Science Fiction Studies

#27 = Volume 9, Part 2 = July 1982


Tom Moylan

The Locus of Hope; Utopia Versus Ideology

1. Ernst Bloch stands at the center of a radical discussion of utopia, for the lifelong project of this philosopher was the determination of the possibility of humanity's changing its world and becoming the maker of its own history. His major work, Hope, the Principle, has been described as a "vast and disorderly exploration of the manifestations of hope on all levels of reality."1 Bloch's project was to show the steady and often imperceptible tending of human history towards Utopia, towards the fulfillment of humanity in the not yet realized future, when humanity could stand erect and be at home for the first time:

Humankind still lives in prehistory everywhere, indeed everything awaits the creation of the world as a genuine one. The real genesis is not at the beginning, but at the end, and it only begins when society and existence become radical, that is, grasp themselves at the root. The root of history, however, is the human being, working, producing, reforming, and surpassing the givens around him or her. If human beings have grasped themselves and what is theirs, without depersonalization and alienation, founded in real democracy, then something comes into being in the world that shines into everyone's childhood and where no one has yet been—home.2

What interests Bloch is not so much what is or what has been, but rather the "latency of being to come at work," the "figures of hope" with foreshadow the human potential. He traces the unknown path of the future in fables, fairy tales, religion, and literary utopias, and in historical events. To be sure, the "concrete utopia" is the most privileged bearer of the future for Bloch. Concrete utopias are points in history where "utopian possibilities are established in the concreteness and openness of the material of history." Examples are the Peasants' Revolt, the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the October Revolution, and the evenements of May-June 1968 in Paris. These are moments when "objective-real possibilities are acted out, if only for a while, and existing actuality is surrounded with tremendous latency, the times when the `potency of human hope' links up with the potentiality within the world."3 For Bloch, concrete utopia is bound up with dialectical materialism; it prevents the discarding of the visions of the goals ahead and calls for the living out of those visions.                

Present time for Bloch is provincial and empty, and if humanity becomes too much taken with the present, we lose the possibility of imagining a radically other future—we lose the ability to hope. We lose what Bloch identifies as the novum—the unexpectedly new, which pushes humanity out of its present towards the not yet realized. For humanity to develop, we must keep an open faith with the future and guard against the memory which draws us back into the past and the anxiety which consumes us in the present.                

The source of this yearning is in the human unconscious and its desires, but Bloch's theory of the unconscious differs from Freud's. As Fredric Jameson puts it:

The Freudian unconscious is...a no-longer consciousness, an unconsciousness of a world and a self which have officially, in the eyes of the reality principle, ceased to be; and this formulation is in itself enough to suggest the lines along which Bloch corrects it. For in this sense there is room, alongside this no-longer consciousness for a new and very different type of unconscious, a blankness or horizon of consciousness this time formed not by the past but by the future: what Bloch calls a not yet conscious ontological pull of the future, of a tidal influence exerted upon us by that which lies out of sight below the horizon, an unconscious of what is yet to come.4

Thus Bloch locates the positive drive towards the future m the negative, in the radical insufficiency of the present: for even those experienced moments of fulfillment are future-bearing in their very finite and passing nature: "the future is always something other than what we sought to find there."5 In each victory of the human project there remains a specific type of hope which is not that of the present and which carries that victorious moment beyond itself, anticipating the next one. As Jameson remarks, "It is this essential dissatisfaction at the very core of hope which drives time forward and which transforms each contingent wish into a figure of the Utopian wish itself, each contingent present into a figure of that ultimate presence of Utopia."6               

Thus in the "tendency" of a certain dynamic or aesthetic potential in history and in the "latency" of perceptual or aesthetic powers, Utopian fulfillment pulls the present forward. Art for Bloch, as Gert Ueding points out, is anticipatory, a stimulant for revolutionary praxis:

And it is very much in our day and age that the poetically exact dream does not die from truth, for truth is not the reflection of facts, but of processes. In the final analysis it is the portrayal of tendency and latency of that which has not yet become and needs an activator. Moreover, meaningful literature brings us an accelerated current of action, an elucidated daydream of the essential to the consciousness of the world. In addition, it wants to be changed. Among other things, the world correlate to the poetically suitable daydream is precisely the latency of being.7

For Bloch the utopian moment can never be directly imagined, except as unimaginable. Since it does not yet exist, it must "always speak in figures, which always call out structurally for completion and exegesis.8               

In myth and in fairy tale, the act of wishing is central; these genres express the longing of humanity for a better future. Even if such longing is displaced into another time, another place, long long ago, in a Golden Age, or once upon a time—underlying the displacement is the wish for what has not yet been.                

