Religion and Utopia in Fredric Jameson

Article excerpt


Focusing on the interplay of religion and Utopia in Fredric Jameson's recent Archaeologies of the Future, I identify a tension: on the one hand, the content of religion has been superseded (although not its forms), yet, on the other, Jameson still wishes to make use of a hermeneutics of suspicion and recovery in which even the most retrograde material may be recuperated--religion included. So we find a clash underway in this work. Sometimes Jameson sidelines religion, as one would expect if religion was no longer relevant. At other times, he exercises his dialectical hermeneutics, particularly at two moments: first, a recovery, via Feuerbach, of the role of magic within fantasy literature; second, the partial treatment of apocalyptic, which comes very dose to his own argument for Utopia as rupture. From here, I develop the dialectic of ideology and Utopia further by expanding Jameson's comments on the possibilities of medieval theology and the utopian role of religion (both Catholic and Protestant) in More's Utopia.


   ... the biblical stumbling block, which gives
   Utopia its savor and its bitter freshness ...
   (Jameson Archaeologies 180)

My topic is the critical exploration of the interplay between religion and Utopia in Fredric Jameson's recent Archaeologies of the Future. (1) As the culmination of a lifelong love of science fiction and utopian literature, it brings together many of his reflections concerning Utopia over some three decades (indeed, half of the book is a collection of his various essays on science fiction that many have been urging him to gather in one place for quite some time). (2) In this work Jameson faces a tension. As a Marxist, he assumes that religion has been superseded. Its forms may continue, but its content is a thing of the past. However, he also wishes to operate with a hermeneutics of suspicion and recovery, or what he calls a hermeneutics of ideology and Utopia. According to this approach, utopian possibilities emerge from even the most retrograde material--religion included. Although these two approaches to religion were first formulated in his earlier work, both of them appear in Archaeologies of the Future.

So I begin by outlining this tension in some of Jameson's earlier work (upon which I have written elsewhere). From there I trace what I call his sidelining of religion when dealing with Utopia, a move that we would expect if we assume that religion is no longer relevant. Then I pick up the various moments in which he brings his hermeneutics of ideology and utopia into play. These include his discussions of the role of magic within fantasy literature and of apocalyptic. While the first leaves him open to criticism in his use of Feuerbach and the small sample pool of fantasy (I contrast his reading with the work of China Mieville), the second comes all too close to his own argument that Utopia entails rupture. I close by pursuing the dialectic of religion and Utopia further, picking up and expanding his comments on medieval theology and the utopian role of religion (both Catholic and Protestant) in Thomas More's Utopia.

Supersession versus a Dialectic of Ideology and Utopia

Out of a range of earlier engagements with religion, two items bear directly on my discussion here: Jameson's line that religion is really an earlier and inchoate language for political and social debates; and his appropriation of Paul Ricoeur's theologically inspired hermeneutics of suspicion and recovery. (3)

As for the first point, Jameson makes the intriguing comment in his essay "On the Sexual Production of Western Subjectivity, or, St. Augustine as a Social Democrat" that "religion is a figural form whereby utopian issues are fought out" (161). One reading of this statement is that religion really means something else, that it is a language or code for other issues and battles, whether cultural, political, social, and so on. …