U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bloch Party, Part II

Last week, we tried to set up an introduction to the life and thought of Ernst Bloch, concluding with a promise to proceed with a closer look at the influence of Bloch on the intellectual history of the United States. 

In the background, as well, is a recent edited volume on Bloch’s philosophy, The Privatization of Hope (http://www.dukeupress.edu/The-Privatization-of-Hope), an uneven text that is nevertheless worth a look for its contextualization of renewed interest in Bloch vis-à-vis late-developing trends in the field (such as the growth of interest in the German speculative tradition beyond Kant and Hegel, the rise of new ecological and human-animal lines of inquiry, and the new materialisms of Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux, and Catherine Malabou). The Privatization of Hope also features a valuable introduction by Slavoj Zizek which, for all its characteristic upcycling, also presents some novel angles on Bloch’s project and some good zingers.

In particular, we mentioned the work of two scholars—the late Cuban-American literary theorist José Estaban Muñoz [1] and the feminist philosopher Kathi Weeks––whose recent texts bear the imprint of Bloch’s thought (and yet who are not always discussed as Bloch scholars).

Munoz on Bloch

 In Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009), Muñoz sets out to read a series of provocative texts, mostly experimental works by New York artists like Andy Warhol, Le Roi Jones, Jack Smith, and John Giorno. To make sense of these works, to read in them a hopeful strain of queer temporality, Muñoz turns to Bloch, using Bloch “to create an opening in queer thought” and “as a portal to another mode of queer critique that deviates from dominant practices of thought existing within queer critique today.”

These practices of thought are, on the one hand, a kind of strong negativity, anti-relationality, and anti-futurity (perhaps best represented by Leo Bersani, Miranda Joseph, and Lee Edelman); and, on the other, varieties of queer engagement with the neoliberal cult of lighthearted “fun” (“fun” is the theme of this year’s American Studies Association meeting in Los Angeles, the accompanying invitation of which to attendees to present their papers in a “fun” and “quirky” way registers, for some reason, at least for this blogger, as a horrifying and will-sapping “fuck you”).

“The moment in which I write this book,” Muñoz avers, is one in which “the critical imagination is in peril.” “Shouting down utopia” is easy. “Against the critique of the romance of community (the anti-relational turn) and the romance of singularity and negativity,” Muñoz writes, the queer theorist must search again for utopian sparks: “Anti-utopianism in queer studies…more often than not intertwined with anti-relationality, has led many scholars to an impasse wherein they cannot see futurity for the life of them.” Instead, Munoz seeks what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called “a reparative hermeneutics.”

Drawing largely on Bloch’s three-volume magnum opus The Principle of Hope, Muñoz works up Bloch’s distinction between “abstract utopias” and “concrete utopias,” and Bloch’s insistence that the former have value to the degree that they fuel “a critical and potentially transformative political imagination.” To become concrete, that is, an “abstract utopia” must be “related to historically situated struggles, a collectivity that is actualized or potential.”

“Concrete utopias” can seem pie-in-the-sky, or, in Bloch’s favorite image, “daydream-like,” but, from the right perspective, they can be understood as expressing the “hopes of a collective, an emergent group, or even the solitary oddball who is the one who dreams for many.” (I find this gesture to the “solitary oddball” enormously comforting, and also very useful in regard to so many of the renegades and weirdos whom we have a hard time placing historically because of their refusal to get along with others).

At the center of Cruising Utopia is “the idea of hope” conceived of as both a “critical affect” and a “methodology” in its own right:

Bloch offers us a hermeneutic, and from the point of view of political struggles today, such a critical optic is nothing short of necessary in order to combat the force of political pessimism. It is certainly difficult to argue for hope or critical utopianism at a moment when cultural analysis is dominated by an anti-utopianism often functioning as a poor substitute for actual critical intervention…

Muñoz highlights a particularly important passage from Bloch’s 1961 lecture “Can Hope Be Disappointed?” “Not only hope’s affect (with its pendant, fear),” Bloch announced, “but even more so, hope’s methodology (with its pendant, memory) dwells in the region of the not-yet, a place where entrance, and, above all, final content, are marked by an enduring indeterminacy.” From indeterminacy, we branch out to potentiality, anticipation, transformation, rupture.

“A Blochian approach to aesthetic theory,” then, “is invested in describing the anticipatory illumination of art, which can be characterized as the process of identifying certain properties that can be detected in representational practices helping us to see the not-yet-conscious.”

“When Bloch describes the anticipatory illumination of art,” Muñoz notes, “one can understand this illumination as a surplus of both affect and meaning within the aesthetic.”

Quoting Fredric Jameson, Munoz stresses that for Bloch “the present is provincial.” The point, then––and it is this, precisely, that Muñoz sees in a variety of Stonewall Era-queer aesthetic practices–– is “to pull from the past, the no-longer-conscious, described and represented by Bloch today, to push beyond the impasse of the present.”

