reflects the attempt by intellectuals of his generation to overcome the narrowness of the orthodox Marxist account of ideology, and its influence can be seen in some of Walter Benjamin’s early formulations for his method of constructing dialectical images of history in the Arcades Project. For Benjamin, the ‘dialectical – the Copernican – turn of remembrance’ represents a “revolution in historical perception”, granting politics a primacy over history by transforming the completed ‘facts’ of what has been into the incomplete experience of “something that just now first happened to us, first struck us” (Benjamin, 2002: 388-389). Comparing this “new, dialectical method of doing history” to Bloch’s anticipatory illumination, Benjamin notes that what “Bloch recognises as the darkness of the lived moment is nothing other than what here is to be secured on the level of the historical, and collectively” (ibid.). For there is a “not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been”, and “its advancement has the structure of awakening” (ibid.). The 1935 exposé of The Arcades Project consequently speaks of the “utopia that has left its trace in a thousand configurations of life, from enduring edifices to passing fashions”, and assumes as its motto the utopian slogan, borrowed from the historian Michélet: “Each epoch dreams the one to follow” (ibid.: 4).
This concern with the perceptibility of a historical ‘epoch’ – in this instance, that of nineteenth-century Paris – is fundamental to the dialectical materialist presentation of history practiced in the Arcades Project. In this respect, it may be regarded as a critical response to the (undialectical) materialist presentation provided in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, dramatically expanding and ultimately reversing the work’s historical and cultural perspective. Indeed, part of Benjamin’s project is to demonstrate how the Marxist concept of ideology itself expresses the ideological limitations of this epoch, in accordance with Marx’s political radicalisation in mid-nineteenth century Paris. Adorno’s critical response to Benjamin’s 1935 exposé is therefore notable in this context. He singles out Michélet’s motto as that around which everything undialectical about Benjamin’s theory of the dialectical image crystallizes (cf. Benjamin, SW3: 54). This concerns (1) Benjamin’s identification of the dialectical image with the content of consciousness; (2) the dialectical image’s linear relation to the future as utopia; and (3) the resulting conception of the historical ‘epoch’, which entails an immanent, rather than theological, version of the dialectical image.
The problematically undialectical conception of the ‘epoch’, which follows from Michélet’s motto, in part derives from the 1935 exposé’s understanding of the temporal relation of the representation of the past to the future (i.e. of the bringing of the past into its (future) present). Admittedly, both Bloch and Benjamin sought, in various and often comparable ways, to rethink these relations outside of chronological linearity. But the futuricity of Benjamin’s concept of the ‘epoch’ remains problematic here because it attempts to think the significance of historical phenomena, in accordance with Bloch’s anticipatory consciousness, by analogy with the phenomenological structure of the wish.
Adorno’s correction to Benjamin’s motto – ‘the recent past always presents itself as if it had been annihilated by catastrophes’ – is not therefore to be understood as some dystopian inversion of Benjamin’s Blochean progressiveness, since that would retain the temporal linearity of which he is so critical (ibid.). Nor should Benjamin’s adoption of this reformulation into the structure of the project be understood as a reference to some empirical possibility (cf. Benjamin, 2002: 397). There are elements of such a productive pessimism in Benjamin’s mature writings, just as there are elements of a simplistic utopian optimism in his earliest essays on the politics of the Youth Movement, but the function of the catastrophic cannot be reduced to this. “Each epoch dreams of itself as annihilated by catastrophes” (cf. Benjamin, SW3: 58) – in this reformulation of Michélet’s slogan, the concept of the catastrophic functions as a dialectical correction to Benjamin’s method of epochal construction.
Consequently, in his 1937 essay on Eduard Fuchs, Benjamin’s (dialectical) historical materialist is now charged with the task of “blast[ing] the epoch out of its reified ‘historical continuity’, and thereby the life out of the epoch, and the work out of the lifework” (Benjamin, SW3: 262). “Yet this construct”, he continues, “results in the simultaneous preservation and sublation of the lifework in the work, the epoch in the lifework, and the course of history in the epoch” (ibid.). An identical formulation from a presumably contemporaneous remark in The Arcades Project concludes that the homogeneity of the epoch is in this way “interspersed with ruins – that is, with the present” (Benjamin, 2002: 474). The catastrophic signifies the dialectical intrusion of the whole of history (including the present in which it is represented) into the epoch, and by extension the whole of the epoch into the life of the artist, and the whole life of the artist into a particular work. In this way, the intrusion of the historical Absolute contributes to the ruination of the work. This theological reference to the totality of history constitutes the basis of Benjamin’s messianism, conceived as a specific relation between the historical particular and the historical Absolute.
