Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Utopian Thought & Imagination, Part 1

Brian Leiter recently excoriated the Chronicle of Higher Education for publishing a short article by Russell Jacoby about the academic disciplinary treatment of Hegel, Marx and Freud. Jacoby is rightly called to task for grossly inaccurate generalizations about the teaching and scholarship among professional philosophers devoted to these august intellectual giants. It just so happens that I was planning on drawing attention to Jacoby as well, this time, however, for something he's penned of more scholarly and reliable persuasion: Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (2005).

Jacoby writes in the preface to his latest book: "Today most observers judge utopias or their sympathizers as foolhardy dreamers at best and murderous totalitarians at worst." No doubt this was the consensual judgment crystallized in the "Liberal anti-utopianism" of such widely influential thinkers as Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, and Isaiah Berlin. Ours is an age drawn to the chaotic darkness of (often technocratic) dystopian nightmares, for we are too chastened or cynical, perhaps as a result of living through the catalogue of collective and genocidal violence conspicuous throughout the twentieth-century, to be enchanted and inspired by the visions and ideals provided by utopian portraits of "the good" or "the best" society. We might, with Raghavan Iyer in an essay on that quintessential nineteenth-century utopian writer, Edward Bellamy, ask ourselves: "Do we despair of our capacity to exercise constructive imagination? Are we doubters of dreams and believers in nightmares?" There are, to be sure, exceptions to the rule, be it Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia (1975), Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974), or "feminist utopias" (see here, here, and here). But even these utopian vistas seem several times removed from their forebears: comparatively tepid and thus timid in construction, they are but a simulacram of the classical utopian genre. And utopian political philosophy is rarer still, hence one such product that has at least family resemblance to same, namely Rawls's The Law of Peoples (1999), is aptly christened by its creator as a "realistic utopia," an oxymoronic appellation rationalizing a reflexive recourse to a "realism" that "reconciles us to our political and social condition." All the same, we should be grateful to Rawls's unapologetic commitment to "ideal theory," at least in A Theory of Justice (1971, revised ed., 1999), particularly in light of the lamentable concessions made to his communitarian critics in the John Dewey Lectures, published as Political Liberalism (1993). In the latter work, Rawls is in full philosophical retreat form the Kantian "transcendental" perspective, as "the concept of moral persons being free and equal is [now] located in the public culture of our democratic society" (T.K. Seung, Intuition and Construction: The Foundation of Normative Theory, 1993, p. 41). In brief, the cosmopolitan--or utopian--potential of Rawls's theory of justice is short-circuited by way of avoiding both moral realism and metaphysical questions, thereby taking so-called Kantian constructivism in a conventionalist or culturally relativist direction never envisaged by Kant himself:

"Rawls can evade the metaphysical question [regarding the truth of moral principles] only by taking the antimetaphysical and antirealistic position, that is, the concept of moral persons is not a metaphysical entity but only a product of our culture, or rather the Kantian ideals of liberty and equality have no significance outside our tradition of liberal democracy. In that case, the
original position and the two principles of justice can make normative claims only for those who happen to share the same Kantian ideals. There is no reason to say that the conception of justice as fairness is objectively better than any other conception. [....] So Rawls wants to regard moral facts and moral ideals as social and cultural entities. This amounts to a surrender to normative positivism: moral norms and ideals are no more than social or cultural facts. Normative positivism inevitably leasd to moral and cultural relativism. Kant took the transcendental perspective chiefly to avoid the evils of normative positivism and moral relativism. In that regard, Rawls's Kantian conventionalism goes against the spirit of Kant's own philosophy." (Seung, p. 45)

Onora O'Neill further explains the precise nature of Rawls's difference with Kant on this score:

"[Kant's] vindication of practical reason is decisively different from the conceptions of reasonableness that Rawls has put forward. In the later versions of his theory of justice, Rawls depicts a conception of democratic citizenship within a bounded society as the source and context of reasoning about justice. By contrast, Kant (although he uses such terms as 'citizenship' and 'public' metaphorically) deploys a conception of practical reason which does not presuppose that those who reason about justice and politics must be linked by common citizenship in a 'bounded society' with a democratic constitution. Kant consequently views state boundaries and the system of states, the exclusions and inclusions which define citizenship in those states, as well as the nature of a just constitution, as problems for justice rather than as presuppositions of justice. As he sees it, basic political institutions do not confer but rather need justification: to invoke them in its absence is to appeal to spurious authorities. In rejecting not only justifications that appeal to shared norms, but those that appeal to shared citizenship, Kant embarks on a construction of justice whose broadest vision is of a cosmopolitan order within which states are to be justified. By contrast, Rawls, who views bounded societies as in part constitutive of reason, must treat international justice as an appendix to domestic justice. [....] The formula of universal law proposes as the test of ethical adequacy simply that agents adopt principles which (they take it) could be adopted by, willed by, all others. It is, as Kant puts it, a conception of the reasonable which addresses 'the public in the strict sense, that is, the world,' rather than the restricted public of a particular society or state. Kant's public is not the Rawlsian public, consisting only of fellow citizens in a bounded liberal democratic society: it is unrestricted. Hence, Kant's conception of ethical method takes a cosmopolitan rather than an implicitly statist view of the scope of ethical concern; correspondingly, he takes a more demanding view of the construction of principles in that he conceives of justification as aiming to reach all others without restriction." (Onora O'Neill in Samuel Freeman, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Rawls, 2003, pp. 360-362)

