Saturday, March 01, 2014

Utopia Now: on Pierre Macherey's De L'Utopie!

Pierre Macherey’s De L’Utopie! follows a pattern similar to his other books that have come out of his "philosophie au sense large" seminars. As with other seminars, what is stake is the tracing of a concept or idea, that of the university, the quotidian, or, in this case, utopia, is less a matter of producing a definitive interpretation of the concept in question than it is of exploring the idea in its essential errancy and historicity. Whereas Macherey’s other books included in their trajectory a survey of philosophical, sociological or psychological works, and literature, De L’Utopia is concerned with that particular genre of writing that defines utopia. Although Macherey does consider various theories of utopia, and includes an appendix on Brecht’s opera the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny, his primary concern is the particular form of writing that defines utopia. There is no need to contrast philosophical theories and literary texts because this tension of the philosophical, or sociological, and the literary is internal to utopian writing itself. 

The first chapter of De L’Utopia is concerned with defining this particular genre of writing. Macherey turns to both a classic text of utopia, Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, and a recent text, Pierre-Francois Moreau’s Le Récit Utopique. Macherey considers the basic philosophical problems of utopia: the relation between the general concept and its specific instantiations; the structure and genesis of utopia; and the relation of utopia to reality. In respect to the latter Macherey defines a dialectic of utopia in which a utopia is situated between its systematic structure, a structure which separates its world from ours, and the sense that something is missing in the given world or reality. Utopia is both the name of a completely new social order, and the vague sense that something is lacking in the existing one. Thus those who would too readily dismiss the concept of utopia, readily invoking the impossibility of its social and political transformations, are usually the very interests that would dismiss the sense of something missing that the utopia invokes ("etwas fehlt" as Macherey writes, citing Bloch). The dialectic of utopia is framed between the detail of the world it imagines and the vague dissatisfaction it creates or expresses in the world we live in. Utopia is as much the sense that another world is possible as it is an articulation of a different world. Thus as much as utopia can be dismissed as unreal and impossible, the conflicts and desires it gives voice to are very much real: these conflicts and forces make and transform the world, even if they never realize the plans that give them voice. 

Macherey’s exploration of the various contradictions and tensions of utopia takes the form of a reading of some of the major utopian texts starting with More’s Utopia and continuing through Bacon’s New Atlantis, Campenella’s City of the Sun and the writings of Fourier. The most striking thing of Macherey’s book is the extent to which he devotes much of his discussion of utopia to Fourier. The chapter on Fourier makes up over one hundred and fifty pages and cites long passages from Fourier’s writings. This is useful for audiences that might not have access to Fourier’s writing. More importantly, however, the space dedicated to Fourier underscores a fundamental difference between his thought of utopia and those which came before. The classical utopias, those of More, Bacon, and Campenella, are utopias of the state in which a political order is presented as a solution to the various problems of society. Laws, institutions, and religions resolve the problems of society, creating a new order. In contrast to this Fourier’s utopia is one oriented towards social relations, towards labor and and love, what we think of now as the economy and the home, as such it is fundamentally dynamic, bursting the confines of workplace and home. Macherey dedicates much of his discussion to Fourier’s theory of the passions, especially as the passions lead to the socialization of the individual and the development of social relations. Fourier’s utopia is not a utopia of the state, of an order that can be set down once and for all, but a utopia of society, of social relations. These relations shape the individual, but at the same time the individual, individual passions, must also be given a place in these relations as well. Fourier’s utopia thus stands a preemptive response to the critics that would define all utopias as dystopias in disguise, as necessarily repressing the individual in favor of the social order. 

Macherey’s interest in Fourier not only salvages the concept of utopia from its disrepute but it also connects his interest in utopia with another, seemingly opposed idea, that of “everyday life.” As Warren Montag has argued as much as utopia and the quotidian would seem to be the alpha and omega of theorizing social relations, the one oriented to the impossible dreams, the other to mundane reality, they intersect at the level of practices. Fourier’s utopia draws our attention to the quotidian practices that shape and reshape social relations and subjectivity.

Macherey's book could then be read as an argument for a reconsideration of Fourier, for Fourier's fundamental idea that a utopia is less an order, a series of laws, than a problem of organization, a dynamic series of relations. It is just as much an argument for Bloch as it is for Fourier, for the idea that utopian desires and hopes are not to be sifted out of history in the name of actually existing forces, but are themselves part of the forces that make history. 

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