The Limits of Utopia as an Aesthetic Category

March 3, 2011 § 13 Comments

Via Gerry, it seems Fredric Jameson is coming out with a new book on Volume 1 of Capital. I’ll save my knee-jerk criticisms of the basic outline until after I’ve read it, but I wanted to highlight the coda of this short preview, in which he gives what might be his most succinct ‘definition’ of utopia and its importance to critical theory:

Perhaps I can make all this clearer by returning to my own work on Utopias and adding a new set of conclusions to it. I there posited two kinds of oppositions: the first one was the opposition between Utopian models or projects and the Utopian impulse. The former included the various proposals of the classic Utopian texts as well as the various historical attempts to realize Utopia in revolutionary practice. The latter, the Utopian impulse, designated the ever-present often unconscious longing for radical change and transformation which is symbolically inscribed in everything from culture and daily life to the official activities of politics and goal-oriented action. I now want to reidentify these two rather different manifestations of Utopia in a new and clearer way: for I have come to realize that the Utopian texts (and also the revolutions) are all essentially political in nature. They all embody so many tinkerings with possible political schemes in the future, new conceptions of governance, new rules and laws (or their absence), in short an endless stream of inventions, sophisticated and naïve alike, calculated to solve problems that exist on the political level. Thus, to give but one example, I will now claim that Thomas More’s inaugural Utopian gesture of the abolition of money (by no means original with him) was not an economic gesture but a political one, and expressly articulated as a means of solving any number of acute social problems.

In that case, I am led to affirm that the Utopian impulse, on the other hand, is profoundly economic, and that everything in it, from the transformation of personal relations to that of production, of possession, of life itself, constitutes the attempt to imagine the life of a different mode of production, that is to say, of a different economic system.

Now I turn to my other opposition which has to do with what can be imagined and what cannot, with the apparently outrageous proposition that Utopias do not embody the future but rather help us to grasp the limits of our images of the future, and indeed our impossibility of imagining a radically different future. Utopia, I claimed, is the radical disturbance of our sense of history and the disruption whereby we approach a thought of the radical or absolute break with our own present and our own system. But insofar as the Utopian project comes to seem more realizable and more practical, it turns into a practical political program in our world, in the here-and-now, and ceases to be Utopian in any meaningful sense.

I will now reidentify this thought with one of the premises of the Marxist tradition, namely the distinction between the two stages of social revolution or, if you prefer, the difference between the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat (which I will interpret as social democracy) and communism itself as such. You will now have understood that this distinction between politics and economics, between the achievable Utopia of the Utopian planners and the deep unconscious absolute Utopian impulse, is one between the social-democratic moment and the moment of communism. Communism can only be posited as a radical, even unimaginable break; socialism is an essentially political process within our present, within our system, which is to say within capitalism itself. Socialism is capitalism’s dream of a perfected system. Communism is that unimaginable fulfillment of a radical alternative that cannot even be dreamt.

If then Utopia is what allows us to become aware of the absolute limits of our current thinking, then such are the limits and such is the contradiction we have become able to confront. I have elsewhere described it as a contradiction between Utopia and Cynical Reason. If so, then it virtually produces its own slogan: Cynicism of the Intellect, Utopianism of the Will!

I’ve already argued that what I suppose you could call ‘concrete utopias’ provide an easily commodifiable form of emotional consolation under the pretense of ‘intellectual cognition’ (I would not necessarily equate imaginary solutions with intentional communities, no matter how ‘unrealistic’ — this implies too much false consciousness on the part of participants).

I also don’t think a “utopian impulse” can be separated from its concrete manifestations, only asserted in yet another utopian tract. This whole aesthetics of utopia seems to parallel the structuring opposition of Sontag’s ‘camp:’

18. One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.

In which ‘pure camp’ is the property of the critic who names it, never the producer, for whom too much self-awareness drags him or her inexorably into the horrors of mere kitsch. Though with the proviso that for Jameson there is no ‘pure’ manifestation of the utopian impulse — it is entirely a critical category.

