Utopia and Difference

Vorbemerkung der Redaktion zum Gespräch mit Martin Jay
Das folgende Gespräch mit Martin Jay wurde in der ZkT 30/31 (2010) in einer deutschen Übersetzung publiziert. Wir veröffentlichen hier die englische Originalversion. Dennis Johannßen führte das Gespräch mit Jay am 18. Mai 2009 in Berkeley (USA).
Die Redaktion

An interview with Martin Jay
Three years ago you started a program called the »Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory« at the University of California, Berkeley. The Frankfurt Institute of Social Research has been founded over 80 years ago. What were the major motivations for starting this program?

Martin Jay: It was partly, to be perfectly straightforward with you, Judith Butler, who was very interested for the first time in her career in Frankfurt School work. She was largely trained in French thought and had worked on a number of other theorists in the German tradition, from Hegel on, but had never really read Adorno or Benjamin very seriously until a few years ago. It was really on her initiative and in conversations with Wendy Brown and others that we developed the »Critical Theory Designated Emphasis.«

I have often given seminars over the years and had contacts with students who worked in critical theory, but I never myself wanted to generate a really coherent program, and so I have to simply in a straightforward way credit Judith with the initiative.

Once we started, we discovered that there was conversation going on among faculty, and that included graduate students, and it showed us that it was a tradition that had outlived its initial moment of reception, and its moment of—we might say—assimilation, and still had enough to stimulate a new generation of students. We are quite pleased with the way it has been received in the three years that it has been going.

What would you consider to be this »truth content,« which is still stimulating and valuable to work on?

Jay: It is less a content than a style, a sensibility, and to cite the title of Marcuse’s »Festschrift«, a spirit, which emphasizes open-endedness, and non-dogmatic critique, without necessarily feeling that you have to fall back on canonical texts or have an immediate political outcome, be connected to a political movement, or choose sides in a theoretical war. The hope is to train students to be flexible and capable of bringing together in a fruitful way the best of many different traditions. So there is no substantive core. We are not trying to inculcate the dogma of any school in a strong sense. I think that the time for that is past. But we do hope to give them knowledge of the Critical Theory tradition, and how it has been developed in different ways and contexts over the years.

The first generation of the Frankfurt School was influenced significantly by historical materialism and the Marxian critique of political economy. To what extent are these aspects of critical theory important today?

Jay: It certainly was part of the larger program. Friedrich Pollock and Henryk Grossmann in the 1920s followed a fairly traditional historical-materialist approach, emphasizing the importance of the economy. Pollock’s later notion of State Capitalism acknowledged that Marxist expectations of the automatic sharpening of contradictions in the system (for example, over-production or the falling-rate of profit producing a collapse) were likely not going to happen. Therefore the center of gravity of the Frankfurt School work, as we all know, shifted to culture, art, and to what traditional Marxists would have called »superstructural issues.« The pendulum may have of course swung too far in that direction, as the enduring stability of the system, which the state capitalist analysis assumed, has been shown to be a little bit less firm than was once assumed. It is ironic that we are in the middle now of the greatest crisis that capitalism has experienced since the Great Depression, but it has not really generated a very radical political economic response, at least not yet. Nor has it generated a class struggle of any magnitude, in which people who are disadvantaged by capitalism have somehow achieved solidarity, leading to collective action as a way to resolve our problems. So it is a very peculiar moment, in which a crisis is occurring without those responses.

The Frankfurt School as a Marxist formation was never satisfied with culture alone, and nor with finding answers on the level of thought, art practice, or spiritual transformation. But after the initial materialist moment, it didn’t advance on all fronts with the same momentum. As a result there was what might be called not only a political deficit, but also an economic deficit in critical theory, in which its major exponents, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Fromm, Adorno, Loewenthal, and Benjamin, were not really serious students of the economy. To that extent I would say that if you look at the long-term picture, they never produced a significant contribution to the development of Marxist economics. And so today one wouldn’t go to their work to try to make sense of the world economic crisis, although to whom else one would go is not easy to say either. In other words, Marxist economic theory is not giving us much help these days.

