Utopia as Method, or the Uses of the Future
WE ORDINARILY THINK of utopia as a place, or if you like a nonplace that looks like a place. How can a place be a method? Such is the conundrum with which I wanted to confront you, and maybe it has an easy answer. If we think of historically new forms of space—historically new forms of the city, for example—they might well offer new models for urbanists and in that sense constitute a kind of method. The first freeways in Los Angeles, for example, project a new system of elevated express highways superimposed on an older system of surface streets. That new structural difference might be thought of as a philosophical concept in its own right, a new one, in terms of which you might want to rethink this or that older urban center, or better still, this or that as yet undeveloped Sun Belt agglomeration. For a time then, the Los Angeles concept is modern; whether it is utopian is another matter altogether, although Los Angeles has also been a utopia for many different kinds of people over the years. Here is Brecht on Hollywood:
The village of Hollywood was planned according to the notion
People in these parts have of heaven. In these parts
They have come to the conclusion that God
Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to
Plan two establishments but
Just the one: heaven. It
Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful
A true dialectic; a true unity of opposites! Will it be possible to untangle the negative from the positive in this particular utopia, which has perhaps also, like all the other utopias, never existed in the first place? Something like this will be our problem here, but we need to work through some further preliminaries before we get that far.
The hypothetical new kind of city that sets an example for the building or reorganization of other new kinds of cities to come is based on a conviction we may no longer be able to rely on, namely, the belief that progress is possible and that cities, for example, can be improved. What is utopian is then identified with
this now-traditional and much criticized bourgeois idea of progress, and thus implicitly with teleology as such, with the grand narrative and the master plan, with the idea of a better future, a future not only dependent on our own will to bring it into being but also somehow inscribed in the very nature of things, waiting to be set free, lying in the deeper possibilities and potentialities of being, from which at length and with luck it may emerge. But does anyone believe in progress any longer? Even keeping to the realm of the spatial, which we have taken as an example, are the architects and urbanists still passionately at work on utopian cities? The utopian city was surely a staple of modernism; one thinks of everybody from Le Corbusier to Constant, from Rockefeller Center to the great Nazi or Soviet projects.2
At a lower level, one thinks of urban renewal and of Robert Moses.3
But modernism is over, and it is my impression that the postmodern city, west or east, north or south, does not encourage thoughts of progress or even improvement, let alone utopian visions of the older kind; and this for the very good reason that the postmodern city seems to be in permanent crisis and is to be thought of, if at all, as a catastrophe rather than an opportunity. As far as space is concerned, the rich are withdrawing ever more urgently into their gated communities and their fortified enclosures; the middle classes are tirelessly engaged in covering the last vestiges of nature with acres of identical development homes; and the poor, pouring in from the former countryside, swell the makeshift outskirts with a population explosion so irrepressible that in a few years none of the ten largest cities on the globe will include the familiar first-world metropolises any longer. Some of the great dystopias of the past—as in John Brunner’s novels from the late 1960s and early 1970s4
—centered on what was then the alleged nightmare of overpopulation; but that was a modernist nightmare, and what we confront today is perhaps not a dystopia either, but rather a certainty lived in a different way and with a properly postmodern ambivalence, which distinctly forecloses the possibility of progress or of solutions.
Indeed, it suffices to think of the four fundamental threats to the survival of the human race today—ecological catastrophe, worldwide poverty and famine, structural unemployment on a global scale, and the seemingly uncontrollable traffic in armaments of all kinds, including smart bombs and unmanned drones (in armaments, progress does apparently still exist!) — leaving pandemics, police states, race wars, and drugs out of the picture, for us to realize that in each of these areas no serious counterforce exists anywhere in the world, and certainly not in the United States, which is the cause of most of them.
Under these circumstances, the last gasp of a properly utopian vision, the last attempt at a utopian forecast of the future transfigured, was a rather perverse one: so-called free-market fundamentalism as it seized the moment of globalization to predict the rising of all boats and the wonder-working miraculous powers of worldwide unregulated global markets. But this utopia, drawing on the unconscious operations of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and in
sharp contrast to the hyperconsciousness of the utopian “intentional community,” gambled everything on the unintentionality of its universal panacea, for which any number of populations around the globe proved unwilling to wait. Nor did this waning utopian effort recover much strength by shifting to a different code, from economics to politics, and rebaptizing the freedom of the market as the freedom of democracy. To that degree, as a political slogan, the banner of utopia has been passed to the critics and the enemies of free-market globalization and has become the unifying rallying cry or “empty signifier”5
of all those varied new political forces who are trying to imagine how another world might be possible.
