Nichoas Spencer argues for the importance of “anarchistic and spatial factors” in twentieth-century utopian thought despite the resistance to them in the Marxist texts under review by Brown, DeKoven, Jameson, and Puchner.
Despite being often derided as idealistic, nostalgic, and romantic, the concept of utopia has maintained a remarkable resilience in cultural and political discourse. The association of utopia with a narrow and often unappealingly inert narrative genre means that the ongoing presence of the utopian point of reference in literary studies may seem especially surprising. Yet utopia is an increasingly important critical axiom in literary and cultural analyses. The resurgent focus on utopianism is connected to the sense of political directionlessness that many people currently experience in western democratic societies. In such a state, cultural critics assess the recent history of their fields in search of retrievable political models and concepts, and utopianism usually involves such a clear statement of the possibility of political alterity that its current popularity makes much sense. Of course one could see utopian engagement as a shift toward an unrealistic escapism that reinscribes rather than departs from political malaise. However, the authors of the books being reviewed here work against such conceptions and strive to imagine utopia as the impulse and struggle for social transformation. In so doing they seek to break down artificial distinctions between aesthetics and politics and read significant political tendencies in frequently innovative conjunctions of literary and other cultural texts. Each of these authors exposes flaws associated with utopia and related concepts, but they also adhere to the notion of utopian literature as a type of culture that investigates the transformational possibilities of the organization of the entire social body. Since the utopian engagements in much of these texts can be read as an attempt to relate culture to forms of politics beyond it, they reflect the limitations of a cultural politics that prioritizes or is even restricted to the domain of culture.
Throughout these texts utopian engagement is characterized by the conceptual doubling that has long been associated with utopian thinking, especially in the Marxist tradition. In particular the utopian conceptual doubles devised by Ernst Bloch serve as a powerful, if sometimes unacknowledged, critical framework. Bloch’s primary opposition is between “abstract utopia” and “concrete utopia” (II 580; I 146). He derides those abstract utopias that offer perfect plans for living because they are both products of individualistic bourgeois whimsy and sealed spatialities cut off from historical processes, and he celebrates concrete utopia as a cultural expression of open spatiality that leads us forward into historical transformation. Additionally, the dynamic between utopian space and subjective experience is important in Bloch’s work in that it extends and complicates the abstract utopia/concrete utopia combination. The enduring presence of such concepts reflects the nature of Marxist sensibilities in these literary analyses. Bloch’s Marxism was cultural and utopian, but also articulated in relation to a model of hegemonic historical transformation. Also, Bloch succeeded in rescuing utopian spatial analysis from the taboo placed upon it within Marxism by Engels. The authors discussed below deal with similar dynamics in that their ideas often involve a tension between visions of utopian space and commitments to historical transformation via hegemonic leadership. These tensions are often due to the fact that considerations of utopian spatiality can lead these authors in the direction of anarchist politics, which is then repudiated in favor of Marxist historicism. In some respects these arguments diverge from the points I make in After Utopia. In this book I argue that utopian spatiality forms an anarchist substrate to Marxist historicism in early twentieth-century political theory and radical American fiction. In later theoretical and fictional texts of the twentieth-century such utopian spatiality displaces Marxist models of history to become critical spatiality, a mode of spatial analysis that derives from anarchist concepts but breaks out of such conceptual frameworks. In arguing that the analysis of spatial contours and flows offers insight into the nature of power, subjectivity, and transformation in cultural texts, I claim that the most important elements of utopian thinking for twentieth-century cultural politics are those anarchist and spatial factors that are sometimes treated with circumspection in the books I review. Utopian literary criticism that overlooks or minimizes the importance of the analysis of social space cuts itself off from one of the foundations of utopian thinking, rejects one of the most urgent and powerful tools for understanding the critical function of literary texts, and is vulnerable to charges of transcendental utopian thinking. Transcendental utopias can be thought of as those fully formed imaginings that Bloch dismissed as abstract utopias. But it is also possible to think of transcendental utopian thinking as an emphasis on the future that prioritizes questions of historical process and authoritative leadership over assessments of diverse critical forces at work in the present. In contrast to such thinking, immanent utopianism can be viewed as the attempt to see or, in literary terms, textually narrate the critical and transformational possibilities within existing society. The analysis of social space is so significant in literary study because it is the best means of accessing immanent utopian possibilities. The focus on utopia in literary study is exciting and important because it fosters rapprochement between viewpoints linked to immanent and transcendent utopia, the literary analysis of space and history, and anarchist and Marxist politics. The emphasis on the doubling of utopia in the following comments is meant to highlight points of critical convergence and divergence among these and other doubles that continue to permeate utopian critical discourse. Since it can generate new and timely perspectives on the relation between politics and culture, the assessment of these doubled relations is one of the most fruitful ways forward in considerations of the politics of literary and cultural texts.
