Utopia in the Age of Survival
Between Myth and Politics
S. D. Chrostowska


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

The opening offers a brief overview of the senses of the word utopia and historical attitudes toward utopian designs. It draws attention to the ways in which utopia functions these days less as a term of abuse than as a popular marketing label, which points to utopia's cultural relevance. I then move on to review different conceptions of utopia in order to set up the book's conceptual framework and argument, beginning with hope, despair, anxiety, and their relationship to desire and will. The conceptions defended in the book—utopia as myth and as hypothesis—are introduced. Turning to survival as also generative of utopian desire, I address the fate of utopian thinking in these our dark times. Retrieving the social imaginary of Cockaigne allows me to recast utopia in light of bodily desires and practices while delinking it from capital accumulation.

The Utopian Hypothesis: From Radical Politics to Speculative Myth
chapter abstract

The first chapter makes the case that critical social theory broadly understood needs to reinstate utopia as a speculative myth, told and retold in diverse and conflicting ways, attesting to its continued productivity and dynamism as it sidelines the "ideal city" blueprint tradition in utopianism. At the same time, to gain political purchase, the left must again assume utopia as an action-guiding hypothesis—that is, as something still possible. I begin by discussing the melancholy affecting left-wing intellectuals and proceed to lengthy engagements with T. J. Clark and Roland Barthes. In the first reading, I argue against the tragic conception of politics proposed by Clark. In the second, I analyze and critique Barthes's theory of myth. Armed with critical insights thus gleaned, I contrast the myth model of utopia, drawing principally on Georges Sorel, with the wager model.

The Emancipation of Desire: Preludes and Postludes of May '68
chapter abstract

The second chapter turns to the visionary decades of the twentieth century, looking back at the resurgence of bodily utopian longings and projections in Surrealism, the Situationist International, and critical theorists writing in their wake. The first three sections are historical, focused on radical utopian projects and critiques between the 1930s and 1970s in France. The fourth teases out three theoretical questions arising from this historical material, while the fifth reconstructs the meaning of survival through the earliest and most radical phase of the French environmental movement, when ecology was inseparable from social emancipation and transformation. The eventual split in the movement on the question of survival ended in its embrace of the Situationist critique of survival. The work of Marc Pierret and Italian thinker Giorgio Cesarano from this period provides a little-known counterpoint and critique of these undialectical conceptions and libidinal liberation as antidote.

The Utopia of Survival: Critical Theory against the State
chapter abstract

In the third chapter, survival emerges as the organizing concept for an array of bodily democratic political forms in social movements across the globe contesting the expanding management of life by state institutions. The utopian dimension of such politics leads me to recast the experience or condition of survival as potentially political and productive of utopianizing practices, including gestures beyond the state form as well as claims made on democratic and authoritarian states by individuals or groups from the margins of normal politics and disruptive of it. For this purpose, I bring in the concepts of necropolitics (Achille Mbembe) and necroresistance (Banu Bargu), referring to desperate subversive acts of self-directed violence refusing survival and undermining in this way the biopoliticization of sovereignty or, as shown by Marc Abélès's politics of survivance, governmentality beyond the state. I conclude with responses to several anticipated objections.

Epilogue: The Displaced Imagination
chapter abstract

The epilogue takes up the centrality of bodies in utopian social dreaming and the constitution of community approximating the utopia to be universalized. I discuss the relationship of desires in the present to their idealized utopian form, and the configuration of the utopian imagination by bodily whereabouts, structured by displacement, physical or imaginary. I move on to say that utopianism's strength as a myth continues to lie in its "iconoclasm," its resistance to determinate content. Utopia's normative "deficit," for which first-generation critical theorists have been criticized, is also the dialectical guarantee of its truth. I briefly take up the body in Theodor W. Adorno's thought to highlight its importance as an ethical index. The final accent falls on the living conditions sufficient for utopia-inspired or utopianizing action and on what utopia might look like in our survival-centered age.

chapter abstract

The postscript presents a balance sheet of the ongoing pandemic and climate change, revealing the failings in crisis management and the fragility of the global economic system as fertile ground for utopian dreaming.