Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Different Place is Not Necessarily a Better One

In 2008, the JWTC series opened with a Symposium on Ernst Bloch. Here is the first of three pieces from that conversation, written by Adi Ophir.

There is one thing history can teach us about the future with certainty: the future will be different. It will differ not only from the present but also from most of our predictions that supposedly help us prepare for it. The history of the future that teaches us this lesson should be made a mandatory class for future politicians and economists, businessmen and city planners, military officers and ordinary teachers. Only bureaucrats might be exempted, for they are meant to live and act in an eternal present.

Utopia is not about the future. Utopia is not a plan for the future, but an attempt to imagine a different present. It is not by chance that the term 'utopia' designates a different place, not a different time. Marx misunderstood utopia because he placed it in the future and blamed the utopists for failing to secure the path leading there from the present. But as Louis Marin understood well, utopia is first and foremost "jeux d'espaces," and its playfulness is no less important than its spatiality.

Utopian thinking is about imagining the (im)possible. The narrowing of the political imagination by neoliberal ideology, religious fundamentalism or the new orthodoxy of security is directed against the horizons of the possible. There is no such place, they say about utopia, lose no time on it. When everyone sticks to the faith that "what is, is all there is," that time should only be spent on what may come into being, and that one does "the lesser evil" because one has chosen what seems to be the best option out of a limited, pre-given spectrum of alternatives, then the accumulative result is quite predictably unpredictable.

The accumulative effect of the choices people make when they prepare for the future according to the givens of a dominant ideology and the instructions of a triumphant technology is not simply the reproduction of that ideology and of the social order it articulates, or the proliferation of that technology, but their reproduction and proliferation within changing conditions of production. The awareness of these conditions always comes too late, when new conditions already constrain the scope of the possible.

The future cannot teach us anything. Whatever we learn, know, and understand comes from the past. Our directedness toward the future, in fear, hope, desire or anxiety, our more or less playful, more or less professionalized concerns with the future, our attempts to control, avert, or escape it, these modes of intentionality are steeped in knowledge(s) about how things are, how they work, what is the probability for their failure; none of them, however, belongs to the plane of thinking. Thinking moves like Benjamin's angel of history: facing the past and while being pushed by a great wind into the future. The future is revealed to it once it has already arrived. And yet thinking is not stuck like this angel in uni-directional drift. Thinking is always on the move and its directions are not predetermined. While it moves unwillingly to the future it also moves willingly, urgently or playfully, to different places.

The different place is neither a non-place nor necessarily a better one. In the imagined good places of the classic utopian literature, the future has been arrested and meanings have been fixed and enclosed. In the different places where thought lands and spends sometime before moving elsewhere, the future is unpredictable as always and the disclosure of its meaning (as it comes into being) is of the essence. We cannot change the world let alone amend it according to our dreams but we can teach people how to think differently about the present and welcome the arrival of a different one.

Writing utopias or drafting future constitutions or strategic plans for action may be as useful for this purpose as writing genealogies and histories of the present: everything that works to liberate people from their enslavement to a dominant image of the present and to demonstrate its contingent element should be welcome, but only as a necessary condition for opening the present to a fuller view of its hidden or unknown possibilities. Yet this opening only re-defines the battle ground where better possibilities are discerned from bad ones according to what one knows about different places, both real and imaginary, and about past times.

Adi Ophir