By writing about utopia’s textual double, the manifesto, Martin Puchner’s Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-Gardes provides a useful means of approach to the consideration of the doubling of utopia. Puchner’s book, which assesses the cultural and political functions of the manifesto from Marx and Engels to the situationists and beyond, theorizes the protean, inseparable, and mutually defining relation between radical politics and avant-garde aesthetics and, in so doing, makes a powerful challenge to arguments that would claim the inherent opposition between the political and the aesthetic. One of the primary orientations of the book is the insistence on the political registers of art movement manifestos. Puchner’s focus on the Communist Manifesto at the beginning of the book establishes a strong political framework for readings of the manifestos of major art movements of the early twentieth century, such as Dada, surrealism, and futurism, and the collective nature of the production of manifestos underscores this political disposition. The historical and geographical range of the book means that it is much more than simply an account of the political inscriptions of modern art manifestos. The chapter on the translations and geographical travels of the Communist Manifesto convincingly argues that this political text contributed significantly to versions of cosmopolitanism and internationalism on a global scale. Puchner’s account of Vicente Huidobro’s manifesto activity in Chile represents some of the richest global reworkings of the manifesto. Influenced by Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (the most influential manifesto bar that of Marx and Engels), Huidobro wrote a collection entitled Manifestes, which, as a metacommentary on the manifesto, concludes that manifestos are “the refuse of history that amasses on top of literary history” (173). The historical perspective of Puchner’s writing argues that in 1960s phenomena such as the situationist texts of Guy Debord, Valerie Solanos’ SCUM Manifesto, and the manifestos of the Black Panthers constituted a resurgence of the manifesto in the wake of its internecine modern art dissolution. Puchner’s final chapter, a reading of the scholarly journal TDR from the 1960s to the present day in terms of the manifesto, posits that traditions of the avant-garde and the manifesto are most clearly identified with contemporary academic writing.
It is appropriate that Puchner ultimately arrives at an analysis of a theater journal because the principle of dramatization serves an important role in his book in that it frequently opens discursive realms up to one another. Specifically, dramatic terms are central to the study of the relation between the manifesto and utopia, as they highlight both the capacity of the utopian term to oppose or fuse with the term against which it is defined and the emergence of a relation of complementarity from what is ostensibly an opposition. Even though Puchner does not prioritize the relation between the manifesto and utopia, the concept of utopia continually reappears as the point of reference in his key discussions of the distinction between the “performativity” of the political manifesto and the “theatricality” of its avant-garde counterpart (5) (the political manifesto is performative because it seeks to realize change, the avant-garde manifesto is theatrical because it is often associated with milieus of live entertainment). As Puchner notes, the theatrical and performative dimensions of the manifesto are often intertwined, and his analysis suggests that utopia is also enmeshed in this constellation of texts and categories. Building on arguments made by Louis Althusser, Puchner distinguishes between Machiavelli’s The Prince, a text that is “merely utopian” because it presents a political blueprint but does not connect to a historical subject who will realize that blueprint, and Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, which is “nonutopian” because it performatively invokes the proletariat as its historical subject and theatrically occupies the place of that absent subject (32, 30). If one identifies utopia with Bloch’s abstract utopia then Puchner’s distinction between the utopian Machiavelli and the nonutopian Marx and Engels holds up, but a recognition of the double of abstract and concrete utopia complicates matters: as a textual surrogate for the revolutionary historical subject that seeks to instigate historical action and theatrically gains its authority from the future, concrete utopia appears not so much as the opposite of the manifesto as its complementary cultural double.
The fusion of utopia with the manifesto can occur via an appeal to external theorizations, such as Bloch’s, but it can also emerge via the internal logic of Puchner’s writing, as in his discussion of Antonin Artaud. Puchner narrates how Artaud sought financial backing for his theatrical projects, like Wagner did from Ludwig II in realizing Bayreuth, and claimed that without such financing his theater would remain a “utopia” (200). Yet, as Puchner observes, Artaud’s theater of cruelty has inherently unrealizable characteristics, and his conception of The Theater and Its Double can be viewed in terms of “[t]he tension between the physical and the metaphysical” (202), where the physical refers to Artaud’s wish for a realized theater and the metaphysical reflects the desire for the theater to remain an unrealized “utopian construction” (204). At this point Puchner conjoins utopia with the manifesto. While it might appear to be a transcendent phenomenon, such a metaphysical concept is in actuality a type of immanent utopia. Such a theatrical construct should be viewed not as a hopelessly unattainable ideal but as a description of tendencies immanently at work within the present. Far from acquiescing with the status quo, the absence of future orientation in such a construct suggests that the tools for the creation of social difference are already at hand. The utopia must not be realized because then it could assume the authoritarian form of a representation, as with the transcendence of Bloch’s abstract utopia. Just as, in Puchner’s account, the Communist Manifesto opposes the notion of political representation that is expressed in the United States’ Declaration of Independence, so too Artaud’s utopia/manifesto is antithetical to the aesthetic representation of the theater. Artaud’s immanent utopia can also be linked to the “manifesto” of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that Puchner discusses (quoted 45). For Puchner, Hardt and Negri’s “ontological” project is flawed because it is based on “an actually existing activity of an actually existing multitude” rather than a collective subject to be performed in the present and realized in the future (46). However, the “nonfuturist” quality of Hardt and Negri’s construction of the multitude is its defining feature. As with Artaud, Hardt and Negri imagine a form of immanent utopia that differs from both abstract utopia and the theatrical-performative manifesto that serves a complimentary function to concrete utopia.
