Utopias are not always pleasant places to inhabit. An English fantasy of 1848, Charles Rowcroft’s The Triumph of Woman: A Christmas Story, portrays a utopian regime full of wholesome puddings and a glorious one person per pew in church. In Sarah Scott’s A Description of Millennium Hall (1778), the ideal world is an English country mansion in which female midgets play the harpsichord and tend the shrubberies. Douglas Jerrold’s The Chronicles of Clovernook (1846), an insufferably smug tale in which the narrator becomes particularly excited at the prospect of little boys tearing their trousers, enthuses over an imaginary society that still has taxes, prisons and poverty.
Most utopias, as Russell Jacoby recognizes in his absorbing new study, Picture Imperfect, are odorless, antiseptic places, intolerably streamlined and sensible, in which the natives chat for hours about the splendid efficiency of their sanitary arrangements. Alternative social universes tend to be thinly disguised versions of our own–rather as aliens, give or take a limb or two, are seldom all that different from Donald Rumsfeld or Tony Blair. The real aliens are those who are squatting in our laps right now, just as the true utopia must necessarily beggar our speech. To portray the future in the language of the present is inevitably to betray it. “The worst is not,” remarks a character in King Lear, “so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst'”; and what goes for the worst also goes for the best. Anything we can speak of must by definition fall short of the otherness we desire. So perhaps it is better to imagine the future only negatively, as Kant thought that we could catch a glimpse of infinity only by pressing against the limits of the mind and watching them warp and buckle. For his part, Jacoby wants a utopian thought that “pines for the future but does not map it out.”
For Theodor Adorno, this negative utopia is known as art. For others, the only true image of the future is the failure of the present. Or, for that matter, the failure of the past. As Walter Benjamin reminded us, it is memories of enslaved ancestors, not dreams of liberated grandchildren, that drive men and women to revolt. To avoid some cheap leftist triumphalism, we must move backward into the future with our eyes fixed mournfully on that great heap of wreckage that is the past. Otherwise we are merely callow modernizers or cavalier avant-gardists, who in seeking to eradicate the past will discover that it returns with a vengeance to plague us.
Yet there are problems with this option, too, which Jacoby does not fully take on board. For one thing, it leaves the left open to a familiar pincers movement on the part of its adversaries. If you can spell out what a radical future would look like, you are the prisoner of a soulless blueprint; if you refuse to do so, you are an idle visionary. Marx sought to elude this double bind by spelling out what would be necessary for constructing a socialist future but not what it would look like once it was in place. You cannot deduce what a thing might look like simply by examining its conditions of possibility.
The Old Testament prophet is not a soothsayer who predicts the future; we can leave soothsaying to those who are hired to peer into the entrails of the political system and assure its rulers that their profits are safe for another fifty years. The prophet’s task is not to second-guess the future but to point out that unless we mend our ways, the future will be either remarkably unpleasant or nonexistent. Utopia is not about some impossible perfection–that tedious right-wing charge–but quite the opposite: a social order that tolerates the inevitably partial, finite, defective nature of human affairs. If we perish, it will not be of failure or finitude but of breathless, bright-eyed idealists for whom the sky’s the limit. Most of these are known as Americans.