I'm not intending to be dismissive of works like Political Liberalism or The Law of Peoples simply because of their deliberate distance from utopian thought proper [which will be defined in another post in this series], for they help us see the imaginative, conceptual, and moral limits of one of, if not the, strongest strains of the social contract tradition of Liberalism, especially when set alongside cosmopolitan conceptions of justice (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), or next to moral theories of international law (e.g., here), or in contrast to socialist critiques of capitalism (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), or in light of "basic income" proposals in so-called advanced capitalist societies (see here and here). Rawls enables us to better appreciate the strengths and limits of Liberalism such that any utopian alternative will have to take on board some of that tradition's most cherished ideals and values, even if these are now understood or interpreted in fresh or revolutionary ways (cf. Martha Nussbaum's The Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, 2006).

Back to Jacoby. Picture Imperfect identifies "two currents of utopian thought: the blueprint tradition and the iconoclastic tradition." It is the former that Jacoby would have us jettison, understood as responsible, in part, for the epithet "utopian" being "tossed around as a term of abuse, [as] it suggests that someone is not simply unrealistic but prone to violence:"

"The blueprint utopians have attracted the lion's share of attention--both scholarly and popular. They describe in vivid colors; their proposals can be studied and embraced or rejected. From Thomas More to Edward Bellamy, their utopias took the form of stories in which travelers report of their adventures from an unknown future or land. They offered characters, events, and particulars. Bellamy's Looking Backward, a classic of blueprint utopianism, commences with a straightforward narrative. 'I first saw the light in the city of Boston in the year 1857.'"

In taking to heart the biblical prohibition of graven images of the deity (Exodus 20:4-5), the "iconoclastic" tradition is said to have drawn from the wellsprings of Jewish mysticism and apophatic (or 'negative') theology, as well as German romanticism in particular and music and poetry in general. Perhaps its finest and foremost representative is, for Jacoby, the "philosopher of Marxist humanism and revolutionary utopianism," as well as, it should be said, a one-time apologist for Stalinism, Ernst Bloch (see Jack Zipes, 'Introduction: Toward a Realization of Anticipatory Illumination' in Ernst Bloch [Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg, trans.], The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, 1983, pp. xi-xliii):

"[T]he iconoclastic utopians offer little concrete to grab onto; they provide neither tales nor pictures of the morrow. Next to the blueprinters they appear almost as ineffable as they actually are. They vanish into the margins of utopianism. Bloch's Spirit of Utopia opens mysteriously. 'I am. We are. That is enough. Now we have to begin.' In regard to the future the iconoclasts were ascetic; but they were not ascetics. This point must be underlined inasmuch as iconoclasm sometimes suggests a severe and puritanical temper. If anything, it is a longing for luxe and sensuousness that define the iconoclastic utopian, not a cold purity.

In an image-obsessed society such as our own, I suggest that the traditional blueprint utopianism may be exhausted and the iconoclastic utopianism indispensable. The iconoclastic utopians resist the modern seduction of images. Pictures and graphics are not new of course, but their ubiquity is. A curtain of images surrounds us from morning till night and from childhood to old age. The word--both written and oral--seems to retreat in the wake of these images."

In our next post on this subject I'll explain what I find troubling about this crude typology. Let it suffice for now to say that the utopian literature Jacoby is referencing does not deserve categorization as "blueprint utopianism," and the "images" it contains are of a different order (they are, so to speak, in one's mind) than the literal images and visual orientation that suffuse the contemporary culture of affluent and hyper-technological societies under the spell of "virtual reality." Utopian literature, by definition, is not intended to be construed as a blueprint, architectural or otherwise. Of course one might argue that some forms of utopian literature are structurally prone to abuse by readers enamored of their visions, moving them to utilize these works on the model of blueprints, irrespective of the needs and wishes of others. But I suspect even the most ardent admirers of the products of utopian imagination have not mistaken these as detailed instructions readymade for wholesale and immediate implementation (were that even possible or feasible). There is a history of utopian communal experimentation, but it has typically been a far more modest undertaking than one would infer from Jacoby's discussion. Still, we might nevertheless concede that some forms or species of utopian literature are more liable to misuse than others, owing to their mode of presentation, specific contents, what have you. Making such an argument would be similar or analogous to what Leszek Kołakowski attempted to accomplish with regard to the writings of Marx in his three volume magnum opus, Main Currents of Marxism (1978, now available in a one volume edition):

"It is not enough to say that Nazi ideology was a 'caricature' of Nietzsche, since the essence of a caricature is that it helps us to recognize the original. The Nazis told their supermen to read the Will to Power, and it is no good saying that this was a mere chance and that they might equally well have chosen the Critique of Practical Reason. It is not a matter of establishing the 'guilt' of Nietzsche, who as an individual was not responsible for the use made of his writings; nevertheless, the fact that they were so used is bound to cause alarm and cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the understanding of what was in his mind. St. Paul was not personally responsible for the Inquisition and for the Roman Church at the end of the fifteenth century, but the inquirer, whether Christian or not, cannot be content to observe that Christianity was depraved or distorted by the conduct of unworthy popes and bishops; he must rather seek to discover what it was in the Pauline epistles that gave rise, in the fullness of time, to unworthy and criminal actions."