Elsewhere, the urge toward fusion or singularity in Puchner’s theorizations can, as in his discussion of the situationists, overlook the spatial and immanent dimensions of utopian thinking. Puchner acknowledges that the situationists sought to create a “new and third tradition” beyond politics and the avant-garde (221), but he also says that this new tradition was one of “a new poetry, a new manifesto, a new revolution” (226). In other words, the discussion remains tethered to the terminology of poetry, politics, and the manifesto. Situationist theory is best understood in terms of immanent utopia but it differs from Artaud’s texts because it embodies the spatiality that defines the utopian tradition’s origin and much of its subsequent descent. Unlike the immanence of Artaud’s textual tendencies, the situationists engaged in immanent urban practices, such as dérive and psychogeography, which were imagined in terms of the reimagination and transformation of both urban environments and the subject. The conjunction of spatiality and subjectivity marks situationist theory as continuous with Bloch’s utopian doubling. These doubled strains of immanent utopia converge in the great unrealized spatialities of the period, such as Constant’s “New Babylon,” an imagined global setting for the spatial practices of tendencies within individual and collective subjectivity. Puchner has many excellent things to say about the situationists, and he is correct to say that the group drew upon the legacy of political and avant-garde manifestos. However, the spatial preoccupations of the situationist adventure, which are to a large degree an extension of anarchist politics and which Puchner largely ignores, mean that it must be seen as the double of (in the sense of the other to) both political and poetic manifestos.
Whereas Puchner’s book traverses across theories of poetics and politics, Nicholas Brown’s Utopian Generations considers theoretical and literary concepts of utopia, the latter being doubled as a study of British modernist fiction and postcolonial African literature. Despite the title of his book Brown is not interested in relations of “influence” or filial descent between British and African writing (2). Rather, he “argues for establishing the interpretive horizon of twentieth-century literature at capitalism’s internal limit” (1). For Brown such a limit has more to do with inequities in the global distribution of wealth and power than class differences within industrialized nations. Brown’s reorientation of the study of twentieth-century literature and culture along the axis of postcolonial concerns is impressive and effective, as when he defines postmodern culture as an outcome of decolonization struggles within the developing world. The texts he discusses are connected in that they represent various textual responses to the colonial spread of capitalism and do so by mobilizing different conceptions of utopia. There are, however, significant differences among the combinations of British and African texts that Brown addresses. While the African texts, Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure, Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, and writings by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Pepetela, are all concerned with the legacy of European modernism and modernity within African struggles for national and other forms of liberation, the “British” texts, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, and Wyndham Lewis’ The Childermass, articulate utopian sensibilities that are mediated by aesthetic or, in Lewis’ case, fantastical forms of textuality. One of the effects of these combinations is to suggest that African texts work in solidarity to undermine the obfuscating mediations associated with individualized modernist literary projects. Yet it is too simplistic to say that the book operates on an ethical binary. Much of the resources Brown uses to discuss African literature are drawn from modern European philosophy, and displaced modernists had previously addressed some of the problems of nationalism faced by African writers. The organization of the book into three sections, Subjectivity, History, and Politics, in each of which Brown makes to some degree comparative assessments of British and African texts, reinforces the sense of interconnectedness among the texts and suggests that a theoretical trajectory from the subjective to the political is more important in Brown’s work than a definitive historical rupture between the modernist and the postcolonial.
Brown never mentions Bloch but much of his discussion of utopia utilizes Blochian concepts. At the same time Brown adheres to a Marxist theoretical framework in which Lukácsian versions of dialectics, totality, and utopianism figure prominently. The conjunction of Blochian and Lukácsian elements may seem an unlikely utopian double. Bloch rescues the concept of utopia by differentiating between abstract and concrete utopia, but for Lukács utopia is associated with both the subjectivist fetishization of determinism, as exemplified by the historical determinism associated with Second International theoreticians such as Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, and, as Brown notes, those “utopian” art objects that offer imaginary resolutions of the “ ‘antinomies of bourgeois thought’ whose ultimate determinants are the segmentation of the labor process and the dominance of the commodity form” (14). However, there are strong connections between Bloch and Lukács because concrete utopia can be regarded as a variant of Lukács’ model of dialectical history: where concrete utopian cultural texts depict open spatialities that invite the subjective creation of the future, Lukács discusses objective historical conditions that provide an opportunity for the subjective revolutionary intervention of the proletariat and its representative, the Party. Brown’s co-articulation of Blochian and Lukácsian factors is based on the notion of totality. For Brown totality is a “radical incompleteness” that insists upon the possibility of difference and thus opens out to the future (10), and totalitarianism is a closed version of totality that is trapped in the present and denies difference. Clearly, these two versions of totality correspond very closely with Bloch’s concrete and abstract utopia. But despite these parallels Utopian Generations reads as a Lukácsian rather than Blochian text. Even though the utopian term is titular, it usually appears as a subset of the dialectics of totality, or, more precisely, as a “mode of experience” that is associated with the subjective dimension of Lukács’ subject-object dialectic (61). And even though Brown refers to the idea of the “not-yet” (64), an idea closely associated with the unmentioned Bloch, he rarely shares the spatial conceptualization of utopia that Bloch and others regard as central to the critical work of utopian writing. Conversely, Bloch’s antipathy to abstract utopia reappears with increased urgency in Brown’s fear that we may take our own time to be the finished product of history and abandon the possibility of a utopian future.