Or, going further back, we can compare with Schiller’s opposition between naïve and sentimental poetry:

The opposite of naive perception, namely, is the reflecting understanding, and the sentimental frame of mind is the result of the endeavor, even under the conditions of reflection, to recover the naive perception according to the contents. This would occur through the fulfilled ideal, in which art encounters nature again. Should one pass through those three concepts according to the categories, so will one meet nature and the naive frame of mind corresponding to it always in the first, art as annulment of nature through the freely working understanding always in the second, finally the ideal, in which perfected art returns to nature in the third category.

If revolt (any “practical political program in our world”) is fully naive, never transcending nature’s limits, then the utopian imagination is sentimental (using our limitless powers of reflection to both expose and gesture beyond our existential limits), and to fully work through it we (critics) must make ourselves receptive to an eschatological revolution as communism’s unimaginable break, “in which perfected art returns to nature.”

But Jameson takes things even further — by splitting concrete (sentimental) utopia and the utopian impulse into ‘political’ vs. ‘economic’ registers (which of course no one thought were fully separate until well after Marx), he seems to distance himself not only from naive practical action, but also from the imagination of utopia itself, retroactively determining all ‘naive’ action (socialism) as ‘merely political’ and elevating economic change tout court to the terrain of the unthinkable. And so the most advanced materialism — the rational and considered (re)organization of relations of (re)production — transposes into the most advanced idealism — the thought of materialism’s impossibility.

Advertisements

Tagged: , , , ,

§ 13 Responses to The Limits of Utopia as an Aesthetic Category

  • I think this repeated declaration of communism as unimaginable (without any qualification, unimaginable for proprietors like himself) suggests a sort of horror that is not just “I can’t imagine not being able to make that woman clean the toilet” (not much else could change for someone like Jameson in communist arrangements – he already has lots of leisure and access to social product to the extent of his needs) but that the fear of the end of others’ (especially female) subordination is the fear that mommy won’t mother, the fear that the bourgeois man is unloveable and can only be cared for and loved if he can coerce it. Politics and economics is a code here for the bourgeois individual’s various means of coercing others to satisfy his needs, (which could be concievably transformed from coercions to some kind of reasonably egalitarian justice), and love.

    • traxus4420 says:

      how is this anxiety specifically about women?

      • I mean if you buy the premises of psychoanalysis. Which may be wrong but nonetheless may affect, in later life, those male culture producers who do buy them (like Jameson) and who could in a more conscious way than the psychoanalysts suggests forge, retroactively, these associations of with femaleness etc..

      • I mean, perhaps I am misreading here, but isn’t he modelling this politics/econ split, that there are utopian desires and a utopian drive; communism is the object of the drive; and it is “economic” in this radical sense, that is, the “radical change” is a transformed idea of property; the communist drive has been identified heretofore in the freudian scheme as the sex drive (“ever-present often unconscious longing for radical change and transformation which is symbolically inscribed in everything from culture and daily life”), but in Jameson’s clarified marxist analysis it aims at abolition of the individual as positied by psychoanlysis, and the transformation of this “economy” (property) inaugurated in the family triad, with control of the mother the core of it and the foundation of property.

        No?

      • I mean the “communism can’t be phantasised” is a defect of the psyche one assumes – it’s not just a polite way of saying most people are too dull witted to imagine communism but some brights could manage with adequate funding; nor is he saying communism is physically impossible; it’s that the human psyche is unalterably limited. Nobody alive today will ever picture communism in advance of its production concretely.

        It’s not clear that this is slowing down communism being concretely produced, but it’s hinted. I think? maybe not. But then why is this a topic? So we have to assume Jameson thinks not being able to picture communism is something that should be repaired or is a misfortune.

        It’s a long term thing but the idea I assume is a generation of babies not yet born could develop psyches of a different kind; they would have different features because of different relations to their mother’s body.

