Originally published almost twenty years ago, in Utopia from Thomas More to Walter Benjamin author Miguel Abensour confronts the concept of utopia popularised in Thomas More’s 1516 book with Walter Benjamin’s attempt to rescue it from ruin prior to World War Two. In this long read review, Nicolas Schneider examines Abensour’s invitation to understand utopia not as a scheme for a future society but rather as a relational category that functions as an uncanny doubling of present reality. 

If you are interested in the subject of this review, you may like to explore a series of LSE RB blog posts on ‘utopia’ published as part of the LSE Literary Festival 2016, celebrating the 500th anniversary of More’s work. 

Utopia from Thomas More to Walter Benjamin. Miguel Abensour (trans. by Raymond N. MacKenzie). Univocal. 2017.

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‘To be done once and for all with the present injustice’ – this is the promise of utopia, at least according to the quote with which Miguel Abensour conjoins the two seemingly disparate parts of Utopia from Thomas More to Walter Benjamin. In this book, originally published almost twenty years ago as part of a series of four books on utopia, Abensour sheds light on a tradition of thought first popularised by Thomas More in his homonymous 1516 work. Here, he confronts More’s nascent concept with Walter Benjamin’s attempt, writing on the eve of the Second World War and the Shoah, to rescue it from ruin. The quote, which is from Abensour’s colleague Françoise Proust, stresses the precariousness of utopia: as a promise, there is little in the ‘real’ world that speaks for its possibility.

If engaging with the notion of utopia nowadays seems strangely anachronistic, this need not be to the detriment of the endeavour. Of course, if we follow the usual detractors, the lure of utopia derives from the totalitarian undertow that will swallow whoever falls for its spell. But maybe utopia is precisely the project of developing ways of thinking that reject this Manichaean vision of the world, a world paralysed by a realism that casts its own totalising shadows on everything in its reach. Thus conceived, it provides a powerful tool against a reality that presents itself as ‘without alternatives’.

This, at least, is the invitation extended to us by Abensour in this book: to rethink utopia not as a scheme of a future society that fixes a proper place once and for all, akin to a five-year-plan, but to think it topologically – as a relational category that acquires its analytic power from the ways in which it establishes a distance from the status quo, a distance that, to be sure, is absolute in its aim to depose the present injustice, ‘once and for all’. Utopia, in this sense, rather than hastening the consolidation of some fantasy, works towards the displacement and ultimate destitution of an order that grounds itself in disorder and domination.

Certainly, the contemporary condition seems anything but conducive to a revival of utopia. Instead of mapping out visions for the future of humanity, we are sleepwalking into a disaster – ecological, economic and political – that would eliminate the possibility of making promises altogether. ‘Realism’, being always a realism of the past that denies the possibility of a future in difference from what has been, thus exhausts the conditions of its own existence. Sleepwalking, meanwhile, has become the paradigm of contemporary capitalist realism. It is announced by the ‘new spirit of capitalism’, encouraging everyone to conceive of themselves as entrepreneurs of their own lives. Premised on the successful implementation of the biopolitical dream of individual self-subjection, this spirit invites us to stay on-line, to realise our personal monetary value 24/7 – a paradigm that conquers both spatial and diurnal boundaries.

Always stimulated, never awake – Abensour seizes this paradoxical status quo between sleepwalking and hyperactivity, unmasking realism’s failure to live up to its essential promise: that is, to do away with ambiguity. Feverishly working to postpone the rude awakening that lurks beyond its confines, capitalist realism produces a world that is constitutively contradictory. It is through this narrow but ever-present gate of ambiguity that, Abensour contends, utopia re-enters the stage – as the ambiguous force par excellence.

Image Credit: Image of Walter Benjamin (Biblioteca Pública Iu Bohigas de Salt CC BY 2.0)/1777 edition of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) in the Centre Céramique, Maastricht, the Netherlands (Kleon3 CC BY SA 4.0)
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