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.

A contrast between form and content haunts Jameson’s book. The kind of utopia which interests him least is the programmatic sort, with its ‘single-shot solution to all our ills’, its crackpot, obsessive schemes for hygienic clothing and efficient sanitary arrangements. A good many literary utopias are odourless, antiseptic places, intolerably sensible and streamlined, in which the natives jaw on for hours about their faultless methods of underfloor heating. In contrast to these dreary paragons, Jameson offers us a defiantly formalistic version of the future, in which what seizes our attention in utopian fiction is the sheer possibility of trying to figure a radical break with the present. This figuration, Jameson believes, is bound to fail; but in doing so it draws our gaze to the limitations of the present, and thus acts as a negative critique of it. The future, then, is a kind of sublimity, rather as for Kant the sublime nature of Reason is revealed exactly in our inability to represent it. The vocation of utopia is to confront us with our incapacity to imagine it. The most typical science fiction, Jameson argues in a fine phrase, does not seriously try to imagine a real future, but ‘to transform our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come’.

There is, in fact, a rich tradition of such negative utopianism, much of which Jameson, oddly, passes over. A specifically Jewish vein of it, stretching from Ernst Bloch and Gustav Landauer to Martin Buber and Herman Cohen, has recently been excavated by Russell Jacoby in Picture Imperfect.[*] Curiously, neither Jacoby nor Jameson mentions the latest Jewish thinker to inherit this tradition, Jacques Derrida. Theodor Adorno, whom Jameson does discuss, is another distinguished figure in this lineage, a philosopher for whom pessimism was more utopian than optimism because it kept faith with a suffering so unbearable that it cried out for redemption. In Adorno’s view, bleak-eyed thinkers like Freud serve the cause of enlightenment more loyally than its callowly progressivist champions. Negative utopia in Adorno’s work takes the name of art, which exposes the fault-lines of the present without proposing an alternative to it. Any such alternative would simply be another dose of ideological consolation. The present must be left in pieces, not patched up, since for Judaism such restoration belongs to God alone. In any case, as Adorno comments, an emancipated society would by no means be a totality.

The only image of the future, then, is the failure of the present. The prophet is not a pinstriped clairvoyant who assures us that our future is secure, but a ragged outcast howling in the wilderness who warns us that unless we change our ways, we are unlikely to have any future at all. The wild-eyed idealists are those who expect the future to turn out pretty much like the present; the hard-nosed pragmatists are those who know that it will be greatly different, which is not necessarily to say greatly improved.

Archaeologies of the Future sees that the problem is to steer between a break so radical that we could scarcely recognise ourselves on the other side of it, and those utopian images which mirror our desires only because they are bound to the present. In a splendid flourish, Jameson writes of Ernst Bloch’s eye for utopia in the most trifling, inconspicuous of places – in ‘even the most subordinate and shamefaced products of everyday life, such as aspirins, laxatives and deodorants, organ transplants and plastic surgery, all harbouring muted promises of a transfigured body’. Jameson is rather too ready to believe, along with Bloch, that all future-oriented thought is inherently utopian, forgetting that if Blake was a visionary, Pol Pot was too. Nor is he quite alert enough to a logical problem with what he sometimes unguardedly calls a ‘total’ historical rupture: by what criteria could we identify the future that followed from such a break as the future of our own present? How can there be an absolute difference, any more than there can be an absolute otherness? Jameson occasionally writes as though the latter, too, were possible, lifting the rather shopsoiled theme of otherness from the ruck of postmodern thought.

Marx had a solution of sorts to this dilemma, which went by the name of the proletariat. For him, it was the working class that provided the vital bridge from present to future. It was both a current reality and the harbinger of a transformed society. The future could thus be seen as immanent in the present, which in Marx’s view was the only kind of future worth having. It guaranteed that socialism was feasible as well as desirable, thus avoiding the danger of falling ill of fruitless longing. Given the problems which Marx’s view of the world has run into, it’s not surprising that Jameson should find himself with unimaginable futures on the one hand and laxatives on the other. Even so, he tries with a rather endearing American upbeatness to make a virtue of necessity, arguing with a certain wide-eyed ingenuity that the very lack of a political alternative to capitalism at the moment makes utopia, which creatively discredits such alternatives, all the more relevant.

