Progress versus Utopia or Can We Imagine the Future? Fredric Jameson

“It will then turn out that the world has long dreamt of that of which it had only to have a clear idea to possess it really.” – Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge (1843)

“A storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm it what we call progress.” – Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1939)

What if the “idea” of progress were not an idea at all but rather the symptom of something else? This is the perspective suggested, not merely by the interrogation of cultural texts, such as SF, but by the contemporary discovery of the Symbolic in general. Indeed, following the emergence of psychoanalysis, of structuralism in linguistics and anthropology, of semiotics together with its new field of “narratology,” of communications theory, and even of such events as the emergence of a politics of surplus consciousness” (Rudolf Bahro) in the 1960s, we have come to feel that abstract ideas and concepts are not necessarily intelligible entities in their own right. This was of course already the thrust of Marx’s discovery of the dynamics of ideology; but while the older terms in which that discovery was traditionally formulated—”false consciousness” versus “science”—remain generally true, the Marxian approach to ideology, itself fed by all the discoveries enumerated above, has also become a far more sophisticated and non-reductive form of analysis than the classical opposition tends to suggest.

From the older standpoint of a traditional “history of ideas,” however, ideology was essentially grasped as so many opinions vehiculated by a narrative text such as an SF novel, from which, as Lionel Trilling once put it, like so many raisins and currants they are picked out and exhibited in isolation. Thus Verne is thought to have “believed” in progress,1 while the originality of Wells was to have entertained an ambivalent and agonizing love-hate relationship with this “value,” now affirmed and now denounced in the course of his complex artistic trajectory.2

The discovery of the Symbolic, however, suggests that for the individual subject as well as for groups, collectives and social classes, abstract opinion is but a symptom or an index of some vaster pensée sauvage about history itself, whether personal or collective. This thinking, in which a particular conceptual enunciation such as the “idea” of progress finds its structural intelligibility, may be said to be of a more properly narrative kind, analogous in that respect to the constitutive role played by master-fantasies in the Freudian model in the unconscious. Nevertheless, the analogy is misleading to the degree to which it may awaken older attitudes about objective truth and subjective or psychological “projection” which are explicitly overcome and transcended by the notion of the Symbolic itself. In other words, we must resist the reflex which concludes that the narrative fantasies which a collectivity entertain about its past and its future are “merely” mythical, archetypal and projective, as opposed to “concepts” like progress or cyclical return, which can somehow be tested for their objective or even scientific validity. This reflex is itself the last symptom of that dissociation of the private and the public, the subject and the object, the personal and the political, which has characterized the social life of capitalism. A theory of some narrative pensée sauvage—what I have elsewhere termed the political unconscious3—will, on the contrary, want to affirm the epistemological priority of such “fantasy” in theory and praxis alike.

The task of such a theory would then be to detect and to reveal—behind such written traces of the political unconscious as the narrative texts of high or mass culture, but also behind those other symptoms or traces which are opinion, ideology, and even philosophical systems—the outlines of some deeper and vaster narrative movement in which the groups of a given collectivity at a certain historical conjuncture anxiously interrogate their fate, and explore it with hope or dread. Yet the nature of this vaster collective subtext, with its specific structural limits and permutations, will be registered above all in terms of properly narrative categories: closure, recontainment, the production of episodes, and the like. Once again, a crude analogy with the dynamics of the individual unconscious may be useful. Proust’s restriction to the windless cork-lined room, for instance, the emblematic eclipse of his own possible relationships to any concrete personal or historical future, determines the formal innovations and wondrous structural subterfuges of his now exclusively retrospective narrative production. Yet such narrative categories are themselves fraught with contradiction: in order for narrative to project some sense of a totality of experience in space and time, it must surely know some closure (a narrative must have an ending, even if it is ingeniously organized around the structural repression of endings as such). At the same time, however, closure or the narrative ending is the mark of that boundary or limit beyond which thought cannot go. The merit of SF is to dramatize this contradiction on the level of plot itself, since the vision of future history cannot know any punctual ending of this kind, at the same time that its novelistic expression demands some such ending. Thus Asimov has consistently refused to complete or terminate his Foundation series; while the most obvious ways in which an SF novel can wrap its story up—as in an atomic explosion that destroys the universe, or the static image of some future totalitarian world state—are also clearly the places in which our own ideological limits are the most surely inscribed.

