Utopia and the Image of Imagination

by Christopher Kul-Want

We live in a period when it is widely proclaimed that there will be no future; Capital continues to dominate the world order with invidious consequences as ecological catastrophe looms and nationalist tendencies prevail once again. Powerless to arrest the slide towards imminent global disaster, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek observes that for humanity today, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of life on Earth than it is to imagine the end of Capitalism.’ 

It would seem to follow from this ominous presentiment that the idea of utopia, especially in the manner originally conceived of by Thomas More of a blissfully happy society living in harmony with Nature, is utterly incongruous for our own apocalyptic times. And yet, if we look back at the period of the 1930’s when the world also faced crisis point – the rise of Fascism, the Holocaust and the Second World War – we find that two of the great political thinkers of the time, Ernst Bloch (1885-1997) and Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), both of whom were Jews and were all too aware of the Holocaust’s impact upon their people, wrote extensively about utopia. How, it might be asked, did these realists conceive of utopia in a manner that was credible both politically and philosophically, and in a way that was not idealistic or naive? And, how can their writings on this subject still be inspirational for us today?

The word utopia was first coined in the English language by Thomas More as the title for his eponymous book of 1516. In fact, the word is composed from two words in Greek, the prefix ou is a term of negation that means non, while topos denotes a place or site. So, literally speaking, utopia means no-place, nowhere, or elsewhere. While More may have considered the island that was his utopian nowhere as a site of desire, an ideal which society was yet to reach, Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin were more discerning in thinking through the implications that utopia means, literally, nowhere. They recognized that utopia/nowhere signals a limit to understanding, and that this limit needs to be acknowledged if utopian hope is to be kept alive. Bloch’s and Benjamin’s writings, therefore, do not describe their vision of what an utopian society looks like since such visions of utopia always reflect the values and prejudices of their authors (More’s Utopia, for instance, is firmly patriarchal). Imposing a blueprint upon utopia closes down its possibilities and contradicts the potential for its realization. 

In the hope of keeping the utopian desire, and the freedom that it represents, alive and open towards its own future possibility, Bloch and Benjamin turned to an analysis of the contradictions and conflictual tensions within Capitalism and the unresolved symptoms in social experience that reflect these conflicts. They believed that understanding these symptoms could reveal the underlying desire within the collective unconscious of society for utopia, a desire that, ultimately, amounts to a rejection of Capitalism as the root cause of alienation, repression and global disaster. 

One of the principal symptoms in social experience that Bloch and Benjamin identified in relation to utopian hope is the experience of boredom, however paradoxical this may initially seem, 

‘Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.’

‘We are bored when we don’t know what we are waiting for. That we do know, or think we know, is nearly always the expression of our superficiality or inattention. Boredom is the threshold to great deeds.’ Walter Benjamin.

Both Bloch and Benjamin understood that consumerism is based upon an underlying anxiety to relieve boredom and to drive time away; such is the purpose, for instance, of what is known today as ‘retail therapy’, but also all forms of consumerist distraction. Equally though, these writers understood that a certain kind of boredom – what they called ‘profound boredom’ – when it is not displaced into consumerism and distraction can be an experience of forgetfulness, of time lost and of an indeterminacy that defies the measured and counted time of Capitalist ideology. In this respect, boredom marks a limit to understanding, precisely because it cannot be defined – in the same way that unconscious desire cannot be defined, for if it were so it would be absorbed into Capital for the purposes of profit. In other words, the kind of profound boredom that Bloch and Benjamin value is akin to dreams, it is a kind of day-dream, albeit one that is not relatable. Thus, Benjamin writes about boredom as the trace of the dream for utopia, its outter appearance,

‘Boredom is a warm gray fabric lined on the inside with the most lustrous and colorful of silks. In this fabric we wrap ourselves when we dream. We are at home then in the arabesques of its lining. But the sleeper looks bored and gray within his sheath. And when he lays awake and wants to tell of what he dreamed, he communicates by and large only this boredom. For who would be able at one stroke to turn the lining of time to the outside?’

In what form does such an experience of ‘profound boredom’ occur today? That is, the kind of boredom that is not simply about displaced anxiety, the desire to coerce time, but rather the experience of boredom that involves a sense of the loss of self and of rational time? One of the many circumstances in which such boredom seems to occur, and which is a widespread experience today, is on long motorway journeys. Sometimes the driver or passenger discovers after a certain time of passing that she cannot remember part of the preceding journey as well as her own thoughts during it. In these circumstances memory becomes opaque and foggy (‘gray’), time has passed yet it cannot be quantified. 

Significantly, certain contemporary artists, such as Julian Opie and Fiona Tan, allude to this type of experience of boredom as part of their wider interest in utopia (Tan’s recent project of 2018 is entitled Elsewhere). Opie’s extended series of images of three lane motorways entitled variously, Imagine you are driving; I dreamt I was Driving my Car; Night Motorway (print form as well as endless computer film) (1998 – 2017), convey a sense of abstracted monotony that is utterly empty, as if the driver or passenger is absent both from others and herself. Like Opie’s images, Tan’s films of streaming night-traffic on five and six lane motorways in Los Angeles (Vertical Red, Vertical White and Vertical Wide) induce an abstracted affect. For the viewer, staring over a period of time at the car head and tail lights as, going nowhere, they climb up and descend Tan’s plasma screens is akin to the vacant pleasure of staring into a fire or at the flowing water of a river. 

To be emptied of content and of meaningful purpose is, paradoxically, a profound experience; boredom’s vacuity is not necessarily always superficial or escapist. Rather, it is an impulse within us that opens up the mind to – we know not where, to nowhere. Nowhere in this instance being, not the definitive image of a future time to come in the tradition of More’s Utopia, but rather the trace of an undefinable time: the time of the unconscious. As Bloch writes, ‘The fact that we can…sail into dreams, that daydreams, often of a completely uncovered kind, are possible, indicates the great space of the still open, still uncertain life in man.’

Christopher Kul-Want

 Ref: See for example, Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia (1916)and his three volume work The Principle of Hope (1954-1959); Walter Benjamin’s utopianism, articulated in terms of a combination of both Communist sympathies and Jewish Messianism, permeates his entire work.

 Ref: ‘The Storyteller, Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’.1936. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938, translated by Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland, and Others, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006, p. 149.

The Arcades Project [1927-40], translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 105.

 Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, volume 1, translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press,  p. 17.