U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bloch Party, Part I

Over the next few weeks, I would like to think a little bit about the legacy of the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. There is mounting interest in Bloch’s work among younger critical theorists; escalating curiosity about the Bloch who proclaims: “Only thinking directed towards changing the world and informing the desire to change it does not confront the future (the unclosed space for new development in front of us) as embarrassment and the past as spell.”

The “utopianism” at the center of Bloch’s project—which once emblematized for many Leftists the most soft-headed and quasi-messianic weaknesses of the Frankfurt School initiative–-seems increasingly attractive. This week, I will provide a brief biographical discussion and review of the broad coordinates of Bloch’s project (at least those that are most interesting to me). I conclude by introducing two recent texts that engage with Bloch’s theoretical contributions, to be considered in greater detail next week—Jose Esteban Munoz’s Cruising Utopia and Kathi Weeks’s The Problem With Work—and think a bit about why our moment seems newly receptive to a certain kind of Blochian “hope.”

Bloch photo

Situating Bloch Historically

Born in 1885 in Ludwigshafen, the son of a Bavarian railroad official, Bloch was attracted early in life to socialist literature and philosophy. In the period before World War I, Bloch moved to Heidelberg, where he struck up a friendship with Georg Lukacs (destined to be contentious and short-lived), met Georg Simmel, and joined the seminar of Max Weber (the sociologist’s appearance before the colloquium in full military uniform in 1914 remained, for the rest of Bloch’s life, a traumatic memory).

Within the hothouse philosophical and aesthetic milieus of postwar Germany, Bloch flourished, publishing his first important work, The Spirit of Utopia, and refining his commitments to artistic expressionism, the Russian Revolution, and the fight against fascism. With the rise of Nazism in 1933, Bloch went into exile: moving to Zurich, Paris, Vienna, Prague, and then the United States.

For Douglas Kellner, it was this experience of homelessness that prompted his reflection in The Principle of Hope: “Once man has comprehended himself and has established his own domain in real democracy, without depersonalization and alienation, something arises in the world which all men have glimpsed in childhood: a place and a state in which no one has yet been. And the name of this something is home.”[1] Bloch returned to Germany in 1948, assuming a professorship in Leipzig. Following the traumas of 1956, Bloch’s status in the GDR became increasingly shaky. His writings went out of print and his teaching privileges were revoked. Bloch’s wife Carola was pushed out of the Party, and lost her teaching job, punishment for insufficient orthodoxy.

By chance, the Blochs were in West Germay as the Berlin Wall went up, and they chose to settle in Tübingen, where an academic appointment had opened up. From 1961 until his death in 1977, Bloch would play an influential if ambiguous role in the German New Left. For Kellner, he was the “Socratic Gadfly of West Germany.” For Klaus Theweleit, an important legatee of Bloch’s interpretation of fascism, Bloch cut a tragic if not somewhat pathetic figure.

At the heart of Bloch’s vexed status was his apparent fidelity to the Communist project. As Jack Zipes noted in 1988, this fidelity to the dreams of 1917 also made Bloch a particularly attractive target of American anticommunists.[2] In 1986, in response to the publication of an English translation of Bloch’s Principle of Hope, Leon Wieseltier sneered:

Bloch’s reputation as an unorthodox Marxist appears to have escaped the fact that he was also an orthodox Communist. He was never a member of the party, but membership would have been redundant. The Principle of Hope is the most monumental apology for the Soviet Union I have ever read. … How can a man consecrate himself completely to the idea of human perfection and collaborate in the justification of millions of human deaths? The answer, of course, is: that’s how. In its time, our time, Bloch’s hope is obscene.

Bloch’s Itineraries

Bloch’s thought is difficult to condense in bite-size form, perhaps unusually so. To properly account for Bloch’s philosophical innovations, one would have to delve quite deeply into his relation with phenomenology and his critical engagement with the thought of Heidegger, as well as his close readings of Marx. This seems like too much work, for the time being.

We can begin to get a sense of Bloch’s project by attending to the form that he often favored—the inventory (as in the chapter of Heritage of Our Times entitled “Inventory of Revolutionary Appearance”). What Bloch seeks, above all, is to assemble is an inventory of utopian images.

Turning to Heritage of Our Times (1935), consider this array of images (collated, without a great deal of thought, from a pass over the text this afternoon): “jazz, revue, scraps, rags, and loosening”; kaleidoscopes; “indistinct fermentation and fantastic crystals”; cyclones; “holes and hollow spaces (opening) up in the previous smooth context”; cracks; debris and dust; whirlpools; rocks and pigeons; floods; the flight from Canaan; the Land of Cockaigne; Bergson’s meditation on the sugar dissolving in a glass of water; rocketships; the “colporteurs”—early modern tract societies who traveled on horseback; the Greek goddess Ananke, personification of destiny, necessity, and fate; Norse dragon Fafnir; dream potions; hieroglyphs; the body’s “twitching, throbbing tubes”; the kabbalistic vision of a fetus with a flame in its head; worms; fairgrounds; Priester John; Joachim of Fiore; “noble robbers”; ghosts; the mountain that opens up when a magical axe is thrown at it in the proper manner; “world-ice theory.”

