Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Last Ditch

In 2008, the JWTC series opened with a Symposium on Ernst Bloch. Here, Rafael Sánchez and Patricia Spyer write the third and last peice from that conversation.

When all has been said, talk of utopia and of the utopian impulse quite often alludes to the ability humans have - under certain circumstances - of imagining the world whole, that is, as a place where all the frustrations, incompletion and longings of the present will finally be overcome through the realization of some fully present, seamlessly organic community.

As such, the imagination of utopia has been a formidable source of energy from which people have consistently drawn in their attempts to subvert ongoing circumstances by referring these to some alternative condition. On analysis, this alternative condition often turns out to be these circumstances’ simple, point-by-point negation - happy islands, lands overflowing with rivers of milk and honey, holy grails, or communist wonderlands where people play music or read poetry at night after having touched on the full specter of human occupations throughout the day. To put it in Bloch’s terms, what else are the no-places of utopia but proverbial “figures in the carpet,” sites of intelligibility where, transcending “our quasiphenomenal form of existence,” the “well-fabricated but otherwise unverifiable idea” finds realization with all that this entails of the coming into being of “intelligible characters” to which we give “form” in the hope of once-and-for-all eluding our contingent, ever so incomplete predicaments?

It is precisely this sense of “utopia” understood as the ability to “imagine the world whole” that is nowadays in crisis. It is, so to speak, placed under erasure by a host of globalizing circumstances. In this respect, the very fact that the word utopia has all but disappeared from our vocabularies, increasingly replaced by terms such as “fantasy,” as in “fantasy of wholeness,” is symptomatic of such a crisis.

While the term utopia alludes to the imagination as an active force, capable in its very protean virtuality of giving shape to a world by bringing it into being, the term “fantasy” is not at all pregnant with such demiurgic possibilities. Instead, fantasy, as it is often understood, alludes to a reactive formation, a somewhat gaseous mirage taking shape in the gap separating the subject from an ungraspable, unsymbolizable “real.” In sum, not a good thing at all as witnessed by the prescription to “traverse the (social) fantasy” uttered insistently nowadays in some quarters. Come to think of it the same probably may be said of other fashionable expressions such as “point de caption,” “empty signifiers,” and the like.

Amounting to so many failures of the imagination, what seems to be implied by these and other related expressions is something like the last ditch, ultimately doomed attempt to “retroactively” contain the irrepressible dispersal of things by presenting them with some projecting mirror where such things may momentarily catch their fleeting reflection, thus temporarily achieving wholeness. Nothing, in any case, like the generous impulse inherent in a “spirit of utopia” that, whatever else one may say of it, aspires in its intellectual reach and imaginative, world-making capabilities to something considerably more expansive and supple than just ‘reflecting’ or ‘tying up’ the flow of reality.

What if, instead of insisting on such fraught attempts to conjure an otherwise admittedly “impossible society,” one just went ahead and “philosophically” assumed the order/disorder of things in all of their sheer metonymic, horizontal sliding? Minimally, this would amount to taking stock of one’s own lateral exposure to a “being with” where, to put it in Sánchez’s terms, the “touch among stones, stars, generals, and multicolored panties” or, in Spyer’s formulation, the “possession in the midst of war of a Christian subject by a Muslim enemy-neighbor,” discloses one’s own irremediable incompleteness within a horizontal drift that does not easily lend itself to be apprehended by any overarching figure or totality.

Perhaps in the wake of such a “philosophical” move, one would then be able to recover the actual “ethnographic” sites, the various locales where the possibility of “enacting a utopian gesture without content, without program, perhaps in the name of the ‘emergent’, perhaps in the name of ‘critique’” opens up. Indeed, in order for it to come about, any such “philosophical” possibility must necessarily connect to, and rely on, those “ethnographic” situations and locales where, in whatever form, “the “utopian” is “already found in many social forms of everyday life.”

As a “force that cannot be ignored,” in Spyer’s own work it is a “Muslim spirit” overtaking her Christian neighbor through the “inhabitation of possession” that harbors “possibilities for the cohabitation or future living together in the postwar Indonesian city of Ambon of both Christians and Muslims.” In Sánchez’s writings, such a utopian possibility emerges here and there for example when, in the wake of the serial televisual possession by a potentially infinite series of mediatized spirits, from Vikings and Barbarians, to Egyptian pharaohs, heroes from the Venezuelan Wars of Independence and Mexican movie stars, the mediums wax lyrical about the comraderie and pleasure of sharing a few tequilas in some cool, faraway Mexican bar with that fabled actor from the golden age of Mexican cinema, Pedro Almendáriz himself. As one of these mediums once put it, “you know, for us poor, this is one way in which we get to travel.”

How, precisely, the “philosophical” and the “ethnographic” necessarily come together in any current realization of the utopian impulse, so that, for example, beyond the overarching designs of the past, any utopian re-figuration of current predicaments is inextricably linked to the situations, locales, and social forms where any such possibility already insinuates itself? What is the precise network within which “the utopian” in the past subsisted entangled with notions of “the city,” “sovereignty,” “subjectivity,” and the “theologico-political” which, if not rendered obsolete, nowadays at least seem seriously compromised?

Such examination is necessary if, in its redemptive, political possibilities, “the utopian” is to be at all resurrected in terms that are relevant to our current predicament.

Rafael Sánchez (New York University) and Patricia Spyer (University of Leiden)