And yet the theoretical framework of historical and dialectical materialism still seems to be important for the »spirit« of critical theory, although we do not have a thorough critical analysis of todays political-economic circumstances. Maybe these circumstances seems to be overwhelming and to difficult to handle in the way Marx tried to analyze capitalism. How did the first generation of critical theory relate to Lukács’ controversial position, that the method remains true even if society does not develop in the way Marx predicted. Even when turning to culture, art, and consciousness, the first generation of the Frankfurt School was always eager to understand how society could develop in a different way, and that, for example, a crisis—on the level of consciousness—contains the possibility of a different world. How strong was the utopian momentum in the first generation of Critical Theory, especially in relation to historical materialism? Can we consider the utopian moment in critical theory to have come to a close, lets say, by the time of the second or third generation?

Jay: Let me address the issue of method first: Certainly the famous essay in History and Class Consciousness, in which Lukács argued that the correct method survives all of its disconfirmations in terms of its understanding of the world as it is, seems more than a bit naive. If a method doesn’t produce results that help us to understand the world, then the method has to be reconceptualized. It is insufficient if it does not pass test after test after test. Second, the Frankfurt School gave up the fetish of method itself. It was consistently interested in asking certain kinds of questions, but it introduced so many variables and was so eclectic in its approach, that by the time you get to the elements of antisemitism analysis in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, instead of a coherent whole, there is a paratactic juxtaposition of different, non-hierarchically arranged explanations. So there is no real method there, except perhaps Benjamin’s method »profane illuminations,« where you bring things together and hope that they will produce some sort of insight. It is a very open-ended method, sometimes micrological, sometimes totalistic, sometimes using immanent critique, sometimes transcendent critique. It depends on the circumstances. Of course different figures in the School, for example Adorno or Marcuse, had very different approaches to things. There was never a uniform method in the way Lukács thought that historical materialism could be a single method.

Having said that, it should be admitted that the sensibility of classical critical theory stubbornly included a belief in the necessity to think in utopian terms; to think in maximalist terms, to think in unreal, imaginary, and basically future-oriented terms, in the long run rather than the short run. Its exponents were never satisfied with little baby-steps towards reform, and they were not satisfied with permanent resignation, even if at the moment they were also not hopeful of finding the means to realize utopia.

Utopia had many functions for them. One was to put as much pressure as possible on the system and not to compromise for the sake of stability, order, or gradual progress towards certain ends, but rather to keep the pressure on, to say: despite everything, the world can be radically improved. And although it is a long shot and not going to happen tomorrow, indeed may never happen, it is worth at least maintaining the hope.

The second value of Utopia is that if you think in a utopian way, you are performing a tacit critique of the inadequacies of the society. You are avoiding complacency about society by saying: look, maybe there is a world in which the domination of nature does end, and there is a world in which human beings can live in peace rather than war, there is a world in which justice can in fact be more closely approximated, a world in which the body is not the body in pain but the body of pleasure, and although all these things are highly unlikely and have certainly have not been achieved in any serious way in the past, the future is different from the past. So why not at least dream in these terms?

It is also valuable to preserve and learn from all the various expressions of hope and Utopia in the past, rather than simply dismiss them as failed projects. It is better to see in them—despite their failure—protests, hopes and expectations that might be salvaged, refunctioned, put in a new constellation with other such hopes, and thus redeemed. It is a delicate mixture of realism—not trying to get immediate satisfaction in instrumental praxis—and an almost willful naïveté about what might happen, despite everything, in the future.

The latter was always best expressed, it seems to me, by Adorno’s insistence that childhood was a point of resistance to the »bad adulthood« that we all fall into, that the memories of childhood bliss or childhood innocence are memories that are worth cultivating, even though they are never going to be fully restored. His own childhood seems to have been a very charmed and magical one, so he always fell back on it as a point of utopian reference, as did Benjamin as well. It served both of them as a reminder that there are alternatives to all the compromises of being grown up.

Considering what Amorbach meant to Adorno, we can problematize the way in which the past is related to the future. On the one hand, there is the notion of anamnesis: the resurrection or restoration of a past moment, which was already fulfilled. Bloch, by contrast, introduced the notion of anagnoresis, which describes a past that holds only certain traces, that pertain to the future. The desired future did not exist in the past and can therefore still be different. What was the political context that gave rise to this distinction? Can a fulfilled past be a political burden?