Yet, in response, consider Raghavan Iyer's keen observation in Utilitarianism and All That (1983):

"The search for scapegoats whose crucifixion can atone for monstrous systems of error and evil is itself based, however, on an unduly rationalistic faith in the influence of theory and on an absurdly simple view of both individual and national character. Herder may have had good reason to assert that a history of opinions would really be the key to the history of deeds. It is, however, one thing to stress the impact of ideas and opinions on policies and actions. It is quite another matter to single out certain thinkers or theories or concepts as responsible for what they could neither have visualized nor intended in all its implications. The history of ideas is, as Meinecke so clearly saw, 'no mere shadow-play or sequence of grey theories; on the contrary, it is the life-blood of those men who are called upon to express the essential element of their epoch.' In pleading against the tyrannical and tragic consequences of isms and systems, we may foist too easily the entire burden of blame upon those very thinkers whose theories were most vulnerable to distortion as well as exploitation."

Jacoby has a salutary analysis of the Liberal anti-utopianism of intellectual luminaries like Popper, Arendt and Berlin. Popper, the most vociferous of the three, castigated the "blueprint" tradition of utopianism, indeed, for him, "utopian" has purely pejorative denotation and derogatory connotations. Herbert Marcuse was on the mark when, in a review essay of Popper's The Poverty of Historicism (1957, second ed., 1961), he notes the rather idiosyncratic definition of historicism that animates the book: "Certainly, it would be entirely unjustified to insist on conformity with lexicographical usage. However, I think such a strange deviation from usage should have firmer grounds than a construction built from disparate elements of theories." These words apply with equal force to Popper's more-than-stipulative definition of utopianism, in fact, he proffers a textbook example of a "persuasive" definition, one contrary to a philosophical temperament and useless for dispassionate philosophical analysis. Popper contends that the "blueprints" or "ends" of utopians are necessarily resistant to proof (or, conversely, falsification), and this structural feature, including its abstract qualities and orientation to the distant future, is what motivates the utopian to a single-minded and exclusive resort to violence so as to realize these ends, so as to instantiate the utopian blueprint. If we truly care about the relief of suffering or the amelioration of evil, Popper argues this is best achieved by means and methods of an incrementalist sort or in piecemeal fashion, utterly divorced from the entertainment of any lofty ideals, a Platonic-like focus on the Good, or dreams of a better world. Jacoby is sympathetic to what he terms Popper's "reasonable argument," one suspects if only because it provides no small measure of support to his own thesis about "blueprint" utopianism. I rather think the quality of Popper's 1947 lecture, "Utopia and Violence," is appallingly poor, especially for a philosopher, and thus it is not the least bit plausible. Thankfully, Jacoby's sympathy for Popper's argument does not extend too far nor cloud his assessment of its consequences:

"Popper's reasonable argument has echoed down the intellectual corridors of history, each decade it gains more recruits. In the immediate future it would be supplemented by 'end of ideology' thinkers such as Raymond Aron in Europe and Daniel Bell in the United States. Other refugee thinkers would confirm and collaborate Popper's positions. They would expand the category of utopians to include all those with a plan, and they would charge utopians with violence. Implicitly or explicitly, utopians meant 'Marxists.' That much, perhaps most of twentieth century mass violence had little to do with utopians barely intruded upon the argument."

Liberal anti-utopianism has been enormously influential in cultivating an ideological animus that lumps together "utopianism, totalitarianism, and Nazism." Any systematic appraisal of the evidence would find that are no necessary ties whatsoever between utopian musings and Marxist-Leninist or Maoist ideologies, or between the fertile products of utopian thought and imagination and anti-Semitism, fascism, xenophobic and ethno-nationalism, racism, authoritarianism, or any genocidal ideology. For now, we close with the following from Judith Shklar's provocative study of the "last of the classical utopists," Jean-Jacques Rousseau (blamed by some conservative ideologues for the Jacobin terror of the French Revolution):

"Utopia is an attack on both the doctrine of original sin, which imposes rigid limits on men's social potentialities, and on all actual societies, which always fall so short of men's real capacities. The object of these models, however, was never to set up a perfect community, but simply to bring moral judgement to bear on the social misery to which men have so unnecessarily reduced themselves. For the fault is not in God, fate, or nature, but in ourselves--where it will remain. To recognize this, to accept it, to contemplate and to judge: that was the function of the classical utopia." (Judith N. Shklar, Men & Citizens: A Study of Rousseau's Social Theory, 1969, p. 2)


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