Home pageTHE SURRE(GION)ALIST MANIFESTOChapter 2.- The Politics of the Imagination
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201302 from the beginning
-3- In a Bad Place

The highest aspirations of the imagination are called utopia. But utopia is just as much the enemy of the imagination, and is our own Nemesis. We live in the shadow of a terrifying utopia. And we must search the shadows for those other utopias that have been eclipsed.

Civilization has its feet firmly planted in the reality of domination, and its head firmly planted in the utopian imaginary. We must pull up both by their roots. The dominant utopia is the utopia of Progress, of the conquest of nature, of the rationalization of society. It is a utopia of infinite powers of production and infinite desires for consumption. It has taken on a multitude of forms, and inspires both of the systems of Super Power that threaten to destroy the earth: it is essential both to the Socialism of the Rich in the West and the Capitalism of the State in the East.

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Infinite desires for consumption

The Mind of the Megamachine thinks Utopia.

Utopia in this sense is an abstract idea, a closed system, a weapon to use against the unenlightened or evil forces of resistance. Vaclav Havel wrote eloquently about such authoritarian utopianism, which (in rather uncharacteristically anarchistic phrasing) he describes as a reaction against "life’s outrageous chaos and mysterious fecundity." Those who are "tragically oppressed by the terror of nothingness and fear of their own being" are led "compulsively to construct and impose various projects directed toward a rationally ordered common good," thereby "putting an end to all the infuriating uncertainty of history." [1] The result is what he calls, borrowing a term from Beloradsky, the "eschatology of the impersonal," in which a monstrous automatic machine develops that is beyond the control even of its creators. In his view, there is a direct path from the utopia of denial to totalitarianism and concentration camps. As a Czech, he cannot but think, of course, of the progression from the productivist utopia of Marxism-Leninism to the Gulag of Stalinism.

But Havel is perceptive enough to see that the utopianism of the corporate capitalist West leads in a similar historical direction.

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A rationally ordered common good

"Soviet totalitarianism was only an extreme manifestation . . . of a deep-seated problem that also finds expression in advanced Western society" in which there is also "a trend towards impersonal power and rule by mega-machines or Colossi that escape human control." It is the "juggernauts of impersonal power," whether these be "large-scale enterprises or faceless governments," that "represent the greatest threat to our present-day world." [2]

This Utopia of domination is utopia as escapism. This danger is especially real for those utopians who have been frustrated in their efforts to realize their dreams, or who do not even reach the level of praxis. Utopia as escapism remains in the vacuous realm of what Hegel called the Beautiful Soul, of those Dreamers of Moral Perfection who are unable to cope with the ugliness and ambiguity of the world, and therefore cling to a bloodless Ideal.

The utopia of escape has its satisfactions. We believe because belief fulfills needs and satisfies desires. Utopia can be an escape from the imperfections of the world and their reflection within our own selves. It can be an escape from the exigencies of the real, from history and its unavoidable tragedies. It can be an escape from the minutiae of the everyday. It can offer an imaginary compensation for being denied real power or having real efficacy. If we can’t escape from the Bowels of the Beast, we can lose ourselves in the Bowels of the Movement.

In this sense, utopia is neurosis, a defense mechanism, a convulsive reaction against self and world. It is the imaginary domination of reality, rather than the imaginative transformation of reality. It is thought’s revenge against a recalcitrant reality.

Seize the Daydream!

In opposition to the utopianism of domination and escape is a utopianism which is a critique of domination and a vision of a reality beyond it. Ricoeur has said that the "deinstitutionalization of the main human relationships is . . . the kernel of all utopias," and that though it "may be an escape, . . . it is also the arm of critique." He has also noted that "utopia has two alternatives: to be ruled by good rulers—either ascetic or ethical—or to be ruled by no rulers." [3]

The latter possibility is what Marie Louise Berneiri calls, in JOURNEY THROUGH UTOPIA, the libertarian utopia. The libertarian utopians "oppose to the conception of the centralized state, that of a federation of free communities, where the individual can express his [or her] personality without being submitted to the censure of an artificial code, where freedom is not an abstract word, but manifests itself concretely . . . . " [4] Indeed, as in the utopias of Fourier and Morris, the division between work and play dissolves.