Jay: If there is only nostalgia and a sense of decline, if it is only »Verfallsgeschichte,« you have basically a decadent attitude in which those of us who come later always are mourning a loss that can never be made up. Politically, this is a recipe for resignation and quietude. A politics that just fed on nostalgia, which is unrealistic, is a politics of people who see themselves being swept away by history, and who mourn the loss of the standards and pleasures of the past. Usually it is an elitist attitude towards new groups that are asserting themselves, and who are now seen as vulgarizing what was once noble. I have always distrusted this kind of politics of nostalgia.

The Blochian formulation is more interesting, because he talks about not remembering a fulfilled moment, but rather a moment that we might call »prefigural anticipation,« a moment in which there are »Spuren« or traces of a future which is »noch-nicht,« not yet. Whether or not it ever will be, whether or not it ever can be, we do not know. There is a gamble, there is a risk, there is a sense of naïve hope, but at least we are not sure that it cannot be either. It is always at least possible that because one has imagined it, it can be realized. And we do know that without imagination, without the willingness to risk, humanity would get nowhere. So you might as well at least think great and impossible thoughts and maybe something good come comes out of that.

Now we are also, of course, more aware than we were at a certain point in human history of the dangers in attempting to realize Utopias. Attempting to imagine a radical future that will be totally different sometimes, alas, leads to a future that will be more dystopian than utopian. I am very aware of the threat of Utopia leading to Dystopia. I have a quarrel with my friend Russell Jacoby over whether or not to include the Nazis for example in the category of utopians. Jacoby in several of his books said that the Nazis were in no way utopians. But one might argue that there was certainly among idealistic Nazis a kind of fantasy of a world that would be purer, more noble, and more heroic, and would get rid of what they saw as the disasters of a certain kind of modernization. We know of course what ensued from that version of Utopia. To that extent—and one could maybe make a similar case for the Soviet Union—the twentieth century was an object lesson in the dangers of certain kind of utopianism.

I’m interested in the dangers of Utopia you mentioned. In their famous radio discussion in 1964, Adorno and Bloch agreed on the general anachronicity of the notion of Utopia as well as on the fact, that the defamation in the sense of »That is utopian!« is as old as Utopia itself. Do we have to go a step further after the experiences of the 20th century and say, Utopia is dangerous?

Jay: I do not think there is much energy these days for trying to realize Utopias. I think we are now much more anxious about regaining a certain relatively unhappy, but not absolutely unhappy equilibrium, that was lost with the recent crisis. We are now more in a defensive mode, rather than offensive, despite the fact that every crisis is an opportunity, as Rahm Emanuel—one of Barack Obama’s leading advisers—recently said. His point is that perhaps they can achieve important changes, in health care, etc., because of the old solutions having failed. But we still are in the process of dealing with the crisis rather that trying to create those new opportunities. On a world-wide level, it is so complex and so interconnected, and so out of anybody’s control, that the idea of having a blueprint or even a strong program, that could be followed by everybody and lead to justice or prosperity is so difficult to imagine that I think we are not at the point where utopian solutions seem very likely.

The one area where I think we are probably being forced to think more radically—whether or not we call it utopian—concerns the imperative to avoid disasters on the ecological and environmental front, where the global warming threat is now no longer easily contested. As a result, there has been a lot of pressure to create new technologies and to deal with nuclear and other technological waste. It is possible that there will be a real break-through in this area, not in the sense that we will realize a Utopia, but at least try to address some of the problems caused by the domination of nature

Especially the fist generation of Critical Theory was reluctant to accept or even hostile to the idea of a positive Utopia or »blue print« of the future. That is also visible in their critique of method and systematic thought. They were aware of the fact that as soon as you presents a positive sketch, you can never control or predict how it will be used, and they had enough experience to see that utopian ideas are powerful instruments in the hands of malevolent political forces. And still they did not give up the idea, that a completely different society is possible. Can we say that while they strictly refused positive Utopia, they adhered to a negative Utopia in the sense of a determinate negation of the status quo—the mere formal possibility of another world, regardless of the way it might actually look?

