Ernst Bloch’s thought is largely unknown in Britain. Nyx, a noctournal decided to depart from this tremor of an as yet unknown adventure. The Bloch Series: sojourns with an heretic.
Nyx: Recently you made the claim that critical theory had fundamentally missed the utopian moment. I thought I’d begin by asking why you think this happened – what was it about the Frankfurt School’s manner of thinking that made it miss the utopian?
JS: There is a curious sameness in the three stages of the Frankfurt School – Horkheimer/Adorno; Habermas; Honneth – namely that the three moments of critique of functionalised reason that we find in them all arise from what is perceived as an unavailability of the utopian. It is the unavailability that does the work. So we get the early formulation of the very idea of a critical theory as a move necessitated and made possible by the nearly total instrumentalisation of reason after the Enlightenment. This means that the sphere of intrinsic values or orientations in reason has become unavailable, everything becomes means-end calculation, administration. Remember how Horkheimer formulates his early conceptualisations of critical theory in an explicit contrast against what he calls “metaphysics”. In Adorno we then see this point brought to its dead-end conclusion in the idea of a negative dialectic, the idea that the logic of the system leaves only the place of no consequence open for refuge, which is ever evanescent, not part of any further relationality because relationality has become synonymous with alienation, with ‘system’. There is a solipsistic moment in the negative dialectic. In the famous and indeed still very moving final aphorism of Minima Moralia Adorno speaks about the utopian as the unavailable light from which we have to look at the world if our knowledge is to be something else than control and domination, but it is the – negative – realisation of the impossibility of doing this that becomes its last refuge; a, for Adorno typical, pirouette takes the place of reflexivity. And this pirouette-like movement is typical of the thinking man’s unavailability of the utopian, we see it everywhere – “my hands are tied, but watch me spin”. Critical theory becomes what Benjamin long before said it was, dialectic at a standstill. Habermas, in his pragmatic reformulation of reason, has a different choreography but one that is just as much given in by the unavailability of the utopian. Finally Honneth, in his return to a phenomenological, hence idealising, analysis of affectivity as lying at the basis of recognition, moves as it were in the other direction, back to a kind of naturalism that was also always dormant in critical theory, and we can say that in this stage the unavailability of the utopian is localised in the psychoanalytic unconscious and the hopes, tragedies and disappointments of early family dynamics. It is interesting from this perspective that Honneth thinks it is possible to use critical theory to define a notion of a social pathology of institutions, here we see something of a totalitarian horizon of democracy opening up, the birth of a new type of ‘common sense’, about which Hegel said such wonderful things.
Well, is it then not a permanent characteristic of the utopian to be unavailable, or to be perhaps the place of unavailability itself, something we should not forget about or try to colonise, but instead come to see as an almost sacred space? Is it not the fact that the utopian has become ‘available’ that created the problems critical theory sought to conceptualise and address? In other words, is not Juliette a story of the availability of the utopian – to the very end? Is not this movement of permanent withdrawal the only resource we have left to rescue the utopian in a totally administered world?
And here I say: “no”. The utopian is indeed unavailable in a specific way, and it is the beginning of wisdom to come to see this. But to then say, as critical theory did, that unavailability is the only form of the utopian that we can think or work with, is to make yourself captive to the dialectic you are trying to diagnose and free yourself from. You are left without any possibility to motivate either yourself or anyone else and by cultivating an attitude of aversion to the idea that the utopian might be there in a more positive way, the programmatic, destructive face of totalitarian thinking continues to persecute you. We have to think in an altogether more creative way. It is in fact creativity, or spontaneity, that is not recognised for what it is if we miss the utopian moment. And this notion of spontaneity is not possible without a notion of engagement, commitment, a recognition of a real freedom that I have in relation to the world and my own life. When the withdrawal of the utopian presents itself as the only way, it masks the fact that it is itself already a response – and this is where the problem with critical theory lies. I remind you of the importance Adorno attached to natural spontaneity. In the places where he writes about that, for example the discussion of Schiller in the Jargon of Authenticity, you see the limits of critical theory most clearly. He was aware of it, dim, through a glass, darkly, which we can see for example also in his lifelong interest in Kierkegaard, whom he treats, unsurprisingly from what I have just said, in a reductive manner to allow himself to break away from what you might call Hegel’s positive dialectic. But he fails to understand the importance of the leap of faith.
