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  • Response 2: “Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will”
  • Antonis Balasopoulos

Let me begin with a few words on my title, which was chosen as reflecting the nature of the orientation of my work in the field of utopian studies and therefore also of my orientation toward the theme of this roundtable. As Francesca Antonini puts it in a recent essay, the phrase, which became associated with the work of Antonio Gramsci though it originates in Romain Rolland, describes “the (seemingly contradictory) coexistence of a realistic description of the status quo, on the one hand, and a genuine commitment to the possibility of transforming reality, on the other.”1

Anyone who has read Thomas More’s Utopia knows that Rolland’s and Gramsci’s formula very much describes that book’s bifurcation between a voice of relentless critique of what exists in Europe—and particularly in England—in More’s time (in Book 1) and a voice preoccupied with the description of an alternative, and arguably better, world (in Book 2). This bifurcation, it is equally well known, is part of the genetic material More’s book bequeathed to its successors, so that one calls a “utopia” a (mostly, though not always) literary text, where the “realistic description of the status quo” coexists with a vision arising out of a “commitment to the possibility of transforming reality”—admittedly in different admixtures and proportions of [End Page 544] the critical or negative and the anticipatory, projective or prefigurative elements. Though Ernst Bloch’s distinction between “cold” and warm” streams within Marxism is not identical to this first binary, it is certainly related to it, so that the “cold” stream is one that privileges the rational and analytical element (usually, I would propose, in relation to the part of the Marxist tradition we know as “critique of political economy”), while the “warm stream” is one that rather foregrounds that which relates to affect, to desire, hope, or fidelity to the transformative project (these are frequently correlated to those elements of Marxism that correspond to its also being a political and philosophically imbued creed).2 What follows here, then, explores the implications of the dialectical interplay between these two sets of oppositions—and hopefully justifies such insistence on dialectic itself.3

To the extent that I can see, the basic themes and areas of concentration in my colleagues’ essays involve decolonizing utopian studies as a project; addressing, in that connection, the heterogeneity of utopianisms that emerge out of a number of marginalized subjectivities; the provenance of the questions of ecology, sustainability, animal life for the present and future of utopian studies (and to some degree, for utopianism’s past); and finally, the question of utopian forms of social activism and therefore also the search for spaces beyond the walls of academic insularity. These are important and largely interconnected questions, but I am afraid I will only have the space to touch on them briefly and sketchily here.

In her cogent and multifaceted intervention, Caroline Edwards begins her reflections on the task of decolonizing utopian studies by noting the high investment of fin-de-siècle utopian fiction in notions of industrial progress, noting that such notions have involved “lasting damage” for “Black writers, artists, and thinkers.” Within this framework, she evokes Joseph R. Winters’s argument that “modern notions of progress and freedom are inherently flawed,” since they are founded on the oppressive traditions of capitalism and colonialism. In turn, this leads to an argument against the teleological futurism of most nineteenth-century utopias and in support of the deconstruction of “the idea of historical progress unfolding in Hegelian dialectical stages.” What is to replace this is a hauntological (after Derrida) conception of the relation between the present and the past, for which “the present is always a site of potential breaks and ruptures that can signify both dislocation and pain as well as novelty and possibility.” In a similar vein, Heather Alberro questions the teleological futurism of an earlier tradition of utopia, evoking Laurence Davis’s observation on the importance of [End Page 545] “neglected or suppressed possibilities for qualitatively better forms of life” within the “Now.” The desideratum is, again...

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