Jay: The simple »what is, is bad—what will be, is better or even perfect« does not do justice to the complexities of our present situation. That is to say, the world as is, with all its incredible achievements and all its horrors contains an enormous amount that is worth retaining, nurturing and preserving, which we would abandon at our peril. The idea of simply »what is, is bad—what will be, is utopian-better« seems to be a flawed way to make sense of the ways of improving a world which is by no means so terrible that we have to get rid of it. The first generation of the Frankfurt School was operating at a moment in European history—world history maybe—when it looked as if things were going in such a negative direction with fascism’s potential for victory and the alleged transformation of one-dimensional society of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, that they were almost willing to gamble on that radical »Gestalt-«switch, in which radical surgery was justifiable.

Today I think we are not so quick to do that. We are not so cavalier about what has been achieved, partly because just in the United States the past eight years during the Bush administration, we became more aware of what could in fact be eroded in terms of civil liberties, in terms of values that we took for granted. It does not look so easy just to dismiss everything that has been achieved as if it were »false enlightenment« or »destructive modernization« or »rationalization« or »globalization.« It is simply unjust to do that. We recognized that, as Habermas and other have always pointed out, there is an aspect of the enlightenment project, even of modernization broadly speaking, which is worth salvaging. In other words, one has to discriminate rather than have a simple »what we have is so terrible, all we need is something different« position. And we certainly know that attempts to create something radically better by sweeping away the past—Cambodia is a good example—can produce death, destruction, and misery. So most progressive-minded people are not happy with that way of conceptualizing the tasks that exist.

According to these tasks, one could say that—to use a formulation from your essay on Fin-de-siècle socialism (1988)—there is sufficient work to be done without measuring all our modest successes against a notion of a fully redeemed society. We talked about the preeminent dangers of such measuring. But at the same time one could imagine that giving up the idea of redemption—the urge to realize a complete qualitative change of the world—could create a fertile ground for new positive Utopias. Is the negative-utopian consciousness, the conviction that the world could be completely different, also a precaution against positive Utopia?

Jay: There is always the issue of transition and how you realize it. Even if you have a good idea, the implementation is always the most difficult thing. There have been, broadly speaking, two approaches: One, what one would might call the »exit-and-enclave approach,« where you leave behind the corrupt society, and find a place that is uninhabited, find an island, or maybe a different time period, and create from scratch a new community, in which Utopia can be realized with the great legislator or some document that tells you what to do. A number of utopian experiments tried to do that at the time when people could still escape, what is much more difficult now. The second approach was to argue that only if you change the entire world and the System (with a capital »S«)—which is now even more integrated, because of globalization—only then could Utopia really be possible. Otherwise, the weight of the larger system would simply destroy all those little experiments and the enclaves would be swallowed up, and they would only have a very short life—the way, say, Shaker Communities or Robert Owens’ New Harmony or Brook Farm or any of the great attempts of the 19th century—lasted only a very, very short time. The latter is the one that the Frankfurt School by and large favored, stressing the need to change the totality, rather than working to reform the system in a piecemeal way. The system as a whole was an administered world, and therefore the whole world had to be radically changed. But of course the mechanism to bring it about they never even came close to describing.

And with the relative discrediting of the idea of revolution—which has been so badly abused—and the lack of any revolutionary agent or any class or any political movement, vanguard or otherwise, that seems to promise systemic change, it is very difficult to know what it really adds up to. One could argue in the abstract that it is important to have radically different ideas, to think about alternatives. And there are people in the world of technology, in the world of social policy, who are doing that. Even if only one out of a hundred can be in fact realized, it would be justified. I am certainly not in favor of snuffing out fantasy or imagination or utopian fabulation about an alternative world. We do that in literature, we do that all the time in a variety of different ways, it is just that I do not have any faith that the overly daunting complex problems that we now face can be dealt with on that level at the moment; that they have to be dealt with instead in a more half-hearted but hopefully effective way to restore the momentum of the system in a somewhat better direction. I am more fearful now of things going in a much more radically worse direction. Maybe the Great Recession is now bottoming out, but an awful lot of people around the world are losing their jobs, an awful lot of people losing their houses, an awful lot of people do not have health insurance, an awful lot of people around the word are getting increasingly desperate. It is not an attractive moment, and one hopes that the leadership that we now have—in Washington in particular—is capable of dealing with it. Because if it is not, there is no one on the horizon who is going to produce anything much better.