It will, I trust, already have become clear that this ultimate “text” or object of study—the master-narratives of the political unconscious—is a construct: it exists nowhere in “empirical” form, and therefore must be reconstructed on the basis of empirical “texts” of all sorts, in much the same way that the master-fantasies of the individual unconscious are reconstructed through the fragmentary and symptomatic “texts” of dreams, values, behavior, verbal free association, and the like. This is to say that we must necessarily make a place for the formal and textual mediations through which such deeper narratives find a partial articulation. No serious literary critic today would suggest that content—whether social or psychoanalytic—inscribes itself immediately and transparently on the works of “high” literature: instead, the latter find themselves inserted in a complex and semi-autonomous dynamic of their own—the history of forms—which has its own logic and whose relationship to content per se is necessarily mediated, complex and indirect (and takes very different structural paths at different moments of formal as well as social development). It is perhaps less widely accepted that the forms and texts of mass culture are fully as mediated as this: and that, here too, collective and political fantasies do not find some simple transparent expression in this or that film or TV show. It would in my opinion be a mistake to make the “apologia” for SF in terms of specifically “high” literary values—to try, in other words, to recuperate this or that major text as exceptional, in much the same way as some literary critics have tried to recuperate Hammett or Chandler for the lineage of Dostoyevsky, say, or Faulkner. SF is a subgenre with a complex and interesting formal history of its own, and with its own dynamic, which is not that of high culture, but which stands in a complementary and dialectical relationship to high culture or modernism as such. We must therefore first make a detour through the dynamics of this specific form, with a view to grasping its emergence as a formal and historical event.

Whatever its illustrious precursors, it is a commonplace of the history of SF that it emerged, virtually full-blown, with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, during the second half of the 19th century, a period also characterized by the production of a host of utopias of a more classical type. It would seem appropriate to register this generic emergence as the symptom of a mutation in our relationship to historical time itself: but this is a more complex proposition than it may seem, and demands to be argued in a more theoretical way.

I will suggest that the model for this kind of analysis, which grasps an entire genre as a symptom and reflex of historical change, may be found in Georg Lukács’ classical study The Historical Novel (1936). Lukács began with an observation that should not have been particularly surprising: it was no accident, he said, that the period which knew the emergence of historical thinking, of historicism in its peculiarly modern sense—should also have witnessed, in the work of Sir Walter Scott, the emergence of a narrative form peculiarly restructured to express that new consciousness. Just as modern historical consciousness was preceded by other, for us now archaic, forms of historiography—the chronicle or the annals—so the historical novel in its modern sense was certainly preceded by literary works which evoked the past and recreated historical settings of one kind or another: the history plays of Shakespeare or Corneille, La Princesse de Clèves, even Arthurian romance: yet all these works in their various ways affirm the past as being essentially the same as the present, and do not yet confront the great discovery of the modern historical sensibility, that the past, the various pasts, are culturally original, and radically distinct from our own experience of the object-world of the present. That discovery may now be seen as part of what may in the largest sense be called the bourgeois cultural revolution, the process whereby the definitive establishment of a properly capitalist mode of production as it were reprograms and utterly restructures the values, life rhythms, cultural habits and temporal sense of its subjects. Capitalism demands in this sense a different experience of temporality from what was appropriate to a feudal or tribal system, to the polis or to the forbidden city of the sacred despot: it demands a memory of qualitative social change, a concrete vision of the past which we may expect to find completed by that far more abstract and empty conception of some future terminus which we sometime call “progress.” Sir Walter Scott can in retrospect be seen to have been uniquely positioned for the creative opening of literary and narrative form to this new experience: on the very meeting place between two modes of production, the commercial activity of the Lowlands and the archaic, virtually tribal system of the surviving Highlanders, he is able to take a distanced and marginal view of the emergent dynamics of capitalism in the neighboring nation-state from the vantage point of a national experience—that of Scotland—which was the last arrival to capitalism and the first semi-peripheral zone of a foreign capitalism all at once.4

