Archeologies of the future – the desire called utopia and other science fictions

Dalton Paula, Paratudo
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By FREDRIC JAMESON*

Newly Released Book Introduction

 

utopia today

Utopia has always been a political issue, an unusual fate for a literary form: and just as the form's literary value is always subject to doubt, its political status is also structurally ambiguous. The oscillations of its historical context do nothing to resolve this variability, which is not a matter of taste or individual judgment either.

During the Cold War (and, in Eastern Europe, immediately after its end), Utopia became synonymous with Stalinism and designated a program that would neglect human frailty and original sin, revealing a will to uniformity and ideal purity of a perfect system. which would always have to be imposed, by force, on imperfect and reluctant subjects. (Going further, Boris Groys identified this domination of political form over matter with the imperatives of aesthetic modernism.)[I]

These counterrevolutionary analyzes – no longer of much interest to the right since the collapse of socialist countries – were later adopted by the anti-authoritarian left, whose micropolitics embraced “difference” as a motto and ended up recognizing their anti-state positions in traditional anarchist criticisms of the Marxism, which would be utopian precisely in this centralizing and authoritarian sense.

Paradoxically, the older Marxist traditions, drawing uncritical lessons from the historical analyzes of Marx and Engels on utopian socialism in Or communist manifesto,[ii] and also following Bolshevik usage,[iii] they denounced their utopian competitors as devoid of any conception of political action or strategy and characterized utopianism as an idealism profoundly and structurally averse to politics. The relationship between utopia and the political, as well as questions about the practical-political value of utopian thinking and the identification of socialism and utopia, remains a largely unresolved issue today, when utopia seems to have regained its vitality as a political motto and a politically stimulating perspective.

In fact, a whole new generation of the post-globalization Left – comprising remnants of the Old and New Left, alongside the radical wing of Social Democracy and First World cultural minorities and proletarianized or mass peasants and landless structurally unemployable Third World countries – with increasing frequency has sought to adopt this motto, in a situation in which the discredit of both communist and socialist parties and skepticism in the face of traditional conceptions of revolution opened a clearing in the discursive field. One might eventually hope that the consolidation of the emerging world market – for that is what is at stake in so-called globalization – will allow new forms of political action to develop.

Meanwhile, and to adapt a famous maxim of Mrs. Thatcher, there is no alternative to utopia, and late capitalism seems to have no natural enemies (the religious fundamentalisms that resist American and Western imperialism having by no means endorsed anti-capitalist positions). Still, it is not just the invincible universality of capitalism that is in question, with its relentless dismantling of all social gains made since the origin of the socialist and communist movements, revoking all social welfare measures, the safety net, the right to unionize, industrial and ecological regulatory laws, proposing to privatize pensions and, in effect, dismantling everything that stands in the way of free markets anywhere in the world.

What is devastating is not the presence of an enemy, but rather the universal belief not only that this trend is irreversible, but that the historical alternatives to capitalism would have proved unviable and impossible and that no other socio-economic system would conceivable, not to say available in practice. Utopians not only lend themselves to conceiving of these alternative systems; the utopian form is itself a representational reflection on radical difference, on radical otherness, and on the systemic nature of social totality, to the point where one cannot imagine any fundamental change in our social existence that has not, before, scattered utopian visions like sparks from a comet.

The fundamental dynamics of any utopian politics (or any political utopianism) will therefore always reside in the dialectic between identity and difference,[iv] to the extent that this policy aims to imagine, and sometimes even to implement, a radically different system. We can here follow Olaf Stapledon's time and space travelers, who gradually become aware that their receptivity to exotic and alien cultures is governed by anthropomorphic principles:

In the beginning, when our imaginative power was strictly limited by the experience of our own worlds, we could only make contact with worlds related to our own. Furthermore, at this early stage of our work, we invariably came across these worlds when they were going through the same spiritual crisis that underlies the condition of the world. Homo sapiens today. It seemed that in order for us to enter any world, there had to be a deep similarity or identity between us and our hosts.[v]

Stapledon is not, strictly speaking, a utopian, as we shall see later; but no utopian writer has been so incisive in confronting the great empiricist maxim that there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses. If true, this principle spells the end not just of utopia as a form, but of science fiction in general, by asserting, as it does, that even our wildest fantasies are all collages of experience, constructs made from bits and pieces of the here. and now: “When Homer formulated the idea of chimera, he only joined in one animal parts that belonged to different animals; the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent.”[vi].