On the one hand, our task is to prevent things from becoming worse and worse. On the other, we see the incredible, constantly increasing productivity and a state of the means of production, that provide the possibility of arranging everything in a much more just and reasonable manner. The latter aspect was very important for Marcuse, who, forty years ago, wrote his Essay on Liberation (1969). At that time you did research for your book Dialectical Imagnination (1973) in Frankfurt, Löwenthal was here at Berkeley, and Marcuse was in Paris. What was your experience of this intellectual constellation?

Jay: It was a very rapidly moving moment. One of the things anybody who lived through the 1960s will tell you is that the rate of change was very fast. 1968 in particular was a whirlwind, but during the whole period from about 1963—the Kennedy assassination—until the invasion of Cambodia which was also the high point of the anti-war movement in the United States, there was a sense of the world rapidly changing on many different fronts—political, cultural, sexual—everything was changing. And there was a sense that some were very positive changes, at least through the so-called »Summer of Love« in 1967, broadly speaking. Then things began to turn in a grim direction in 1968—the failure of the events in Paris, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the debacle of the American Democratic Party convention in August in Chicago—all these were very, very daunting events. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in the United States really took the wind out of the left and it became very clear that things were getting ugly. By late 1969, the euphoria of Woodstock was dampened and the harsh reality of Altamont replaced it as a marker of the counter-culture’s turning sour. Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation seemed very quickly outdated. And instead momentum began building for a swerve to the right, which culminated in the Reagan and Thatcher Eighties. The moment—if you want to call it a glimpse of redemption, you can, but let’s say the moment for radical change—was brief and did not last very long. And as the war continued, and as the cities burned, and the government cracked down in various ways, there was a new realism and even pessimism that began to destroy whatever moment of euphoria there was from the period from 1964-67. The changes were very, very quick. The Frankfurt School itself of course was divided. Marcuse was still, by and large, holding on to the revolutionary hopes that he had always harbored. Adorno and Horkheimer were less optimistic from the beginning, with Horkheimer even moving towards the middle of the political spectrum. Löwenthal was more circumspect, a good friend of Marcuse’s, but not very active politically. And then, of course, Habermas, with his provocative remark about »left fascism,« was seen as betraying the student movement. There were many changes in the Frankfurt School’s own relationship to developments on the left and in the student movement, which of course occurred in France with the Althusserians as well. There was a lot of unease as practice began to outstrip the philosophical, theoretical inspiration that might have at one point helped to get it started.

The historical events overran the theoretical approaches…

Jay: …and also in a negative direction. There was a sense that things were going sour, that all of the hopes became harder to sustain as the leadership within the left showed itself to be not to be up to the task. The movement failed to generate a broad enough coalition to include groups in the society that were also to some extent victimized, but who did not make common cause with hippies, civil rights agitators, or the champions of women’s liberation—gay liberation wasn’t even on the horizon yet—so there was a lot of fragmentation. In the famous rainbow flag the colors began to split up and go in different directions. And with Nixon’s victory, the right regrouped, so that an entire generation represented by Kohl, Thatcher, Nixon, Reagan, all the way up through the second Bush could understand itself as an explicit counter-revolution against the excesses of the Sixties. Now luckily the cultural war seemed to be pretty much ended, and Obama represents a different generation. He is too young to carry with him the wounds of those years. So I think we are past the moment of backlash against the Sixties, which prevented a lot of things from occurring.

That resonates in what Angela Davis said after the elections. She said that, considering the power of the euphoria, we have to be carefully aware of the fact that the expectations of the US-citizens have simply been lowered a lot over the last forty years. But once again in theoretical terms: There seems to be an almost inevitable truth in the argument that grounded Marcuse’s work at least since Eros and Civilization (1955), and which maybe reached its high point in his Berlin lecture on the End of Utopia in 1967, where he talked about an end of Utopia by means of its realization. One of his basic points was, that we actually have the objective means at hand to realize what he called, at that point with a very specific understanding, a socialist society. And at the same time, as you mentioned, these utopian hopes got sublimated, for instance, in the works of Adorno, who considers art to be the »place holder« of Utopia. Why is Marcuse’s argument so rarely given today?

