From edition

Justin Armstrong: Archaeologies of the Future

Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions

Review by Justin Armstrong, Anthropology, McMaster University

DOCUMENT 1: A Review of Archaeologies of the Future: the desire called utopia and other science fictions

Date: 15 February 06

FROM: Justin V. Armstrong
THEME: 001 “Imagining Imaginaries: Utopia interrupted”
CONTENTS: a review of a book by Fredric Jameson with reflections on the idea of Utopia

To Whom It May Concern:

We have recently discovered an archaic book-object in one of the Outer Locales (#42) [1].

Here are some of the main points of the work based on our most recent translation:

1.   Science fiction: a troubling phrase that seems to function as a foil for debates and acts as a distinct contradiction. How can science and fiction relate? They are opposite.

2.   Utopia: a perfect lifeworld/reality. Are not all worlds perfect at the time of their birth? Rather than continually trying to attain perfection through technology and progress, why not seek this idea in a willful disintegration instead of a directed move towards unknowable scientific mastery of the universe?

3.   The warning is written in the fictions. Are these texts so erudite and elusive that those who blindly forge ahead cannot see the willful destruction of that which they ultimately seek?

4.   Archaeology: the practice of reconstructing the history of culture (the culture of history). As one digs deeper into the strata of historical notions and understandings of the possible future(s), do they not also see the danger inherent in suggesting that permeable, translucent and explosive? [2]

The author of this work seems to have foretold the ending of time and the birth of our new civilization. There have been many difficult ages, but ultimately our cities became locations of salvation, places to begin anew and learn from other surviving book-objects the ways we might not go astray [3].

We can never go home – even if that home has yet to exist [4].


[1] In Jameson’s latest book (part three in a proposed six-part series), the author is given a very in-depth analysis of several specific works of science fiction in the context of forming understandings of utopia. The book has been divided into two parts, the first being quite linear in following a logical trajectory toward the author’s ideas about the true nature of utopia and its place in discussions of science fiction. Here he also looks at the ways in which science fiction acts to try and warn us what might happen if we choose to follow the wrong path to utopia. The second part of the book is composed of essays that were written over the past two decades and generally focus on science fiction, critical theory and the relationship between humans and the future that we are destined to inherit. In this discussion I would like to focus primarily on the first section of the book since the second part acts less like a completed whole and more like a collection of afterthoughts. This is not necessarily a negative aspect of the work but, in actuality, seems to offer several possible epilogues and afterwards to the first section.

Throughout the book Jameson works to establish a framework for the human need for utopian dreams and the perpetual drive to improve our reality until some mythical end-point is reached. This is a unique reflection on the nature of (late) capitalist society and the notions of progress that seem to pervade our very existence. It is effective in bringing into question the very motives that we hold as the reasons for the continuance of our present lifeworld. Do we really see a liberal-capitalist-democratic utopia in our future, or are we more concerned with individual utopian dreams? I am curious to know if Jameson sees utopia as a solely collective enterprise or if he believes that we can obtain it for ourselves. What is the difference between utopia and enlightenment?

In the introduction to this work, Jameson discusses the fall of communism as it relates to the drive for utopia in the culture of late-capitalism, where he sees the end of the Cold War as an indicator of the lack of resistance to Western-capitalist models of utopia. It is interesting to note that much of the Soviet bloc science fiction that Jameson writes about often focuses on a veiled critique of the Soviet attempt at a workers utopia, while Western science fiction appears more as a way of discussing issues around contemporary notions of progress.    In Chapter 1, Jameson presents the idea of the “utopian impulse” or drive to perfect life in the future. In this way, science fiction serves as both a model and warning for how we might achieve that goal. This “impulse” seems to be born of the desires to accumulate, not only capital but also understanding. The person or group who accumulates the most understanding of technology and human life can begin to create their own utopian sphere of existence.

Chapter 2 sees Jameson speaking about the significance of utopia as an ultimately imagined space – a beautiful idea that almost brings the book to its knees. From that point onward the rest of the work seems to explore that imagined space and endeavor to fish out various bits of meaning and significance from the text. In many ways this work is the perfect compliment to “the Zone” in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1977), a place where bits of ephemera left by a visiting alien race are set free to provide answers and meaning to those brave enough to enter its spaceless space. The reader becomes a Stalker (characters given the ability to lead others into the Zone), searching the pages of the work for scraps of meaning and clues to the possibility of a scientific utopia.

[2] The places where we find criticism of things that are yet to happen are underground and must be unearthed. The contexts in which they settle determine the future as well as how the next cultural form will emerge. They bleed into one another, see one another and shatter each others shells.

[3] In Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s The Time Wanderers the protagonist describes a group of future humans (one of three who live in the novel’s pages) that are “happy”. This group, the Tagorians, devote ¾ of their efforts to discovering what problems might arise from technological advancement and how those pitfalls will be avoided. Could a text like William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) or Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) act as their guide? Can we see science fiction as prophecy? I think that, in some ways, this is one of Jameson’s main points.

[4] As the work progresses, Jameson continues on in his analysis of science fiction and the utopian desire with discussions of feudalism, capital, accumulation and phantasy, eventually ending up at an appropriate point of departure that offers some degree of closure to his argument without sealing off any future attempts at advancing the discourse of utopian thought and its place in imaginative literature. All in all, the book is quite well written although at times it requires a certain degree of specialized vernacular to wade through some of the more complex terms and theories. In the end, this text offers something of a survey course in both utopian ideology and science fiction, while using both notions as effective foils for asking deeper questions about the true nature of our existence and the possible outcomes for our current techno-lusting culture of late-late-capitalism.

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