So the question becomes: what then does it mean to not miss the utopian moment? Here we have to ask ourselves what it is we are responding to. Bloch formulates this in a helpful way with his concept of the “inconstructable question”. Here we have a radical openness at the heart of existence, a question we ask of the world and that the world asks of us, but that cannot be formulated in the direction of any specific answer. There are, in other words, questions that cannot be answered – not just like that anyway – without distorting them into something they are not. Perhaps there is only one such question. It is the question that inspires a life, and here we touch upon the nature of desire. Without thinking about desire we are sure to miss the utopian moment.
Nyx: There is a poem by Paul Celan:
über der grauschwarzen Ödnis.
Ein Baum –
greift sich den Lichtton: es sind
noch Lieder zu singen jenseits
over the grayblack wasteness.
A tree –
high thought strikes the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond
Is Bloch’s philosophy not being spoken here by Celan? I wonder if by way of this poem we could focus on the Blochian ‘not-yet’ and its relation to hope?
JS: This is indeed a wonderful poem and an image of the dialectic of life and death. Celan has another line that is very close to the heart of Bloch’s philosophy: “Wirklichkeit ist nicht, Wirklichkeit will gesucht und gewonnen sein”. “Reality is not, reality wants to be looked for and won”. Nothing is yet what it is, nothing is done with itself or with anything else. There are songs to sing on the other side of what we are and have become. These ideas are fundamental to Bloch’s philosophy. The “song that was not sung at our cradle”, but which we can sing in that going-together of making and finding that we see in all art, something, I would say, many philosophies have missed. Making and finding are not mutually exclusive, quite the contrary. Without the attempt to make something new you will never find anything – and finding is something which has to do with the unexpected. Bloch likes to quote Heraclitus’ remark “if you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it”. A very dialectical thought! It is this attitude of paradox, making and finding, doing and receiving, that we need to understand the utopian, to understand hope. Hope is always a hope against hope, a hope for the sake of the hopeless – but that makes it real and meaningful – and keeps it in check against its own degeneration. This degeneration is not something we can be immune to without losing hope. The dialectic encompasses the thinker herself as well. Thinking with hope means to realise there are no guarantees – also not the guarantee of the safe haven of dogmatic scepticism. Bloch speaks of ‘docta spes’, educated hope, to indicate the existential purport of the ontology of the not-yet. Hope needs to be educated, critiqued, understood. But this phrase ‘docta spes’ is formed on the model of Nicolas of Cusa’s ‘docta ignorantia’, learned ignorance. Cusa says that learned ignorance is different from initial ignorance. First, it is aware of itself as ignorance – the classical point of Socrates, whose wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he did not know. So, a knowledge about ignorance. But then there is the further point of a returning ignorance about ignorance: we do not know if this ignorance might not one day be lifted. Now this is a fundamental point. How much recent philosophy has not, by proclaiming universal scepticism, showed itself from a very dogmatic angle indeed? It is difficult to stand the full extent of ignorance. Yet this is what philosophy must do if it is to be anything at all.
We encounter here what it means, I should like to say at an existential level, to hope. It does not mean to harbour a fantasy of what would be nice to have or good to have, a phantasmagoria of redemption. Hope is much slighter than that, it is hardly more than this attitude of not being done with anything. But that slight thing, almost nothing, gratuitous, ever vulnerable, like threadsuns on a tree in autumn, becomes the precondition for any other practical, cognitive, emotional, physical and also political engagement with others and with the world.
So singing a song beyond humankind, this is the human thing to do. And for Bloch it is not just human. Nature, reality itself, is singing in this vein as well. I think it is interesting to see that, with some necessary modification to address a tendency to objectify the contours of transcendence, we are dealing here with very classical, platonic, patterns of thought. The destabilising work of desire, and indeed of singing, in Plato is clear for anyone to see. Just think of the myth of the cicadas in the Phaedrus. Moreover, and this comes out beautifully in Celan’s poem as well, the philosophical process by which we come to see the world as not-yet, is one of going back to what is free in the human sphere – to what Plato would have called the soul, or Kierkegaard existence. We need to discover this unfinished business, this radical freedom, in ourselves before we can see the world in its light. Is this also not the fundamental meaning of Descartes’ cogito, which is so often misunderstood as bifurcating the world in body and mind? In Descartes’ philosophy the world as an object of science only becomes available through the radical return to subjective freedom, “not of this world” – truly a song beyond humankind and our best tune yet. The world as a field of work, of a making-finding engagement, opens up once freedom is understood. To the extent that freedom is misunderstood, the world becomes more and more a simple resource of exploitation. Freedom without hope, we might say, that is the real issue we are dealing with today: but it is not a Cartesian legacy. So here we have a line that runs through the history of philosophy, and which has to do with the nature of hope, from Heraclitus to Plato to Descartes to Bloch. This line has been misunderstood by many philosophers.