On a social level, this means that our imaginations are hostage to our mode of production (and perhaps any remnants of past modes of production that have been preserved). This suggests that, at best, utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment (something I myself have once asserted).[vii]); and that, therefore, the best utopias would be those that fail most completely.

It is a proposition that has the merit of shifting the discussion about utopia from content to representation. These texts are so often taken to be expressions of political opinion or ideology that something must be said to redress the balance in a decidedly formalist way (readers of Hegel and Hjelmslev will know that form is always form in any case). specific content). It is not only the social and historical raw materials of the utopian construct that are of interest in this perspective, but also the representational relations established between them – such as closure, narrative and exclusion or inversion. Here, as elsewhere in narrative analysis, what is most revealing is not what is said but what cannot be said, what does not register in the narrative apparatus.

It is important to complement this utopian formalism with what I hesitate to call a utopian psychology of production: a study of the mechanisms of utopian fantasy that would move away from individual biography to focus on the satisfaction of historical and collective yearnings. Such an approach to the production of utopian fantasy will necessarily illuminate its historical conditions of possibility: for surely it is in our greatest interest today to understand why utopias flourished in one period and waned in another. This is clearly an issue that needs to be broadened to include science fiction as well if we follow – as I do – Darko Suvin[viii], by understanding that utopia is a socioeconomic subgenre of this broader literary form. Suvin's principle of "cognitive estrangement" - an aesthetic that, building on the Russian formalism's notion of "making strange" as much as Paint inhibition effect Brechtian, characterizes sf from an essentially epistemological function (thus excluding the most oneiric escapes from fantasy as a genre) – he postulates, therefore, the existence of a particular subset, within this generic category specifically aimed at the imagination of social forms and alternative economics.

In what follows, however, our discussion will be complicated by the existence, alongside the utopian genre or text as such, of a utopian impulse that spills over into many other things, both in everyday life and in its texts (see chapter 1). This distinction will also complicate the rather selective discussion about sf that takes place here, since, alongside sf texts that openly employ utopian themes (such as the dream curve, by Le Guin), we will also make reference, as in chapter 9, to works that reveal the work of the utopian impulse.

In any case, “The Desire Called Utopia”, unlike the essays gathered in part two, will deal mainly with those aspects of sf relevant to the utopian dialectic between identity and difference.[ix]

All these formal and representational questions lead us back to the political question with which we started: now, however, the last one has been clarified as a formal dilemma about how works that postulate the end of history can offer usable historical momentum; how works that aim to resolve all political differences can remain, in some sense, political; how texts designed to overcome the needs of the body can remain materialistic; and how visions of the “quiet age” (Morris) can spur and compel us to action.

There's good reason to think that all these questions are undecidable: which isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as we keep trying to decide. Indeed, in the case of utopian texts, the most reliable political test is not any judgment of the individual work in question, but rather its ability to generate new works, utopian visions that include those of the past and modify or correct them.

However, it is, in reality, a question of non-political undecidability, but of the deep structure; and this explains why various commentators on utopias (such as Marx and Engels themselves, with all their admiration for Fourier[X]) presented contradictory evaluations on this subject. Another utopian visionary – Herbert Marcuse, arguably the most influential utopian of the 1960s – offers an explanation for this ambivalence in a youthful commentary whose official theme was that of culture rather than utopia itself.[xi]

The problem, however, is the same: could culture be political – which is to say, critical and even subversive – or is it necessarily reappropriated and co-opted by the social system of which it is a part? Marcuse argues that it is in the very separation of art and culture in relation to the social – a separation that inaugurates culture as a domain in its own right and defines it as such – the origin of the incorrigible ambiguity of art. For it is this very distance of culture in relation to its social context, which allows it to function as a critic and a denunciation of it, which also condemns its interventions to ineffectiveness and relegates art and culture to a frivolous and trivialized space, in which these intersections are neutralized beforehand. This dialectic holds even more persuasively for the ambivalences of the utopian text as well: for the more a given utopia asserts its radical difference from what actually exists, to the exact same extent it becomes, not only unrealizable, but, which is worse, unimaginable.[xii]

This does not quite bring us back to our starting point, where rival ideological stereotypes sought to present this or that absolute political judgment on Utopia. For even if we can no longer unambiguously adhere to this unreliable form, we can now at least fall back on that ingenious political motto that Sartre invented to find his way between a problematic communism and an even less acceptable anti-communism. Perhaps something similar can be proposed to fellow travelers of utopia itself: indeed, to those overly fearful of their critics' motives, though no less aware of utopia's structural ambiguities, to those attentive to the very real political function of the idea and the program of utopia in our time, the motto of anti-anti-utopianism may well offer the best working strategy.