What is original about Lukács’ book is not merely this sense of the historical meaning of the emergence of this new genre, but also and above all a more difficult perception: namely, of the profound historicity of the genre itself, its increasing incapacity to register its content, the way in which, with Flaubert’s Salammbô in the mid-19th century, it becomes emptied of its vitality and survives as a dead form, a museum piece, as “archaeological” as its own raw materials, yet resplendent with technical virtuosity. A contemporary example may dramatize this curious destiny: Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, with its remarkable reconstruction of a whole vanished 18th‑century past. The paradox, the historical mystery of the devitalization of form, will be felt by those for whom this film, with its brilliant images and extraordinary acting, is somehow profoundly gratuitous, an object floating in the void which could just as easily not have existed, its technical intensities far too great for any merely formal exercise, yet somehow profoundly and disturbingly unmotivated. This is to say something rather different from impugning the content of the Kubrick film: it would be easy to imagine any number of discussions of the vivid picture of 18th‑century war, for example, or of the grisly instrumentality of human relationships, which might establish the relevance and the claims of this narrative on us today. It is rather the relationship to the past which is at issue, and the feeling that any other moment of the past would have done just as well. The sense that this determinate moment of history is, of organic necessity, precursor to the present has vanished into the pluralism of the Imaginary Museum, the wealth and endless variety of culturally or temporally distinct forms, all of which are now rigorously equivalent. Flaubert’s Carthage and Kubrick’s 18th century, but also the industrial turn of the century or the nostalgic 1930s or 1950s of the American experience, find themselves emptied of their necessity, and reduced to pretexts for so many glossy images. In its (post-) contemporary form, this replacement of the historical by the nostalgic, this volatilization of what was once a national past, in the moment of emergence of the nation-states and of nationalism itself, is of course at one with the disappearance of historicity from consumer society today, with its rapid media exhaustion of yesterday’s events and of the day-before-yesterday’s star players (who was Hitler anyway? Who was Kennedy? Who, finally, was Nixon?).

The moment of Flaubert, which Lukács saw as the beginning of this process, and the moment in which the historical novel as a genre ceases to be functional, is also the moment of the emergence of SF, with the first novels of Jules Verne. We are therefore entitled to complete Lukács’ account of the historical novel with the counterpanel of its opposite number, the emergence of the new genre of SF as a form which now registers some nascent sense of the future, and does so in the space on which a sense of the past had once been inscribed. It is time to examine more closely the seemingly transparent ways in which SF registers fantasies about the future.

The common-sense position on the anticipatory nature of SF as a genre is what we would call a representational one. These narratives are evidently for the most part not modernizing, not reflexive and self-undermining and deconstructing affairs. They go about their business with the full baggage and paraphernalia of a conventional realism, with this one difference: that the full “presence”—the settings and actions to be “rendered”—are the merely possible and conceivable ones of a near or far future. Whence the canonical defense of the genre: in a moment in which technological change has reached a dizzying tempo, in which so-called “future shock” is a daily experience, such narratives have the social function of accustoming their readers to rapid innovation, of preparing our consciousness and our habits for the otherwise demoralizing impact of change itself. They train our organisms to expect the unexpected and thereby insulate us, in much the same way that, for Walter Benjamin, the big-city modernism of Baudelaire provided an elaborate shock absorbing mechanism for the otherwise bewildered visitor to the new world of the great 19th‑century industrial city.

If I cannot accept this account of SF, it is at least in part because it seems to me that, for all kinds of reasons, we no longer entertain such visions of wonder-working, properly “science-fictional” futures of technological automation. These visions are themselves now historical and dated—streamlined cities of the future on peeling murals—while our lived experience of our greatest metropolises is one of urban decay and blight. That particular utopian future has in other words turned out to have been merely the future of one moment of what is now our own past. Yet, even if this is the case, it might at best signal a transformation in the historical function of present-day SF.