The relation between totality and the sublime is central to Brown’s readings of British modernist fiction. Brown describes the sublime as “the simultaneous experience of aesthetic unboundedness and conceptual totalization” (17), a doubled version of totality that defines the negative utopia of aesthetics. In his reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses Brown describes how the modernist text treats the object not as a commodity but as a sublime utopia for the subject, which can overcome the separation from the objective world. The modernist gesture fails because it does not take into account the social totality and thus it is a type of failure that is cut off from totality’s valorized failure or incompleteness. It is at this point in the analysis that the issue of immanent utopia becomes relevant. Brown writes that in Joyce’s text “the canon of immanence is rigorously obeyed” (127). What Brown means by this phrase is the sense that Joyce’s narratives are restricted to cultural interactions that are immanent to them and never transgress these limits to consider their political implications. It is an interesting construction. As well as suggesting that the immanent subjective domain of Ulysses denies the text any outlet to politics and historical transformation, Brown’s observation characterizes immanence in the transcendental terms of law, authority, something to be obeyed. Such a construction reveals the extensiveness of Brown’s commitment to a form of authority or leadership as the principle of authentic politics and suggests that his critique of the immanent utopian sublime is simultaneously a Lukáscian appeal to an authoritative agent of historical leadership. In this analysis Ulysses has severe limitations but it does engage in the sublime version of the project of totality; Brown’s reading of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier shows how “the canon of immanence” wholly undermines that project at the moment it engages with history. In Ford’s text utopian desire attaches itself to the unrealizable dimension of the sublime in such a way as to flee the impulse to totality and seek refuge in immanent subjectivity, “a holiday from history itself, a return to the condition of immediate experience” (93). Even where politics does intervene in British modernist fiction the shift from immanence to a larger political perspective does not succeed. According to Brown, Wyndham Lewis’ “critiques of liberalism always seem to break down at the same point, where diagnosis leads to cure, where micropolitics lead to macropolitics” and consequently Lewis can write nothing but “u-topias, nowheres, that turn out to be nowhere else than right here” (129, 134). It is the inescapability of immanent micropolitics, as much as reactionary politics, which for Brown typifies the disaster of Lewis’ discourse.
In some respects the postcolonial African fiction discussed by Brown overcomes and in other senses only clarifies modernism’s limitations. For example, Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God presents a historical moment with “astounding concreteness” and thus succeeds in the area where The Good Soldier fails, but, like Ulysses, Achebe’s novel is beholden to “the canon of immanence” and consequently its orientation toward the future is enervated by a “lack” of “content” (104, 12). We are at this moment presented with another double within the utopian problematic, one where lack is the empty opposite of the fullness of incompleteness, as the presentation of the subject-object relation in historical terms does not in itself guarantee the availability of a model of historical transformation. Similar limitations inform Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure as read by Brown. The trouble with Ambiguous Adventure is that the utopian desire for social totality speaks in a register of “authenticity” and nostalgia (61). At times Kane’s novel works against “ethnographic nostalgia” (72), but for Brown the “future city” imagined by the text includes “no program for getting there” and appears as an abstract utopian expression of the immanent present - a conceptualization in which the double of abstract and immanent utopia converges (78). The reason for such deficiencies is that the concept of totality imagined by Kane is one “in which there is no solid line demarcating world from self” and the dialectic of subject and object, the motor of Lukáscian history, is absent (64). Brown’s insistence on dialectics and totality delivers a laudable critique of multiculturalism and the liberal fetishization of otherness. He is confident about treating African texts with reference to texts by Heidegger and other western philosophers because he believes that such texts struggle with the same capitalistic forces as impact western writing. Yet the dialectical imperative also functions as a dominating force in Brown’s analysis. He speaks of capitalism’s “mastery of the object,” its technological domination of nature, as something that “is not to be rejected in favor of some imagined or remembered prior relationship to the object-world” (76). No matter what the merits are of this statement it does seem to echo the accommodation with capitalism’s status quo that in other contexts Brown contests. At such moments, and they are frequent, the desire that animates Brown’s text appears to be one for transcendental utopia, the mastery or authority that Lukács ascribes to the Party.