Bloch, who was much more of a natural-born Aristotelian, like Hegel, would perhaps not like this genealogy of hope in the slow birth of the idea of radical subjective freedom. But I think it is there, and I think seeing it lends force to your suggestion that Celan and Bloch are talking about similar things.
Nyx: Bloch is never prey to the brutality of an established fact, but I wonder if a potential criticism arises concerning the way he mediates the future impetus of hope, on the one hand, with facts and our embroilment in the now on the other. Is there a danger that Bloch propagates what Hegel calls an ‘unhappy consciousness’: the now can only be redeemed if it is completely subordinated to a wholly other world beyond it, with the result that, as Marx scathingly said of his socialist utopian contemporaries, we passively glorify the future? How would you counter the claim that Bloch’s thought is that of an unhappy consciousness, completely encumbered by a world beyond the now, so much so that it becomes the contrary of revolutionary action, practical-critical activity?
JS: Passively glorifying the future is the exact opposite of what Bloch calls ‘concrete utopia’. It is the “Verfallsform”, the perverted or decadent form of hope, of a hope that has been beaten, threatened into anxiety, rendered impotent – and we see it all around us, it is what keeps a large part of our economies running. The familiar educator’s stance, to conflate daydreaming with the passive glorification of the future, has yet proven to be the most effective way of cheating people out of their life- and world-transforming hopes. Isn’t our educational system largely meant to achieve this with near completion by the age of 18? Isn’t the incessant chatter about ‘the future’ and how we ‘prepare for it’, that we hear in politics, business, the tabloids of the intellectuals, the same tactic to ensure the status quo? All of this has nothing to do with the openness to the future, the concrete engagement with the forward-looking potential, that Bloch is talking about and without which there would be no life. To conflate the two is, again, a very old pattern of thought. Like the link between religion and authoritarian power, this conflation, we might say between metaphysics and static thinking, is, I think, a central feature of the function of ideology in human societies. But throwing away the baby with the bathwater is a repetition of that same conflation: it is an instance of what I mentioned earlier, you remain being persecuted by the evil you simply avert yourself from. Here wielding the scalpel of careful thought might seem at first to be dealing with hair-splitting distinctions, but I think it is absolutely necessary if we are to understand our situation that we do distinguish carefully here. Our daydreams have a hugely important role to play in developing a sense of self, in developing an understanding of possibility and alternative and then also in transformative action. The free use of imagination is a prerequisite for any form of reason that is not simply instrumental. Bloch indeed loves to quote Hegel’s “all the worse for the facts”. But this does not mean to disregard the brutality of fact. It means to actively oppose it, especially the brutality.
There is a deeper question here as well: Quite apart from questions of a reified unhappy consciousness, if we are always with the “then and there”, do we not fail to live in the “here and now” (to use a distinction made by José Muños in a recent book on Bloch and queer theory)? We can begin by saying that, at least for Bloch, the “then and there” exists nowhere else than – “here and now”. But that still leaves open the possibility that we fail to recognise something about the “here and now” if we focus only on the “there and then” in it. And this is certainly a danger, one that lies completely within the philosophy of hope. It is as it were its Achilles’ heel, but without which it would not be what it is. Confronting this danger gives us an opportunity to understand better what the “now” is and to break the illusion of thinking we are anywhere else. I think that here we have to take Bloch’s remarks about the inconstructability, the speechlessness, of subjectivity seriously. He also speaks of a “darkness of the lived moment”. Subjectivity, the lived now, is not the sphere of clear contents and meaning, it is a speechless desirous lack, the horizon of the world, something that cannot be named directly – the sphere where we can all say with Odysseus “I am no one”. Sharing this space is what community comes down to, and occupying this space is what living in the now means. I think that here Bloch, Plotinian mysticism and Zen Buddhism actually see eye to eye on most points. Perhaps some of the problems that the Left has encountered since Marx made his remarks about the utopian socialist has something to do with failing to see that utopian thought is incomplete without this awareness of the ineffability of living in the now. The “ethics” of living in the inconstructable question is one of hope, the new, the unexpected – of living life as experiment and improvisation, the now in its movement of going beyond itself, a transcending, but without transcendence. I want to stress this improvisational core in Bloch’s philosophy, which comes out clearly in his style, and which makes his prose sound more like Bebop than like Beethoven, despite himself. That is where the reconciliation of then and there with here and now lies.