In reality, the relationship of this form of representation, this specific narrative apparatus, to its ostensible content—the future—has always been more complex than this. For the apparent realism, or representationality, of SF has concealed another, far more complex temporal structure: not to give us “images” of the future—whatever such images might mean for a reader who will necessarily predecease their “materialization”—but rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present, and to do so in specific ways distinct from all other forms of defamiliarization. From the great intergalactic empires of an Asimov, or the devastated and sterile Earth of the post-catastrophe novels of a John Wyndham, all the way back in time to the nearer future of the organ banks and space miners of a Larry Niven, or the conapts, autofabs, or psycho-suitcases of the universe of Philip K. Dick, all such apparently full representations function in a process of distraction and displacement, repression and lateral perceptual renewal, which has its analogies in other forms of contemporary culture. Proust was only the most monumental “high” literary expression of this discovery: that the present—in this society, and in the physical and psychic dissociation of the human subjects who inhabit it—is inaccessible directly, is numb, habituated, empty of affect. Elaborate strategies of indirection are therefore necessary if we are somehow to break through our monadic insulation and to “experience,” for some first and real time, this “present,” which is, after all, all we have. In Proust, the retrospective fiction of memory and rewriting after the fact is mobilized in order for the intensity of a now merely remembered present to be experienced in some time-released and utterly unexpected posthumous actuality.

Elsewhere, with reference to another sub-genre or mass-cultural form, the detective story, I have tried to show that at its most original, in writers like Raymond Chandler, the ostensible plots of this peculiar form have an analogous function.5 What interested Chandler was the here and now of the daily experience of the now historical Los Angeles: the stucco dwellings, cracked sidewalks, tarnished sunlight, and roadsters in which the curiously isolated yet typical specimens of an unimaginable Southern Californian social flora and fauna ride in the monadic half-light of their dashboard. Chandler’s problem was that his readers—ourselves—desperately needed not to see that reality: humankind, as T.S. Eliot’s magical bird sang, is able to bear very little of the unmediated, unfiltered experience of the daily life of capitalism. So, by a dialectical sleight-of-hand, Chandler formally mobilized an “entertainment” genre to distract us in a very special sense: not from the real life of private and public worries in general, but very precisely from our own defense mechanisms against that reality. The excitement of the mystery-story plot is, then, a blind, fixing our attention on its own ostensible but in reality quite trivial puzzles and suspense in such a way that the intolerable space of Southern California can enter the eye laterally, with its intensity undiminished.

It is an analogous strategy of indirection that SF now bring to bear on the ultimate object and ground of all human life, History itself. How to fix this intolerable present of history with the naked eye? We have seen that in the moment of the emergence of capitalism the present could be intensified, and prepared for individual perception, by the construction of a historical past from which as a process it could be felt to issue slowly forth, like the growth of an organism. But today the past is dead, transformed into a packet of well-worn and thumbed glossy images. As for the future, which may still be alive in some small heroic collectivities on the Earth’s surface, it is for us either irrelevant or unthinkable. Let the Wagnerian and Spenglerian world-dissolutions of J.G. Ballard stand as exemplary illustrations of the ways in which the imagination of a dying class—in this case the cancelled future of a vanished colonial and imperial destiny—seeks to intoxicate itself with images of death that range from the destruction of the world by fire, water and ice to lengthening sleep or the berserk orgies of high-rise buildings or superhighways reverting to barbarism.

Ballard’s work—so rich and corrupt—testifies powerfully to the contradictions of a properly representational attempt to grasp the future directly. I would argue, however, that the most characteristic SF does not seriously attempt to imagine the “real” future of our social system. Rather, its multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come. It is this present moment—unavailable to us for contemplation in its own right because the sheer quantitative immensity of objects and individual lives it comprises is untotalizable and hence unimaginable, and also because it is occluded by the density of our private fantasies as well as of the proliferating stereotypes of a media culture that penetrates every remote zone of our existence—that upon our return from the imaginary constructs of SF is offered to us in the form of some future world’s remote past, as if posthumous and as though collectively remembered. Nor is this only an exercise in historical melancholy: there is, indeed, something also at least vaguely comforting and reassuring in the renewed sense that the great supermarkets and shopping centers, the garish fast-food stores and ever more swiftly remodeled shops and store-front businesses of the near future of Chandler’s now historic Los Angeles, the burnt-out-center cities of small Midwestern towns, nay even the Pentagon itself and the vast underground networks of rocket-launching pads in the picture-postcard isolation of once characteristic North American “natural” splendor, along with the already cracked and crumbling futuristic architecture of newly built atomic power plants—that all these things are not seized, immobile forever, in some “end of history,” but move steadily in time toward some unimaginable yet inevitable “real” future. SF thus enacts and enables a structurally unique “method” for apprehending the present as history, and this is so irrespective of the “pessimism” or “optimism” of the imaginary future world which is the pretext for that defamiliarization. The present is in fact no less a past if its destination proves to be the technological marvels of Verne or, on the contrary, the shabby and maimed automata of P.K. Dick’s near future.

