A Desire, Formally Speaking: Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future

Reviewed by Alcena Madeline
Davis Rogan

Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).

Without “the persistence of the dialectic” (Jameson’s phrase), the triumph of postmodern reification would be genuinely universal. It is with no careless hyperbole that Horkheimer ... goes so far as to insist, “The future of humanity depends on the existence of the critical attitude.” -- Carl Freedman (2000: 194)

Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions is an impressive mapping of the Utopia phenomenon in its several manifestations: as literary genre, as social movement, and finally, as symptom of a desire to imagine Utopias. During my first reading of this text, I often noted what I’d come to call Jameson’s “determined return” to formalism. In this exhaustive work, Jameson describes the formal properties of Utopias, explores various models for critically reading Utopias, deploys charts and Greimas rectangles as a means of mapping Utopias, and addresses the formal intersections of Utopias and science fiction. At the outset of chapter VII, however, following many imaginative, formalist readings of Utopias, Jameson jars the reader with a remark upon his method that is both amusing and instructive, noting “Our perversely formalist approach to Utopia as a genre” (85, italics mine).

Chapter VII is as good a place as any to start discussing this work, for here Jameson turns away from the issue of formal properties of literary works to exploring what’s suggested by their content in terms of theorizing the desire called Utopia. These issues -– the problem of formal representation and the investigation of Utopia-as-desire – are the central concerns of Part One (to which I will mainly limit this discussion, Part Two being comprised almost exclusively of previously published work). The formalist approach becomes perverse (in the sense of appearing to be meaninglessly persistent) because, however much Jameson grapples with the meaning of Utopia through available interpretive devices, none of them can give a precise answer. This in turn is because Utopia, as Jameson theorizes it here, is the expression of -– or collective yearning for -– that which cannot be fulfilled; in other words, it is a desire, which means that its representation is always highly contingent, and its realization necessarily impossible.

The problematic nature of the representation of Utopia is a standard feature of literature on the subject, although Jameson will complicate this matter in his own way, as we will shortly see. Louis Marin points out, in his Utopics: Spatial Play (1973; trans. 1984), that the very etymology of “Utopia” inscribes its radical instability, that the Greek ou (no) and topos (place) combine to identify Utopia, traditionally defined as an incredibly “good place,” as at one and the same time necessarily a “no place.” However, Utopia also is, for Marin as well as for Freedman, via science fiction, a space/text in which Horkheimer’s “critical attitude” or Marin’s “critical power” can come powerfully into play, since Utopias typically represent the tension between a fallen now and the “good place” that might come out of a critical recognition of its fallen state. Marin argues that Utopias tend to be useful indices of how un-Utopian our world really is, but that they can cripple our sense of historical awareness by providing us with safe, unreal no-place zones in which to play out our paltry fantasies (his famous example of this phenomenon is Disneyland). Freedman’s response to this problem is Bloch’s principle of hope, of which he finds potential glimpses in science fiction’s novums, or newly fabulated spaces. Jameson describes the critical attitude or critical power inherent in the no place/good place that is Utopia as disruption.

The desire called Utopia, then, is a full-fledged desire with almost all of the standard Lacanian/Freudian connotations. This position is most clearly stated in the chapter “How to Fulfill a Wish,” in which Jameson muses, Is it any longer possible for the wish-fulfilling text to project its wishes in the form of some naïvely satisfied and satisfying realization? Wish-fulfillments are after all by definition never real fulfillments of desire… Even the process of wish-fulfillment includes a kind of reality principle of its own, intent on not making things too easy on itself, accumulating the objections and the reality problems that stand in its way so as the more triumphantly and “realistically” to overcome them. (83)

So it would seem that we are confronted with another always-already frustrated desire, the desire called Utopia. But Jameson insists on steering away from “frustration”: “We need a nobler word than frustration to evoke the dimension of the Utopian desire which remains unsatisfied, and which cannot be felt to have been fulfilled without falling into the world and becoming another degrading act of consumption” (84). The “nobler word,” of course, is disruption. The desire called Utopia has a potential source of gratification, but, as Freud and Lacan have shown, pursuits of this gratification are inevitably debased and impossible. This problem is solved by the return of Jameson’s “perversely formalist approach,” which rescues us from a debased gratification-attempt by removing us at this critical juncture to formalism. Specifically, he follows what he calls Utopia’s “aesthetic paradigm” (84) -– here, its formal inability to resolve the contradictory nature of its project (that is, to produce blueprints of better futures, blueprints that are necessarily unrealizable) -– to the conclusion that this contradictory moment, this moment of disruption, might profitably be “lived within.”

