Somewhere (of course I can’t find it now) in his An American Utopia: Dual Power and the American Army (Verso, 2016), Fredric Jameson tells us that utopia is merely our same human world with a slight difference. One mistake (his book outlines legions of mistakes) is to think we can effect a total transformation of humankind and human society. It is not that he eschews the ideal, the dream, of revolution; he only wants to downsize what we think a revolution could accomplish. Basically, it seems he believes we can collectivize labor, but we cannot overcome social antagonism. There is a primal fear/envy/hatred/aggression toward the Other that will persist.
I am not particularly interested in Jameson’s proposed utopia; what interests me is the ramifications of taking the position that there is “no salvation.” Let me try to state my position starkly. (I will then complicate matters by exploring my uneasiness with that position.) The stark formulation: there is no once-for-all, totalizing transformation for the various ills of our current lot. No deus ex machina, no transcendence. We are condemned to chipping away at things piecemeal, in making what small improvements when and where we can. Such improvements are themselves never secured once and for all; there will be backslidings, unexpected twists and turns, unforeseen (and often deeply evil) consequences; the powers of darkness will be ever with us and ever fighting for their side.
This position fits with a robust pluralism; there is no totality, no overarching system, and hence no special point of leverage from which the whole world can be moved. We have to work with the tools that are to hand and we have to work on the problems that are also to hand. Successes will be hard won—and partial. Reliance on a totalizing revolution, on salvation, is a species of magical thinking. Worse, it is an abdication of involvement in the here and now, a religious focus on a “better world” elsewhere. This world is all we’ve got, so hunker down and get to work on it.
I trust you get the idea. Radical secularism and anti-transcendentalism. But I want to combine those positions with a radical openness. The idea is not to create constraints, not to say with Thatcher that there are “no alternatives,” or to adopt the kind of quietism that can go with Nietzschean affirmation. No “amor fati” please, but a continual kicking against the pricks—and every attempt to think and act creatively. The constant experimentation of James and Dewey’s pragmatism, where you don’t know what a situation might enable until you try it out, when you discover its affordances and resistances in practice.
I want to avoid every form of what I have called “transcendental blackmail,” meaning ontological or “realistic” claims that declare certain things impossible from the outset. But I am contradicting myself because I have claimed total revolution impossible, based on an ontological claim of pluralism. Why deny to the revolutionaries their right to experiment with the possibility of total transformation? (This becomes like James’s notorious essay “The Will to Believe” with the revolutionaries being granted the right to believe that a revolution is possible.)
What is it about dreams of total escape from the human condition that I find objectionable? Why do I want to shut down not only the hope, but the very vocabulary, of “salvation” and “redemption”? I am, it seems to me, partly in Nietzsche’s camp; I want to reject nihilism’s negations of this world, of the here and now. I want to articulate some version of “affirmation” that accepts where we are—even as it also endeavors to make our current condition better. No fatalistic resignation to no change at all; but no dream of an utterly different way of life. In short, Jamesian “meliorism,” which looks luke-warm (and therefore to be spewed from the mouth) by the zealot.
“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Attending to the ordinary slings and arrows of daily life, working to ameliorate them insofar as possible, is the recommended path.
But for many that is not enough, not sufficient. They want grander progress, grander solutions. My rejection of their negations seems to have three planks.
- The ontological claim that totalized solutions are not possible.
- The aesthetic (?) claim that total negation misses all that is beautiful and delightful in this imperfect world and society we inhabit. The perpetual sourpuss of puritanical absolutism (in whatever form it takes) is not a look I want to adopt for myself or countenance in others.
- The political claim that puritanical absolutism also makes its adherents condemn every reform, every change, as insufficient. Just as they cannot affirm any aspect of current life, they also cannot affirm any change in the conditions of current life. Everything falls short of the desired total transformation.