Monday, October 24, 2005


(photo pinched from Observing The Observer.)

But when we turn to the utopian political schemes and arrangements I have mentioned, the perspective is utterly anonymous. The citizens of utopia are grasped as a statistical population; there are no individuals any longer, let alone any existential ‘lived experience’. If More tells us that the utopians are ‘easy-going, good-tempered, ingenious, and leisure-loving’, or that, following Aristotle, ‘they cling above all to mental pleasures, which they value as the first and foremost of all pleasures’, this simply enhances the statistical impression rather than individualizing it. The whole description is cast in the mode of a kind of anthropological otherness, which never tempts us for one minute to try to imagine ourselves in their place, to project the utopian individual with concrete existential density, even though we already know the details of his or her daily life (nowadays the notion of the everyday having more or less superseded that of private life). It may be objected that when we get to utopias of the type of William Morris (News from Nowhere) this depersonalization will no longer obtain; but perhaps his formulaic characters are, as Victorians, merely a little closer to us in time. Still, it is an important objection, since I want to argue that this effect of anonymity and of depersonalization is a very fundamental part of what utopia is and how it functions. The boredom or dryness that has been attributed to the utopian text, beginning with More, is thus not a literary drawback nor a serious objection, but a very central strength of the utopian process in general. It reinforces what is sometimes called today democratization or egalitarianism, but that I prefer to call plebeianization: our desubjectification in the utopian political process, the loss of psychic privileges and spiritual private property, the reduction of all of us to that psychic gap or lack in which we all as subjects consist, but that we all expend a good deal of energy on trying to conceal from ourselves.

Let’s now return to the distinction I have been making between the two utopian perspectives, that of the root of all evil and that of the political and social arrangements. We should probably see each of them in two distinct ways: as wish-fulfilment and as construction. Both of these approaches clearly involve pleasure: almost by definition the wish-fulfilment has something to do with pleasure, even though it may involve a long detour and a multiple mediation through substitutes. Thus Ernst Bloch taught us long ago that advertising for patent medicines drew on the stubborn core of a longing for eternal life and the body transfigured. Such wishes are even more obvious when we come to the various utopias where old peasant dreams of a land of plenty, of roasted chickens flying into the mouth, as well as more learned fantasies about paradise and the earthly garden, linger close to the surface.

But the pleasures of construction may not be so evident: you have to think of them in terms of the garage workshop, of the home-mechanics erector sets, of Lego, of bricolating and cobbling together things of all kinds. To which we must also add the special pleasures of miniaturization: replicating the great things in handicraft dimensions that you can put together by yourself and test, as with home chemical sets, or change and rebuild in a never-ending variation fed by new ideas and information. Model railroads of the mind, these utopian constructions convey the spirit of non-alienated labour and of production far better than any concepts of écriture or Spiel.

- Jameson, The Politics of Utopia

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