“Against work, for utopia,” announces a podcast I’ve listened to of late. Give it a try: sex worker Conner Habib, the show’s host, interviews Marxist-feminist Kathi Weeks, author of The Problem with Work. Weeks is an investigator of “Antiwork Politics” and “Postwork Imaginaries.” See especially her book’s fifth chapter, “The Future Is Now: Utopian Demands and the Temporalities of Hope,” where Weeks proposes “a utopianism without apology” (175). To defend the latter, Weeks draws upon the ideas of the great German Marxist “philosopher of hope” Ernst Bloch. Her account of Cold War anti-utopianism covers ground I covered in my dissertation: Karl Popper, Francis Fukuyama. All of it now dust in the wind. Let Utopia rise again from the sea of the possible as it did for More.
Time to welcome Spuren into the discourse, a concept central to the writings of Western Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. The essential scheme of these writings is as follows: Bloch finds in the world evidence of “the imperceptible tending of all things toward Utopia” (121). Spuren is his name for this evidence. Fredric Jameson translates the term as “traces, spoor, marks, and signs, ‘signatures of all things I am here to read'” (Marxism and Form, p. 121). The trace isn’t just an external object; it happens, it is a noetic experience, an alteration of consciousness. We pause in astonishment, Jameson says, before these Spuren, “these glowing emblems in which some urgent yet utterly personal secret seems to be concealed” (122). Real philosophizing begins with this lived experience of astonishment. An astonishment born in Bloch’s view from an encounter with “the concrete new in its unimaginable plenitude” (127). The Spuren intervenes, disrupts the ideological slumber, wakes the sleeper from a state of forgetfulness, causing not just remembrance or anxiety but hope. For these reasons, we might liken Spuren to those events Jungians call synchronicities. Spuren are meaningful coincidences, only instead of just realizing psyche in cosmos, they hint prophetically of happier states ahead. One becomes possessed or pulled inwardly by the urging not of the Freudian unconscious, but by a Blochian not-yet consciousness, a beneficent spirit that wishes well. One is driven, steered by unconscious forces, Jameson says, into “the not-yet-existent, rather than back into the endless repetition of childhood fixations” (130). Bloch regards the utopia as a form that reveals this movement of reality toward the future. They educate us to our heart’s desire. “The meaning of Being…comes into being, if at all,” Jameson writes, “only at the moment when the world passes over into Utopia, and when that final Utopian destination returns upon the past to confer a sense of direction upon it” (Marxism and Form, p. 131). I step outside to birds everywhere, the world alive with song. Anxiety can be transformed into positive anticipation — a lifting of the world with hope.
The drug experience enters cultural memory, becomes an object of philosophical investigation from the Romantic period onward — though perhaps it was already informing the thinking of the Ancient Greeks by way of the festival of Eleusis. Walter Burkert writes of these famed “experiences of ecstasy and wonder” in his book Ancient Mystery Cults, a work of “comparative phenomenology.” I think of it as a form of listening across time for psychedelic travel narratives, trip reports from wonderland written by heads possessed by a shared, singular-but-multiple “voice of experience,” a “general equivalent” allowing Being to relate to itself across time. By reading literary history as a continuous dialogue, something like a holy ghost emerges, self-consistent despite change, urging us toward happiness and freedom. Ernst Bloch called it the “Utopian impulse” or the “principle of Hope.” Jung imagined it as a “collective unconscious.” Teaching a course this way is a bit like saying, “You, too, can live allegorically. The way to do so is by reading.”
A rainy evening. Streetlights help us symbolize a mood. Slim branches of bushes bend beneath weight of falling water. I sit watch and bear witness beside a window, dazing, dreaming, pondering the relationship between Ernst Bloch’s theory of an eternal utopian spirit and Aldous Huxley’s presentation of that spirit as a will for self-transcendence. How do we who find ourselves here in language preserve what Fredric Jameson, in a book of 48 years ago, saw fit to describe as “the almost extinct form of the Utopian idea” (Marxism and Form, p. 116)? How do we pry this idea out of the clutches of a total system that even then, as Jameson could see, “may yet ultimately succeed in effacing the very memory of the negative, and with it of freedom, from the face of the earth” (115)? Huxley called this system the Brave New World. To forestall that outcome, let us imagine freedom and then go there! “Complete the thoughts of the past,” as Marx wrote in his “Letter to Ruge” of 1843. This has always been our duty: to develop a clear idea of what the world has long dreamt. Let us confront Huxley’s mystical consciousness so as to awaken in it an Egalitarian Giant. Let us restore to the dreaming subject the political direction which rightfully belongs to it. I do this in my classroom with my assembly for students of “a hermeneutic which offers renewed access to some essential source of life” (Jameson 119). For Paul Ricoeur, Jameson claims, this source is the sacred. What about for Huxley? Is the latter’s positive hermeneutic secular or religious in its orientation? Who or what is it that winks at us in recognition in the wake of ego-dissolution? We could ask the same question of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Who is the woman who escapes from the yellow wallpaper? Identification shifts over the course of Gilman’s story. Of course as readers, we, too, are in the same position as the story’s narrator: observing the movement toward freedom of the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” who herself is observing the movement toward freedom of the woman in the yellow wallpaper. All stories are the same story. But it matters, I suppose, whether the prison from which we dream ourselves is to be transcended or transfigured. “This to that,” or “that in this”?