What is this inventory, exactly? It is hard to say, exactly. It seems to work by means of accumulation, accretion of detail. To select a specific example is, in this context, far less powerful than to assemble a vitalist montage, which might convey the pulsating utopian energies covered over by capitalism’s patina of bourgeois dullness. In a moment of mounting fascism, Bloch wagered, the best bet of those who wished to forestall the book burnings and death camps was to somehow tap into this well of fantasy and desire. It was at this task that the German Left had failed, miserably, prior to the rise of the Nazis. Their mistake has been repeated many many times since.

Bloch Today

In a moment not dissimilar to the early 1930s, within critical theory, a Bloch revival of some sort appears to be underway. The late José Estaban Muñoz (whose passing on December 4, 2013 represented a terrible blow to critical theory and the humanities more generally), turned his attention to Bloch in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009).

“Queerness,” Muñoz wrote, “is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” As such, Bloch might be resituated as a key theorist of an anticipatory queer temporality.

Kathi Weeks’s recent text The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (2011) also engages in a sustained conversation with Bloch, in large part because Bloch’s mapping of utopian politics seems to provide a way to recuperate feminist projects (like “wages for housework”) that have been rejected as “unrealistic” by liberal pragmatists (in favor of incrementalism, “leaning in,” what have you).

The reception of Cruising Utopia and The Problem with Work, while enthusiastic, has also been marked by some of the skepticism with which Walter Benjamin greeted Heritage of Our Times:

The serious objection which I have of this book (if not of its author as well) is that it in absolutely no way corresponds to the conditions in which it appears, but rather takes its place inappropriately, like a great lord, who arriving at the scene of an area devastated by an earthquake can find nothing more urgent to do than to spread out the Persian carpets––which by the way are already somewhat moth-eaten––and to display the somewhat tarnished golden and silver vessels, and the already faded brocade and damask garments which his servants had brought.

If we are to properly cope with the legacy of Bloch, we will have to take seriously the possibility that Benjamin was correct: at very least, to prepare ourselves for the objection that we are merely spreading out our carpets and shiny trinkets over the site of a disaster. My hunch is that we can answer this charge, and that in answering it, we will know better what it is that we think we are doing when we reject radical hopelessness. That will be our work in the next section of this essay.[3]

[1] Douglas Kellner and Harry O’Hara “Utopia and Marxism in Ernst Bloch,” New German Critique, No. 9 (Autumn, 1976), pp. 11-34

[2] Jack Zipes, “Ernst Bloch and the Obscenity of Hope: Introduction to the Special Section on Ernst Bloch” New German Critique, No. 45, Special Issue on Bloch and Heidegger (Autumn, 1988),pp. 3-8.

[3] Benjamin quote is from Anson Rabinbach, “Unclaimed Heritage: Ernst Bloch’s Heritage of Our Times and the Theory of Fascism.” New German Critique, No. 11 (Spring, 1977), 5.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It’s interesting that Benjamin’s critique of Bloch echoes that of Adorno’s critique of Benjamin for not engaging fully with the material conditions of the present. I haven’t read much Bloch–I remember well his essay on the non-synchronous– but I always had the impression that his wager on messianic hope and historical time-lag were quite similar to the later Benjamin of the Artwork essay, the Arcades Project, etc.

    By the way, I am delighted that you will write these posts on Bloch, I specially look forward to your read of Muñoz. I love Cruising Utopia, I found it to be a profoundly moving text and it has amazing close readings. But at the same time I wasn’t completely satisfied with the political discourse offered in the book: on the one hand, queerness becomes too diffuse and abstract for me and on the other hand it becomes fixed once one turns it into a prescriptive idea. There is much debate about this going on in queer studies, as you point out: at the last MLA conference there was a panel dedicated to the universality of queerness, where scholars engaged with queer politics as a potentially universal project.

    • Thanks so much for this comment, and yes, a strange parallel between Benjamin on Bloch and Adorno on Benjamin (hovering in the background here is also Gershom Scholem, who was at the time trying to translate the FS’s messianic Marxism into enthusiasm for a State of Israel). One continues to marvel at F Jameson’s wisdom in assembling the FS debates on aesthetics and politics in the manner that her did: X on Y; Y on X, etc. Why more intellectual histories are not made available in this way, I do not understand. Before I forget, I shoudl say that Anson Rabinbach’s In the Shadow of Catastrophe is great on the tangled relationship of Benjamin, Bloch, and others, vis-a-vis the rise of fascism.

      Munoz’s book is just such a revelation, in so many ways… such a brave and beautiful text. The question of its universality–or of the reach of queerness beyond LBGT experience–is very important… I see a lot of desire, among straight scholars, to use the terminology and ideas of queer theory, and a lot of queer theorists finding this very problematic…

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