In his new essay, “An American Utopia” (in An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, ed. S. Zizek, Verso Press), Jameson counters the spatial dynamics of globalization by thinking with the temporal. As he frames it, the question of utopia, of social transformation hangs between the postmodern reduction of time to the present tense of the body (13) and the putative impossibility of imaging or imagining any future other than the ‘actually existing and eternal free market’ (6).
This essay choreographs a Gedankenexperiment, then; it is a performance of one attempt to think what cannot be thought—not God, but a non-capitalist future. By framing the question between the corporeal present and an elusive future, Jameson is able to insert as Leitmotifs the various disgusts that arise from the body as resistance to these various spectral suggestions about utopia.
These utopian impulses all are only suggestions, spooled out in something much like the rhythm of therapy instead of the rhythm of opera, symphony, or jazz. Though Jameson remains thoroughly materialist, nothing concrete is happening in this essay, and perhaps not even anything very serious (though I am struck by its sobriety, even when it seems like an elaborate joke). Readers can easily pick up this woozy lack of concretion by the avoidance or displacement of anything like agency or responsibility for or within the suggestions (agency and responsibility evoking, much like Jameson’s reflections on efficiency, paradigmatic bourgeois capitalist virtues). For example (and these are legion): “the best approach to our proposal is precisely through this matter of health care and not through the army’s more obvious military functions” (19). Well, ok fine, but who or what is aiming the universal army toward citizen health and not war? Who or what maintains this army as a “dual power” parallel to the state? These questions pop up for me on almost every page, but they are really beside the point. The point is the sheer performance of thinking possibility, indeed, of trying—with utopian “indirection” (54)—to put words around the beyond of capitalism with a grim determination that is saved from realist ardency by its light and teasing touch.
Jameson outlines his two main concerns about substantial social transformation out of capitalism in a discursus on political theory and a discursus on psychology and psychoanalysis. We might be tempted to see these as digressions, but the performance is scored the other way: these sections are the main points, while the rest of the essay is a digression from them, functioning somewhat like the sugar water we need to make the medicine go down. These two central planks deal first, with the problem of how to theorize the collective as such and, second, with the associated or imbricated problem of how to theorize our resistance to the collective in light of the fact that we don’t really like other people very much and, even when our attention to the other is piqued affirmatively, our attraction to the other is deeply caught up in our envy (something Jameson theorizes in Lacanian terms of the Other stealing my enjoyment, and which he quickly reorients to the quite material-practical registers of social motivation and resource (re)distribution).
In the end, the maddening nature of Jameson’s proposal is less that he wants us all conscripted into an army and more that the beyond of capitalism is really not that different from our world today. It remains full of antagonistic humans (“a particularly loathsome biological entity”) who will continue to bicker and snip at each other in their pursuit of doing whatever the hell they want (desires that will continue to be shaped by “our well-nigh libidinal commitment to capitalism as a system”, 50). He notes, “The new utopia, indeed, must welcome the most outrageous self-indulgences and personal freedoms of its citizens in all things, very much including puritanism and the hatred of self-indulgence and personal freedoms” (81). I’m not certain how Jameson envisions this scenario leading to “the state thereby withering away into some enormous group therapy” (82), but then again, I don’t think he knows either, and (again), I think knowing is here quite beside the point.
My favorite sentence was Jameson’s definition of democracy as social promiscuity, of being thrown (through army conscription) into constant intercourse with persons very different from me: “This experience of social promiscuity, however, is what democracy really means…and what every utopia much entail: it is species-being, to use Marx’s phrase, and to learn its experience and to undergo its pedagogies is perhaps the deepest meaning of the term ‘culture revolution,’ as that designates the transition from one mode of production to another” (62).
But, then, which sentences are a reader’s “favorite” only tellingly cues them to the tempo of their own utopian thinking, for, as Jameson concludes, “we can detect the nature of our own ideological reflexes by way of our reactions”—to existentialism and Marxism, yes, but also to this particular aesthetic performance of utopian indirection.