Jay: I think there is a great deal of skepticism about the ways in which these new technologies produce unexpected negative consequences, »blow-back,« or however you want to call it. It looked as if certain technologies solve problems, and to some extent they perhaps did, but they also then created new ones. As a result, there is less of a faith that technology has really reached a point where it can simply be given a slight social or cultural twist, and then produce abundance, equality, or—and this was even a greater fantasy—a society without toil or labor. Marcuse hoped that that would be the case, that we would have basically robots doing all the nasty work, and we would than be able to life in the utopia of »Luxe, Calme et Volupté,« in the utopia of sensual pleasure and the liberated body. That seemed at one point to be on the horizon, but even though the work week is shorter and so forth, now people have to struggle just to make ends meet with two jobs, and unemployment is a constant threat. It is very hard to have faith in technological solutions to scarcity. Do we go to nuclear energy? Well, we know the problems that that causes. Do we use coal? We see the problems… Do we use ethanol instead of gasoline? There are many difficulties with ethanol. New pharmaceuticals, we thought these would solve problems with health, but they often have side effects, or they are always too expensive. Then of course we have all these new challenges, like Aids, which when Marcuse was writing was not yet on the horizon. And now a quarter of Africa, or at least large parts of it, is infected with Aids. There is a sense that no matter which technologies we have that might help solve certain problems, Technology with a capital »T« is not enough. For example, when you look at global warming, it is, alas, quite possible that we do not have a technology to reverse it. Maybe we can slow it down, or find ways to deal with some of the consequences, but it looks now as if—and its not really a question of finding the right political will—we may not have the technology to deal with it. If that is the case, instead of a Utopia things could look really ugly in a hundred years.

Perhaps we have to distinguish certain levels of the technological development and pay more attention to how we use it for the organization of production. Jean Ziegler, who was the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food from 2000 to 2008, calculated in 2003 that the amount of food produced every year is sufficient for 12 billion people. This number is certainly an interpretation of official reports, but even if it is only approximately correct, it would be outrageous.

Jay: It has to do with distribution, with getting the food to the people in places where they need it. And also which kind of food we grow. It’s clear that a lot of food is not really very healthy, and is more expensive. These are great challenges. But take for example the issue of technological waste. I mentioned nuclear waste earlier, but look at all the waste being produced by computers, and all these new technologies. We do not know what to do with it. We cannot figure out where to put it or easily recycle parts. So we are ending up with this unbelievable waste problem, which—as far as I can tell—shows no sign of being seriously addressed. Take a look at the spread of nuclear weapons. This was certainly a technological break-through, and yet the paper today had a disturbing story about how Pakistan, despite all of its troubles, is increasing its nuclear arsenal. Who might they use it against? What happens if it’s stolen? So these are ways in which technology is a double-edged sword. Maybe a few more mouths can be fed than it was the case in the 19th century and earlier, but there are also weapons of mass destruction possibilities, which are very real. I am not a technological determinist in either direction, I do not think that technology is an evil, but I also do not think that technology necessarily produces positive effects.

In »To the Planetarium« Walter Benjamin formulated perhaps one of the most important aspects of technological Utopia by drawing an analogy with pedagogy. Just as between parents and children, the task of relating technology and humanity is not the domination of the one or the other, but that of the relation itself. We have to find a way to use technology as an organ of organization, rather than instrumentalizing it to reach specific goals. This seems very difficult in view of the foundation on which the system rests. There are definitely a lot of things we can come up with, solutions to reintegrate people who fall out of the system, or particular solution for particular problems. But others—like the problem of nuclear waste you mentioned—we cannot solve that easily. We cannot even look as far into the past as we would have to look into the future in order to find a safe location for it. It is difficult to refuse, that the predominating socio-economic system generates these kind of fundamental problems over and over again in different forms. Maybe the claim for a society that is based on truly enlightened thought is not so much of a maximalist claim in the end?

