Sci-fi and struggle

Issue: 116
Posted: 1 October 07

Matthew Beaumont

Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (Verso, 2005), £14.99

As its title insists, Archaeologies of the Future represents a self-conscious, and triumphantly self-confident, attempt to find traces of an alternative future that lie embedded in the alienated cultural forms of the present. The first section, an essay on “The Desire Called Utopia”, asks whether culture can be political, “which is to say critical and subversive”, or whether it is instead “necessarily reappropriated and co-opted by the social system of which it is part”. There Fredric Jameson carefully sifts the dialectical relationship of the ideological and the utopian. He insists that, after the convulsive shift signalled by the rise of neoliberalism, “the commitment to imagining possible Utopias as such”, as opposed to the outdated or perhaps simply untimely attempt to create utopian blueprints, is itself potentially emancipatory.

This substantial section of almost 250 pages is written with Jameson’s characteristic skill. Without ever quite losing his exhilarated and finally exhausted reader, he pursues sophisticated and often intricately argued points both across vast tracts of theoretical and historical reflection and through dense though colourful passages of textual analysis. Among the former there is an especially interesting engagement with Theodor Adorno. Among the latter there are fascinating interpretations of utopists, as they are sometimes called, from Thomas More through William Morris to Stanislaw Lem.

This utopian corpus is elaborated and further explored in the second section of Archaeologies of the Future, entitled “As Far as Thought Can Reach”. Most of its chapters have in fact been published previously, but this book makes readily available for the first time a pioneering body of criticism on science fiction and related forms—most of them originally published in comparatively specialist journals, such as Science Fiction Studies—over the past 35 years.

There are fascinating articles in this section on Brian Aldiss, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K Dick and others, all of them in some respect illustrative of the provocative but convincing claim that science fiction’s “deepest vocation is to bring home, in local and determinate ways and with a fullness of concrete detail, our constitutional inability to imagine Utopia itself”. The name of this “constitutional inability to imagine Utopia” is ideology. So imagining the unimaginable Utopia is, according to Jameson, an attempt to traverse the limits of ideology—like a spaceship struggling to escape a planet’s gravitational pull.

Jameson proceeds according to the principle that “the ostensible content, the manifest topic or subject matter, always masks a deeper one of an entirely different nature”. So in an essay on George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah (1921), which he provocatively couples with Robert A Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love (1973), Jameson interprets “Longevity as Class Struggle” and argues that utopian or dystopian representations of immortality are a displaced image of the class conflicts that create social contradictions in the present and that demand to be resolved collectively in the future.

Science fiction is thus for Jameson a privileged literary genre, one that has assumed the role that the historical novel played in the 19th century, because the attempt to represent society as a totality is absolutely structural to its narrative form. For the benefit of “outsiders to SF”, he emphasises that “the unique new possibilities of this representational discourse…are social, political and historical far more than they are technological or narrowly scientific”.

What is perhaps most striking about “The Desire Called Utopia”, the opening section of Archaeologies of the Future, especially from the perspective of its quite different second section, is that its 13 chapters represent a sustained and continuous attempt to develop a sort of political philosophy of Utopia from the ground up. Reading it is therefore less like looking over a theoretical blueprint than it is like being present as a building is practically constructed. This book should have a profound impact both on the expanding (if often all too apolitical) field of Utopian Studies and on the increasingly interesting debates about Marxism after postmodernism. It is to be hoped too that it will have political repercussions in the anti-capitalist movement. The discussion of full employment is especially interesting in this respect.

In the space that remains, though, I briefly want to raise a couple of questions. First, the book’s dedication invokes the “Party of Utopia”. No doubt Jameson prefers this concept to remain poetic rather than analytical, but I can’t help thinking it is a pity. The phrase first appears in his influential account of postmodernism (1991), where he refers at the end of the chapter on contemporary visual art to an “unacknowledged Party of Utopia—a sort of underground association of intellectual and artistic activists committed to alternative futures, one which communicates by quasi-masonic signs”. Jameson’s use of the concept raises the suspicion that the role of this Utopian party is to stand in almost nostalgically for the Leninist party that to him seems to have been superseded.

Second, I was a little disappointed that in his introduction Jameson acknowledges that he subscribes to Darko Suvin’s influential view that Utopia is the “socio-economic subset” of science fiction, without interrogating the relation more closely. The role that Jameson comes to ascribe to Utopia, as it “disrupts” the horizon of the present, seems far more rich and complicated than Suvin’s definition will allow.

One final point is that this book does not often excavate Utopian tendencies in cultural forms that are not generally identified with the Utopian genre. Of course, to do so would be quite impossible within the framework even of a book-length essay. And in any case Jameson’s many essays on literature and film, perhaps the most famous being the piece on “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture”, have themselves partially performed this task in the field of popular culture.

In the end, Archaeologies of the Future cannot be comprehensive, but it remains an absolutely fascinating book. It reads like the summation of a lifetime of dialectical thinking about Utopia and science fiction. Its occasional sententiousness of tone can, I think, be excused because of this.