The shock waves released by the fall of the Soviet Union have not left Utopia untouched. Although the disappearance of the Second World might have been expected to undermine the quest for imagined alternatives, it seems that just the opposite has been true. The decade and a half that has transpired since the triumph of capitalism has witnessed an unexpected Utopian revival, the term resurfacing across a range of approaches and disciplines. Russell Jacoby’s Picture Imperfect (2005), a sequel to The End of Utopia (1999), aims to revive an ‘iconoclastic utopianism’ that would draw on a Judaic strain in Western Marxism—Bloch, Benjamin and Adorno—as the basis for a new oppositional politics. David Harvey’s Spaces of Hope (2000) proposes a ‘dialectical utopianism’ that will connect ‘the sentiments of the Manifesto with those expressed in the Declaration of Human Rights’. One could add the idiosyncratic call of Roberto Mangabeira Unger for a ‘motivated, sustained and cumulative tinkering with the arrangements of society’ (most recently in Democracy Realized), and the ‘Real Utopias’ series, edited by Erik Olin Wright, bringing together redistributive schemes in the spirit of the Tobin Tax and John Roemer’s voucher socialism. Thus far, however, the new Utopian production has lacked a concomitant theoretical codification of the genre as such.
Or so it was until the entry into this field of Fredric Jameson, with one of his most substantial and exciting works since Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. The fulfilment of a lifelong interest in Science Fiction and Utopian studies, which it will help to define for years to come, Archaeologies of the Future is also a direct political intervention into current debates on what Jameson calls ‘the post-globalization Left’. Divided into a theoretical section, ‘The Desire Called Utopia’, and a series of focused readings of authors such as Fourier and Le Guin, Dick and Gibson, among others, the book spans three decades of writing. Readers of Jameson unfamiliar with the journal Science Fiction Studies, where many of the essays collected in the book’s second half previously appeared, may be surprised to learn that his voice has been a noted one in American sf criticism since the early 1970s. Few, however, will find a book-length treatment of the concept of Utopia unexpected. From the discussion of The Principle of Hope in Marxism and Form to the dissection of ‘the anxiety of Utopia’ in Postmodernism, from the striking 1982 essay ‘Progress versus Utopia’ (reprinted in this volume), through the reading of Platonov in The Seeds of Time, to the concluding demand for the displacement of modernity’s thematics ‘by the desire called Utopia’ in A Singular Modernity, the subject has been one of Jameson’s essential concerns; making him remarkably well suited to address the present neo-Utopian wave.
How should Archaeologies of the Future be situated within Jameson’s body of work as a whole? One might divide this into four distinct political periods, each marked by a major synthetic work. Marxism and Form, published in 1971, was composed amid the growing cultural-political rebellion of the late 1960s; its excavation of Bloch and Marcuse’s Utopianism registered the rediscovery of various forgotten Left traditions. Following this, the class insurgency and anti-colonial warfare of the 1970s found expression in the confident tone of The Political Unconscious (1981), which took history as ‘a single great collective story . . . the collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity’. Postmodernism (1991, but again in composition during the previous decade) coolly set out to map the global restructuration of capitalism in the 1980s, at the height of the neoliberal backlash, but also the moment of the emergence of ‘new social movements’ in the West. When it was published, the Soviet bloc—always an anchoring, if oblique reference for Jameson—still existed. In the aftermath of its collapse, and the apparent erasure of the entire Communist experience from the historical record during the 1990s, Archaeologies now registers the need for a new conceptualization of Utopian strategies, a response to the challenge which closed his last work, A Singular Modernity—that, under current circumstances, if we are to theorize, or even imagine, radical alternatives or systemic transformations:
We need to combine a Poundian mission to identify Utopian tendencies with a Benjaminian geography of their sources and a gauging of their pressure at what are now multiple sea levels. Ontologies of the present demand archaeologies of the future, not forecasts of the past.
But if this is stirring, Archaeologies is cautious, too. Jameson’s ambivalence, and the exploratory method by which the book proceeds—as though carefully testing each step in an unknown landscape—finds expression in its opening sentence: ‘Utopia has always been a political issue, an unusual destiny for a literary form: yet just as the literary value of the form is subject to permanent doubt, so also its political status is structurally ambiguous’—attacked during the Cold War by the counter-revolutionary right (and post-structuralist left) as a synonym for ‘totalitarianism’, and dismissed by classical Marxism for lacking a concept of agency and programme. Yet the consolidation of the world market, Jameson suggests, leaves us with ‘no alternative to Utopia’, however ambivalent the form. Characteristically, his first move is a negation: resuscitating Sartre’s Cold War slogan—‘anti-anti-communism’—to raise the call for ‘anti-anti-Utopianism’ as the best working strategy for our time.
To determine the possibility of imagining a genuinely different future while shackled by the present, and thus to arrive at some sense of Utopia’s worth today—this is Jameson’s purpose. The better part of ‘The Desire Called Utopia’ consists of a ‘perversely formalist approach’ to attempts at the realization of Utopia. The investigation reaches its conclusions, however, only through a series of displacements, of backwards or sideways steps. First, Jameson establishes a key distinction between the Utopian form—text, programme or revolutionary practice—and the Utopian wish or impulse, detectable, at least since Bloch, in ‘everything future-oriented in life and culture’. While the impulse is scattered piecemeal throughout the alienated present, the Utopian programme distinguishes itself by ‘a commitment to closure’—an act of secession from the governing reality—‘and thereby to totality’.
If traces of the Utopian impulse are to be found everywhere, the production of its forms and programmes has been historically more intermittent. What are the conditions of possibility for the composition of Utopias? Beginning with the onset of early modernity and the genre’s eponymous prototype—Thomas More’s Utopia, in 1516—Jameson locates the bulk of them in ‘transitional periods’: moments when society is in flux, but the political suspended; wherein, often, several modes of production share the field. Here Utopian space can emerge as an imaginary enclave, a temporary ‘backwater’ of stasis within modernity’s unstoppable onward rush of differentiation, offering a workshop where Utopians, endearingly described as a group of ‘maniacs and oddballs’, can tinker with their projects for another world. For More, this was the court, the space through which he could still dream the abolition of money (which had not yet transcended ‘enclave’ status in his lifetime); for Campanella, the monastery; for Bacon, science; for Rousseau, the constitution-drafting potentiality of an administrative power—again, not yet universal—that might be used to shape social life; for Montesquieu or Diderot, the space of the exotic (Persia, Tahiti); for Fourier, the psycho-sexual; for Morris, the workshop; and so, finally, to the new enclave of cyberspace and the ‘romance of finance capital’ carried to a high in cyberpunk.