Archeologies of the future

Niki de Saint Phalle, Addiction to Poetry


Commentary on Fredric Jameson's Newly Edited Book

“Utopia has always been a political issue, an unusual fate for a literary form – and, just as the literary value of the form is always subject to doubt, its political status is also structurally ambiguous”. These first lines of Archeologies of the future, by Fredric Jameson are already able to enunciate the main themes of the long essay that opens this fundamental work: the relations between imagination, its limits, and political criticism intertwined in literature.

Archeologies of the future is today an essential work for the analysis of science-fiction (SF) and utopian works. From the meticulous excavation of cultural and political issues of each period, with frictions specific to each theme and authorship analyzed, Fredric Jameson was able, with this book, to raise science fiction studies to a new level of complexity, oxygenating the field of utopias and paving the way for other possible confabulations. As the title suggests with regard to SF, it is necessary to unravel this great central metaphor for the genre, the future, from a rigorous look at the past, placing it, in an apparent paradox, at the forefront.

Two parts divide the book, a 650-page tome, now published with great zeal in Portuguese. At first, The Desire Called Utopia, a long essay with thirteen chapters, discusses what Utopia would be like today; the inaugural work, by Thomas Morus, as well as recent literary utopias; alien bodies; and the notion of the future. In part two, As far as thought reaches, a compilation of essays on works by Brian Aldiss, Kim Stanley Robinson, Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Van Vogt and Vonda MacIntyre, among many other authors.


Critic of new and strange landscapes

Fredric Jameson, born in Cleveland, United States, in 1934, produced a solid theoretical work, mainly when discussing the cultural forms of postmodernism. Doctor in 1961, from a trajectory of studies with a tributary philosophical basis of the Frankfurt School, but also considering the perspective of cultural studies of Raymond Williams, he publishes his first works of breath, Marxism and form, in 1971, and the political unconscious, in 1981. In the latter, he incorporates literary analyzes and Lacanian psychoanalytic readings, presenting the hypothesis about the understanding of narratives as a symbolic social act (JAMESON, 1992).

In 1991, he launched the reference work Postmodernism: the cultural logic of late capitalism (JAMESON, 1996), when he analyzes emerging forms in culture from a change in the economic system and the “structure of cultural feeling”. With the shock of the 1973 oil crisis and the beginning of the end of traditional communism, among other historical events, the existence of a new and strange landscape would then be revealed (2006, p. 24). Jameson traces an analysis of the new cultural configurations incorporated into the logic of late capitalism, from the height of the Cold War, when transnational companies include an international division of labor, with banking transactions and international debts, until the emergence of new transport systems, containerization, computers and automation, all adding to the crisis of traditional work and the establishment of aristocratization on a global scale (2006, p. 89).


The need to wonder the world

In parallel to this critical production, Archeologies of the future was being conceived – the articles that make up the book date from 1973 to 2003, texts originally published, for example, in magazines Science Fiction Studies and New Left Review. Although there is a temporal distance between the initial publications of the texts, when put together they provoke an impressive sensation of solidity. One of the reasons, in addition to the theoretical coherence arising from cultural studies and the Frankfurtian influence, is the adoption of estrangement as an inescapable category of analysis.

Here the influence of Darko Suvin, academic born in Yugoslavia, including editor from 1973 to 1980 of the journal Science Fiction Studies, where Fredric Jameson published. At a time when science fiction studies were not yet specialized, Suvin was able to articulate Brechtian ideas about the concept of estrangement around an eminently popular literature, SF, by publishing the classic Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979). In the work, he provides theoretical bases for defining utopia as a literary text – a textual construction engendered on a specific community, whose literary form constitutes a physical space radically different from the known one, with sociopolitical, legal organizations and individual relationships organized in a more refined way than the known one. that current, whose construction is built on estrangement based on an alternative history (SUVIN, 1979, p. 49).

Based on the ideas of Ernst Bloch, also a reference to Jameson, Darko Suvin articulates the notion that science fiction distinguishes itself by presenting, in a dominant way, a novelty, a novelty, an innovation, validated through cognitive logic (1979, p. 63). Suvin defines these literatures as a proposal to examine alterities, distanced by the creation of secondary or alternative worlds to ours, having cognition through estrangement, the cognitive estrangement, as a mandatory feature. This Suvin background will be central to subsequent theorizing about the CF concept, not only for the exposition in Archeologies of the future (JAMESON, 2021, p. 19), but also for contemporary critics, in works as disparate as the proposals by Adam Roberts (2018) and by Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint (2011).


utopian chimeras

When proposing the analysis of literary utopias, Jameson starts from the “great empiricist maxim”: there is nothing that we can imagine that has not previously passed through our senses (2021, p. 16). He makes a very pertinent quote from the British philosopher and writer Olaf Stapledon, when he revisits the idea of ​​the Homeric Chimera, showing that it is nothing more than a monster created from parts of known animals – the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent. Thus, ultimately, “our imaginations are hostages of our mode of production – and, perhaps, of any remnants of past modes of production that have been preserved” (p. 16).