At the conclusion of his discussion of Achebe’s Arrow of God Brown claims that the novel articulates what Hardt and Negri describe as the “desire of the multitude”: “It exists in itself but not for itself, and therefore its only expression can be spontaneous, uncoordinated, and easily perverted” (123). Reading like something straight out of Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness, this statement is Brown’s most direct attack on immanent utopia, the centerpiece of the polemical direction of Utopian Generations, and an echo of the Marxist opposition to anarchism’s decentralized spontaneism. Yet in the book’s final chapters, where the utopianism sought by Brown is at times realized, immanent utopia takes on a different meaning and seemingly supplants the transcendental utopia that animates much of the text. In the participatory relation between actors and audience in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s “learning theater” Brown sees a successful utopian overcoming of the bourgeois antinomy of subject and object and the creation of both a “transformed social totality” and a new collective political subject (163, 164). Yet he sees limitations in Ngugi’s theater that are presented in spatial terms, and his suspicion of the spatial dimension of utopianism can be read as a wariness of anarchist tendencies. Specifically, Brown regards the “domestic space” of such theater as an allegory of the bourgeois national liberation that marks a “recontainment” of utopian historical transformation (167, 165). It is certainly poignant that texts regarded by Brown as attaining the utopian ideal he promotes are simultaneously those that illustrate the dangers of spatial containment so clearly, and his sections on Pepetela’s A Gereção da Utopia, the text that gives Brown’s book its name, as well as the chapter on Brazilian Tropicália, suggest that an immanent utopian political unconscious haunts his arguments. For Brown, Pepetela’s novel evokes “Carnaval”–a celebration of music and dancing among the multitude–as “a space of collective creativity” that “is quite a different sort of utopia than the older imagined Nation” (170), and, we might add, a different sort of utopia than the one Brown pursues in much of his text. Of course he is aware that the “musical utopia” he describes might represent “a step backward, or two” (170), but in considering musical utopia Brown appears to embrace immanent utopia: “Music is the presence of the potential within the actual, not a compensation for the world as it is” (171). Such sentiments are crystallized in the excellent material on Tropicália, where “collective joy” and “universal intimacy” are not represented by music but are realized in its social form. Music, a form of culture that is often more important to its audiences than other types of cultural text, has not always given rise to the same sophistication and incisive analysis as have film and television, but Brown’s discussion of Tropicália is a rare exception to this trend. One of the central distinctions between music and literature is of course that the former is only indirectly, if at all, representational. The identicality of form and content in music can make it a difficult medium to work with critically. By embracing rather than seeking to construct semiotic meanings out of the immanent qualities of music, Brown is able to open up his analysis in enlightening ways. Yet Brown’s claim that the “immanent desire” of Tropicália must “condense into a position of transcendence” weakens the power of his argument (199). Such a claim is consistent with Brown’s adherence to a historical dialectic of totality that requires transcendental leadership. As an articulation of concrete utopia, Utopian Generations continues to side with representational authority for the future, a perspective that is more central to Lukács’ ideas, rather than the immanent spatiality that is also a feature of Bloch’s construction.
Such is the strong association between postmodernism and the 1960s in the U.S. that any new discussion of this conjunction might seem redundant. However, Marianne DeKoven’s Utopia Limited: The Sixties and the Emergence of the Postmodern rethinks American postmodernism in this decade in innovative and provocative ways. The diverse cultural phenomena discussed by DeKoven include the theoretical work of Herbert Marcuse, Roland Barthes, and R. D. Laing, the literature of William Burroughs and James Baldwin, and activist texts such as Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake, The Port Huron Statement, and feminist writings of the period. The overall picture that emerges from these analyses is of a transition from modernism to postmodernism in American culture that involves a broad and gradually unfolding “shift in structure of feeling” (21), a decentralized mutation in sensibility, rather than a decisive rupture identifiable with iconic cultural and theoretical texts. DeKoven’s discussion implies that constructions of postmodernism in terms of French poststructuralism and celebrated authors such as Thomas Pynchon occlude the sociological and activist bases of postmodern feeling. The case of Marcuse is particularly interesting. Marcuse’s brand of Freudo-Marxism has much in common with more au courant theoretical critiques of capitalism (such as those of Deleuze and Guattari), yet, as DeKoven notes, his work is virtually ignored in academic treatments of postmodernity. The reasons for Marcuse’s current obscurity are obvious. For example, his adherence to the notion of an authentic and pure socio-sexual subjectivity that must be rescued from the harmful forces of capitalist civilization clashes greatly with most postmodern formulations of subjectivity. In this regard his status is analogous to that of, say, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell in the study of myth, symbol, and the unconscious - all these writers have essentialist and romantic tendencies that have dubious connotations to many theorists and critics of postmodernity. Yet DeKoven’s broad outlook enables her to view Marcuse, like other, currently better know theorists of the postmodern, within a general rubric of the focus on the politics of “the Self” (200). Polemically, DeKoven’s text works to rehabilitate cultural texts, such as Marcuse’s writings, which have been denigrated for their seemingly casual discursive style and apparently naïve enthusiasms. Since, as DeKoven notes, many of these castigated texts frequently break out of generic norms, their obscurity suggests that more commonly accepted versions of American postmodernism, even as they claim to be founded on textual radicalism, represent a cleaner, less complex, and certainly less activist conception of postmodernism than the one DeKoven uncovers. One of the strengths of DeKoven’s text is that it uses the flexible and dispersed notion of a structure of feeling to link activist and experimental textualities within one theory of postmodernism.