For Fourier, the new society is to be founded on a harmony of the passions, which, rather than being repressed, will be expressed in socially complementary ways. This, he says, is not only his own theory, but that of God, the Cosmic Utopian himself:

Passions so much downgraded by philosophers, are the most sublime work of God, the one to which He applied the most profound calculus. Only one kind of harmony can be seen in other branches of movement; but all are united in the mechanics of passions. This is an immense orchestra arranged for five billion instruments or characters which will inhabit our planet—not counting the animals, vegetables, aromas, and minerals all of which enter into the framework of harmony of passions, the harmony with which everything is coordinated. This will be difficult to believe, but it will be demonstrated that God knew how to apply his theory of the harmony of passions the means through which each one of the five billion individuals will be useful for the happiness of all the others. [5]

For the radical utopian tradition, society has always been seen as "a work of art." Nietzsche knew it was music, though for him (like anarchist utopian Godwin) the music is primarily played solo. Fourier imagined it as an ecstatic communal symphony. Creole utopians in the Delta of Dionysius know that it’s jazz.

While Berneri discusses a variety of libertarian utopian conceptions in literature, Ronald Creagh, in his study LABORATOIRES DE L’UTOPIE, has given abundant evidence that the quest for such utopian community has a rich history in the multitude of experiments in libertarian communalism carried out across the North American continent, from the Owenite and Fourierist experiments of the early 19th century to libertarian countercultural communes of the 1960’s. [6]

So it would be a disastrous error to look to utopian thinking only for visions of the future—no matter how libertarian, just, peaceful, ecological, or virtuous in any other way that future may be. For utopianism is above all about the present. The most utopian of utopianisms is also the most practical. It demands Heaven on Earth. It demands Paradise, not hereafter, but Now. Utopianism affirms the presence of the eternal, the sublime, the marvelous—in the present. As Erazim Kohak has phrased it, "Perhaps real success is not that time is transformed in its flux but that, in each moment, value ingresses in it, that each moment humans glimpse the glory of the true, the good, the beautiful, the holy . . . . [7]

Utopianism finds these ultimates, not in some higher realm or some indefinite future, but in the depths of our being and the heights of our experience. Indeed, it finds them even in the false, the evil, the ugly, and the profane. Utopia is present in the all the creative play of energies, in spiritual and material voyages of discovery, and, of course, in everything touched by the transformative imagination. Utopia is already present or it is a fraud.

At it’s deepest surre(gion)al level, utopianism is merely a fully awakened topianism.

Next: Words from Green Lips


[1] Vaclav Havel, OPEN LETTERS: SELECTED PROSE, 1965 – 1990. (New York : Knopf, 1991), p. 301

[2] Quoted in Robert Conquest, REFLECTIONS ON A RAVAGED CENTURY. (New York: Norton, 2000), p. 212. This grasp of the horrors of concentrated power led Havel to a rather radical decentralism that dissolved into little more than nostalgia for a less centralized era as he himself drew closer to the centers of power.

[3] Paul Ricoeur, LECTURES ON IDEOLOGY AND UTOPIA. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 299.

[4] Marie Louise Berneri, JOURNEY THROUGH UTOPIA. (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 8.

[5] Translated from OEUVRES, VOL. X, p. 346, in Nicholas Riasanovsky, THE TEACHING OF CHARLES FOURIER. (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1969), p. 32.


[7] "Erazim Kohak, THE EMBERS AND THE STARS. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 217. 14Arthur Rimbaud, ARTHUR RIMBAUD: COMPLETE WORKS. (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 238.

Exquisite Corpse, 2003 Copyright © 2007 Max Cafard.
This section's articles
  1. -1- The Imagination in Power
    7 February 2007

  2. -2- Does Money Grow on Trees?
    7 February 2007

  3. -3- In a Bad Place
    7 February 2007

  4. -4- Words from Green Lips
    7 February 2007