We must therefore now return to the relationship of SF and future history and reverse the stereotypical description of this genre: what is indeed authentic about it, as a mode of narrative and a form of knowledge, is not at all its capacity to keep the future alive, even in imagination. On the contrary, its deepest vocation is over and over again to demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future, to body forth, through apparently full representations which prove on closer inspection to be structurally and constitutively impoverished, the atrophy in our time of what Marcuse has called the utopian imagination, the imagination of otherness and radical difference; to succeed by failure, and to serve as unwitting and even unwilling vehicles for a meditation, which, setting forth for the unknown, finds itself irrevocably mired in the all-too-familiar, and thereby becomes unexpectedly transformed into a contemplation of our own absolute limits.

This is indeed, since I have pronounced the word, the unexpected rediscovery of the nature of utopia as a genre in our own time.6 The overt utopian text or discourse has been seen as a subvariety of SF in general. What is paradoxical is that at the very moment in which utopias were supposed to have come to an end, and in which that asphyxiation of the utopian impulse alluded to above is everywhere more and more tangible, SF has in recent years rediscovered its own utopian vocation, and given rise to a whole series of powerful new works—utopian and SF all at once—of which Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, and Samuel Delany’s Triton are only the most remarkable monuments. A few final remarks are necessary, therefore, on the proper use of these texts, and the ways in which their relationship to social history is to be interrogated and decoded.

After what has been said about SF in general, the related proposition on the nature and the political function of the utopian genre will come as no particular surprise: namely, that its deepest vocation is to bring home, in local and determinate ways and with a fullness of concrete detail, our constitutional inability to imagine Utopia itself: and this, not owing to any individual failure of imagination but as the result of the systemic, cultural and ideological closure of which we are all in one way or another prisoners. This proposition, however, now needs to be demonstrated in a more concrete analytical way, with reference to the texts themselves.

It is fitting that such a demonstration should take as its occasion not American SF, whose affinities with the dystopia rather than the utopia, with fantasies of cyclical regression of totalitarian empires of the future, have until recently been marked (for all the obvious political reasons); but rather Soviet SF, whose dignity as a “high” literary genre and whose social functionality within a socialist system have been, in contrast, equally predictable and no less ideological. The renewal of the Soviet traditions of utopia and SF may very precisely be dated from the publication of Efremov’s Andromeda (1958), and from the ensuing public debate over a work which surely, for all its naïveté, is one of the most single-minded and extreme attempts to produce a full representation of a future, classless, harmonious, world-wide utopian society. We may measure our own resistance to the utopian impulse by means of the boredom the American reader instinctively feels for Efremov’s culturally alien “libidinal apparatus”:

“‘We began,’ continued the beautiful historian, ‘with the complete redistribution of Earth’s surface into dwelling and industrial zones.

‘The brown stripes running between 30 and 40 degrees of North and South latitude represent the unbroken chain of urban settlements built on the shores of warm seas with a mild climate and no winters. Manking no longer spends huge quantities of energy warming houses in winter and making himself clumsy clothing. The greatest concentration of people is around the cradle of human civilization, the Mediterranean Sea. The subtropical belt was doubled in breadth after the ice on the polar caps had melted. To the north of the zone of habitation lie prairies and meadows where countless herds of domestic animals graze …

‘One of man’s greatest pleasures is travel, an urge to move from place to place that we have inherited from our distant forefathers, the wandering hunters and gatherers of scanty food. Today the entire planet is encircled by the Spiral Way whose gigantic bridges ling all the continents … Electric trains move along the Spiral Way all the time and hundreds of thousands of people can leave the inhabited zone very speedily for the prairies, open fields, mountains or forests.’”7