DeKoven’s analysis is predicated on a triad where a third utopian term mediates between the other two. For DeKoven, countercultural texts of the 1960s form a “pivot” between the modern utopia of the Enlightenment project of rationality and a postmodern version of utopia in which the Enlightenment master narrative has been abandoned (4). While DeKoven adheres to the notion that the pivotal texts she describes form a distinctive category containing elements of modern and postmodern utopianism, much of her analysis is driven by the definitional authority of modern concepts. More precisely, modernist culture enjoys definitional authority in Utopia Limited, as evidenced by the fact that DeKoven often evokes 1960s texts with reference to modernist culture. For instance, as readers of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies we are best served by “retaining the ability to hold contradictory ideas in our minds” (a phrase that is almost a quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up”) and the events at Altamont are in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas “a symptom and objective correlative” (the latter term obviously refers to T. S. Eliot) of 1960s excesses (71, 86). The categorical authority of modernism is further illustrated by DeKoven’s claim that poststructuralist writing shares both “the difficulty and complexity of modernist and avant-garde writing” and “modernism’s truth-questing project” (52). Moreover, DeKoven’s preoccupation with categorization can itself be regarded as a manifestation of the dominance of modernity’s rational project in her book. It may seem contradictory to say that the postmodern is modern because it reflects modernity’s rational will to categorization, but such a conclusion is in keeping with the ultimate effect of the prevalence of the modern reference point in Utopia Limited, which is to reduce the triad or double of utopia to its singularization. The major principle of utopian singularization is the “continuity” between modern and postmodern “projects of egalitarian democratization” (17). It is a welcome corrective to those who argue that postmodernism is nihilistic, apolitical, or even neoconservative, but this perspective also mutes or even forecloses certain ways of considering the postmodern, especially as they relate to the critique of the modern concepts of “project” and “democracy.”
By considering DeKoven’s text in terms of the theorizations of utopia that inform our other discussions, we can observe variations, especially in the relation between utopia limited and postmodernism. DeKoven understands utopia primarily in terms of “what in modernity is generally called individualism, and in postmodernity is called subjectivity” (17). As well as forming the basis of a compelling argument about the connectivity between considerations of the self in 1960s texts and the postmodern critique of the subject, this subject-oriented view of utopia is consistent with Bloch’s appeal to the principle of hope. As in the majority of contemporary critical treatments of utopia, the resonance with Bloch is a matter of replacing the subjective principle of hope with that of desire. While desire is the subjective characteristic that unifies the versions of utopia described by DeKoven, it is also the term that is associated with the persistence of the doubling of utopia: “Where modernism was lodged in a powerful desire for utopian transcendence, postmodernism is suspicious of the failed, oppressive utopias of modernity, and represents its persistent utopian desire in displaced, limited, post-utopian or anti-utopian terms” (16). In this sentence one can observe a strong distinction between the transcendence of modernity’s utopianism and the non-transcendence of postmodern utopia. DeKoven does not use the term but her distinction points toward the imagining of postmodern utopia in terms of immanence. The clearest instance of immanent utopia in DeKoven’s analysis is the assessment of 1960s feminism and particularly the notion of “The Women’s Revolution”: “It implies that the banding together and rising up of members of the category ‘women,’ independent of their political analysis or purposes, is in itself inherently revolutionary” (254). In this analysis it is postmodern immanence, not modernity’s project, which appears fully formed in 1960s texts.
Also, for DeKoven, such immanent subjective desire forms an oppositional double with utopian spatiality, and the privileging of desire over spatiality reinforces the postmodern orientation of Utopia Limited. DeKoven regards those aspects of The Living Theatre’s Paradise Now that articulate the decentralized spatiality of anarcho-syndicalism as emblems of modernity’s utopian project, posits, in a discussion of Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, that the replacement of spatiality with communication in architecture is “a key postmodern trope” (111), and describes Fredric Jameson’s theorization of postmodern spatiality as a modernist “compensatory fantasy” (25). In other words, utopian spatiality, as is clear from DeKoven’s criticisms of Jameson’s theory of postmodern utopian space, is defined as a characteristic of modernity that is opposed to and must be forfeited in the realization of postmodern utopian desire.