Bloch is more circumspect about the literary utopia. Certainly, it is another example of "meaningful literature" expressing the daydreams of humanity. And it seems to be particularly important around moments of historical conjuncture: "Hence all critical points in the transition of a society from one stage to another are characterized by books of social expectation, dream landscapes of a better world, in short, social utopias."9 Bloch valorizes utopia but also objects to the literary form, as Marx and Engels did. That is, when the utopian is directly imagined and delivered there occurs an impoverishment which is due to the reduction of the multiple levels of the utopian idea to the single, relatively abstract, field of social planning. With the disguise stripped away, the utopia stands against history in a fashion too simple and too stark for the anxiety of hope to do much with it. We should recognize here, in Bloch as well as Marx and Engels, the same trap which other utopian scholars and critics have fallen into: that is, the literary utopia is read by them as a plan or blueprint and is judged on its realizability. Indeed, Bloch would have been better off to read utopian fictions just as he read myth, fairy tale, and fable—as "preconceptual philosophical explorations of the world."                

But Bloch does not go as far as Marx and Engels in his critique of the literary utopia. He holds on to the essential utopian elements of the genre: the expression of ideals and the sense of a utopian ending. "Ideal images," he says, "insofar as they are not exclusively subjective, quite legitimately—as the subjective ideal tendency—hasten ahead of and precede an objective historical tendency, which need not necessarily rush ahead to meet its precursory dreams."10 For the solution to the "riddle of the world" is not yet complete, and utopian literature is part of the project of moving in history towards fulfillment. Thus Bloch has situated utopian imagination in the historical process, not as blueprint of that which is unfulfilled in that process, but as a preconceptual figure of that which is not yet attained. We must look to Herbert Marcuse for a fuller detailing of the operation of the human imagination and its fantastic or utopian production.                

Marcuse's discussion of the imagination and the operation of fantasy is also rooted in a critical reading of Freud. In Eros and Civilization, he challenges the established reality principle—performance for the sake of the civilized order—by arguing its historical limits. Given the advance of civilization, particularly in technology with its potentiality for reducing human labor and generating a post-scarcity economy, Marcuse argues that the "historical possibility of a gradual decontrolling of the instinctual development" must be taken seriously as a distinct alternative, if not necessity, in the face of a failing capitalism.11 In such a non-repressive civilization, the new, historically determined, reality principle would be the pleasure principle.                

And so in the 1950s, while some were calling for the rebirth of utopia, however compromised, and others for the end of ideology, Marcuse cut through the ideological posturing by articulating a new pleasure principle. Of particular interest is his discussion of the function of fantasy and utopia. According to Freud, the mental forces opposed to the reality (performance) principle are located chiefly in the unconscious. Fantasy is the exception, located as it is in the consciousness and able to operate with a high degree of freedom from the reality principle. The similarity to Bloch's concept of the functioning of daydreams should be noted. Both Marcuse and Bloch locate this operation primarily in the realm of art. Fantasy links the unconscious with consciousness, dream with reality, and preserves the "tabooed images of freedom." Though often subject to reason in the "civilized" subject, fantasy "retains the structure and tendencies of the psyche prior to its organization by reality, prior to its becoming an individual set off against other individuals."