Jay: I am a pluralist. I think there is no single version of redemption or single version of a better society. What we need is openness to difference and openness to experiment, and openness to local rather than global, overly authoritarian, dogmatic solutions. There will be more or less successful responses to challenges, and the integration of the world is real, and these will have reverberations and what one might call exfoliating effects. But the single Utopia, the single notion of a way of life, or a method, or a technology is more frightening than it is a source of hope. I would still hold on to the phrase that you mentioned before, that of having tasks that are worth taking seriously rather than seeking something as maximalist as redemption.

Was there a switch of perspective in your own writings? The book you wrote on experience (Songs of Experience, Berkeley 2004) seems to be closer to the question of Utopia than your recent project On Lying in Politics?

Jay: No, The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics—I just finished the manuscript—is an exercise in which very different kinds of question are being asked. To some extent, it is a critique of a moralist politics, which believes that we should have absolute truth-telling in the political realm. I try to argue that mendacity has some positive implications in politics, depending on the consequences and the power relations of those involved. Following some of Arendt’s arguments, I connect it to imagination and resistance to the status quo, as well as the aesthetic or symbolic dimension of the political.

You said, the book is in print. Do you already have a new project in mind?

Jay: I am working on the issues of nominalism and photography. I have an essay coming out on that subject. And in a year from now I will be in the American Academy in Berlin working on this theme, or perhaps more broadly the nominalist impulse in modern thought in general.

Who are your main interlocutors in this new project?

Jay: Nominalism goes back to William of Ockham and in the 20th century writers like Hans Blumenberg have said interesting things about it. I have long been interested in theories of photography, which goes back to the work I did on visuality in the 1980’s.

To come back to Utopia, maybe with a résumé. Do you think we can still work with the notion of Utopia or do we have to find other ways of talking about »prefigural anticipation?«

Jay: I would not preclude anything. First of all, I have no power to preclude anything, and I have no desire to legislate what people should think about. And there is nothing wrong with the division of labor, in which some people have the leisure and the imagination to think about a radically different future, and a radically different organization of social relations. Sometimes their suggestions do produce outcomes that people find useful in the present. They do not overturn the system and create something totally new, but they inspire changes that are useful. I think it is an important thing to do, to have maximalist thought pushing at the edges, refusing to compromise or be satisfied with half-measures.
One of the ways in which the word »experience« itself is often used, is that you learn to be less redemptive in your hopes, experience being an encounter with life’s disappointments or compromises. That is why someone like Benjamin, when he was young, was very hostile to the idea of experience. He saw it as a way that older people told younger people to be quiet and respect their elders. As you get older, you think maybe it is not such a bad thing when that happens [laughs]. You shouldn’t make a fetish of youth. Maybe in the Sixties people thought that one should.
One thing that ought to be recognized is that despite all the horrors and all the disappointments in radical attempts to make things better, a lot has happened in my lifetime that has been very encouraging. Not necessarily producing Utopia, they nonetheless nuture a faint belief that the future holds promise rather than is just a source of anxiety. For example, in race relations in the United States, or the solving of the Apartheid problem, or the peaceful fall of Communism. Fifty years ago, people would have been very surprised if someone would have predicted in 2009 the world will look the way it looks on these particular fronts. It does not mean that there are not still battles that are being waged—for example, over the sources of inequality, racism, post-colonial discrimination—all of that still exists, but there have been enough modest advances that one can feel that we haven’t completely screwed things up.

»…the peaceful fall of Communism.« That is an interesting way of saying it.

Jay: No one would have said as late as 1988, that the Soviet Union and its satellites would go away without a major conflagration. Certainly Nazism had fallen in that way. And we had no expectation that the Soviet Union was going to implode without a great deal of violence. There was some, but it was pretty mild. In 1990 people were predicting mass-starvation in post-soviet Russia, and people coming to the West, maybe eight million or whatever the number that was projected, and that did not happen.

One could as well think about it in terms of state socialism, since communism has never been achieved in the Soviet Union. In this case, 1989 appears as the abolishment of the communist Utopia.