Living within this moment of disruption might serve as the form of gratification of the desire called Utopia. And although it hardly sounds gratifying, to “live,” so to speak, in this moment of irresolvable contradiction, Jameson makes it appear so through his characteristically rewarding and insightful readings of literary and social Utopias, especially Thomas More and Ursula LeGuin, to whom he accords equal importance within their separate historical moments in the archaeology of Utopias. He also provides us with a powerful reading on why living with irresolvable contradiction -– disruption -– may well have praxis potential at this historical juncture.

Disruption: since the desire called Utopia is actually a desire-aesthetic, its tension-moment is therefore not something to be cured or repressed. Rather, its tension-moment defines it and deserves to be cultivated: “Perhaps we need to develop an anxiety about losing the future which is analogous to Orwell’s anxiety about the loss of the past and childhood… it would be a fear that locates the loss of the future and futuricity, of historicity itself, within the existential dimension of time and indeed within ourselves” (233). And the Utopia, or science fiction,* is of course the mode par excellence for the expression and exploration of (the loss of) the future. The idea that we might do well to develop anxiety about the future strikes me, first as profoundly bizarre (Zizek suggests that you “Enjoy Your Symptom!”, but not that you invent new ones), but finally as a profound insight for our times, and brings me back to Jameson’s suggested use of the desire called Utopia as a praxis-instrument:

Utopia thus now better expresses our relationship to a genuinely political future than any current program of action, where we are for the moment only at the stage of massive protests and demonstrations, without any conception of how a globalized transformation might then proceed. But at this same time, Utopia also serves a vital political function today which goes well beyond mere ideological expression or replication. The formal flaw -– how to articulate the Utopian break in such a way that it is transformed into a practical-political transition -– now becomes a rhetorical and political strength -– in that it forces us precisely to concentrate on the break itself: a meditation on the impossible, on the unrealizable in its own right. This is very far from a liberal capitulation to the necessity of capitalism, however; it is quite the opposite, a rattling of the bars and an intense spiritual concentration and preparation for another stage which has not yet arrived. (233)

Back to a profound insight for our times: the proposal that we develop an anxiety -– about the future, no less -– is, at the very least, a refreshing response to the New Age liberal-left boomers and Xers whose self-helpey preoccupation with inner peace badly masks a profound exhaustion with twigging the political. Jameson is not alone in his horror of this brand of “liberal capitulation”: Already in 1989, Lou Reed was sneering urgently, incredulously, killingly, on a track titled “There Is No Time,” “This is no time for inner searchings… This is no time to not know who you are” (Reed). Additionally, the “formal flaw” of the Utopia, which Jameson meticulously maps as its structural-philosophical incapacity to represent the break, the moment of revolution, becomes the occasion for the reader of Utopias to concentrate on how this thing impossible to bring about, and necessary for our survival, the break, might occur.

On the topic of the formal attributes of Utopias, Jameson has much of serious interest to explore here. For example, he demonstrates how Utopias resist thematization, how they are necessarily always the products of the places and times in which they are variously imagined: so that, for instance, “Any positive or substantive terms in which Utopia is thematized will… reflect the class ideology of its deviser (and its public)” (180). Nonetheless, he identifies two features of the modern Utopia which seem necessary for its plausibility: the treatment of capitalism, and the treatment of the family, most recently and saliently manifested as feminist concerns. Thus, “no modern Utopia is plausible which does not address, along with its other inventions, the economic problems caused by industrial capitalism” (197); and “Modern feminism is only the latest Utopian effort to bypass the bourgeois family in the direction of group marriage or single-gender systems” (207) – he goes on to detail the history of modern literature’s, and specifically Utopias’, hate affair with the bourgeois or nuclear family, its near-uniform suspicion of an institution represented as both individually stifling and anti-feminist.

Anyone who has begun to read Jameson’s Archaeologies, even if not yet having (re)visited Part Two (where Jameson’s career-long fascination with science fiction is handily anthologized), can appreciate the difficulty of encompassing its scope in a brief review. Anyone who has not begun to read this book should do so -– it is an invaluable addition to the critical literature on Utopias and science fiction, as well as a more general profound meditation on the problems of form and history in literature.

Reviewed by Alcena Madeline Davis Rogan Gordon College Barnesville, Georgia arogan@gdn.edu


*Of course, Jameson is aware of, and addresses, the critical discourse on the formal properties of Utopias, fantasy, and science fiction – and highlights his indebtedness throughout this discussion to Darko Suvin as a major formalist of the SF genre. However, his present focus, as the subtitle of this book suggests, is on the formal likenesses between Utopias and science fiction.

Works Cited


Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Marin, Louis. Utopics: Spatial Play. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press; London: Macmillan, 1984.

Reed, Lou. “There Is No Time.” New York. Sire Records, 1989.

Zizek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. New York: Routledge, 2001.