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Utopia and Failure by Fredric Jameson

Utopias have something to do with failure and tell us more about our own limits and weaknesses than they do about perfect societies. Even if one insists (as I do) that you can’t fail unless you try to succeed, and that you have to imagine your perfect society in good faith before you conclude that you have not been able to do so, the idea is an uncomfortable one and seems to redirect objective inquiries (about social and political difficulties, for example) back into psychological vicious circles which turn on the desire to lose, or an innate pessimism, or inferiority feelings and paralyzing preconceptions. These unpleasant psychological vices presumably turn out to be my own, although they might cast some doubt on the whole Utopian enterprise itself, insofar as that aims inveterately at passing your conceptual and imaginative time among a host of unrealizable representations.
    So in one sense my doctrine of failure is a fairly straightforward one and turns on the modality of Utopian images; indicative, future, future perfect or anterior, or whatever. “Ah, que la republique etait belle sous l’empire!” There is surely a dimension of any image of a longed-for future which must vanish when the latter, realized, becomes a present. Add to this that supplementary turn of the screw that makes a Utopian vision into something a little more or less than a mere program for the future, than a mere forecast or projection, or a policy paper: Utopians have worked hard to remove the trivializing stigma (‘mere” Utopianism; a “Utopian” idea–meaning a naive and unrealizable one; and so forth), but they would be unwise to strive for complete success in this effort; a success that would mean the obliteration of any difference between Utopia and all other forms of futurity would turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory indeed, and this is another and more objective sense in which, so to speak, “Utopians want to lose” and Utopia must remain somehow unrealizable. The whole debate turns, I suppose, around what this “unrealizability” means exactly and whether it is really to be thought to be a failure. Ian Buchanan’s intricate discussion, which draws on Gilles Deleuze’s late concept of the virtual, along with Brian Alexander’s subtle tropolotical analysis (based on Adorno), offers two particularly striking and difficult “solutions” to this problem, which I’m afraid I cannot apologize for raising, because it does seem to me to be an absolutely central one for any discussion of Utopias today, in a social and historical situation in which the time sense, the dimension of historicity, has been singularly enfeebled. Any pronouncement about the future, then, today–and not only Utopian blueprints–needs to show its credentials and demonstrate its own conditions of possibility in advance.
    I guess, therefore, that I have to admit the dependence of my own position here on the “current situation” and on the specificities of our relationship to history and to the future. I appealed to Louis Marin’s still fundamental Utopics for the proof that Utopian images of the future were constitutively organized (like perspective itself) around a blind spot or a vanishing point, in More’s case the inability to imagine capitalism and the market. But More’s situation was one of a pre-capitalist (and traditionalist, anti-capitalist) forecast of a mode of production only then coming into being in any systemic way; and if we want to be serious and dialectical about history we have to allow for the possibility that other Utopias–those of Fourier, those of Bellamy or Wells, for example–correspond to situations of high or hegemonic capitalism which ought to be marked by some very different possibility of historical self-consciousness, if not of “predictability” and the capacity to imagine the future, than the one More was condemned to. In between the writers mentioned, for example, there stands the work of Marx, who posited the emergence of a new and collective social system within the capitalist one of private and individual ownership; or in other words the tangible emergence of a radically different future within the present. But not only is this not at all what Marin showed about More (who lacked, as Marin pointedly observes, the cognitive instruments of historical materialism), it also seems at odds with the bleakness and defeatism of my own view of the future (elaborated, I have to add, long before the so-called end of communism or socialism seemed to spell an end to that particular version of a possibility of future social organization). I think it is also Wegner who points out that what I call “cognitive mapping” is not only a disguised Utopian imperative to project a future out of this particular configuration of forces and spaces which is our present, but that it also includes the dismal requirement of failure within itself.
    I don’t want to enter into great detail on the related issues of ethics and politics which Staci von Boeckmann raises in her discussion of Cornel West’s probing critique of me. It is an issue which certainly has implications for Utopian practice as well, but I have always felt that West’s strictures bore first and foremost on the practical political assessment of the present and its possibilities (as well as those of its collective actors). If so, I have to say that I don’t think we are as far apart as West imagines, even though I would need a much more detailed response to clarify each point on the agenda. Von Boeckmann now does that for the theoretical discussion, however, and I’m grateful for that particular clarification which does end on the “troubled” note of most of these papers: “There is something unpalatable about the metaphysical resonances of a promise whose fulfillment is so distant.”
    We thus return to the indictment of my “negative” Utopian strategy which is most fully spelled out by Peter Fitting. Once again I want to agree that it is not only perfectly proper but even desirable to evaluate my propositions from the standpoint of their effects–demoralizing or on the other hand energizing and enabling as those may be. That may mean, however, that I am myself the last person whose judgement is pertinent to the matter. Still, I will try to defend myself in the most practical and empirical way (thereby supplementing the purely theoretical arguments).
    I think of the diagnosis of “failure” as a way to encourage the analysis of our own situation and in particular its crippling effects on our sense of history and of the future: this amoutns, therefore, to saying that Marin’s analysis of More–irrelevant as it may have been for the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries–is again on the agenda for us, whose current blind spots block out any vision of genuinely radical change and limit our visibility to merely local readjustments and corrections (in other words, to what used to be called reforms, as opposed to that systemic transformation that used to be called revolution). I think it is clear that the market era fuly vindicates this view–defeatist or not–and that most former Utopians and Utopian sympathizers or fellow-travellers themselves have been only too willing to outdo each other in agreeing that the market is forever and that it is the most efficient system, etc., etc. I suspect that we are now approaching the end of this particular moment of abject capitulation, with the increaisng conviction as to the inseparability of globalization and massive structural unemployment. Perhaps, also, the diminishing returns of a politics–let alone a Utopian extrapolation–based on race or gender will gradually encourage a return to those as well as to class itself. My modest recommendation was simply that we use the Utopian visions we are capable of projecting today in order to explore the structural limits of such imaginings, in order to get a better sense of what it is about the future that we are unwilling or unable to imagine. In so doing, we will probably want to sort out what I call an anxiety about Utopia–a repression of the Utopian imagina
tion–from what may simply mark the epistemological limits of our current political vision. As deeply locked into the system or complicitous with it as we may be, in other words, we will inevitably tend to fear the loss of much that is habitual in the prospect of radical change; at the same time there is bound to be much–in an achieved world system or a completed globalization, for example–that we cannot yet work out: if the older value of national autonomy has to be abandoned (but does it really? this is a truly productive Utopian doubt and Utopian problem), then we have to be able to think up ways in which our local dependencies within the system offer changes for praxis and collective self-determination. At any rate both of these dimensions–that of anxiety and that of cognitive speculation–need to be exercized in any Utopian thinking worthy of the present and its dilemmas. But perhaps this is also to say that Utopian critics, today, are in much the same situation as Utopian creators and storytellers, and are to that degree in a better position to appreciate the achievements of the latter (as the various acknowledgements of the work of Kim Stanley Robinson testify).

(Remarks at the Utopian Studies Conference)

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