The question one must address such a work—the analytical way into the utopian text in general from Thomas More all the way down to this historically significant Soviet novel—turns on the status of the negative in what is given as an effort to imagine a world without negativity. The repression of the negative, the place of that repression, will then allow us to formulate the essential contradiction of such texts, which we have expressed in a more abstract fashion above, as the dialectical reversal of intent, the inversion of representation, the “ruse of history” whereby the effort to imagine utopia ends up betraying the impossibility of doing so. The content of such repressed “semes” of negativity will then serve as an indicator of the ways in which a narrative’s contradiction or antimony is to be formulated and reconstructed.

Efremov’s novel is, predictably enough, organized around the most obvious dilemma the negative poses for a utopian vision: namely, the irreducible fact of death. But equally characteristically, the anxiety of individual death is here “recontained” as a collective destiny, the loss of the starship Parvus, easily assimilable to a whole rhetoric of collective sacrifice in the service of manking. I would suggest that this facile topos functions to displace two other, more acute and disturbing, forms of negativity. One is the emotional fatigue and deep psychic depression of the administrator Darr Veter, “cured” by a period of physical labor in the isolation of an ocean laboratory; the other is the hubris and crime of his successor, Mven Mass, whose personal involvement with an ambitious new energy program results in a catastrophic accident and loss of life. Mven Mass is “rehabilitated” after a stay on “the island of oblivion,” a kind of idyllic Ceylonese Gulag on which deviants and antisocials are released to work out their salvation in any way they choose. We will say that these two episodes are the nodal points or symptoms at which deeper contradictions of the psychiatric and the penal, respectively, interrupt the narrative functioning of the Soviet Utopian Imagination. Nor is it any accident that these narrative symptoms take spatial and geographical form. Already in Thomas More, the imagining of Utopia is constitutively related to the possibility of establishing some spatial closure (the digging of the great trench which turns “Utopia” into a self-contained island).8 The lonely oceanographic station and the penal island thus mark the return of devices of spatial closure and separation which, formally required for the establishment of some “pure” and positive utopian space, thus always tend to betray the ultimate contradictions in the production of utopian figures and narratives.

Other people’s ideologies always being more self-evident than our own, it is not hard to grasp the ideological function of this kind of nonconflictual utopia in a Soviet Union in which, according to Stalin’s canonical formula, class struggle was at the moment of “socialism” supposed to have come to an end. Is it necessary to add that no intelligent Marxist today can believe such a thing, and that the process of class struggle is if anything exacerbated precisely in the moment of socialist construction, with its “primacy of the political”? I will nevertheless complicate this diagnosis with the suggestion that what is ideological for the Soviet reader may well be Utopian for us. We may indeed want to take into account the possibility that, alongside the obvious qualitative differences between our First World culture (with its dialectic of modernism and mass culture) and that of the Third World, whose artifacts (generally in the form of Soviet and Eastern European novels and films) have generally produced the unformulated and disquieting impression on the Western reader or spectator of a simplicity indistinguishable from naive sentimentalism. Such a renewed confrontation with Second World culture would have to take into account something it is hard for us to remember within the ahistorical closure of our own “société de consommation”: the radical strangeness and freshness of human existence and of its object-world in a noncommodity atmosphere, in a space from which that prodigious saturation of messages, advertisements, and packaged libidinal fantasies of all kinds, which characterizes our own daily experience, is suddenly an unexpectedly stilled. We receive this culture with all the perplexed exasperation of the city-dweller condemned to insomnia by the oppressive silence of the countryside at night; for us, then, it can serve the defamiliarizing function of those wondrous words which William Morris inscribed under the title of his own great Utopia, “an epoch of rest.”