Nothing in Jameson’s view is more bound to the present than our visions of what might transcend it. This is what makes ‘positive’ utopias so ideological. As Karl Kraus remarked of psychoanalysis, they are part of the problem to which they pose as a solution. This is surely obvious enough in accounts of alien abductions, in which you are transported to what looks for all the world like your local Accident and Emergency department, except that the masked and gowned doctors who are busy examining your genitals are only two feet tall and emit a curious stink of sulphur. Even so, Jameson overdoes the point a little. For it’s not as though there is a monolith called the present, which visions of the future must depressingly reflect. The present is a set of conflicting forces, some of which permit more hopeful projections than others. It is not, as Jameson sometimes seems to imply, a prison house which cuts us off from the future. On the contrary, an openness to the future is actually constitutive of the present, which points beyond itself by virtue of what it is. It is a horizon as much as a barrier.

Jameson is notoriously averse to moral thought, and vents his hostility to it at one point in this book. Ethics, in his opinion, is a simplistic opposition of good and evil, one which stands in for historical and political investigation. He thus shares George W. Bush’s view of ethics, the only difference between the Marxist and the neo-conservative on this score being that Bush approves of such simple-minded oppositions whereas Jameson does not. Again and again in his work, he has set up this tattered straw man of ethical thought, partly to have the pleasure of bowling it over with a materialist flourish. He does not seem to grasp that moral language includes terms that this book uses in plenty, such as ‘beautiful’, ‘catastrophe’, ‘terrible’ and ‘repellent’. It is hard to know why an anti-moralist should object to poverty or unemployment, or how he can explain in non-moral language why he finds the utopian impulse so precious. Does Jameson imagine that notions such as justice, freedom, solidarity and emancipation are non-moral? At one point, he appeals rather off-handedly to historical inevitability as an alternative to morality; but the inevitable is by no means always desirable. In fact, it is usually anything but. Even if socialism is as predestined as bird flu, there remains the problem of explaining why we should welcome it.

Whereas Aristotle saw ethics as a sub-branch of politics, Jameson confuses morality with moralism, a move which then allows him to write it off. His alternative to morality is really historicism: instead of passing absolute judgments on things, we should return them to their historical contexts. Grasping their historical significance, or even seeing them as historically inevitable, takes over from the self-righteous rhetoric of commending or condemning them. Or, indeed, of assessing their truth, a word which Jameson has now ominously begun to put in scare quotes. The case is embarrassingly close to the old liberal nostrum that to understand all is to forgive all. Are we to understand the Nazis rather than condemn them?

Yet there is in fact no essential conflict between history and morality. On the contrary, classical moralists like Aristotle and Marx think that moral judgments can be passed only when you can see the objects of judgment in all their social complexity. It is post-Kantian moderns like Jameson who drive a wedge between the moral and the historical. Is the aim of historical investigation simply to see things steadily and see them whole? What then becomes of radical satire, polemic and denunciation, qualities which Jameson’s own writing all too palpably lacks?

