Just My Imagination

Just My Imagination

Russell Jacoby’s study of utopian thought is a flawed treasure.


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.

As a Jew, Marx was attentive in his own secularized way to the Mosaic ban on idolatrous images, a ban about which Picture Imperfect is particularly illuminating. In fact, the future author of The Communist Manifesto began his political career in contention with what one might call “subjunctive” utopian thinkers–the “wouldn’t it be nice if” brigade who feel free to dream up ideal schemes because their fantasies never need to face the pressure of reality. We cannot legislate for the future, not least because it is not ours, but the people’s, to create. Dreams of the future, as the Frankfurt School reminded us, too often confiscate the very political energies that are necessary for their realization.

Yet there is still something to be said for trying to speak the unspeakable. For the fact is that any authentic future must be to some extent in line with the present as well as discontinuous with it. If it is not–if the future is not somehow inherent in the material forces of the present–then it is just wishful thinking, a vacuous, purely gestural kind of politics. An authentic future must be feasible as well as desirable. Otherwise we will persuade men and women to desire uselessly, and so, like the neurotic, to fall ill of longing. In fact, we could claim that utopia is inherent in the present in at least this sense: that without some dim notion of justice, freedom and equality, we would have no standard by which to judge the present, and so would be incapable of identifying its defects. The future is already potentially present in the shape of the blind spots and contradictions of the present–in its silences and exclusions, its conflicts and fragmentations.

We need, then, to steer a path between the blueprinters, who like to think that they have the future in their pockets, and the kind of visionaries for whom nothing definite can be said of an emancipated society (not even, presumably, that it would be pleasant, unoppressive, void of patriarchs and the like). We must strike a balance between saying too much and saying too little, between the future as a mere projection of the present and as a cryptic silence. If there is simply an abyss between the present and the future, then we cannot logically speak of how the future takes shape in the present. Jacoby is right to insist that utopia is by no means incompatible with practical reform, and he ends by stressing the need to link present and future. But his book is by and large an eloquent plea for “poetic” as opposed to blueprinting utopianism; and as such it is, ironically, a touch too definite and unequivocal in its options, too impatient with ambiguity and contradiction. We need to dream, yet risk being distracted and intoxicated by our own fantasies. This is not a contradiction we can easily annul.

Nor is the opposition between the blueprinters and the visionaries as absolute as Jacoby imagines. Like most of us, he is attracted by the kind of utopian thought that sees the future in terms of sensuous luxury rather than Spartan virtue; but he does not see that sensuous fulfillment can be planned for by, say, shortening the working day or other highly practical measures. We must indeed beware of arid blueprints; but the truth is that conservatives dislike utopia because they find the whole idea of social engineering distasteful, in contrast to spontaneous social growth; and leftists need to insist that social engineering can undoubtedly be progressive. Blueprints are not always symptoms of a primly hygienic rationalism. Charles Dickens poked fun at the utilitarian social engineering of his own day, but it did a great deal more for the Victorian poor than his own Romantic spontaneity.

Jacoby, like almost everyone else on the planet, assumes that the imagination is an entirely positive power, rather than something that can cut both ways. The planning of genocide, for example, involves a fair degree of imagination. He is also rather too inflexible about the distinction between utopia and dystopia (or utopia gone bad). He argues cogently against the prejudice that all “total” or ambitious social change leads directly to totalitarianism and mass murder. On the contrary, as he points out, most of the great dystopian literary works of the modern age are by no means anti-utopian. Orwell’s 1984 is not in the least an antisocialist text, as its author was at pains to point out. It is true that some utopian authors were rather less than utopian in their actual lives: Thomas More, who invented the word “utopia,” was, we are reminded, a zealous burner of heretics. In general, however, the idea that utopian thought is inevitably totalitarian is a myth.

An emancipated society, Adorno observed, “would by no means be a totality.” If Benjamin and Adorno were champions of the fragmentary and unfinished, it was partly because totality in their brand of Judaic thought is reserved for God, who alone has the power to restore a shattered history to wholeness. The grotesque violence of the twentieth century, as Jacoby points out, has ethnic, national, religious and imperialist roots, not utopian ones. Even so, he draws the line between good and bad utopianism a little too stringently. Utopia may not inevitably lead to dystopia, but what else was Stalinism? It is precisely the fact that Stalinism is utopia gone sour that distinguishes it from fascism, whatever those who airily lump the two together as “totalitarian” might suppose.