Weeks on Bloch

In many ways parallel to Muñoz’s attempts to recover a Bloch for queer studies, Kathi Weeks seeks a Bloch who might buttress certain “demands for the impossible” within feminism. In The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), Weeks builds outward upon the passage from The Politics of Hope that she selects as an epigraph: “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.”

Like Muñoz, Weeks has some scores to settle with contemporary politics. She rejects strongly the embrace by many feminist theorists of a Foucauldian refusal to describe affirmative commitments in favor of descriptive critique. Affirmation (laying out what it is that one is for) is avoided, because of the “risks of political proposition.” In its stead, a politics of affect has sometimes been urged. Not infrequently, as Wendy Brown has written (in some texts that are central to Weeks’ critique) this affective politics has clustered around ressentiment and melancholy, Bartleby and Molloy. This is a problem, because ressentiment and melancholy are affects attached to the past, memory, repetition; their dominance in any system might well preclude new thoughts about the possibility of different futures.

As Weeks quotes Brown: politics fueled by ressentiment “becomes deeply invested in its own impotence, even while it seeks to assuage the pain of its powerlessness through its vengeful moralizing, through its wide distribution of suffering, through its reproach to power as such.” Some instantiations of this impotence: visions of change are limited by the preoccupation with the preservation and vindication of existing identities, or the descent of parts of the Left into endless remembrance of its romanticized past, “its now-superseded forms of organizing and modes of political experience.”  These “modes of political being, characterized by the affects of loss and sometimes despair, and by a preoccupation with the past and the injuries left in its wake,” Weeks insists, “can harbor their own mode of anti-utopianism.” In a Nietzschean key: “Certain kinds of preoccupations with and attachments to history can overwhelm capacities for creating different futures.”

The primary lure of Bloch, for Weeks, is that his works provide a Marxist basis upon which we might see a “post-productivist” or “anti-work” politics as a realistic project, rather than a pipe dream. Weeks’s book may well be the most important work of left writing on the idea of labor since Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital. Yet, Weeks’s feminism is often minimized in discussions of The Problem With Work, in much the same way that Braverman’s work was often denuded of its particular genealogical origins (Braverman worked within a dissident Left tradition decidedly marginal in American political history, rejecting as it did both the concessionary nature of postwar pattern bargaining, and the Communist Party and Soviet experiment, captured, apparently, by a Stakhanovite productivity regime every bit as immiserating as any system ever devised by Frederick Taylor, Frank Gilbreth, or Elton Mayo).

This is particularly apparent in the engagement of Jacobin editor Peter Frase with Weeks’s arguments, which seems to consistently bracket the feminist stakes of Weeks’s arguments, and to overlook their epistemological origins in radical political movements of the 1970s like “Wages for Housework.” Consider, for example, the resistance thrown up against Weeks in this recent roundtable with Frase and Dean Baker.[2] Such evidence suggests that the feminist character of Weeks’s brief for “post-work imaginaries” must be emphatically underlined. One way to do that might be to look at the ways that Weeks engages with Bloch.

Like Muñoz, Weeks centers the discussion of utopia against a contemporary deadlock:

In the current political climate, the demands for basic income and shorter hours could of course be dismissed as ‘merely utopian.’ Rather than waste time on impractical and untimely demands, so the argument goes, feminists and others should conserve their meager energies and set their sights on more politically feasible goals. This familiar logic makes it easy to write such demands off as unrealistic, and therefore as potentially dangerous distractions from the necessarily modest and small-scale parameters of political reform. That is, the supposed utopianism of these demands is often considered a fatal flaw.

What Bloch provides is a way out of this malaise. Bloch helps Weeks ask: what if the utopianism of these demands is not a liability but an asset? “What,” in other words, “if we were to respond to the charge of utopianism not with embarrassment or defensive denial but with recognition and affirmation?” What might such a “utopianism without apology” look like?

“Rather than deny the applicability of the appellation ‘utopian’ to escape its pejorative connotations,” Weeks writes, “the challenge is to reconsider utopianism as a distinctive mode of thought and practice, and explore what a utopian demand is and what it can do.” A provisional answer, drawing upon Bloch, might define the “utopian demand” as a “political demand that takes the form not of a narrowly pragmatic reform but of a more substantial transformation of the present configuration of social relations…”

“Approached critically and employed selectively,” Weeks writes, “Bloch’s major work (The Principle of Hope), can serve as a rich resource for an alternative conception and assessment of utopian thought and practice––one that is dedicated to the assertion that it is both reasonable and realistic, not to mention an everyday occurrence, to act as if another world were possible.” Against the “narrowness of reason, reality, and realism as these categories are deployed in anti-utopian thought, in each case as the measures of utopia’s failure,” Bloch provides “an alternative ontology and epistemology”: resources that can be called upon to mount a critique of a force as hegemonic as the collective investment in the Protestant work ethic.