As Adorno suggests in his 1935 critique of the non-theological version of the dialectical image, this conception of the catastrophic does not represent a specifically ‘Adornian’ correction to Benjamin’s utopianism but encapsulates his own earlier theory of primal history [Urgeschichte], given its fullest explication in “the most audacious passage in the Trauerspiel book” from 1924-5 (cf. Benjamin, SW3: 55). Indeed, a good example of such epochal construction can be found in Benjamin’s essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities from the early 1920s, where the tensions of the whole ‘Age of Goethe’ are condensed into the structure of the novel, such that the work itself becomes a Goethean “primal phenomenon [Urphänomen]” in which the epoch can be perceived. The Paris Arcades would similarly concretely express the configurations of capitalist modernity in such a way that the entire course of history (including Benjamin’s present) could be read from their structure. In this monadological conception of historical construction, the linearity of progress (or decline) is therefore overcome.
At the heart of Benjamin’s understanding of the dialectical construction of the epoch, and the new method of historical representation it entails, is a critique of the scholastic and ultimately Aristotelian theory of intentionality. In the Arcades Project, this reincorporation of the catastrophic, in its dialectical relation to the utopian, ultimately stands for the rejection of the account of signification inherent to the utopian phenomenology of Bloch’s anticipatory surplus of intention. Adorno’s introduction of the catastrophic back into Benjamin’s mature account of wish-symbols as collective, historical dreams is a dialectical correction to Marxist historicism in order to stave off the idealism of Bloch’s utopian phenomenology.
Convolute N of The Arcades Project distinguishes Benjamin’s dialectical images from phenomenological essences on the basis of their ‘historical index’. This ‘index’ indicates that the image belongs to a particular time in the past and attains legibility at a particular ‘now’ in the future. Truth is charged to the bursting point in this indexical conjunction, and the point of explosion is “the death of the intention, which thus coincides with the birth of authentic historical time” (Benjamin, 2002: 463). The perceptibility of such an image “bears to the highest degree the imprint of the perilous critical moment on which all reading is founded” (ibid.). The imprint of the historical index on the image (the intensifying conjunction of the past to its particular present) takes on the appearance of the catastrophic. According to this principle, the growing significance of historical phenomena is apparent from the conversely diminishing status of the intention attributed to them.
The kernel of this semiotic critique of the intentional is contained in Benjamin’s aborted plans for a critical Habilitation on Duns Scotus and signification (based, like Heidegger’s own thesis, on a misattribution of Thomas of Erfurt’s thirteenth-century work on Speculative Grammar, Or the Modes of Signifying), and a consideration of this critique contributes to an understanding of his reference to a non-phenomenological ‘historical index’ at the basis of the dialectical image. Truth, unlike knowledge, is concerned not with the coherence of the object established in consciousness, but with the immanent self-representation of the object, devoid of all intention (Benjamin, 1998: 36). The Aristotelian-scholastic schema of words signifying concepts denoting things is unable to account for how something possesses the capacity in the first instance to be taken as a sign of something else. That is, how do signifiers originally signify their signifying function? Without an explanation, the theory of intentionality – and any epistemology founded upon it – not only suffers an infinite regress, but is also sundered from the possibility of fulfilment and therefore the experience of truth.
Benjamin’s solution is to assume that everything possesses an essential semiotic nature (words, concepts and things), entailing a linguistic ontology comparable to that of J. G. Hamann’s metacritique of Kant’s transcendental idealism. The realm of significance belongs neither to the consciousness of the knowing subject nor to the object, but extends as a “critical medium between the realm of the signifier and the signified”: “We may say, therefore, that the signifier points to the signified and simultaneously is based on it, insofar as its material determination is concerned” (Benjamin, SW1: 228). The signifying element within the signified itself concerns its immanent self- signification (or self-representation), what Benjamin elsewhere extrapolates in relation to Early German Romanticism and to a theological conception of Naming as the primal element of signification, “the analogue of that knowledge of the object in the object itself ” (Benjamin, SW1: 90). But the Name, as the linguistic essence of a thing, is the totality of its historical determinations or significations.