There is an anonymous phrase, which has become a lecture cliché (including attributed to Jameson), which proves this point easily: “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, a slogan, in the words of Mark Fisher, on a generalized feeling that capitalism would not only be the only viable political and economic system, but also that a coherent alternative to this state of affairs could not be imaginatively elaborated (FISHER, 2009, p. 2). ).

The only imaginary antidote to this state of affairs is precisely to imagine other possible worlds, even if the attempt fails miserably. As Maria Elisa Cevasco states, “novels of political imagination often unfold in contexts governed by alternative systems, evidencing the historical character of what we always take for granted” (CEVASCO, 2018, p. 11).

In this way, it is possible to understand that the utopian text is ambiguous and ambivalent, because to the extent that it affirms a radical difference with what we experience, it proves to be equally unrealizable, if not, unimaginable (p. 20). However, in a curious way, it is precisely this exercise of imagining what is not capable of existing that gives us, once again, our own world. Ultimately, the invention of Utopias makes us more aware of our mental and ideological limitation of imagining alterity, reinforcing, in the end, that only historical alteration and the action of everyday practice can engender change.


Science fiction icons against the grain: the case of the spaceship

In this long initial essay and in the essays that follow it, the critic follows a well-known path of analysis when examining science fiction: he outlines an iconography of the genre by commenting on selected works, not hiding his reading preferences, with emphasis on Kim Stanley Robinson , Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin, among other authors.

The idea of ​​reading science fiction through icons is a well-known method of analysis, one of the landmarks being the work of Gary K. Wolf, The Known and the Unknown, from 1979, used as a reference by other authors, such as Elizabeth Ginway when analyzing Brazilian science fiction (2005). The method focuses on recurring icons which, to quote Gary K. Wolf, would be the spaceship, the city, the devastated land, the robot and aliens. In a previous article, Wolf demonstrates the origins of these icons in narratives that mix ancient myths with modern technology (1988, p. 51). To this day, science fiction textbooks use the file as the backbone of analysis.

However, by “Jamesonizing” such classic science fiction iconographies, our critic performs an ingenious operation. In different chapters, it suggests that, by using these icons, certain works of science fiction also make an alteration, in the very presentation of the narrative, with an unfolding between form and content that modifies the act of reception and aesthetic perception, potentiated from the category of estrangement. That is, Jameson uses an icon only as a gateway to a critical political and cultural application.

For example, when working with the icon of the “ship-lost-as-universe” in the work Starship, by Brian Aldiss, 1958 (p. 395), Jameson takes the opportunity to present a fundamental theory to those who work with the theme: the recurrence of generic discontinuities as constitutive of science fiction narratives. Often, within the same work of science fiction, it is possible to find different literary genres, which are presented in a somewhat artificial sequence in order to break with certain expectations. Thus, a heterogeneity of materials is brought together through collage, with narrative elements that derive from different literary models – we can find a “starship electrical circuit manual” alongside an “adventure story”, followed by a “political fable”, an alternation that would not be expected in a realistic or mimetic organization of narratives.

The procedure is not new, see the textual formatting of Ulysses, by James Joyce (1920), but its recurrence based on a narrative that deals precisely with technology provides a deeper effect. This ends up reinforcing the strength of the inherent estrangement effect of this and other sf icons. In this case, the spaceship, an environment in which nature is replaced by culture, involves two apparently contradictory impulses in its imaginary formulation: it makes us doubt our own institutions, whether they would be as natural as we suppose; and introduces the idea about our “real” outdoor environment being as confining and restrictive as a spaceship (reading effect worsened in times of social isolation during a pandemic). Two impulses that still lead us to uncertainty about “natural” as a conceptual category (p. 397-398).


archaeological developments

With the theoretical weight that Fredric Jameson's work presents, mainly on postmodernism, the publication of Archeologies of the future ended up boosting certain works of science fiction criticism, encouraging new reflections of a materialist nature in the XNUMXst century, as examples of the works Red Planets, collection of articles edited by Mark Bould and China Miéville (2009), and Green Planets, in the same format, organized by Kim Stanley Robinson and Gerry Canavan (2014), both influenced by archeologies in their analyses.

Jameson's book was launched in 2005 by Verso, founded in 1970, with a team from New Left Review, based in London and New York. Now published in Portuguese by Autêntica, as part of the Coleção Ensaios, coordinated by Ricardo Musse, a selection with a multidisciplinary scope and critical analysis of culture, politics, economics and other topics.

The translation is signed by Carlos Pissardo, diplomat and doctor in sociology from the University of São Paulo, translator of Adorno and Horkheimer, a professional worthy of the challenge of bringing this tome of criticism and imagination to Brazil, at a historic moment when we so need to sharpen our criticism and sharpen the imagination. Paraphrasing the Wittgensteinian epigraph of the political unconscious, if “imagining a language means imagining a form of life”, imagining a Utopia means imagining a whole other world. Who knows, for a few rare moments, well beyond capitalism.

* Ana Rusche holds a PhD in Linguistic and Literary Studies from the University of São Paulo, with a thesis on science fiction and utopia. She is the author, among other books, of Telepathy is the others (monomyth).


Frederick Jameson. Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Translation: Carlos Pissardo. Belo Horizonte, Autêntica, 2021, 656 pages.


See this link for all articles