There is a submerged relation between Jameson’s nervousness of morality and his literary style. He is, as Perry Anderson has observed, one of the great writers of our time, not just one of our most formidably gifted critics and cultural theorists. Like Barthes or Foucault, he is a case of the theorist as poet or novelist. There are plenty of passages in this densely figurative book in which the superbly talented literary artist lurking inside the critic emerges in a deliciously tantalising flash, only to efface himself almost immediately. Yet although there is something magnificent about Jameson’s authoritatively unfurling periods, with their intricate Proustian subclauses and metaphorical bravura, there is also something remorseless about them. It is as though this great bulldozer of a literary style, with its curiously uniform syntax and unvaried cadences, rolls its way across an intellectual landscape which it levels beneath it, emulsifying everything until connections become more insistent than conflicts. Jameson is a staggeringly erudite critic, who appears to have read every significant text in the history of Western civilisation; but he is also a compulsive intellectual name-dropper, who weaves these various works and authors into a triumphant totality in which what matters is not jarring polemical judgments but the breathtaking architecture of the whole. His style may be a marvel of burnished rhetoric, shimmering with insight and intelligence, but it also lacks a political cutting edge.

There may even be a sense in which this totality is Jameson’s personal utopian alternative to the rather less attractive totality that goes by the name of globalisation. His grandly panoptic method, ranging from Parmenides to Soviet science fiction, Leibniz to Ursula Le Guin, represents a kind of transcendence of time and space, as he himself becomes a kind of science-fiction superbrain presiding over history and pulling its shattered bits and pieces into unity. There is something American about his voracious impulse to absorb all this cultural material, as though one of Henry James’s wide-eyed innocents, avid for experience, had been crossed with one of her sophisticated European exploiters.

For all its theoretical blindspots, Archaeologies of the Future is certainly among the most stunning studies of utopia and science fiction ever produced. It is a vast treasure trove of a book, crammed with brilliant aperçus (the idea of progress as an attempt to ‘colonise the future’; utopia as ‘a message from the future’), as well as some rather top-heavy theoretical analyses. Jameson is one of the world’s most eminent cultural theorists, but he is also a peerless literary critic in the classical sense of the term, one whose strength has always been to grasp history or ideology as form, genre and style, as secretly at work in the grain and texture of literary language. Along with its reflections on the idea of utopia, the book has some supple, remarkably powerful readings to offer of Le Guin, Brian Aldiss, Philip K. Dick (‘the Shakespeare of science fiction’), A.E. Van Vogt, Kim Stanley Robinson and a range of others. Jameson has always been an energetic retriever of the neglected and maligned, and a brilliant salvage job here on Charles Fourier reflects this tendency. So, less happily, does a lengthy dissection of George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, which he describes as one of his favourite books, and which Franco Moretti has more aptly called ‘perhaps the biggest piece of trash in universal literature’.

We need, Jameson claims in a striking comment, ‘to develop an anxiety about losing the future which is analogous to Orwell’s anxiety about the loss of the past and of memory and childhood’. One way of mislaying the future is to announce the end of history, which was an eye-catching piece of rhetoric in the 1990s. The end of history, or at least of ideology, had in fact already been proclaimed some decades before Francis Fukuyama loomed on the horizon (one might think that to be wrong about the death of history twice is sheer carelessness). The second proclamation, however, proved ironically self-undoing. For the triumphalism of the claim that capitalism was the only game left in town reflected the arrogant behaviour of the system itself, which helped to create the backlash of Islamic radicalism. The declaration that all grand narratives were over, in short, was closely bound up with the launching of yet another one, which pits capital against the Quran. Or, as far as the latter goes, a fundamentalist misreading of it.

It may, however, turn out on the gloomiest of estimates that utopia is well-nigh inevitable. Perhaps it is only when we run out of oil altogether, or when the world system crashes for other reasons, or when ecological catastrophe finally overtakes us, that we will be forced into some kind of co-operative commonwealth of the kind William Morris might have admired. Perhaps utopia will be ushered in by a return to the horse and cart, along with the bartering of vegetables for violin lessons. In time, once the human species has crawled out of its bunkers, this primitive co-operation might reproduce itself at a higher level of material development, in a world where ‘capitalism’ has become as discredited a term as Stalinism is in our own epoch. Alternatively, the whole tedious cycle might start up again – in which case we will need our Jamesons to remind us how to conceive of creating an alternative to this whole sorry mess without actually doing so.

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