Picture Imperfect does a useful hatchet job on three robustly anti-utopian Jewish philosophers (Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt) before turning to a remarkably rich, suggestive excavation of a Jewish, poetic, “iconoclastic” utopian tradition, one that embraces Ernst Bloch and Gustav Landauer, Jacob Talmon and Martin Buber, Fritz Mauthner and Hermann Cohen. If these thinkers are iconoclasts, or image breakers, it is because there can be for them no image of God, and so no sensuous incarnation of freedom and justice. A certain abstract, rationalist quality in Jewish thought (one thinks of Spinoza and Freud) might have some of its roots here. Jewish utopianism involves a crisis of representation, which is one reason why it wells up with such astonishing vigor at the heart of European modernism, which has similar suspicions about image-making.

Max Horkheimer, one of the founders of the Frankfurt School, observed somewhat enigmatically that the school’s celebrated critical theory had its source in the biblical injunction “You should make no image of God.” It is not for nothing that the great critics of reification and commodity fetishism–Marx, Lukács, Benjamin–were all Jewish. In this strain of thought, Jacoby argues, the eye is trumped by the ear, seeing by listening. The God of Israel is heard but not seen. It is the living word of scripture, not graven idols, that must furnish our guide; and since even scripture can be made into an idol, as fundamentalism so luridly testifies, the written tradition is itself unfinished and enigmatic, finding its completion only in the oral one. It was a part-Jewish philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who warned us of the bewitching, fetishistic power that language could exert over us.

For all its fascination, Jacoby’s discussion of Jewish iconoclasm could do with a touch more theology. He might have pointed out, for example, that one reason why Yahweh is not to be imaged is that the only depiction of Him is provided by human beings. It is men and women who are made in His image and likeness. More precisely, it is their freedom that eludes being fixed and frozen in an image, so that idolatry and enslavement are near neighbors. Yahweh is the God of a nomadic tribe who are constantly tempted to settle down with their local crops and idols, and constantly prodded out of such inertia by a God who always goes on before them. Yahweh’s famously tautological self-identifying–“I am what I am”–might also be translated as “I shall be what I shall be.”

Yahweh is not, of course, God’s name, because the Jewish God is nameless. Jacoby sees that this has to do with not representing Him, but he does not seem to grasp the fact that in the Bible God does not have a name, like “Fred” or “cornflakes,” because He is not an object or an entity that can be designated. God and the universe do not make two. He is, rather, the source and ground of all possible entities.

Like all of Russell Jacoby’s books, Picture Imperfect is a timely, passionate, bravely unfashionable intervention. It has, inevitably, a few local errors. The Roman Catholic Church does not “saint” people but canonizes them. Isaiah Berlin is ascribed a leftist past that is news to this reader, and a know-nothing comment of Berlin’s on Heidegger is charitably attributed to “humility” rather than to suave donnish malice. One suspects that Jacoby thinks the word “waffle” means prevaricate rather than talk a lot of hot air. Most strikingly of all, Jacques Derrida, the latest figure in a Jewish tradition of negative theology for which the Messiah is always about to arrive but never quite does, passes unmentioned. Almost nothing is said, either, of that great Jewish prophet of the unrepresentable, Sigmund Freud, for whom you cannot make graven images of the unconscious.

Even so, this is a book to be treasured. In retrieving for our troubled times a precious heritage threatened with oblivion, it takes its cue from Walter Benjamin’s comment that the image of the past that matters is the one that swims up to us at times of crisis. The future may or may not turn out to be a place of justice and freedom; but it will certainly disprove the conservatives by turning out to be profoundly different from the present. In this sense, it is the hard-nosed pragmatists who behave as though the World Bank and caffe latte will be with us for the next two millennia who are the real dreamers, and those who are open to the as yet unfigurable future who are the true realists.

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