Whereas DeKoven sunders the elements of Blochian concrete utopia to define postmodern utopia as subjective, immanent, and non-spatial, Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future, which is both a theorization of utopia in relation to science fiction and a selection of his writings on science fiction, seeks to reimagine connections among these and other elements. In the opening theoretical section of the book Jameson brings together wide-ranging political and theoretical positions via a focus on the utopianism of science fiction. It is a massive gesture of synthesis in which Blochian and other concepts are linked to an array of cultural and political concerns, such as the status of utopian writing as a sub-category of science fiction, the sharp distinction between science fiction and fantasy, the relation between the utopian genre and the utopian impulse, the totalizing, revolutionary, negative, and anti-bourgeois characteristics of utopia, the relation between history and utopia (including the medieval and early modern contexts for utopianism), the function of utopianism in historical transformation, the trope of the alien other, the necessary position of unresolved elements in the utopian text, and connections among Marxism and anarchism. The essays in the second part of the book include pieces from the early 1970s to the present day on authors such as Brian Aldiss, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, and Kim Stanley Robinson. In these essays Jameson returns to a number of topics, such as the critique of ethics, the difficulty of imagining a future beyond capitalism, the virtue of a “lack of ontological density” or “shallowness” in science fiction (308), and the possibility of collective characterology, which thus emerge as key principles of his thinking on utopia. The common thread that runs across the two sections of the book is Jameson’s project to firmly attach utopia to science fiction and position this conjunction as the most important literary genre for the imaginative analysis and potential transformation of late capitalism. As illustrated by his repeated use of the structure of the Greimas square, Jameson has a strong tendency toward inclusive and systemic thought, which promotes the notion that utopian science fiction expresses a vast, diverse, and interconnected set of concepts for the political work of literary culture. At the same time, one of Jameson’s consistently foundational ideas is that utopia functions according to a logic of irresolution. The concept of irresolution is therefore a primary agent of synthesis and coherence in this book.
Jameson frequently mediates the dynamic between synthesis and irresolution through the theoretical double. Coming as it does after a paean to Bloch’s “magnum opus” (2), his opening distinction between “the Utopian program” and the “Utopian impulse” appears as a rewriting of Bloch’s differentiation between abstract utopia and the principle of hope (3). But Jameson reverses Bloch’s hierarchy through his opposition between “Imagination and Fancy” (44). When he regretfully notes that in both capitalist and socialist societies, “the function of Imagination slowly atrophies for want of use” (55), Jameson calls for substantial utopian imaginings that are more fundamental than the reformist piecemeal tinkering he associates with utopian fancy, and in so doing he affirms the utopian program, which can be viewed as a reconceptualization of abstract utopia. Such an opposition is extended in Jameson’s association of Imagination with Marxism and Fancy with anarchism. Yet in addition to this stark opposition, Jameson describes the double of Imagination and Fancy as a “shifting structure” in which “terms keep swapping places ceaselessly” (44, 54). The unstable structure of these terms reflects the mobile positionings that exist within the synthetic work of Archaeologies of the Future. The swapping of terms enables him to present the substantiality of Imagination as a version of “impulse” and Bloch’s principle of hope; such logic evokes Fancy as an insubstantial abstract utopian Program. While Jameson adheres to a Marxist perspective throughout these modulations, he also has a complex relation to both anarchism and utopianism that is often expressed in theorizations of spatiality and history. The concepts of totality and antinomy, especially his evocation of the antinomy of Imagination and Fancy as “the beating heart of Utopia as such” (214), represent his attempt to integrate these variations into a coherent whole regarding utopia that is defined by failure and fissure.
The issue of genre is central to Jameson’s attempt to integrate differing perspectives on utopia. In this regard his text poses the question of the nature of utopian narrative more forcefully than the other texts discussed in this essay. Initially he makes several statements that serve to distance his definition of utopia from the designation of utopia as a fantasy of another world that emerges fully formed from the mind of an individual bourgeois subject and pays no heed to historical process. Jameson’s claim that utopian narratives constitute “a socio-economic sub-genre” of science fiction removes utopia from quixotic generic isolation and links it at base with the critical and often ambiguous extrapolations of sci-fi (xiv). By means of the most unqualified double in his text, the opposition between science fiction and fantasy, Jameson sets limits on the range and foregrounds what for him are the most significant of utopian meanings. Whereas fantasy deals with ethics and magic, science fiction, for Jameson, traffics in politics and the historical realities of modes of production. Yet there is fluidity even in this apparently unchallengeable duality. Jameson speaks of “that mysterious bridge that leads from the historical disintegration of fantasy to the reinvention of the Novum, from a fallen world in which the magical powers of fantasy have become unrepresentable to a new space in which Utopia can itself be fantasized” (71). As well as intimating that Utopian thinking can only be realized when fantasy and magic are absent, Jameson suggests a historical relation between them that is based on Bloch’s idea of the Novum. The mystifications of fantasy are associated with medievalist culture and the feudal mode of production. By contrast, utopia and science fiction are relatively demystified expressions of the stages of capitalism. Jameson’s attempts to designate the stages of science fiction strengthen the bond between this genre and capitalism’s sub-modes of production, but, more importantly, his reference to the Novum, a trace of a possible future inscribed in the present, evokes science fictional utopias as gestures toward the future that can help resolve that most difficult of revolutionary questions, the question of “the event” or “transition” (87). It is the quintessential Lukáscian problem, one that is inseparable from questions of Party organization and authority. In History and Class Consciousness, Lukács’ appeal to the Party as the agency of revolutionary transition is made against those forms of spontaneism or decentralizationism articulated by anarchists and Rosa Luxemburg, and Jameson’s commitment to this issue carries a similar polemical charge. Jameson’s generic construct of utopian science fiction therefore reinforces the association of utopia with Marxist Imagination and presents the issue of historical transition as the primary, if problematic, utopian question.
