Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Preserving the Possibility of the Impossible

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Preserving the Possibility of the Impossible

Article excerpt

Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future. The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, London, Verso, 2005. ISBN 1-84467-033-3

The utopian is a theme found throughout Jameson's prodigious oeuvre. One of the things Jameson does in his early text, Marxism and Form (1974), is track the role of the utopian in Western Marxism. This text reveals that the negativity of critical theory is always closely aligned with the utopian. Later, in The Political Unconscious (1984), Jameson famously asserted that even the libidinal force of Fascism and anti-Semitism has its deep roots in the utopian impulse. Postmodernism (1991) then revealed the totalizing and inescapable force of a reifying consumer capitalism whose only chink was an irrepressible, but fragile, utopian impulse. In The Archaeologies of the Future, Jameson provides an extended and comprehensive analysis of the utopian, his master concept. (1) Prior to this, his most systematic account of the utopian was to be found in his long essay titled "Utopia, Modernity, and Death". (2) While that essay clarifies the concept of the utopian, it does so within the limited historical context of Modernism; the present book is far broader in scope.

In all of the above works, the utopian is more than a quirky peripheral literary genre, or even a political program; it is rather a fundamental impulse of human existence, as fundamental as desire itself. This is, of course, a transcendental claim, but Archaeologies of the Future is also concerned with the history of the concept of the utopian. The transcendental and the historical are two paths that a discussion of the utopian can take; according to Jameson's dialectical method, these paths are not logically incompatible. In terms of cultural criticism, this means that Jameson looks at both those texts that are consciously utopian, and those more unconscious libidinal manifestations that can be allegorically recovered from everyday life, and also from seemingly degraded, or minor, cultural phenomena. Some critics have accused Jameson of being too historicist, of reducing everything to the status of an effect of an ineluctable historical necessity. (3) Against this view, it should be noted that Jameson explicitly asserts here that the ontological structure of the not-yet is a transhistorical foundation that escapes the relativism of historicism (170-173). This foundation is not, however, a fully present, representationally graspable concept or truth. Rather, it remains negative, or demystificatory. I'll return to this negativity later in the discussion.

Before I examine the conceptual content of the text, a brief word on how the text is structured. The text has two parts; the first part, titled "The Desire Called Utopia", is an extended meditation on the nature of the utopian and its history; this review will focus on this part. (4) The second part is made up of a selection of occasional essays, all of which have been published before, related to the topic of the utopian. The text as a whole develops its discussion by drawing on a wide range of historical examples from the utopian genre and also from Science Fiction. Some of the better known figures discussed include Thomas More, Rousseau, Fourier, Morris, Thoreau, Stanislaw Lem, Ursula Le Guin and Philip K. Dick. (5) A diverse list to be sure, but that is partially the point: the utopian is a broad category. In linking Science Fiction and Utopia, Jameson is following Darko Suvin, who asserts that the utopian is itself a sub-genre of Science Fiction. (6) Both forms imagine alternative worlds, and both attempt to imagine technological and organizational innovations that transform human life. As a final word on structural matters, it is worth noting that the book's dust jacket says that Archaeologies of the Future is "the latest volume, after Postmodernism and A Singular Modernity, of Jameson's projected six-volume series on the Poetics of Social Forms." This makes it sound as if there are three volumes to come. …

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