Every aspect of relation, including that which takes place between a ‘subject’ and ‘object’ of perception, is to be understood as a form of language or signification. Benjamin’s theory of the perceptibility of phenomena extends this model of signification into the experience of history. In a discussion of the ‘now of recognizability’ from 1921, what Benjamin later calls the historical index of the image (the mark of its significance) is explained according to a ‘medium’ or a ‘nexus between existing things and also with the perfected state of the world’ to which truth belongs. The metaphysical immanence attributed to the theological name is here incorporated into the ‘meaning’ associated with historical events themselves, including the ‘significance’ of great works of arts.
Whereas ‘intentionality’ describes significance as a relationship holding between the subject and the intentional inexistence (or conceptual kind of existence) of the object of consciousness (i.e. the concept), the catastrophic redeems the objective element by liberating it from the human knowledge of history. Benjamin’s messianic account of the experience of truth imposes the theological concepts of the infinite, fulfilled and perfected state of the world into the immanence of finite, particular, existing phenomena.
What is surprising about Bloch’s concept of ‘anticipatory illumination’ is how commonsensical and idealist is its grounding in intentional surplus, how its substitution of the valorization of the ‘just-then’ for the ‘not-yet’ performs the inversion of historical conservatism. Bloch’s theory of signification ends up abandoning any qualitative content within historical significance: objectivity resides in the mere futurity of things. Even if Utopian Studies rejects the true historical meaning and implication of Bloch’s utopianism – Soviet socialism itself – it nonetheless inherits Bloch’s failure to resolve this problem at the level of historical signification. This uneasiness over the ‘end of history’ imposes a critical self-limitation upon contemporary utopian theory, which as a result jettisons the concept of history which is required for the genuine critical purchase it espouses. For, to repeat the standard hermeneutical problem, how can anything have significance or meaning if one fails to pose the question of totality or fulfilment? Bloch’s utopian images are as undialectical in their futural incompleteness as Jung’s archaic images are in their past completion.
The contemporary interest in utopian aesthetics, reflected in the proliferation of forums discussing the topic of utopianism, is useful for registering the general impasse in the possibility of political change, but its specific reception of Bloch’s work – devoid of his particular political commitment – merely reinforces the inverted conservatism of political and cultural liberalism.
In conclusion, I want to suggest that the dream of catastrophe which underwrites Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical image provides a more philosophically attentive and useful resource, not least because it formulates itself precisely in relation to this question of signification and historical significance that, I suggest, remains unresolved in the recuperation of Bloch. To the extent that it seeks to reject the positivist representation of historical ‘facts’, it opposes the view of history produced by the present ruling class. In common with much of contemporary Utopian Studies, it therefore opposes any quasi-Hegelian, empirically foreshortened ‘end of history’ which merely serves to reinforce the eternalization of the present moment. But, unlike the recuperation of Bloch in the field of Utopia Studies, it does not simply jettison reflection upon the problem of historical significance, but rather replaces the Hegelian Absolute with an Early German Romantic and Goethean one.
Coda: Science Fiction and Utopian Studies
There is a further condition of the institutional emergence of Utopian Studies, which remains unaddressed here. As indicated in the introduction, this institutionalization is predicated not only on (1) a theoretical recuperation of a phenomenology of utopian consciousness derived primarily from a reception of the work of Ernst Bloch, and (2) a postmodern suspicion of the totalizing project of historical meta-narratives (on both the Left and Right), formulated as a discontent towards any ‘end of history’, but also (3) a literary and cultural attentiveness to science fiction, conceived as a sub-genre of ‘critical utopian’ writing, and drawing on a body of literature which emerges in the 1970s out of the experience of counter-cultural America. At this point, I am only able to offer as a conjecture the suggestion that the affinity between Utopian Studies and science fiction is a reflection of their comparable disciplinary emergence – their recuperated ‘respectability’ – in the historical and political conditions of the late 1970s and 1980s. But I would suggest that this affinity can also be extended to the phenomenological temporality inherent to the form of much science fiction, in the way that its anticipatory structure – which is precisely the condition of its ‘realism’ – reasserts rather than disrupts historical continuity. The dialectical conception of catastrophe expounded above would have the appearance not of some utopian or dystopian possibility, but the immanent and violent intrusion of the Absolute into the space of the present. This manifests itself not in the appearance of the new, but of the archaic and primal. It would, presumably, possess the theological or supernatural simultaneity of horror. A rejection of science fiction’s anticipatory structure would therefore push its realist form into the domain of surrealism. Admittedly, some of the greatest works of science fiction have extended the boundaries of the genre in precisely this way.
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