Making a Break

Terry Eagleton

  • Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions by Fredric Jameson
    Verso, 431 pp, £20.00, September 2005, ISBN 1 84467 033 3

Walter Benjamin once remarked that what drove men and women to revolt was not dreams of liberated grandchildren but memories of oppressed ancestors. Visions of future happiness are all very well; but happiness is a feeble, holiday-camp kind of word, resonant of manic grins and multicoloured jackets, not least when compared with the kind of past which, as Marx commented, weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Benjamin was not wholly sceptical of the future, as Fredric Jameson points out in this monumental study. On the contrary, he discerned in it a messianic power to disrupt the present. Even so, he treats it with a certain Judaic wariness: you are forbidden to carve graven images of the future because to do so is to use it as a fetish or totem to manipulate the present. Just as you cannot name God, so you cannot put a face on his future kingdom. Speculating in futures is the opposite of Abrahamic faith. Benjamin reminded us that not even the dead are safe from Fascism, which will simply erase them from the historical record; and one might equally claim that not even the future is safe from those who envisage it as no more than the present stretching all the way to infinity. Or, as one caustic commentator put it, the present plus more options. On this view, the future has already arrived, and its name is the present.

Yet Benjamin’s aversion to images of the future belongs as much to his Marxism as to his Judaism. Though Marx had some approving comments to make about utopian thinkers, he began his career in combat with this current of thought, and is notoriously silent about what a future socialist order would look like. It was the indicative rather than the subjunctive mood which preoccupied him. Any idle fantasist could dream up some ideal society, but it took a historical materialist to identify those contradictions in the present which might eventually lead to its negation. Once this was done, there was logically nothing left to say. You could speak about what Marx called ‘prehistory’ (i.e. all history to date), otherwise known as the realm of necessity, because necessity has a tediously predictable shape to it. But you could not talk about what really mattered – the future realm of freedom – since freedom has by definition no predictable shape. As for the transition from the one realm to the other, you can (you must) say what political arrangements it would take to get real history off the ground; but you cannot predetermine what that history will look like once it is launched. If you can, then the future is merely a fantasy projection of the present, and the whole project comes to grief.

Marx, then, both believes and disbelieves in blueprints, a possibility which Jameson doesn’t take fully into account. The founder of Marxism thus manages to wriggle out of the pincer movement to which his followers are often subjected: if you can describe a desirable future in any detail, you are the prisoner of some desiccated blueprint; if you cannot, you are a pathetic dreamer. As far as the future goes, Marx writes, ‘the content goes beyond the form,’ meaning perhaps that you cannot simply read off the nature of the just society from the institutions set up to establish it. The task of socialists ends with the transition itself. At that point, they can throw off their beliefs, rejoin the human race, and talk about something more interesting than the Asiatic mode of production.

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[*] Columbia, 224 pp., £16.50, June 2005, 0 231 12894 0.