Just what, to begin with, is a utopia? I think we have to start by figuring out how to ask this question in a historical and materialist way. Let us assume that utopias do exist, in some fashion, and then ask how, under what conditions? Traditionally, a utopia was a literary image of a radically perfected society. But even for sympathetic critics, the most basic problem is: how does one ever get there from here? Utopia seems decidedly infeasible when we contemplate the thorny, circular problem, raised by one disappointed-utopian critic in 1845, that “it is essential to educate the educator himself.” But who does that?
More recent critics have pointed out the “unusable” quality of much utopian literature, noting its fixation with the future, its corresponding detachment from past and present, and its historical Eurocentrism and coloniality (Gordon 2004, Namakkal 2012). Pragmatically speaking, it would be hard to deny that many twentieth century utopian experiments, ranging from socialist states to small communes, produced deeply mixed results. (I say this having participated in such institutions.) The communes, for instance, so often ended up producing exclusive in-groups or collapsing under the weight of hostile social contexts. And even in the abstract, there is something unnerving about the omnipotence fantasies that undergird the fabrication of conventional Utopias. Plato’s Republic portrays a closed world governed by maximally optimized subjects. What kind of omnipotent sovereign would it take to even create such a society?
The first lesson, no doubt, is that utopias are constrained by the limited imaginations of the people imagining them.
But if Plato’s philosopher-kings were a ruling class, the philosophers I met in France were only a marginal petty bourgeoisie. The “utopians” I saw were public sector workers in an embattled public sector, fighting to keep their jobs in the face of neoliberalization. And the Platonic intellectual project that Lauren Berlant called “utopian ahistoricism” (2008:856) is now basically implausible, even for philosophers. In our current moment of ecocrisis, Donna Haraway has rightly insisted that any utopian project must now also remediate its own ecosystem. Yet even Haraway despairs, in spite of her utopian longings. “There are so many losses already, and there will be many more. Renewed generative flourishing cannot grow from myths of immortality or failure to become-with the dead and the extinct” (2015:160–1).
To put it too succinctly: there is no utopianism now without ambivalence and repair. But this does not mean we need to reject utopian projects outright. Rather, it implies that we should work harder to fold ambivalence and historical reflexivity into our theory of utopian practices. One route to such a theory is through ethnographic analysis: we can try to make sense of various actually existing utopias. This brings us back to Paris 8’s Philosophy Department, a compromised site where utopian impulses somehow persisted. Can there be a utopian public-sector institution? Was this an instance of one? How might a utopian institution work?
Let’s say call a “utopian institution” any social institution that systematically fosters utopian practices and gambits, even though its relationship to these gambits is inevitably fraught. A utopian gambit is a radical proposal for social reality to be otherwise, one which persists even though it will probably never come true, or perhaps even because it will probably never come true. Here’s a retired anarchist, René Schérer, from my research site in France: “I define utopia as being of the order of the non-realizable, but this doesn’t prevent theorizing it or wanting to bring it into being.”
What makes utopia utopian is not its object, but its form of desire. A utopia need not fixate on creating a Platonic, ideal society. Sometimes the most utopian demand can focus on the most mundane things (Gordon 2004). “Housework? Oh my god how trivial can you get?” exclaims a sexist husband at the end of Pat Mainardi’s feminist analysis of domestic labor (1970). During my research in Saint-Denis, I saw all kinds of small utopian desires: desires for different relations to their teachers, to preserve their communities, to shift people’s ways of thinking. What made these desires utopian was the sheer intensity and unrealism of the desire or demand. Utopians have a radical, implausible desire to negate something in the world.
But what happens then? Coming back to disappointment, what happens when a utopian desire gets worn out? Even the most minor utopian gambits were usually unsuccessful. Either they were unrealized, abandoned, forgotten, defeated; or their very success was turned against them by the logic of the academic institution in which they were embedded. As Kathi Weeks puts it, “by instantiating it in a form, utopian hope is at once brought to life and diminished” (2011:224). And yet in my research site, I found that utopianism persisted beyond any of its failures. It persisted by being diminished. I came to see this constantly endurance-through-failure as a disappointed utopianism.
Disappointed utopianism is a notion which aims to capture what is structural about an ambivalent relationship to utopian projects, when the past is unresolved and the future is hostile. In the place I did research, utopian gambits seldom maintained a comfortable existence. Their protagonists were often disappointed by the impossibility of realizing their own programs. This disappointment was structural: it is structurally disappointing to face an institutional dynamic which both encouraged utopianism and thwarted it. Radical, utopian aspirations were very often dramatically in excess of what a university institution could tolerate. But at the same time, local utopian gambits often ended up serving the university institution wonderfully, in an outcome woefully similar to the institutional trajectory of feminist studies in North America (Messer-Davidow 2002).
