Sunday, December 12, 2010

Not-Yet-In-Place: Adorno & Bloch On Utopia And Hope

Fewer words - with the possible exception of "martyr" with its connotations of a long-suffering victimization, rather than its origin as the Greek word meaning "witness" - have suffered more moral degradation than "utopia". Meaning, quite literally, "no place", it was originally conceived, in late-Renaissance works by such authors as Thomas More and the Italian Campanella (whose views, in many ways, are diametrically opposed) as a way of describing a society that could be a foil for the then-current ones. A form of political and social satire, or perhaps a critique of the then-regnant social upheavals of the religious and political wars that spawned both monarchical absolutism and a nascent republicanism, utopian fiction shifted, after a fashion, to a form of political theorizing, and even practice, particularly in small communities. The first constitutional Republic, on the island of Corsica (finally crushed by its native son, Napoleon Bonaparte), was viewed by many in the heady days of the late-18th century, as an experiment in utopian social and political engineering.

Since the collapse, first, of the Warsaw Pact nations in 1989, then the Soviet Union in 1991, with the declaration that history is at an end, and with it ideology as the putatively non-ideological position of capitalism and representative republican government modeled roughly on the United States' example was declared the winner in the global political sweepstakes, communism as its emerged then morphed through the 20th century was offered up as the final attempt to construct a utopian society, failing miserably, the mass graves of Stalinism its only real final legacy.

Even former appartchiks of this same system came to the same conclusion. Dmitri Yakovlev, consigned to semi-exile in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa after attempting to gain support for moderate reforms early in the Breshnev era, he was rescued and rehabilitated by Gorbachev, becoming a close advisor. After it all came apart, he published a book entitled The Fate of Marxism in Russia, in which he agrees whole-heartedly with the trumphalist anti-ideologues of the post-history crowd, claiming that the brutality of Stalinism, and the continuation of that brutality in decadent forms under later Soviet premieres (despite the supposed "denunciation" of Stalin by one of his butchers, Kruschev) was not a repudiation of Marxist doctrine, but rather the epitome of it. His attempt at "reform" was rightly understood by Breshnev as an only slightly veiled attempt to point out that, as a way of governing a modern state and society, Marxism only brought terror, deprivation, and misery.

At the beginning of a single-volume, edited translation of what was, in the original German, two volumes of collected essays on aesthetics, entitled The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, there is a transcript of an interview with Ernst Bloch (whose collection this is), and his friend and Frankfurt School neo-Marxist Theodor Adorno. The subject of the interview is utopia as an idea. Both Adorno and Bloch very quickly assert that, in fact, utopia is not an "idea", but rather a term that describes a cluster of somewhat related concepts in a variety of fields - medicine and architecture, politics and music - that can be summarized by considering each of these under a condition where the deepest hopes and desires of each reached some kind of perfection (at one point, Adorno points out that Bloch is edging close to the ontological proof for God's existence, and Bloch agrees).

Bloch makes an important point early on. Since the 19th century, "utopia" has not functioned in a physical way. Rather, it has functioned in a temporal way. Various utopias - medical and technological, for example - are very often envisioned in some new discovery (some major breakthrough in surgical technique, say, or, as Adorno mentions, our robotic voyages to other planets). In like fashion, Bloch asserts that social and political utopias also are now understood temporally, rather than physically or geographically. They are no longer Campanella's "Sun Land", but instead will result from the correct socio-economic structure, providing true human freedom to the greatest number.

It is here that hope rears its battered head. A central theme of Bloch's The Principle of Hope is the reciprocal relationship between hope and utopia. In that work, Bloch introduced the "not-yet", extending that even to the "not-yet-conscious". In this interview, this is summarized with a reference to a line in a play by Brecht: "Something's missing". It is that unnamed that is missing that sought after in hope, and filled with what Bloch calls utopian content by our desire to find that most essential missing piece.

While putatively at the beginning of a work on aesthetics, this interview grounds the discussion in an understanding of "utopia" as Bloch understood it, of "hope" as Bloch saw it, as categories that embrace human longing at their deepest and most profound. Changing our understanding of "utopia" from "a dangerous dream" to "that for which we will most ardently strive and strain our last effort of work" is at the heart of Bloch's understanding not just of Bloch's aesthetics, but his entire philosophical project.

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