Nyx: And finally: “There is hope,” Franz Kafka once said, “but not for us.” (Or, “Es ist möglich jetzt aber nicht.”) I’m intrigued as to how, in light of Ernst Bloch, we could read this adage penned by the self-proclaimed prisoner of Praha?
JS: Well, we can read this enigmatic statement in many ways and it teaches us a lot about hope. The first thing to note is the irony in it. What is a hope that is not for us? This is a monstrosity and a sadistic thing. There is food, but not for you. For you, there is no hope. Is there a more fundamental way of saying “there is no place for you”? The irony points to the injustice of such a situation. Rather than trying to argue for, or justify, a universal hope and justice, Kafka puts us in touch with this ineradicable idea by triggering the involuntary response in the reader, of lament, or anger, or resignation, or knowing and affirming complicity. This simple statement throws us back onto ourselves and leaves the question entirely in our hands: how do you, reader, relate to hope? Hope is not something we get and which looks after us. We’ll have to make it ourselves, otherwise we will never find it. So that is the first thing and as will be clear a very Blochian idea.
Secondly, the remark confronts us with the uncanny facticity of hope. There is hope. As if hope was not an intentional state, entertained by a subject (“I hope that x”), but something out there, in the world, harboured by no one, vagrant, everywhere and nowhere, Eros sleeping outside on the pavement, a name of being itself: “There is” – “what is?” “Hope.” This is a brutal facticity of quite a different nature than the positivist fetishism of fact we know so well. It is the facticity of the vulnerable. Hope is – and again we are referred back to ourselves; what do we do with it? The fact of hope is never safe, but being is hope. If hope was not in being, where could we ever find it? So we have now two moments, the two Blochian moments of making and finding. And note that the ironic tone of “there is hope” is precisely only possible when indeed there is hope.
But, thirdly, this hope is not for us. If there is hope, but we are hopeless cases, and this is an injustice, then something has to give. We need a song beyond humankind. And so we have to see that things are hopeless before we can become determined to make them otherwise and prove the irony and the lament of the statement wrong, in the moment of affirming it.
Kafka’s statement is so popular because it is a moralistic statement. It addresses the fundamental dynamic of having to lose yourself and all you imagined to hold anxiously dear, before you can find yourself in a bigger way, if at all, and it emphasises the role of human agency in this dynamic. It summons you to take your life upon yourself, and it intimates the hell of not doing that, which is not a hell of extinction as torture, as in the hopeless place of the Penal Colony, but the hell of extinction as bland nothingness, the hell of living an other life for others, which is also where this remark acquires its function as a cultural diagnosis of aspects of modernity that were so much at the forefront of Kafka’s mind in Prague in the early 20th century, and which gives it its prophetic ring. Bloch is not such a moralist about hope, but the ideas are the same. In Bloch the language is often more spatio-temporal. He talks a lot about hope as home, “Heimat”, and here we have the same dynamic: our home is a place where we have never been. That implies a critique and a work of mourning; it is only through this experience of losing something you never had that home, and hope, come into being. This is the meaning of “not-yet”.
Johan Siebers teaches Religious Studies at Middlesex University and is a research fellow in the history of German philosophy at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London. He writes about German philosophy, utopian thought, Ernst Bloch, metaphysics, literature and critical theory. His most recent publications include “Ernst Bloch’s Dialectical Anthropology”, in Žižek & Thompson (eds.), The Privatization of Hope (Duke University Press, 2013) and “The Utopian Function of Film Music”, in Mazierska & Kristensen (eds.), Marx at the Movies (Palgrave, 2014).