In putting disappointment at the center of our image of utopian endurance, I hope to make a broader provocation to left utopian thinking. As someone who came of age during the years of Clintonite neoliberal reaction, I find it easy to relate to the notion of “left melancholy” that has emerged in critical theory over the past generation. Wendy Brown glossed left melancholy as “Benjamin’s unambivalent epithet for the revolutionary hack who is, finally, attached more to a particular political analysis or ideal—even to the failure of that ideal—than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present” (1999:20). Melancholia (as Freud noted) leaves us in a blocked, depressed state, a state of failed mourning where we are unable to move on from our lost, idealized objects of investment. Writing in the late 1990s, Brown suggested that the left, collapsing into a defense of welfare state institutions, had been “become more attached to its impossibility than to its potential fruitfulness” (1999:26).
But in Saint-Denis, impossibility had its own fruitfulness. My argument here converges with more optimistic theoretical engagements with radical failure. Enzo Traverso, for instance, has argued that the left has been organized around “a constellation of defeats that nourished it” (2016:22), and that melancholy has become “the necessary premise for… preparing a new beginning” (23). Such a reparative reading of left history also rejoins work on postcolonial futurity, for instance by Gary Wilder (2015) and David Scott (2004). Wilder excavates the work of Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor in order to explore “futures that were once imagined but never came to be… whose unrealized emancipatory potential may now be recognized and reawakened as durable and vital legacies” (2015:16). Scott, meanwhile, has a stronger sense of the discontinuities that separate us from our past futures; he observes that the political present of a critical project is always oriented towards future that may “suddenly evaporat[e] as a possible horizon of hope and longing” (2004:41).
These ventures in postcolonial archaeology offer models for this book’s ethnography of radical philosophy in Saint-Denis, a site which, as Wilder might put it, still retains overlooked “emancipatory potential.” At least, as we will see, the site may make us wonder if emancipation is still worth thinking about. But the temporal structure of my case diverges from the one envisioned by Wilder. My case has a lost future: the 1960s internationalist fantasy of “the revolution,” which furnished a political horizon to French radicals, and has since been lost. But I really don’t want to revive the “emancipatory potential” of 1960s French radicalism. Its politics were always fatally compromised. What I want to argue instead is that the very loss of 1960s radicalism was unexpectedly productive for utopian culture in Saint-Denis.
For Scott, the “evaporation” of a “possible horizon of hope and longing” could create a radical discontinuity in our politics, marking the incommensurability of past and present. But in my case, I found that the “evaporation” of a future can still leave behind a collective residue. While 1960s revolutionary doctrines had largely vanished from my research site, many people maintained a more nebulous radicalism outside themselves, a utopianism that was not premised on hope or subjective commitment. Rather, their utopianism became a collective ideal, a socialized yet furtive investment. My thought is that by keeping idealism, utopianism and political radicalism collectively available, these subjects were able to acknowledge their own ambivalence and banality without entirely surrendering to political defeat.
In these terms, the argument remains too abstract. The book tries to make you see how this could work in practice.
Let us begin that work here, by seeing how the concept of emancipation still circulated among radical philosophers in Saint-Denis, and then by linking this to the history of struggle in the Paris banlieue.
Marx (1978 :144). ↩
For left critiques of Eastern Bloc socialism, see e.g. Konrád and Szelenyi (1979). Smaller utopian projects, such as the Israeli kibbutzim, not only became key nodes in the production of an increasingly violent settler nationalism but also gradually broke down institutionally. Meanwhile the American counterculture, with its hippie communes, turned out to be quite compatible with the ideological needs of Californian digital capitalism (Barbrook and Cameron 1996). ↩
I say gambits because I do not quite want to say projects. If projects are about solidifying our relation to the future, providing us with structures that render a future realizable, then gambits are about destabilizing the future, making gaps in the normative arrow of time (Rose 2016b). ↩
”L’utopie est un mode de vivre,” l’Humanité, September 28, 2007. https://www.humanite.fr/rene-scherer-lutopie-est-un-mode-de-vivre-378533. ↩
Like the optimism in Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” utopianism is a form of attachment and not a particular “content” (Berlant 2006:21). Weeks, citing Fredric Jameson, notes that “a utopia offers not so much the content of a political alternative as an incitement of political will” (Weeks 2011:207). ↩
One could also cite Halberstam: it’s about making “peace with the possibility that alternatives dwell in the murky waters of a counterintuitive, often impossibly dark and negative realm of critique and refusal” (2011:2). We will come back to Halberstam in the conclusion. ↩