Walter Benjamin once remarked that what drove men and women to revolt was not dreams of liberated grandchildren, but memories of oppressed ancestors. Visions of future happiness are all very well; but happiness is a feeble, holiday-camp kind of word, resonant of manic grins and multi-coloured jackets, not least when compared with the kind of past which, as Marx commented, weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Jameson’s comprehensive study of Utopian visions, from their limited agency in political rhetoric to their poetic application in science fiction narratives, explores above all why the Utopian holds sway at certain moments in history, and what the paradoxes inherent within artistic visions of Utopia might reveal about our relationships to action and to change. As Jameson writes; ‘The problem however is the same: can culture be political, which is to say critical and even subversive, or it is necessarily re-appropriated and coopted by the social system of which it is a part? It is the very separation of art and culture from the social - a separation that inaugurates culture as a realm in its own right and defines it as such - which is the source of art’s incorrigible ambiguity. That very distance of culture and indictment of the latter also dooms its interventions to ineffectuality and relegates art and culture to a frivolous, trivialized space in which such intersections are neutralized in advance.’
A collection of essays in two parts, the book attempts to chart the ways in which the art and literature of science fiction has been used to imagine new realities –including all the inherent frustrations and unpredictable benefits. Jameson again: ‘All these formal and representational questions lead back to the political one with which we began: of how works that posit the end of history can offer any usable historical impulses, how works which aim to resolve all political differences can continue to be in any sense political, how texts designed to overcome the needs of the body can remain materialistic, and how visions of the ‘epoch of rest’ can energize and compel us into action.’
Jameson doesn’t actually have the answers (of course) but it might well be possible that simply doing things – as unexpected and startling as this can be within the context of contemporary art and the industry that supports it - might have something to do with it.