Thursday, April 21, 2011

At the Origins of The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism. Personal Recollections (1)

In the course of the academic year 2008, Kelly Gillespie (Anthropology), Julia Hornberger (then at WISER), Eric Worby (School of Social Sciences) and Achille Mbembe (WISER) convened a Working Group on the the theme: Future Tense: Rethinking Radical Politics in a Neo-Liberal Age.

An informal platform, the Working Group operated under the auspices of WISER. Its starting point was that theories of the future and models of radical political change that characterized modernity no longer seemed to provide sufficient understanding of current social upheavals and disruptions. The Working Group brought together about twenty interested scholars from various institutions in the Gauteng. Coming from various disciplinary backgrounds, they nevertheless shared a common interest in the question of radical hope in a world in fragments – a world that, according to the convenors, experienced uncertainty as to its ways of living and being, its politics and its values, its modes of distribution of social goods and of imagining law and the possibility of justice.

The Working Group met several times and its proceedings were concluded with an International Workshop which took place at The Cottages, Johannesburg, from July 2 to 4, 2008.

The call for the Workshop read as follows:

“Ernst Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia, published in 1918 in Germany is a passionate account of the importance of the utopian impulse. Throughout the work, and in his subsequent trilogy The Principle of Hope, Bloch is at pains to discover the origins of longing for a better world – what he calls at times ‘imagination’, at times ‘the ethical self’ – and to validate this longing as one of the most profound and relevant forms of social life.

“No matter how the things that still exist respond: hope makes one partial to precisely the well-fabricated [erdichten] but otherwise unverifiable idea. For we are able to escape ourselves, and our quasi-phenomenal form of existence, insofar as we form intelligible characters. Here the world’s labyrinth and the heart’s paradise become visible discretely; the world in the focus imaginarius, in the more hidden, intelligible part of our subjectivity, begins to appear as hope for the future” (Bloch [1918] 2000, 176).

In reading Bloch’s provocative text today, two possible modes of thinking about ‘the future’ in our contemporary world seem to emerge. Firstly, in the spirit of political philosophy, in a world in which substantive claims to grand liberatory politics have been seriously curtailed, and utopias themselves rendered dangerous and passé, what becomes of critical and substantive political engagement when it is not driven by a clear projection of a desired future? If the content of the utopian is no longer fixable, what kinds of political | critical | theoretical projects are possible in the wake of clarifiable futures? Has the withering of the utopian produced, necessarily, the apathetic? Or does all political engagement not rely – explicitly or implicitly – upon some imagination about the future that is underwritten by an element of the utopian? Is there space to enact a utopian gesture without content, without program, perhaps in the name of the ‘emergent’, perhaps in the name of ‘critique’? By allowing for the unfinished character of the ‘not-yet’, as Bloch does, how do we trust that our thought and action does not assist in a state of repetition and conservation?

Secondly, in ethnographic terms, Bloch’s insistence that the utopian can be found in many social forms of everyday life continues to hold true. Indeed, to argue that utopianism has disappeared would simply be incorrect. As neo-liberalism has compromised the space for a utopian political imagination, it has simultaneously created conditions for the vivid expression of cultures of the future, many of which are clearly built upon utopias, or their dystopic inversion. The surge of pentecostalism, suicide bombing, environmental catastrophism, for example, have in many ways colonized the spirit of utopia, playing it out in eschatological fashion. Other social forms, almost in mockery of the utopian, have produced new constellations of time in which the limited uncertainty of the future becomes massively profitable. Market speculation, trend-spotting, casino capitalism put the future to work in service of a predatory present, disavowing the largesse of politically motivated futures in favor of profitable probability and the management of risk. Such eschatological and ‘occupied’ futures are quite different from the kinds of old futures proposed by modernism. Indeed, modernist futures imagined either in terms of welfarist generation and life cycle, or in terms of coherent utopian/dystopian projections – think Brave New World, Metropolis, Blade Runner – seem no longer to represent contemporary imaginations. Such shifts in the cultures of the future alert us to the contingencies in the making of time and possibility.

These two modes of interpreting the logic of the future – the political philosophical and the ethnographic – are, of course, intertwined. One has only to look at protracted empirical social contradictions such as Israel-Palestine or the workings of late capitalism to realize that any philosophy of optimism is rendered precarious when read against the depressing repetition of such social relations. Yet these two modes seem to provide a way to engage some of the conceptual and material expressions and configurations of the contemporary utopian, or at least contemporary futures. The shifting relationships between past, present and future are critical in deciphering the times in which we live and negotiating the possibility of social transformation.

The Workshop took as its springboard Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia. We wished to read this text against contemporary social orders, either teasing out its meaning in light of current predicaments, or borrowing some of its key terms to reflect on our own critical dilemmas. By choosing a single text as collective starting point, we hoped to lend focus to our intellectual encounter, while leaving as much interpretive scope as possible to participants.

Achille Mbembe