* Fredric Jameson is director of the Center for Critical Theory at Duke University (USA). Author, among other books, of Postmodernism: the cultural logic of late capitalism (Attica).

 

Reference


Frederick Jameson. Archeologies of the future: the desire called utopia and other science fictions. Translation: Carlos Pissardo. Belo Horizonte, Autêntica, 2021, 656 pages.

 

Notes


[I] Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism (Princeton, 1992 [1988]).

[ii] See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Section III, “Socialist and Communist Literature”; see also Friedrich Engels, “From Utopian Socialism to Scientific Socialism”. Although both Lenin and Marx wrote Utopias: The Last in The Civil War in France [1871], the first in The State and the Revolution [1917].

[iii] The so-called “boundary theory” or “near goals theory” (“theory blizhnego pritsela”): see Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (New Haven, 1979), pp. 264–265.

[iv] See GWF Hegel, Encyclopedia Logic, Book Two, “Essence” (Oxford, 1975 [1817]).

[v] Olaf Stapledon, The Last and First Men/Star Maker (New York, 1968 [1930, 1937]), p. 299. The English novelist Olaf Stapledon (1866-1950), whose two most important works just cited will be discussed in Chapter 9 below, hails from what might be called the European art tradition of "science novels" or speculative fiction. of HG Wells, and not of pulps commercials from which American SF emerged.

[vi] Alexander Gerard, Essay on Genius, quoted in MH Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (Oxford, 1953 [1774]), p. 161.

[vii] See Part Two, Essay 4.

[viii]  Suwin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, P. 61.

[ix] Conventional high culture's repudiation of sf - its stigmatization as stereotyped (reflecting the form's original sin in being born of the pulps), complaints about a lack of complex and psychologically “interesting” characters (a position that does not seem to be up to speed with the post-contemporary crisis of the “centered subject”), a yearning for original literary styles that ignores the stylistic variety of modern SF (such as Philip K. Dick's defamiliarization of spoken American English) – is probably not a matter of personal taste, nor should it be approached with purely aesthetic arguments, such as the attempt to assimilate certain SF works into the canon. We must identify here a kind of revulsion against the genre, in which this form and this narrative discourse are, as a whole, the object of psychic resistance and the target of a kind of literary “reality principle”. For these readers, in other words, absent here are the Bourdieusian-style rationalizations that rescue forms of high literature from the culpable association of unproductiveness and sheer enjoyment and endow them with socially recognized justification. It is true that this is an answer that fantasy readers could also give to sf readers (see below, Chapter 5).

[X] Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence (Moscow, 1975); for example, October 9, 1866 (for Kugelmann), attacking Proudhon as a petty-bourgeois Utopian, “while in the Utopias of a Fourier, an Owen, etc., there is the anticipation and imaginative expression of a new world” (p. 172). See also Engels: “German theoretical socialism will never forget that it stands on the shoulders of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen, three men who, despite their fantasy and utopianism, must be recognized among the most significant spirits of all. times, as they brilliantly anticipate countless questions whose precision we demonstrate scientifically today” (quoted in Frank and Fritzie Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World [Cambridge, MA, 1979], p. 702). Benjamin was also a great admirer of Fourier: “He looked forward to total liberation from the advent of universalized play in Fourier's sense, for which he had boundless admiration. I know of no man who, today, has lived so intimately in Saint-Simonian and Fourierist Paris.” Pierre Klossowski, “Lettre sur Walter Benjamin”, Tableaux vivants (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), p. 87. And Barthes was another such passionate reader (see Chapter 1, note 5).

[xi] See “On the Affirmative Character of Culture”, In: Negations (Boston, 1968).

[xii] From another point of view, this discussion about the ambiguous reality of culture (which means, in our context, of Utopia itself) is an ontological discussion. The assumption is that Utopia, which deals with the future or non-being, exists only in the present, where it leads the relatively feeble life of desire and fantasy. But that means not considering the amphibious character of being and its temporality, in respect of which Utopia is philosophically analogous to vestige, only at the other end of time. The aporia of the vestige is that of belonging to the present and the past at the same time and, therefore, of constituting a mixture of being and not being quite different from the traditional category of Becoming and, therefore, slightly scandalous for analytical Reason. Utopia, which combines the being-not-yet of the future with a textual existence in the present, is worthy of the same archaeological paradoxes that we are attributing to the vestige. For a philosophical discussion of this, see Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Volume III (Chicago, 1988), pp. 119–120.

 

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