Blog post

More clash, less discontinuity

Brian Willems revisits Fredric Jameson's An American Utopia for our Jameson at 90 series.

Brian Willems 1 July 2024

More clash, less discontinuity

Fredric Jameson's An American Utopia centres on the concept of dual power, in which an alternative economy exists alongside capitalism. The Army is Jameson's chosen example, because within the privatized landscape of the United States, the military provides health care and education to all those enlisted. Thus, he argues for a "universal army," in which every American between the ages of 16-60 would be conscripted into the military to receive these benefits, thereby creating some of the minimal conditions of utopia.

Yet when I was asked by the University of Zagreb to participate in a roundtable on the book when it was released in 2016, there was very little discussion about the text itself. One issue in discussing the book in Croatia is that the country already has universal health care, as well as free education for all, from primary school up through graduate studies. However, despite these characteristics, and its beautiful beaches, Croatia is not a utopia. Quality of healthcare and education is not evenly distributed, even if access is. In addition, using the military as a means for greater distribution of benefits does not ring true here, since in the time of the former Yugoslavia the military formed a privileged class, with preferred housing, health care, and wages, all of which created a serious division between the military and non-military population.

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In short, the reluctance to discuss the text shows that universal health care and free education are "enough" for utopia. This criticism is also made in some of the accompanying essays that are included Jameson's book, including pieces by Slavoj Žižek, Jodi Dean, and Alberto Toscano. Another of the responding authors, Kathi Weeks, helps further to explain the Croatian silence. She argues that locating utopia in the structure of the Army subsumes its sense of hierarchy and structure that automatically privileges certain beings over others, a strong division between ranks: "As a gendered machine for the production of leaders and subordinates, it is difficult for me to imagine the army, even a universal army, one that is itself transformed over time, as capable of coexisting with, let alone as a school for, the development of democratic capacities and egalitarian values" (244).

Jameson partially addresses this issue, arguing that he is using the Army merely to engage the imagination in utopian thinking, and not as a concrete solution to problems of inequality, saying that his essay is "a kind of shell game, in which, when you think you are talking about the armed forces, you are in reality talking about utopia, and when you think you are talking about revolution, you are deep into the future talking about the problems of socialism itself" (317). Yet his book is doing more than this image of the shell game indicates: he is not just offering a critique of current structures, but offering concrete steps to making the future better in the form of dual power.

These concrete steps are an important departure for Jameson, who usually sees utopia more as a form of critique than offering actual solutions for how to change the world (a point Weeks also makes). As he says in Archaeologies of the Future, "all ostensible Utopian content was ideological, and […] the proper function of its themes lay in critical negativity, that is, in their function to demystify their opposite numbers" (211).

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The first text following Jameson's essay in An American Utopia also stresses the difference between utopia as critique and utopia as pathway. Kim Stanley Robinson's science fiction short story "Mutt and Jeff," which later, in revised form, was the opening chapter to his novel New York 2140 (2017), features two computer programmers who are discussing how to hack capitalism by changing the laws it is based on, inserting them into the largest arbitrators of capitalism (IMF, the World Bank, etc.) to enact actual change, rather than just foreground some of the ills of the current system. However, Robinson is not only discussed here because he reflects this step in Jameson's thinking on utopia, he also offers a powerful way to enact this step. Robinson was Jameson's PhD student, and in his thesis, The Novels of Philip K Dick (1984), he offers a similar criticism of Jameson's work, although with an important difference.

In discussing a 1973 essay on Brian Aldiss by Jameson (later included in Archaeologies of the Future), Robinson says:

By generic discontinuity, Jameson meant in his article to describe a shift from one set of conventions to another, so that while reading the reader must shift with the text, and apply one new set of expectations after another. In Dick's works, however, these differing sets of conventions need to be applied simultaneously, so that the reader must try to balance two or more at the same time. This crates for the reader a clash rather than a discontinuity. (26)

Robinson highlights the need for a clash rather than the discontinuity of a structure such as dual power. This clash is a co-presencing of different elements together, rather than having parallel structures of power. This is a key difference, since such a clash would ensure the continued voice of many dissenting viewpoints, a breaking of the ranks, yet all in the context of having one's basic needs and rights guaranteed.

There is one point in An American Utopia, however, where Jameson suggests something similar, although it is not fully developed. When discussing what benefits a universal army would have beyond universal health care and free education, he mentions what could be called a clash of classes, which would arise from having everyone in the country, all together, be in the same organization, in which:

The instantaneous dislikes and distasteful cultural unfamiliarities the inescapable elbow-rubbing with people with whom you have nothing in common and would normally avoid – this is true democracy, normally concealed by the various class shelters, the professions, or the family itself […], and warded off by wealth in its gated communities and walled estates. (96)

Hopefully this is a clash that can be extrapolated from science fiction into more aspects of our own world.

 

See all works by Fredric Jameson here. His new book, Inventions of a Present: The Novel in its Crisis of Globalization is out on May 7.

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An American Utopia

An American Utopia

Fredric Jameson’s pathbreaking essay “An American Utopia” radically questions standard leftist notions of what constitutes an emancipated society. Advocated here are—among other things—universal co...
Late Marxism
In the name of an assault on “totalization” and “identity,” a number of contemporary theorists have been busily washing Marxism’s dialectical and utopian projects down the plug-hole of postmodernis...
Inventions of a Present
A novel is an act, an intervention, which, most often, the naïve reader takes as a representation. The novel intervenes to modify or correct our conventional notions of a situation and, in the best...
The Years of Theory
Fredric Jameson introduces here the major themes of French theory: existentialism, structuralism, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. In a series of accessible lect...
Allegory and Ideology
Works do not have meanings, they soak up meanings: a work is a machine for libidinal investments (including the political kind). It is a process that sorts incommensurabilities and registers contra...
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