All of this can be said in another way by showing that, if Soviet images of Utopia are ideological, our own characteristically Western images of dystopia are no less so, and fraught with equally virulent contradictions.9 George Orwell’s classical and virtually inaugural work in this sub-genre, 1984, can serve as a textbook exhibit for this proposition, even if we leave aside its more obviously pathological features. Orwell’s novel, indeed, set out explicitly to dramatize the tyrannical omnipotence of a bureaucratic elite, with its perfected and omnipresent technological control, yet the narrative, seeking to reinforce this already oppressive closure, subsequently overstates its case in a manner which specifically undermines its first ideological proposition. For, drawing on another topos of counterrevolutionary ideology, Orwell then sets out to show how, without freedom of thought, no science or scientific progress is possible, a thesis vividly reinforced by images of squalor and decaying buildings. The contradiction lies of course in the logical impossibility of reconciling these two propositions: bureaucracy vanishes along with it and “totalitarianism” ceases to be a dystopia in Orwell’s sense. Or the reverse: if these Stalinist masters dispose of some perfected scientific and technological power, then genuine freedom of inquiry must exist somewhere within this state, which was precisely what was not to have been demonstrated.

The thesis concerning the structural Impossibility of utopian representation outlined above now suggests some unexpected consequences in the aesthetic realm. It is by now, I hope, a commonplace that the very thrust of literary modernism—with its public introuvable and the breakdown of traditional cultural institutions, in particular the social “contract” between writer and reader—has had as one significant structural consequence the transformation of the cultural text into an auto-referential discourse, whose content is a perpetual interrogation of its own conditions of possibility.10 We may now show that this is no less the case with the utopian test. Indeed, in the light of everything that has been said, it will not be surprising to discover that as the true vocation of the utopian narrative begins to rise to the surface—to confront us with our incapacity to imagine Utopia—the center of gravity of such narratives shifts toward an auto-referentiality of a specific, but far more concrete type: such texts then explicitly or implicitly, and as it were against their own will, find their deepest “subjects” in the possibility of their own production, in the interrogation of the dilemmas involved in their own emergence as utopian texts.

Ursula Le Guin’s only “contemporary” SF novel, the underrated Lathe of Heaven (1971), may serve as documentation for this more general proposition. In this novel, which establishes Le Guin’s home city of Portland, Oregon, alongside Berkeley and Los Angeles, as one of the legendary spaces of contemporary SF, a hapless young man finds himself tormented by the unwanted power to dream “effective dreams,” those which in other words change external reality itself, and reconstruct the latter’s historical past in such a way that the previous “reality” disappears without a trace. He places himself in the hands of an ambitious psychiatrist, who then sets out to use his enormous proxy power to change the world for the benefit of mankind. But reality is a seamless web: change one detail and unexpected, sometimes monstrous transformations occur in other apparently unrelated zones of life, as in the classical time-travel stories where one contemporary artifact, left behind by accident in a trip to the Jurassic age, transforms human history like a thunderclap. The other archetypal reference is the dialectic of “wishes” in fairy tales, where one gratification is accompanied with a most unwanted secondary effect, which must then be wished away in its turn (its removal bringing yet another undesirable consequence, and so forth).

The ideological content of Le Guin’s novel is clear, although its political resonance is ambiguous: from the central position of her mystical Taoism, the effort to “reform” and to ameliorate, to transform society in a liberal or revolutionary way is seen, after the fashion of Edmund Burke, as a dangerous expression of individual hubris and a destructive tampering with the rhythms of “nature.” Politically, of course, this ideological message may be read either as the liberal’s anxiety in the face of a genuinely revolutionary transformation of society or as the expression of more conservative misgivings about the New Deal-type reformism and do-goodism of the welfare state.11

On the aesthetic level, however—which is what concerns us here—the deeper subject of this fascinating work can only be the dangers of imagining Utopia and more specifically of writing the utopian text itself. More transparently than much other SF, this book is “about” its own process of production, which is recognized as impossible: George Orr cannot dream Utopia; yet in the very process of exploring the contradictions of that production, the narrative gets written, and “Utopia”—a full representation—is a contradiction in terms. We may thus apply to The Lathe of Heaven those prophetic words of Roland Barthes about the dynamics of modernism generally, that the latter’s monuments “linger as long as possible, in a sort of miraculous suspension, on the threshold of Literature itself [read, in this context: Utopia], in this anticipatory situation in which the density of life is given and developed without yet being destroyed through its consecration as an [institutionalized] sign system.”12