        This is assuming he’s really ruling out that communism is anything we can imagine. Which is ruling out a lot.

        (he even kind of oddly transforms Marx’ descritpion of the capitalist mode of production into a giant psyche as mechanistic psychoanalysis envisions it.)

        The origin of the impulse or drive toward communism is also this psyche, but the psyche is it’s (own) obstacle (rather than, as Marx has it, the capitalist class’ inherited power and the general proprietor classes’ interests).

        that’s what Jameson gets from his transformation of Marx’ description of social historical totality changing through class struggle into an organic totality struggling with itself like a Freudian mind.

        So the ability to produce vivid and detailed fantasies of communism in advance of creating these relations (which fantasies in advance are not necessary in the marxist explanation of historical change but which all the professional fantasy producers agree are indispensible) would presumably require a psyche not produced by the oedipus process.

      • traxus4420 says:

        ok, now i get it.

        but i think the marxian re-framing of psychoanalysis jameson employs means that this:

        “generation of babies not yet born could develop psyches of a different kind; they would have different features because of different relations to their mother’s body”

        stops being a convincing analysis and becomes more like what it looks like, i.e. quackery. like i don’t think he would rule that out as an explanation for why some individual psyche can’t imagine communism, but as at the general level of society i think (following lacan further than lacan) the freudian content of psychoanalysis empties out — the mother becomes the structural position of the mother, which can be filled by any number of different figures, and its existence is a function of capitalist social organization.

        but i have not read his earlier work (around the time of marxism and form) where he might have worked this relation between lacan and marx out more plainly.

        incidentally, this:

        “the fear of the end of others’ (especially female) subordination is the fear that mommy won’t mother, the fear that the bourgeois man is unloveable and can only be cared for and loved if he can coerce it.”

        doesn’t seem too far off as a theory of bourgeois false consciousness.

      • traxus4420 says:

        in archaeologies of the future jameson actually begins to approve of ‘federalism’ as a mode of worldwide political organization, in which he includes the EU and canada as positive examples. the problem with it is this:

        “But the failure of federalism to become completely Utopian lies not only in its practical realisibility: the moment in which it becomes ‘only that,’ descending from a transcendental ideal into a contingent set of empirical arrangements. It lies above all in the absence from it of representation, that is, of the possibility of any powerful libidinal cathexis. Federalism cannot be invested with the desire associated with the lost, indeed the impossible object…Federalism would seem to lack that passionate investment which nationalism preeminently possesses: that ‘remainder of some real, nondiscursive kernel of enjoyment which must be present for the Nation qua discursive entity-effect to achieve its ontological consistency’ (Zizek). Indeed, it would be a matter of great political interest to make an inventory not only of the various lost objects the modern nationalist passions have posited, but also of what happens when federalism works, at least for a time, as in the ‘former’ Yugoslavia.”

        merely political change, not economic – and therefore does not change our psychic structure, and can’t lead us anywhere because it doesn’t satisfy our desires. and this is why ‘we’ need these imaginary substitutes, because they keep the desire open, unsatisfied with positive content (the precondition of utopia) – because again it is the psychic structure (capitalist mode of production as giant psyche) itself that needs to change.

  • Luc Perkins says:

    Oooh, sweet. I’ve been working on a paper on utopia and kitsch, and that Sontag reference is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been looking for (technically not about kitsch, clearly, but how does carve reality at the joints when one is dealing with “sensibilities” anyway?). You know of anything else that’s good on kitsch outside the Jamesonian oeuvre?

  • thanks i don’t mean to be grumpy. i found his intro bizarre. the whole idea of abridging capital so drastically then treating what’s not tossed – part of vol I – as the whole seems really wrongheaded to me. And then this weird “the book is not political its economic”. As if a “political” book is necessarily sci fi fantasy, “world building”, fabian-fasho-Nietzschean individual visions of heaven. (its a tiny layer of a tiny class that thinks this way).

