Beyond Utopia?: Response from Amanda Ciafone
“Practicing Utopology, Theorizing Praxis”

Saturday, May 26, 2012

[On April 26 and 27, 2012, the Unit for Criticism partnered with the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities for a conference, Beyond Utopia? Art, Theory, and the Coming of “Spring.” The last of our three closing roundtable responses is by Amanda Ciafone, a professor of international studies at Macalester College]


“Practicing Utopology, Theorizing Praxis”

Written by Amanda Ciafone (Macalester College)

To begin to open up a conversation between the papers of the last two days, I’d like to use Jameson’s argument for a pedagogical operation to read the Utopian impulse rather than the praxis of Utopia, and identify some of the dialectic and agonistic approaches we’ve seen during the conference.  And then I’d like to ask, quite sincerely (and not answer), why it is some of the most powerful theorists of the contemporary moment have seen neither Utopian impulse nor praxis in the “multitudes” and “horizontality” that has emerged in the recent social movements and Middle East "springs."

“Utopia,” Jameson writes in Valences of the Dialectic , “is not a representation but an operation calculated to disclose the limits of our own imagination of the future, the lines beyond which we do not seem able to go in imagining changes in our own society and world,” except of course in the direction of dystopia and catastrophe. For Jameson, this operation, or “utopology,” is interpreting what he calls the Utopian impulse, which does not correspond to a plan or praxis, but instead “expresses Utopian desire and invests it in a variety of unexpected and disguised, concealed, distorted ways” (415).  It therefore calls for “a decipherment and a reading of Utopian clues and traces in the landscape of the real …[where even] the most noxious phenomena can serve as the repository and hiding place for all kinds of unsuspected wish-fulfillments and Utopian gratifications” (416).  These “hidden traces and signs of Utopianism that lie in wait in the world about us” are much like what Raymond Williams would call “the emergent” of the future in the present and they become more visible in the disentangling of the negative from the positive in a process like Foucault’s “genealogy,” but instead uncovering the “genealogies of the future.”


In Chapter 16 of Valences, "Utopia as Replication," Jameson proves his point through a powerful dystopia for the Left: Wal-Mart. We all know the horrors of Wal-Mart, so there is no need to repeat them here. But per Jameson, in its production of monopoly power, Wal-Mart is the “purest expression of that dynamic of capitalism which devours itself, which abolishes the market by means of the market itself.” The enormity of Wal-Mart has overcome the anarchy of capitalism and provides the necessities of life to the public, no matter how increasingly poor. This impoverishing power of the giant firm that exploits is suppliers and exploiting its workers, however, could be used in exactly the opposite way, “using its enormous purchasing power not just to raise the standard of living for its customers but also for its suppliers.” This new system of colossal coordination of productive forces could eliminate the opposition between producer and consumer altogether if concurrent with a structurally changed future. Again, he asserts, this is not praxis, not a Leninist plan to just “lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus” after the revolution. Rather, it is an imagining as positive what is currently negative to change the valence of Utopian futurity, to see the possible dystopic geneaologies of a different future.

The Jamesonian operation helps read the utopian impulse in the dystopia of the hysterical “conversion disorder and mass psychogenic illness” of twitches, seizures and paralysm that overcame dozens of teenagers in a town in upstate NY and preoccupied daytime talk shows for much of this winter. Living in a community that has seen rapid increase in economic and social insecurity, a generation of the town’s young women are making each other sick with the physical symptoms of the stress of decline; through “the maladaptive version of the kind of empathy that finds expression in actual physical sensation [like the] contagious yawn or sympathetic nausea.” But in this representation of social contagion we see the utopian impulse of a neuropolitical democracy and collective habitus charged between our mirror neurons, subconsciously resonating empathy and sociality in a kind of neurological commons as Romand Coles has argued. Perhaps it’s these mirror neurons that relay General Intellect with affect or the communicative (in the double sense) constitution of biopolitical production for Hardt and Negri.

The agonism of these dystopic and utopic elements together in a “unity of opposites,” is not unlike the operation many of the participants have made in their readings of cultural texts over the last 2 days. Like Bonnie Honig’s identification of a politics rather than an ethics produced in the “agonistic genre switching” of Fassbinder’s melodrama in Germany in Autumn radically undoing the feeling that we are out of options and just replaying an already performed classic script of tragedy. And Jeffrey Skoller’s analysis of Ken Jacobs’ “Capitalism: Child Slavery,” and the physical confrontation of the cutting flicker that blasts the historical moment into the present animating contemporary exploitation and demanding us to strain into sight a future social system where exploitation is not inevitable, unlike our own. And Philip Wegner’s dialectical reading of the “evental genre” of DuBois’ biography of John Brown in the context of a radical history of black activism, sees in the rupture of Brown’s insurrectionary historical event the visibility of the utopic universal nature of global histories of struggle.

In the same chapter of Valences of the Dialectic, Jameson uses his method of utopology to see the Utopian impulse, but not the praxis (“my discussion…was not to be taken as an endorsement of some putative new politics…nor even as a practical-political discussion”), in the contemporary theory of the “multitude” in the works of Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. As he reads in Walmart’s monopoly the Utopian impulse for the convergence of producer/consumer and the affordable provision of goods for all, so he also sees in Virno’s argument for a politics of the multitude a Utopian wish-fulfillment that the contemporary realities of overpopulation and nomadism hold possibilities of a different future. In his reading of Virno, under the current postmodern and globalized conditions, the multiplicity and overpopulation of people in mega-cities constitute new collectivities, the massification of culture creates shared linguistic and cultural literacy, and the conditions of nomadism and a world market for immaterial and material labor that requires communication, cooperation and connectivity all contribute to a “publicness without a public sphere” and “the feasibility of a non-representational democracy,” in Virno’s terms. For Jameson, this hopeful conception of the multitude is a form of utopology by Virno, otherwise, “what we are calling the multitude is then the population of those refugee campus as they supplant the promise of suburbs and the mobility of freeways which have become permanent traffic jams.”

But many of the authors we have read in the faculty/grad seminar have questioned this multitude and the Utopian political praxis of horizontality that we have heard versions of in the last two days: in the challenge to the hierarchies of the conference and museum space in the Freire-inspired conscientização created by Irene Small and her class, the Egyptian Anarchisms that are learned in practice and stored for future politics per Mohammed Bamyeh, or the anti-capitalist Nietschzean conceptions of utopia that “refuse to be mesmerized by the spectacle of a system,” are unconcerned with an understanding or plan for totality, but “start where they are, where they can,” as theorized by Melissa Orlie. But the critiques from the likes of Mike Davis and Slavoj Zizek remain. For Zizek, “the deepest hope of the utopian left, ‘horizontal organization,’” is part of the failed politics of the previous century, while Davis puts it bluntly: “Western post-Marxists…lazily ruminate on whether or not ‘proletarian agency’ is now obsolete, obliging us to think it terms of ‘multitudes,’ horizontal spontaneities, whatever.”

But if our cultural Marxists have made it more possible to imagine the end of capitalism through the utopology of the very dystopias of the “end of the world,” to invert that old saying (“it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”), isn’t it possible for us to imagine a praxis amongst these genealogies of the future?

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Lauren said...

Amanda, this is such a compact synopsis of Jameson's thinking on utopia and the way it served as a entry point as well as contrast to a variety of materials we read for the seminar and heard during the conference. Thanks so much for letting us share this really useful piece on Kritik!

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