It is, however, more fitting to close this discussion with another SF-Utopian text from the Second World, one of the most glorious of all contemporary Utopias, the Strugatsky Brothers’ astonishing Roadside Picnic (1977; first serialized in 1972).13 This text moves in a space beyond the facile and obligatory references to the two rival social systems; and it cannot be coherently decoded as yet another samizdat message or expression of liberal political protest by Soviet dissidents.14 Nor, although its figural material is accessible and rewritable in a way familiar to readers who live within the rather different constraints of either of the two industrial and bureaucratic systems, is it an affirmation or demonstration of what is today called “convergence” theory. Finally, while the narrative turns on the mixed blessings of wonder-working technology, this novel does not seem to me to be programmed by the category of “technological determinism” in either the Western or the Eastern style: that is, it is locked neither into a Western notion of infinite industrial progress of a nonpolitical type, nor into the Stalinist notion of socialism as the “development of the forces of production.”

On the contrary, the Zone—a geographical space in which, as the result or some inexplicable alien contact, artifacts can be found whose powers transcend the explanatory capacities of human science—is at one and the same time the object of the most vicious bootlegging and military-industrial Greed, and of the purest religious—I would like to say Utopian—Hope. The “quest for narrative,” to use Todorov’s expression,15 is here very specifically the quest for the Grail; and the Strugatskys’ deviant hero—marginal, and “antisocial” as one likes; the Soviet equivalent of the ghetto or countercultural antiheroes of our own tradition—is perhaps a more sympathetic and human figure for us than Le Guin’s passive-contemplative and mystical innocent. No less than The Lathe of Heaven, then Roadside Picnic is self-referential, its narrative production determined by the structural impossibility of producing that Utopian text which it nonetheless miraculously becomes. Yet what we must cherish in this text—a formally ingenious collage of documents, an enigmatic crosscutting between unrelated characters in social and temporal space, a desolate reconfirmation of the inextricable relationship of the utopian quest to crime and suffering, with its climax in the simultaneous revenge-murder of an idealistic and guiltless youth and the apparition of the Grail itself—is the unexpected emergence, as it were, beyond “the nightmare of History” and from out of the most archaic longings of the human race, of the impossible and inexpressible Utopian impulse here nonetheless briefly glimpsed: “Happiness for everybody! … Free! … As much as you want! … Everybody come here! … HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND NO ONE WILL GO AWAY UNSATISFIED!”


Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fiction, Verso, London/New York 2005/2007, p. 281­–295.


1 / See, “On Verne,” Pierre Macherey’s stimulating chapter in Pour une théorie de la production litteraire, Maspero, Paris 1966.

2 / The literature on Wells is enormous: see, for an introduction and select bibliography, Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1979. This work is a pioneering theoretical and structural analysis of the genre to which I owe a great deal.

3 / See my The Political Unconscious, Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1981.

4 / An important discussion of Scotland’s unique place in the development of capitalism can be found in Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism, NLB, London 1977.

5 / Fredric Jameson, “On Raymond Chander,” Southern Review, Baton Rouge, 6 (Summer 1970), p. 624–650.

6 / A fuller discussion of these propositions and some closer analyses of More’s Utopia in particular, will be found in particular, will be found in my review article of Louis Mann’s Utopiques (which also see), “Of Islands and Trenches,” Diacritics, Baltimore, 7 (June 1977): 2–21. See also the related discussion in “World Reduction in Le Guin,” Part Two, Essay 3, above. (And of course see Part One, and, in particular Chapter 11.)

7 / Ivan Efremov, Andromeda, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow 1959, p. 54–55.

8 / Compare “Of Islands and Trenches” (see note 6).

9 / In other words, to adapt Claudel’s favorite proverb, “le pire n’est pas toujours sûr.”

10 / See my The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1972, p. 203–205.

11 / That the author of The Dispossessed is also capable of indulging in a classical Dostoyevskian and counterrevolutionary antiutopianism may be documented by her nasty little fable “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Harper & Row, New York 1975, p. 275–284.

12 / Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, Jonathan Cape, London 1967, p. 39.

13 / Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic, Macmillan, New York 1977.

14 / This is not to say that the Strugatskys have not had their share of personal and publishing problems.

15 / Tzvetan Todorov, Poétique de la prose, Seuil, Paris 1971.