As a fundamental mental process, phantasy has a truth value of its own, which corresponds to an experience of its own—namely, the surmounting of the antagonistic human reality. Imagination envisions the reconciliation of the individual with the whole, of desire with realization, of happiness with reason. While this harmony has been removed into utopia by the established reality principle, phantasy insists that it must and can become real.12

The products of the imagination, however, are relegated by the ideological apparatus of the dominant culture to the realms of art and to surreal processes such as dreaming, daydreaming, and play. But, against the affirmative culture of the dominant ideology, art which taps the fantastic or utopian opposes the "image of humanity as a free subject" (Adorno) to institutional repression. Thus, Marcuse argues for the impermanence of the performance principle, for the historical possibility of another form of civilization under a post-scarcity economy, and for a non-repressive reality principle. Given this historical possibility, the utopian images of the imagination as pre-conceptual figures of the negation of present reality contribute to the general opposition to the dominant capitalist relations to production and ideology. Art allied with revolution: "Uncompromising adherence to the strict truth value of imagination comprehends reality more fully." The propositions of the oppositional artistic imagination contradict the surface facts. Such is the basis for the revolutionary stance of the "Great Refusal": the protest against unnecessary repression, the struggle for the ultimate form of freedom, quoting Adorno, "to live without anxiety."

2. Having discussed the utopian imagination, we must now consider that which opposes utopia—namely, ideology—in order to get beyond the false opposition of utopia and the concrete historical world with its false demand of the utopian text that it be a realizable blueprint for actual historical utopia. In his seminal essay, "Utopianism as Ideology," Howard Segal argues for the viability of "utopianism" as a "rival ideology" to the dominant ideology of our time: "utopianism at its best still represents creative and critical thought about existing society. It challenges the ingrained assumptions of existing society and offers alternatives to them."13               

The concept "ideology" originated in the late 18th-century effort by the philosophers of the Institut de France to oppose medieval metaphysics, based in religion and revelation, with empirical science. "Ideology" was then the science of the formation and interaction of ideas, almost a psychology of ideas. Later in the work of Hegel, Marx and Engels, and Lukács, ideology was taken out of the pure realm of ideas and linked to the moving forces of history; ideology was seen both as the ideas held by a group or a class and as the illusions which mask the real relations of history in a false consciousness. Today ideology is generally understood in this dual sense.14 As Terry Eagleton says: "Ideology is not just the bad dream of the infrastructure: in deformatively 'producing' the real, it nevertheless carries elements of reality within itself."15 Ideology is a sign system held in a given period of history, with the ideology of the dominant group/class taken as the general ideology of all who are not consciously in opposition. In short, ideology is the lived experience of people as they more or less unconsciously articulate it—that dimension of social experience in which meanings and values are produced.                

Karl Mannheim's opposition of "Ideology" and "Utopia" was the first significant linkage of these concepts. Mannheim defines ideology as the complex of ideas directing activity towards the maintenance of the status quo and utopia as the complex of ideas directing activity towards changing the status quo.16 Both of Mannheim's terms can be understood as forms of ideology, that is, as competing ideologies in any given period of history. Mannheim thereupon identifies utopian thinking and writing as the articulation of an alternative to the existing reality, an alternative which exists as ideology and not as realized history. Failed utopias of the past, of course, are no longer utopian alternatives but have become part of the ideology of the dominant powers of the status quo. The revival both of the concept of ideology and of the literary category of utopia in the 1960s must be seen against the devaluation of both terms in the 1940s and 1950s. As the dominant intelligentsia called for an end to utopianism both in reaction to the failed utopias of the Soviet Union and in fear of a successful "utopia"; so, too, that intelligentsia put an end to ideology in the 1950s as part of the effort to render society one-dimensional and ahistorical.17 But the reappropriation of the notion of ideology by those who seek to lay bare the operations of modern society has occurred, and once admitting ideology, then the step to counter-ideology is easily taken. Utopia can be understood as a manifestation of such a counter-ideology.

3. The critical utopian text, then, can be a valuable part of the opposition to the prevailing system; the text is not important for its practical blueprints of an actual alternative society, but rather as it provides pre-conceptual images that are generated out of opposition to what is. The unresolved problems in the text, the tensions and absences in the text, become an important part of the oppositional ideology.                

What stands opposed to utopian texts as part of the oppositional ideology is the possibility of the "totally administered society" of modern international capitalism—and some would also say the bureaucratically deformed transitional states of really existing socialism. That is, the negative thinking of utopia stands opposed to the affirmative culture of the present dominant system.18 Georg Lukács, in History and Class Consciousness, identified the process of reification—that is, the mechanisms in the capitalist system whereby all objects, and people themselves, are transformed into commodities to be consumed, reified/alienated from themselves, turned into objects of exchange value—as central to the operation of that system. The work of the Frankfurt School for Social Research carried on the analysis of capitalism's ability to organize, appropriate, colonize and co-opt all aspects of human life, and nature itself, for profitability and growth.                