Jay: Sure…

But maybe from another perspective: If it is right that the »utopian consciousness« and the possibility of imagining a different world is in decline, there were explanations given for that. For example, that culture commodities absorb our imagination and our very subjective possibility of imagining the whole as being different. Do you think that this is a sufficient explanation? Or would you even disagree with the statement, that there is a decline of that kind of consciousness?

Jay: I don’t know how one would measure it. It is probably true that there were moments when there is a cluster of excitement about utopian alternatives. In the 19th century there were both experiments of actually living the utopias, and also a lot of different attempts to think about what it would be like—both literary and political-theoretical. The 20th century was more fascinated by Dystopia—by Zamyatin, Huxley, Orwell, or Philip K. Dick in some of his works—it was relatively suspicious about Utopia. And then there were some people who recovered earlier traditions. Now, I don’t see anybody, with the exception of Jacoby, who tries to make a strong case for the resurrection of utopian thought. There is, to be sure, the still militant Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson, whose 2007 book Archaeologies of the Future explored the utopian implications of science fiction. He makes as good a case as one can for what he calls »the desire called utopia.«

Could this absence of advocates for Utopia be a way to measure its decline? Marx, who came up with the first negative Utopia by not exactly pointing out how the association of free producers should look like, wrote in a time where a lot of positive Utopias were circulating. Owen, Saint Simon, Fourier. At the time Adorno wrote and came up with an even stronger notion of negative Utopia, we had, as you said, the dystopian novels. Today, in the literary field, we cannot find a lot of Utopian novels, and one could say that literature is the source of utopian ideas.

Jay: Probably some that we don’t know about, but not with a great deal of public resonance.

Could that be an indication for the atrophy of the utopian consciousness?

Jay: No, I think we are living in a period where it does not seem quite as necessary, or maybe it seems like a luxury. You could argue that novels are not the place to look anymore; look instead at popular culture. Sometimes movies portray future societies, or ways of being that have a utopian side, although they are usually also more dystopian. I think we are more afraid of what can go wrong and anxious than we are optimistic.

A lot of movies picturing the end of the world by the impact of an asteroid or similar catastrophes, but only very few movies picture a working communist society.

Jay: No, Mike Davis for example writes about apocalyptic and catastrophic, disaster scenarios—and they are very powerful. With 9-11 as a punctuation of the 21st century you get a sense that these scenarios are not utterly crazy. And of course, we live with the likely increase of catastrophic global warming.

This aspect of Utopia—the neutralization of hope and fear—can also be found in Jameson, who speaks of a dialectic of Utopia and Ideology. Mass culture appeals to the individual’s need for utopian hope, only to immediately harmonize it. It seems to be plausible that the more cultural commodities satisfy our need for imaginations of a different world, whether good or bad, the less we have to believe in its possibility ourselves. But it could be dangerous, if this need is ingrained more deeply, and we only live in a time in which no political or social Utopias are formulated. If I look around, I see a lot of discontent, not only on the level of daily politics. Do negative critique and negative utopia after 1989 still have the power to be a precaution against positive Utopia? Are they even the only way we have to deal with the problems in the present?

Jay: Not the only one, but it certainly gives you an inspiration and a desire for more fundamental solutions for perennial problems. As Mannheim and others emphasized at a time that was even bleaker than our own, the Weimar Republic, without utopian thought we are condemned to an acceptance of the status quo, based on a kind of »Neue Sachlichkeit«-like mentality in which sobriety is the only virtue and acceptance of our fate the only option. Paradoxically, I think Utopia will have its place as a critical impetus, just as long as people do not try to implement it in the real world!

Martin Jay, born 1944, is Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor for Intellectual History at the University of California, Berkeley. Recently appeared: The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics, 2010. Further important publications: Dialectical Imagination, 1973; Marxism and Totality, 1984; Downcast Eyes, 1993 and Songs of Experience, 2004.

The Interview was conducted and translated into German by the cultural scientist Dennis Johannßen (Lueneburg, Berkeley) on May 18, 2009 in Berkeley. The German translation of this interview will be published in the 2010 issue of the Zeitschrift für kritische Theorie.