Jameson’s characterization of utopia as a form of textuality that reaches out to the future via the Novum exemplifies Bloch’s theory of concrete utopia. Yet, as has been noted, concrete utopia involves a textualization of spatiality that is open and leads out to the possibility of historical transformation; the future orientation of concrete utopia derives from and is continuous with open textual spaces. Given the fact that Jameson is one of the major theorists of postmodern spatiality, a theorist who defines postmodernity in terms of the cognitive unmappability of social and informational space, it is not surprising that spatial factors are at work in Archaeologies of the Future. Jameson’s primary definition of utopia as a negation of the present is predicated on the principle of spatial analysis. Like Brown, Jameson insists on a Marxist conception of incomplete totality. From this perspective, utopia is as much about writing the unresolved spatial totality of the present as an invitation to the future. Jameson’s reading of the alien in science fiction as a trope for “a radical otherness latent in human history” further shows how orientations toward the future are reliant on textualizations of ruptured space in science fiction (118). Through these instances it is apparent that the double of utopian space and history coheres as a replication of Bloch’s concrete utopia. However, Jameson’s discussion of spatiality often transgresses the confines of the Blochian model, and the very fact that direct references to spatiality are scarce in his analyses of totality and the alien suggests a wariness about the term that he has done so much to bring to prominence.
Jameson’s circumspect treatment of utopian space is due to its close relation to anarchism. For Jameson, “Utopia is an imaginary enclave within real social space” (15). At the same time, Jameson identifies anarchism with enclaved social space and immanent utopia: “A certain anarchism … by emphasizing a freedom from state power which does not so much involve a seizure and destruction of the latter as the exploration of zones and enclaves beyond its reach, would seem to valorize a life in the present and in the everyday” (213). Further, Jameson’s critique of the “idealism” of productionist models of utopia leads him to flirt with the great anarchist theme of the opposition to work (155), which also must be understood in terms of immanent utopia because it regards productionist conceptions of progress and accumulation as betrayals of the collective potentialities of immanent social space. It is true that for Jameson a preoccupation with the synchronic interconnections of immanent social space entails an abandonment of causality and historical process. However, anarchist versions of immanent utopia are ineradicable in his writing, and the fact that he concludes his theorization of utopia with a valorization of the “Utopian archipelago” of Yona Friedman’s megastructures (221), urban spatial constructs based on the immanent desires and creativity of individual inhabitants, demonstrates the power and resilience of anarchist tendencies in Jameson’s ideas about utopia. The conjunction of Marxist and anarchist tendencies in Jameson’s text functions as a repetition of the split between these groups in the First International, which can be viewed as the original and ongoing doubling of utopia. The relation between these radical perspectives, which constitutes the core of utopia, appears in Jameson’s text as one of discordant antinomy rather than dialectical resolution. In this sense, the principle of utopian irresolution clashes with the book’s synthetic project.
In recent scholarly writing on utopia critical doubles frequently reiterate Bloch’s distinction between abstract utopia and concrete utopia. Yet Bloch’s double of utopian space and the subjective principle of hope is often reworked in these texts as an opposition that celebrates subjective utopian desire and is critical of utopian space. The relation to Blochian concepts also informs the treatment of immanent and transcendent versions of utopia. The dyad of immanent and transcendent utopia is linked to Blochian concepts because types of concrete utopia in these critical texts usually have immanent and transcendent attributes. For example, incomplete totalities in Brown and Jameson can be read in terms of immanent utopia, and the desire for historical leadership into the future appears, especially in Brown, as an invocation of transcendental authority. At the same time both Brown and Jameson rely on immanent utopia to sustain the viability of their political viewpoints–it is this contradiction that destabilizes the doublings of these texts. Brown’s arguments lead him to valorize the immanent collective joy of Tropicália, and Jameson’s most pointed definition of utopia cites immanent enclaves in existing social space. That Jameson considers such enclaves in anarchist terms and regards Yona Friedman’s anarchist spaces as the model of utopian culture suggests that the instability of his and other textual doubles has to do with the (usually unwelcome and unacknowledged) presence of anarchist sensibilities in utopian thinking: in DeKoven’s text anarchist spatiality is explicitly derided, Puchner’s reading of situationist culture as manifesto denies anarchist-related spatialities, and Brown’s and Jameson’s Marxist constructions of concrete utopia turn to forms of immanent spatiality that can be linked to anarchist traditions. Anarchism has always been the real enemy of Marxism, and Engels’ prohibition against utopianism can be viewed as a way to protect Marxism from all political spatialities, including anarchism. Engels’ concerns can be viewed as prescient because, as the critical texts discussed in this essay indicate, theorizations of utopia often must go by way of, and even conclude with, immanent constructions that invoke anarchist spatiality.
Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. Trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1986.
Brown, Nicholas. Utopian Generations: The Political Horizon of Twentieth-Century Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.
DeKoven, Marianne. Utopia Limited: The Sixties and the Emergence of the Postmodern. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fiction. London: Verso, 2005.
Puchner, Martin. Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-Garde. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006.