In The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno demonstrated the way that capitalism, primarily through its culture, uses technology and instrumentalizes reason to make humans and their cultural expressions into commodities. As lack Zipes remarks,

Human beings have become little more than tools, for as they were required to place their skills and tought at the service of a system which uses industry and technology to increase the profit and power of elite groups, they were prevented from pursuing their own interests and internalized the norms and values of capitalist commodity production. Progress as the advancement of machines and technology for production has become identified with the power of the capitalist system to dominate and manipulate humanity and nature.19

In attempting to take all unto itself, capitalism destroys the utopian impulse by claiming all utopia to itself: there is no need for ideologies to compete or for utopias to be imagined if we are in utopia once and for all. But this process by which people and cultural forms are made into commodities has destroyed the ability of humanity to distinguish the real from the unreal, the rational from the irrational. The affirming culture of capitalism lulls and deadens people, and tends to make them into obedient automatons, not creative and autonomous beings. All aspects of life are administered for the sake of the profit and power to be generated from them and not for the sake of human fulfillment.                

The work of other social critics has parallelled Horkheimer and Adorno's critique. Antonio Gramsci, writing in an Italian fascist prison in the 1930s, distinguished between civil society and the state; and between the power of the state, wherein the people are coerced by the police, the military, and the legal system into obediently serving the dominant system, and the powers of civil society, wherein the socializing apparatus—church, school, culture— quietly and unobtrusively channels people into productive behavior. As he puts it, "every State is ethical inasmuch as one of its most important functions is to raise the great mass of the population to a particular cultural and moral level, a level (or type) which corresponds to the needs of the productive forces for development, and hence to the interests of the ruling classes."20 As the hegemony of the dominant class increases within the cultural apparatus of the society, Gramsci argues, the need for overt coercive power decreases. To use another terminology, that of Louis Althusser, the ideological apparatus of the dominant classes works to ensure the reproduction of people obedient to and productive within the system.21 Michel Foucault, especially in Discipline and Punish, demonstrates how bourgeois institutions since the days of the French Revolution have developed to produce the sort of person necessary for the optimal functioning of capitalist production and reproduction.22 And Harry Braverman has shown how through the use of "scientific management" the knowledge of the labor process itself has been taken from those who do the work and made the property of those who manage—so that even the everyday work people do has been degraded and rendered powerless by a system based on maximum profit.23               

Threatened by the possibility of such a total administration of humanity, the forces of opposition—the traditional working class and the developing "middle strata" but also members of racial minorities, young people, women, and others—have found the need to struggle not only on economic and political planes but also on the cultural, that is, on the level of the institutions that socialize and communicate values and norms—in short, on the level of ideology. Thus, "counter-hegemony" for Gramsci is a concept which serves to articulate the work by forces of opposition to open up spaces in social institutions, ideological apparatus, and the dimensions of everyday personal life that can allow for an alternative to the dominant system.

A younger member of the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas, has articulated the basis for such opposition. Habermas distinguishes between instrumental action governed by technical rules based on empirical knowledge and "communicative action or symbolic interaction governed by binding consensual norms which define reciprocal expectations about behavior and which must be understood and recognized by at least two acting subjects."24 He identifies the bourgeois public sphere as the site of the socialization process; "as a historical sociological category, the public sphere designates those forms of communicative action developed and institutionalized by the bourgeoisie in the eighteenth century between the private sphere and the state to foster rational discourse and a democratic decision-making process."25 The loss of personal autonomy and democracy and the control of people's lives by the dominant interests in the capitalist system are achieved by the manipulation and domination of this public sphere by these interests with support from the state. The system of democratic decision-making, popular control, and personal autonomy dependent on an open and functioning public sphere is opaqued and replaced by a manipulated and closed system. Political action is removed from the people and held in the hands of a technocratic, ruling elite. Habermas argues for an emancipatory revival of the public sphere—a place of unrestricted discussion, free from domination, a repoliticized arena for popular, democratic action against the elite.                

Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge carry Habermas's idea further with their notion of a proletarian or plebeian public sphere "constituted by the various strata of people who oppose consciously or subconsciously the formation of policy in the bourgeois public sphere by creating alternative agencies to articulate and secure their interests."26 This "block of real life" stands in opposition to the mystifications of capitalism.

Similar to Ernst Bloch's concept of concrete utopia, the plebeian publi csphere emerges out of people's needs and experience, makes itself felt but has never achieved full development.... The plebeian public sphere is not an institution but a contradictory and non-linear production process which unites the fragmented experiences of social contradictions and interests of `plebeians' so that they can create the basis for a class consciousness which develops a praxis of change.27

Such an oppositional public sphere is not a monolith, but is a complex of contradictory tendencies that opposes the maximizing interests of capitalism. This counter-hegemony—a plebeian public sphere, a site of opposition to the dominant ideology—lends force and expression to groups opposed to the alienating manipulation and control that results from commodity production.                

Utopian writing produced within this oppositional public sphere—such as the critical utopias of Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, Ursula Le Guin, and others—can thus be read as expressions of unfulfilled desire resisting the limitations of the present system and breaking beyond with "figures of hope" not yet realized in our everyday lives.28


                1. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 120.
                2. Ernst Bloch quoted in lack Zipes, Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (London: Heinemann, 1979), p. 129.
                3. Ernst Bloch, On Karl Marx [selections translated from Das Prinzip Hoffnung, 19591 (NY: Herder & Herder, 1971), p. 172.
                4. Jameson, op. cit., p. 129.
                5. Ibid., p. 137.
                6. Ibid., p. 138.
                7. Quoted in Zipes, p. 137.
                8. Jameson, op. cit., p. 142.
                9. Bloch, op. cit., p. 136.
                10. Ibid., p. 172.
                11. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), p. 134.
                12. Ibid., p. 143. Shorter quotations in this section are from this same chapter (seven).
                13. Howard Segal, "Utopianism As Ideology: A Defense," unpublished paper presented at First Annual Conference on Utopian Studies, Ann Arbor, Ml: 1976.
                14. See Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 55-75; and George Lichtheim, The Concept of Ideology and Other Essays (NY: Vintage, 1963), pp. 3-46.
                15. Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology (London: New Left Books, 1976), p. 69.
                16. See Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (NY: Harvest Books, 1936).
                17. See Chaim I. Waxman, ed., The End of Ideology Debate (NY: Clarion, Books, 1969).
                18. See Herbert Marcuse, "The Affirmative Character of Culture," in Negations (Boston: Press, 1968).
                19. Zipes, op. cit., p. 97.
                20. Antonio Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks (NY: International Publishers, 1971), p. 258.
                21. See Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy (London: 1971) and For Marx (NY: Vintage, 1970).
                22. See especially Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, (1965); The Order of Things, (1970); The Archaeology of Knowledge, (1972); The Birth of the Clinic, (1973); Discipline and Punish, (1977); and The History of Sexuality, (1978) —all published in NY by Pantheon.
                23. See Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1974) and Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1976).
                24. Jürgen Habermas, Toward a Rational Society (Boston: Beacon Press. 1970), p. 92.
                25. Zipes, op. cit., p. 100.
                26. Ibid., p. 125. See Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Oeffentlichkeit und Erfahrung: Zur Organisationsanalyse von burgerlicher und proletarischer Oeffentlichkeit (Frankfurt am Main: Surhkamp, 1973); and Eberhard Knödler-Bunte, "The Proletarian Public Sphere and Political Organization: An Analysis of Negt and Kluge's The Public Sphere and Experience," New German Critique, No. 4 (Winter, 1975), pp. 51-77.
                27. Zipes, op. cit., pp. 125-26.
                28. For a fuller discussion of what I call the "critical utopia" see my dissertation: Figures of Hope: The Critical Utopia of the 1970s. The Revival, Destruction and Transformation of Utopian Writing in the United States: A Study of the Ideology, Structure, and Historical Context of Representative Texts, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1981.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home