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.