The Trouble with Nowhere

Martin Jay

  • The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy by Russell Jacoby
    Basic Books, 256 pp, £17.95, April 1999, ISBN 0 465 02000 3
  • Utopias: Russian Modernist Texts 1905-40 edited by Catriona Kelly
    Penguin, 378 pp, £9.99, September 1999, ISBN 0 14 118081 1
  • The Faber Book of Utopias edited by John Carey
    Faber, 560 pp, £20.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 571 19785 X
  • The Nazi War on Cancer by Robert Proctor
    Princeton, 390 pp, £18.95, May 1999, ISBN 0 691 00196 0

In 1967, Herbert Marcuse published a little essay entitled ‘The End of Utopia’, which now reads like a document of a long lost civilisation. Arguing against the pejorative use of the word as a synonym for the absurdly unrealisable, he held that ‘there is one valid criterion for possible realisation, namely, when the material and intellectual forces for the transformation are technically at hand although their rational application is prevented by the existing organisation of the forces of production. And in this sense, I believe, we can today actually speak of an end to utopia.’ Combining a faith in technology with the confidence that only the wrong mode of production stands in the way of its fully beneficial application, Marcuse encapsulated the innocent euphoria of the 1960s in one glorious moment of revolutionary intoxication. ‘Precisely because the so-called utopian possibilities are not at all utopian but rather the determinate socio-historical negation of what exists,’ he concluded, ‘a very real and pragmatic opposition is required of us if we are to make ourselves and others conscious of these possibilities and the forces that hinder and deny them.’

A generation later, Russell Jacoby the American cultural critic and one-time Marcusian, borrows – without acknowledgment – Marcuse’s title for his own consideration of the state of utopia. But rather than proclaiming that its end is at hand because its realisation is nigh, he laments the collapse of the utopian impulse itself, the hope that somehow things might one day be radically different. What exists, it seems, doesn’t have a ‘determinate socio-historical negation’, even in the subjective imaginations of those who might once have dreamed of a radically different world. We have all come to embrace the sober-minded, philistine meliorism of a Macaulay, whose famous jibe in his essay on Francis Bacon that ‘an acre in Middlesex is worth a principality in Utopia’ is the credo, in Jacoby’s view, of our cynically apathetic, myopically pragmatic age. Although he readily concedes that he has no blueprint for action himself, he nonetheless endorses Adorno’s often cited exhortation from Minima Moralia to ‘contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption’.

But what precisely do things look like from that elevated point of view? What would a redeemed form of life on this side of the mundane/extramundane divide actually mean? As soon as Jacoby hints at his own version of redemption, the problems begin. For rather than tell us what might be at the end of the rainbow, he spends most of his time in The End of Utopia rehearsing a common-or-garden critique, made more often these days by conservatives than radicals, of multiculturalism as opposed to universalism, of mass culture as opposed to high culture, and of Post-Modernist aestheticism as opposed to a non-ironic concept of truth. The book is also a plea for the lonely intellectual, unswayed by the demands of the academic marketplace, who has been reviled by populists of the left and right, a plea that readers of Jacoby’s other works will find hauntingly familiar. For only such a heroic figure, he suggests, can dare to leave his acre in Middlesex behind and fantasise about a radically different future.

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