In this sense, Blochian “utopianism” is not some crazy refusal of logic, but rather counts as a “particular brand of realism.”

Conclusion

What might it mean to call “utopianism” a form of “realism,” and how might that gesture lead to a renewal of political thought? This is the question that both Muñoz and Weeks pose, vis-à-vis Bloch, and their extraordinarily rich answers, while still preliminary, suggest that a dialectical utopianism that assumes the future might be different from the present—a utopianism that is mobilized in the name of concrete political projects, and not just another article on Mondragon or close reading of some sci-fi novel––might well be a reasonable impossibility towards which we might strive. The wall over which such a Blochian utopianism would have to vault is contemporary democratic theory—that will be the topic of next week’s essay.

[1] For a moving tribute to Munoz, see: http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/jose-esteban-munoz-1966-2013/

[2] http://inthesetimes.com/article/16550/more_jobs_less_work

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Excellent stuff, Kurt. It seems like your next post will confront the questions that I have about these theories (btw, José Esteban Muñoz is the correct spelling, and he was a performance theorist). I really appreciate Muñoz and Weeks’ desire to go beyond the fascination with negativity in the humanities, but I continue to be confused about how this translates into an actual political vision, or better, a political practice that goes “beyond the impasse of the present,” as Muñoz states.

    This appears to be more of a problem with Muñoz, since he is focusing on the realm of aesthetics (understood in its broader sense, as “the regime of the sensible,” to quote Jacques Rancière). I understand how values such as “indeterminacy,” “potentiality” “anticipation,” “transformation,” and “rupture” operate productively in the aesthetic field and help us grasp the yearnings of artists and cultural producers. But these are values that, like hope, are empty signifiers when it comes to the articulation of the political. Bringing up again the Theodor Adorno/Walter Benjamin divide, as Adorno reminded Benjamin when the latter looked backed on the artistic ruins and popular detritus of the past and at the contemporary filmic shocks of Mickey Mouse as potential sites of social transformation, such sites can be tapped in for another form of hope: the hope of fascism (or other reactionary political forms).

    I am also still trying to understand how hope can be a helpful “hermeneutic,” as Muñoz says (my impression is that this is not Weeks’ argument; it would be interesting to trace their differences). To analyze the epistemology of affects such as hope is one thing, but to actually turn affect into a form of interpretation is a bit strange to me. Perhaps this has to do with the need for countering melancholy/mourning/trauma/negativity, etc. as interpretative frameworks, but in the process of countering them one might argue there is a mirroring effect. I wonder how the historical framework of a Dan Wickberg would read these questions. Or perhaps I am being overly skeptical and too much of a rationalist! Anyhow, I very much look forward to the third Bloch Party (which ironically enough reminds me of Block Party, a British rock group I listened to a lot during a phase of negativity and which gave me profound hope).

  2. Thanks so much for this comment. (My accent omissions were motivated by previous difficulties with the blogging interface, but I will correct this evening).
    The questions you raise re: how is any of this really politically useful is the 64,000 dollar one. My answer will come more fully next week, but I will lay out the argument in brief here: Bloch offers, in Heritage of our Times, a radical answer to a certain deadlock that democratic theory usually effects. In the work of Claude Lefort, for example, “totalitarianism” renders inert the very aesthetic and affective materials that any mass movement needs to secure ideological hegemony. As Anson Rabinbach, almost alone among Bloch scholars, recognizes, this means: fascism must be studied not as a set of plagues to be locked away in a lab somewhere (I am reminded of British obscenity trials in which judges refused to open scandalous books for fear of spiritual pollution), but as a set of dialectical deformations of (what other word is there? )a common communist heritage. What makes this still Marxist is that one ever has to trace this dialectical movement to the particular moments of class struggle: to understand the way, in the 1930s, fascism was articulated towards the frustrations and anxieties of the small shopkeeper and not the working class or “rabble” or cultural clerics.

    Does that strike you as a promising line of inquiry?

    • It does sound interesting, though I am not so sure about grasping fascism as a “deformation” of a common communist heritage, that sounds a bit like the typical lumping together of Soviet, Chinese, Cuban communisms, etc. with Nazism and Italian Fascism as cut from the same totalitarian cloth. I usually have problems with the use of the word deformation to understand historical phenomena, it implicitly establishes that there is an original, pure “form” that is altered, generally for the worse according to a normative ideal founded on that originary form. Anyhow, it is definitely an interesting line of inquiry and I am sure I am not getting half of it. 🙂

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