Yet an empty signifier seems far enough away from the utopian visions with which we are familiar from More and Plato on down, and this is probably the right moment to say a word about the long book on utopias I have recently published and of which this chapter is something of a reconsideration, if not a supplement. What has tended to perplex readers of this book, Archaeologies of the Future,6
if not to annoy them, is not only the repeated insistence on the form rather than the content of utopias — something that would, on the face of it, scarcely be unusual in literary criticism, no matter how deplorable—but also another thesis more likely to catch the unwary reader up short, namely the repeated insistence that what is important in a utopia is not what can be positively imagined and proposed, but rather what is not imaginable and not conceivable. The utopia, I argue, is not a representation but an operation calculated to disclose the limits of our own imagination of the future, the lines beyond which we do not seem able to go in imagining changes in our own society and world (except in the direction of dystopia and catastrophe). Is this then a failure of imagination, or is it simply a fundamental skepticism about the possibilities of change as such, no matter how attractive our visions of what it would be desirable to change into? Do we not here touch on what has come to be called cynical reason, rather than the impoverishment of our own sense of the future or the waning of the utopian impulse itself? Cynical reason, as the concept has evolved far beyond what Peter Sloterdijk named so many years ago,7
can be characterized as something like the inversion of political apathy. It knows everything about our own society, everything that is wrong with late capitalism, all the structural toxicities of the system, and yet it declines indignation in a kind of impotent lucidity that may not even be bad faith. It cannot be shocked or scandalized, as the privileged were able to at earlier moments of the market system; nor is the deconcealment of this system, its analysis and functional demonstration in the light of day, any longer effective in compelling critical reactions or motivations. We may say all this in terms of ideology as well. If that word has fallen on hard times, it is perhaps because in a sense there is no longer any false consciousness, no longer any need to disguise the workings of the system and its various programs in terms of idealistic or altruistic rationalizations, so that the unmasking of those
rationalizations, the primordial gesture of debunking and of exposure, no longer seems necessary.
The waning of utopias is thus a conjuncture between all these developments: a weakening of historicity or of the sense of the future; a conviction that fundamental change is no longer possible, however desirable; and cynical reason as such. To this we might add that sheer power of excess money accumulated since the last great world war, which keeps the system in place everywhere, reinforcing its institutions and its armed forces. Or maybe we should adduce yet a different kind of factor, one of psychological conditioning—namely that omnipresent consumerism, having become an end in itself, is transforming the daily life of the advanced countries in such a way as to suggest that the utopianism of multiple desires and consumption is here already and needs no further supplement.
So much for the limits on our capacity to imagine utopia as such and for what it tells us about a present in which we can no longer envision that future. But it would clearly be wrong to say that today representational utopia has every-where disappeared. Another significant critique of my book suggested that I failed to do my duty as a utopian inasmuch as I omitted any mention of these surviving utopian visions that mostly center on the anti- or post-Communist conviction that small is beautiful, or even that growth is undesirable, that the self-organization of communities is the fundamental condition of utopian life, and that even with large-scale industry the first priority is self-management and cooperation; in other words, that what is essential in utopianism is not the ingenious economic scheme (the abolition of money, for example) so much as collectivity as such, the primacy of the social bond over the individualistic and the competitive impulses.
The great utopias of the 1960s and ’70s tended to stage such visions in terms of race and gender; thus we have the unforgettable image of male breastfeeding in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time
(1976) and the ideal (in Ursula Le Guin) of the villages of the First Americans. Later on, at a different historical moment, in France, at the moment of the Socialist electoral victory of 1981, we have Jacques Attali’s image of free collective tool shops, where anyone in the neighborhood can find the materials to repair, rebuild, and transform space, along with the periodic festivals that, as in Rousseau, reaffirm the collective project.8
In our own time, meanwhile, with the resurgence of anarchism, a variety of vivid representations of workers’ self-management restore the sense of class to these concerns, as in Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s admirable film The Take,
about the seizure of a factory in Argentina by workers who have been abandoned by their bankrupt owner. Such intermittent visions of the structural transformation of the shop floor have energized and revitalized political action from Marx’s lectures on the Paris Commune all the way to the program of Yugoslavian autogestion and to soixante-huitard films such as Coup pour coup (Marin Karmitz, 1972); and they clearly persist in America yesterday and today.
It is not appropriate to raise practical political objections to these enclave utopias, which are always threatened by the hegemony of private business and monopoly all around them and are at the mercy of distribution as well, not to speak of the dominant legal system. I would rather speak of the genre of the revolutionary idyll; and indeed, in his Some Versions of Pastoral
(1960), William Empson went a long way toward assimilating socialist realism in general to such a form, which, with its shepherds and shepherdesses and its rural peacefulness and fulfillment, seems to have died out everywhere in the literature of the bourgeois age. William Morris famously subtitled his great utopia “an epoch of rest”; and this is what, on an aesthetic level, the idyll or the pastoral promises as a genre: relief from the frenzied anxieties of the social world, a glimpse into a place of stillness and of transfigured human nature, of the transformations of social relations into what Brecht memorably called “friendliness.” To that degree, what I’ve been calling representational utopias seem to take the form of the idyll or the pastoral, and assuredly we do need to recover the significance of these ancient genres and their value and usefulness in an age in which the very psyche and the unconscious have been thoroughly colonized by addictive frenzy and commotion, compulsiveness and frustration.
So I do see a place for the representational utopia, and even a political function for it. As I tried to argue in Archaeologies, these seemingly peaceful images are also, in and of themselves, violent ruptures with what is, breaks that destabilize our s...