    The point of Capital is to show that this distinction and the isolation of the “economic” is a bourgeois perspective and false (partial). Critique of political economy. Not instance of. But Jameson knows this, so its like he’s gone over to the management. It really sounds like he’s emerged from months of gruelling “deprogramming” in the clutches of marxian postmarxists, to recant. Here’s the same kind of funny coded idealist Hegelian reading you get from Negri. Maybe I ignored this aspect when he was reading novels because he’s just so perceptive and witty.

    ” the mother becomes the structural position of the mother,”

    the mother whose position this is is still concrete. the structural position of the mother is determined by concrete characteristics of our species. It is still concrete people who are identified, in life and literature, by the State as mothers and by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as female. the evasion of the concrete that happens in Lacan and esp when it becomes film theory – about which Jameson is not sceptical enough – doesn’t finally disguise that “mother” is not content-free and randomly selected name for that structural position.

    “doesn’t seem too far off as a theory of bourgeois false consciousness.”

    yes…its the lesson Jameson imports from Marx with Mr Peel. And the gallery of fantasy bounteous devoted tell this story…Friday, “Mammy”…its also arguably what a disaster movie is, in a big way, as that Franklin essay about Ballard explains…

    I love this movie Dersu Uzala which sort of tries to excavate and allay or work through this fear.

    I read some of Archeologies but I thought it was kinda bogus, actually, the deck is so stacked. He picks evidence basically of culture product for a narrow demographic niche. And these kinds of speculative psychoanalytic diagnoses of nationalism also seem (though they aren’t finally so very) plausible for a certain figure, a male sci fi fantasy merchandise consumer, and imply a world such as the fictional one constructed by Schmitt and maybe playacted in social media. He seems himself to easily find a position of immunity from these kooky lacanian psychic operations and volky passions from which to observe them.

    “Federalism cannot be invested with the desire associated with the lost, indeed the impossible object”

    I don’t know about the lost object explanation for nationalist passions but many (not all) nationalistic Americans have a federation (the US) as the object of the feeling and obviously Germany, Russia, the former Yugo, Czechoslovakia, suggest there’s nothing about a federation that prevents nationalistic devotion to it.

    • traxus4420 says:

      i had a similar reaction to the intro, but thought i’d give him the benefit of the doubt…

      i agree with you that “the mother whose position this is is still concrete,” i only brought the structuralist disavowal part up because i think that’s an example of how he “seems himself to easily find a position of immunity from these kooky lacanian psychic operations and volky passions from which to observe them.” like i think if you asked him if he thought future generations would be more communistic via different relationships to their mothers’ bodies he would probably say “not necessarily.”

      and it’s interesting, unless i missed something archaeologies, a book about the ‘minor’ genre and burgeoning critical frame of science fiction, seemed to have (snuck in the middle) much more frank statements of concrete political opinion on his part than other books, of which the federalism thing is one.

      • thanks, yes benefit of the doubt – yes. it’s hard when he says “its not about working like Braverman’s book.” well the title is a hint about what it’s about. and the point was to describe what is the case despite greatlty varied concrete experience of work.

        he thought future generations would be more communistic via different relationships to their mothers’ bodies he would probably say “not necessarily.”

        not more communistic – isn’t his point that we are communistic, that is, the drive is universal, but the object is universally unimaginable? there don’t seem to be too many options to explain such a thing.

        a book about the ‘minor’ genre and burgeoning critical frame of science fiction, seemed to have (snuck in the middle) much more frank statements of concrete political opinion on his part than other books, of which the federalism thing is one.

        naturally as federalism is how planets are affiliated for galactic peace facilitating the civilisation mission and realisation of our manifest destiny in Star Trek.

  • maybe cause fedrill US isn’t so lost objecty:

    http://bigthink.com/ideas/31329

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading The Limits of Utopia as an Aesthetic Category at Disaster Notes.

meta

%d bloggers like this: