The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia, SIC 8

The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia, SIC 8

by Peter Thompson, Slavoj Zizek

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822377115
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/25/2013
Series: [sic] Series , #8
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 676 KB

About the Author

Peter Thompson is Reader in German at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of The Crisis of the German Left.

Slavoj Žižek is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Social Studies in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is the author of many books, including Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism.

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Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia

By Peter Thompson, SLAVOJ ZIZEK

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5589-2


Bloch and a Philosophy of the Proterior

Wayne Hudson

The odds against a boom in utopia are high.

—Jürgen Habermas

Utopia has aged. No one believes anymore in a perfect society or in a perfect humanity. On the other hand, the need to imagine a better future remains. Ernst Bloch was the most original thinker to defend the continuing significance of utopia in the twentieth century, yet he remains relatively little understood in the English-speaking world. When I began to study in Oxford almost forty years ago, I was only allowed to work on Bloch because Leszek kolakowski agreed to supervise. In the early 1970s Gillian rose and I were among the very few at Oxford trying to rethink Marxism in the light of classical German philosophy. When I wrote The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch (1982), I had to establish his intellectual credentials and to demonstrate his importance for the Marxist tradition at a time when Althusser and Gramsci were more fashionable figures. In the 1980s German classical philosophy was mainly available in caricature in English, and I did not know enough about Schelling to appreciate Bloch's subtlety at some points. Moreover, although I talked at length with Bloch himself, I was too young to entirely appreciate the dialectical complexity of his thinking, as he noted with a mixture of astonishment and bemusement in our interchanges. Today, as a result of new translations and exceptionally fine studies, classical German philosophy is being received in English as the major philosophical achievement of the West after the Greeks. Now, as then, however, Bloch's extraordinary legacy has still not been adequately received in the Anglo-Saxon world, despite the labors of many.

In this chapter I draw attention to aspects of Bloch's still largely unrealized legacy and propose that it may be possible to inherit this legacy in the context of a philosophy of the proterior.


At his death on 4 August 1977 Bloch was known as a utopian Marxist and as the philosopher of hope, characteristics of declining appeal in the decades that followed. In the English-speaking world, no clear view of Bloch's importance has emerged. Both Anglo-Saxon good sense and the arcane nature of his German texts make it hard for us to know what to make of him. Nonetheless, Bloch's legacy is astonishingly rich, and the volumes of his collected works contain model ideas of outstanding contemporary importance. Today, however, there is a need to release Bloch's legacy from the political as well as the philosophical contexts in which it arose.

In political terms, the hope that Marxism can be salvaged along the lines that Bloch and Lukács proposed has passed away. It is now widely agreed that a reconstruction of Marxism must be more severe than Bloch realized and may have to conform to intellectual canons to which Bloch himself was not sympathetic. Bloch then easily appears as a utopian who failed to grasp why utopias have to be given up and as a Marxist who lacked the detailed history and economics to provide a powerful framework for Marxist theory. There are those who argue, plausibly within limits, that Bloch belongs to a phase of German Jewish cultural history that is now irretrievably behind us, that Bloch was at best a Marxist Schelling (Habermas), at worst the philosopher of German Expressionism who failed to develop. Equally, there are those who seek to locate Bloch within a typology of western Marxism as a religious leftist who never freed himself from metapolitical satisfactions and who remained politically deluded for most of his career. This is a reading which vulgarizes the complexity of Bloch's political analyses, including his endorsements of Lenin and Stalin, the hard political judgments which he made about the socialist East, and the degree to which he was prepared to tailor his intellectual activities to the attempt to "build socialism." It is also a reading which fails to account for the shrewdness of Bloch's analysis of the nazis, his evaluations of the political potential of a green politics, or Naturpolitik, and his commitment to an alliance of socialist and progressive Christian forces, as well as to the cause of women's liberation and to work for peace.

Because Bloch's work does not conform to the expectations of philosophers of an epistemological bent, he is sometimes presented as a forerunner of postmodernism without the necessary qualifications. However, once it is established that Bloch was not a postmodernist but an advocate of a new edition of the Enlightenment, the relevance of his work on multi-temporalism, non-contemporaneity, and the need to work outside and below tertiary cultures can be discussed.

What is needed is an interpretation of Bloch that refuses safe houses. Bloch was extra muros. He stood outside the university culture of his time and its neokantian obsessions with epistemological and intrasystematic concerns. He did so as a rebel against the subjection of rational thought to methodologically controlled discourses. The scandalous character of Bloch's work is essential to it, and it is a fundamental mistake to join those who seek to domesticate Bloch posthumously, as though, cleaned up, he could take his rightful place in the German philosophical pantheon alongside Walter Benjamin and Adorno. Like Jakob Boehme or Johann Georg Hamann, Bloch was an irregular, and the importance of his contributions becomes more evident as the limitations of the modern disciplinary organizations of knowledge are recognized.

Against such domestication, it is necessary to insist on the unavailability of Bloch's work, and the fact that there is a continuing delay in the course of its reception as only some aspects of Bloch's work are really taken up. An abnormal time structure is fundamental to Bloch: a time structure linking anticipatory insights to later developments and this time structure applies to his own work. It explains why even today his study of the problem of materialism awaits an adequate reception.

Bloch's work demands an effort because it is designed to subvert premature conceptions of rationality and the discourses dependent on them. Bloch used a form of abnormal writing as a way of highlighting questions and perspectives that had been missed. He can be seen as a pioneer of a transdisciplinary writing that runs across the disciplines to uncover issues and themes that they repress, avoid, or render illegitimate. Here, understandably, the French have proved best equipped to appreciate his importance (Gérard raulet, Jean-François Lyotard, Louis Marin, and Emmanuel Levinas). In the Anglophone world, however, those who deny that nietzsche's contribution to a philosophy of the future has been adequately assimilated by either Heidegger or Derrida will find Bloch contemporary reading. Bloch's work is recondite and full of postponements. To ask, "Has the Emperor any clothes?" misses its temporal distribution and invites a premature reconstruction of Bloch's ideas. There is no futuristic gnosis (Leszek kolakowski). Prophecy and predictions are wholly lacking. Nor is occultism the key, Pythagorean or otherwise (George Steiner). Marxist romantic will not do (Jürgen Habermas). Nor will Jewish messianist suffice (Jürgen Moltmann).

One of Bloch's major insights was that working temporally with the utopian surplus found throughout human cultural history and nature was essential to contemporary enlightenment. Bloch grasped the connection between reduced expectations about our ability to find an unassailable foundation for the good and the need to learn to pursue realizable goals by rectifying hope in the light of actual historical outcomes. No doubt such temporally sophisticated hope requires concrete methodological innovations and rational procedural controls that Bloch failed to provide. nonetheless, Bloch was not wrong to think that corrected hope can lead to knowledge. Nor was he mistaken to think that hope can play a part in rationality intent upon a world in which millions of people will not starve. A reevaluation of hope as an element of rationality would be no mean legacy for Bloch. Finally, at a time when utopia is in disrepute and is widely used as a term of abuse, Bloch can help us to realize that the case for utopia does not fall with utopian illusions.

Bloch was not a social utopian of any standard sort. He devised no ideal society. Instead, he was attracted by many different strands of counterfactual culture. As a result, his work slips through the perspicacious distinctions between utopia, Arcadia and Cockayne, to which historians of utopian thought resort. Bloch was closest perhaps to utopians of the chiliastic variety, above all Thomas Münzer. His utopian expectations related to personal experience of the presence of the end is the now of the moment. On the basis of this experience, he was irrepressibly hopeful. Existing reality restricted his daydreaming less than it constrained his contemporaries. He was invincibly convinced, for both philosophical and psychological reasons, that maximal, if currently counterfactual, good was possible. And for him there was also an anticipatory element in cognition. Where the rest of us tend to judge our success in thinking by its relation to current modes of discourse, Bloch believed that he could think beyond such modes in ways that would bear fruit. This Jules verne quality went with an eschatological orientation, in part gnostic, in part biblical, and a radical openness to a possible future transformation of nature.

Nonetheless, Bloch was no naive utopian. He believed that what manifested as utopian fantasy in European thought from the renaissance onward was a socially and economically conditioned expression of a human capacity to reject existing states of affairs and to daydream of states of affairs in which what should be would be the case. What is at stake, then, in Bloch's work is utopia as presemblance that can be harnessed and set to work. Bloch held that manifestations of this reality could be found throughout the human world and that the neglect of it led to a lack of insightful models for political, social, legal, and cultural change. Nonetheless, the manifestations of this psychotemporal reality were not merely subjective. Rather they could involve anticipatory knowledge and be related to developing possibilities.

Taking up Bloch's legacy here requires a willingness to admit both a constructive function for philosophy at the level of method and the irreducible role of normative postulates in philosophical rationalism. Bloch saw that getting it right in terms of existing conditions was often too conservative, that hazarding what the good required often meant taking leave of epistemological guarantees. He was acutely aware that at least some philosophers needed to take account of the causality of their own work in the context of the future of people and their societies. Here Michel Foucault was among his heirs.

Any attempt to engage with Bloch's legacy and set it to work encounters the problem of what he meant by "utopian philosophy." Given that Bloch wrote so much, it is amazing that he devoted so little space to clear answers to central questions. The answers are there, but they are implicit, and it is often only developments after Bloch's death which help the reader to get past his arcane terminology to a thought that assumes knowledge of kant's work on practical reason and the sublime, Schelling on the blind spot of the moment, and the theory of the unconscious found (before Freud) in the works of the now largely forgotten philosopher Eduard von Hartmann (1842–1906). In each case the philosophical background is well known to experts in German philosophy, but not well known to English-speaking intellectuals without such professional expertise. Even in Germany many who are expert on kant are not aficionados of Schelling, let alone of von Hartmann. Hence they tend not to be able to follow Bloch's movement beyond school philosophy and its logics to a different type of philosophy altogether. Instead they ask, predictably, what in Bloch is really new?

Bloch contributed a new idea to the history of utopian thought. This was the idea that utopia was not "no place," but existed in the darkness of the lived moment and its transcending dynamic. In contrast to Adorno's negative dialectics or Marcuse's libidinal sophistications, Bloch theorized utopia in terms of Schelling's critique of transparent accounts of consciousness. Utopia was not in the manifest field but in the nontransparent darkness of the lived moment. Our daily experience of the world was traversed by a wonderful, unconstruable excess. Hence Bloch could assert that there was no dualism possible between utopia and actuality, since utopia pervaded experienced actuality as a nonavailable incognito. Just as there is no way to talk adequately in tertiary terms about the erotic experiences that we all have, and the vocabularies used tend to be scatological or euphemistic, so Bloch held that utopia was given experientially as a daily reality but repressed in discourse. Consistent with the critical pessimist side of his thought, Bloch did not pretend that utopia could be demystified and translated into school philosophy terms. On the contrary, no one could know what utopia corresponded to. But this did not eliminate the problem of utopia because the humanly experienced world was pervaded by a wonderful incognito, which could be normatively glossed, even though it could not be identified in ontic terms.

Here Bloch's conception struck at the mundanity and accessibility of much modern philosophy, and it has parallels in French Surrealist discussions of an atopical void or abyss which destroys the possibility of traditional ontology, a prominent theme in the work of Maurice Blanchot. nonetheless, what Bloch meant by "utopian philosophy" needs to be extended from its historical location in the early Lukács-Bloch collaboration and the turn to utopia by many central European Jewish intellectuals after 1914. The need for philosophical utopias has long been recognized by historians of philosophy. Indeed, historians of philosophy have concluded that without such surplus, the great "ruins" of the history of philosophy would arguably never arise in the first place. The role of utopia in philosophy itself, however, is little investigated, despite the remarkable work of Michèle Le Doeuff.

Bloch sought to pioneer a utopian philosophy with a constructive historical function. He held that at least some philosophers should concern themselves with human affairs and the state of the world and with how people understand themselves and their society. Here he influenced Adorno and, through him, some of the subsequent work of the Frankfurt School. It remains a vexed question how far such concerns should be regarded as proper to philosophers qua philosophers, as opposed to concerns which philosophers may take up as citizens or as interdisciplinary writers. Bloch opted for the first alternative.

By utopian philosophy Bloch meant philosophy that took utopia as its central concern, where utopia meant the a-topical mysterium in the darkness of the lived moment. Bloch was not suggesting that philosophy should become abstract social utopianism or that philosophers should write accounts of perfect societies. His point was a post-nietzschean one and based on his own readings of kant, Hegel, and Schelling. Given that human beings had no access to any supra-historical absolute truth, the human need to project a vision of highest good could not be met by certain established claims of knowledge. On the contrary, there was a clear tension between the restricted and moderate strong knowledges that could be constructed and the unconstruable wonder [thaumazein] that human beings experienced but for which they could find no adequate cognitive place. In the contemporary period, Bloch suggested, this wonder and the irrepressible hope to which it gave rise could only be adequately responded to by an assertion of its content which remained without epistemological guarantees. Utopia, in this sense, was all that was available to contemporary humanity by way of transcendence.

This realistic, even pessimistic, side of Bloch's thought has been widely overlooked. Bloch's notion of utopia was a sociohistorically sophisticated one that can be located in early twentieth-century German social philosophy, including the work of the German sociologist Georg Simmel. In Bloch's account, utopian philosophy would operate in a utopian manner, and it lacks a rigorous methodology in the period in which it achieved its initial indications. Utopian philosophy in Bloch's sense would seek to criticize existing discourses, practices, and conditions by reference to utopian postulates and seek to direct attention to concrete possibilities developing in the world, whether social or natural. It would seek to keep the culture open to new possibilities and to provide it with a sense of "where to" in a normative rather than a futurological sense.

Excerpted from THE PRIVATIZATION OF HOPE by Peter Thompson, SLAVOJ ZIZEK. Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Note of Editions and Translations xiii

Preface / Slavoj Zizek xv

Introduction: The Privatization of Hope and the Crisis of Negation / Peter Thompson 1

1. Bloch and a Philosophy of the Proterior / Wayne Hudson 21

2. An Anti-humanist Utopia? / Vincent Goeghegan 37

3. Ernst Bloch's Dialectical Anthropology / Johan Siebers 61

4. Religion, Utopia, and the Metaphysics of Contingency / Peter Thompson 82

5. The Privatization of Eschatology and Myth: Ernst Block vs. Rudolph Bultmann / Roland Boer 106

6. The Education of Hope: On the Dialectical Potential of Speculative Materialism / Catherine Moir 121

7. Engendering the Future: Bloch's Utopian Philosophy in Dialogue with Gender Theory / Caitríona Ní Dhúill 144

8. The Zero-Point: Encountering the Dark Emptiness of Nothingness / Frances Daly 164

9. A Marxist Poetics: Allegory and Reading in The Principle of Hope / David Miller 203

10. Singing Summons the Existence of the Fountain: Bloch, Music, and Utopia / Ruth Levitas 219

11. Transforming Utopian into Metopian Systems: Bloch's Principle of Hope Revisited / Rainer E. Zimmerman 246

12. Unlearning How to Hope: Eleven Theses in Defense of Liberal Democracy and Consumer Culture / Henk de Berg 269

13. Can We Hope to Walk Tall in a Computerized World of Work? / Francesca Vidal and Welf Schröter 288

Contributors 301

Index 305

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