‘The Spectre of Utopia: Utopian and Science Fictions at the fin de siècle’ reviewed by Yari Lanci

Reviewed by Yari Lanci

About the reviewer

Yari Lanci is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics at Goldsmiths College, University of …

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Contrary to the recurrent assumption that utopian thinking cannot be separated from its ideological core – as if ideology itself is always already at the core of idealistic politics – Matthew Beaumont’s latest book highlights the necessity to ‘identify utopia as occupying a shifting, often contradictory space between the utopian and the ideological, between fantasy and reality’ (2). In The Spectre of Utopia, Beaumont shows how utopian thinking – through analyses and commentaries on different utopian texts in the late nineteenth century – on the one hand needs to be analysed as category of literature which escapes any clear-cut categorical harness, and on the other hand requires to be addressed taking into account the broader intellectual framework that it helped to develop and which influenced it. The Spectre of Utopia not only analyses utopian fiction in an original way, but also provides a thorough socio-historical account of the conditions of production of these texts.

Central to the book is the problematisation of the category of utopia at the fin de siècle. In order to do so, Beaumont relies on the Derridean figure of the spectre, the ‘bad ghost that won’t go away’ (2) and keeps haunting us, set up as one of the main methodological tools in the Introduction of the book. Beaumont argues that, `if the spectre represents the intrusion into the present of a repressed historical past, utopia could be said to represent the intrusion into the present of a future whose historical possibility has been suppressed by the ideological limits that shape the political imagination.’ (4)

At the fin de siècle, the question of utopia began assuming a noteworthy significance not only as a direct legacy of the great socialist utopian authors of the nineteenth century, but also as the consequence of both the emergence of the increased organisation of the working class and the apocalyptic fear of social unrest amongst the bourgeoisie. The utopian literature examined by Beaumont ranges through the space between these two opposite flows. Either in the form of a literary-philosophical speculation about the always present possibility of a different world to come, as with Edward Bellamy, or as a warning about the dangers of certain strands of socialism, as with H.G. Wells, Beaumont maintains that utopianism functioned – and one could argue that it still does, or at least should – as a peculiar form of escape, a line of flight challenging the ontological unity of the present: ‘an alternative political consciousness’ (96), as he puts it.

To defend utopianism from the critique of mere escapism, Beaumont centres the first four chapters of his book on Edward Bellamy’s novel, Looking Backward 2000-1887. This novel, in which ‘the present is desynchronized by the spectre of utopia’ (14), occupies for Beaumont a paradigmatic position as an object of study, first of all for the ‘cult’ status it gained at the end of nineteenth century; and also because it displays one of the most important articulations of utopian philosophico-political speculation in the novel form. For example, Beaumont points out how Bellamy’s text temporalises utopia, compared to previous utopian narratives in which space was the privileged category. Beaumont reconnects the thematic features of the novel especially in relation to Bellamy’s perspective on state socialism and capitalism, exposing the philosophical potential and the limits of Bellamy’s utopian ‘public capitalism’ (32-40) – many of its readers considered Looking Backward ‘the socialist bible of reconstruction, a kind of guidebook to post-capitalist society’ (28). Moreover, Beaumont tackles utopia in Bellamy’s novel from the point of view of imagining different relations of material production, or the absence of it, the drive to consumption (Chapter 2), and the representation of dystopian tendencies. Beaumont refers to the latter as a ‘pocket of darkness’ (100), which in conjunction with utopianism, can lead to literary depictions of ‘socially empty space’ (Chapter 4).

What emerges from Beaumont’s reading of Looking Backward is a clear analysis of the reasons for the novel’s commercial success and circulation amongst intellectuals. According to Beaumont, this arguably lies in Bellamy’s representation of a potential future society framed in a peculiar version of utopian capitalism – ‘a state-socialist or Nationalist society that seems at the same time glamorously futuristic and comfortingly familiar’ (63). Beaumont maintains that the future in Looking Backward is characterised by commodity fetishism taken to the extreme, to a point where any glimpse of human labour disappears due to the sublimation of the act of pure consumption. However, as Beaumont continues, Bellamy conceives this utopian version of consumption as ‘the distribution of necessity rather than the consumption of luxuries … a supposedly rational mechanism rather than a potentially irrational one’ (65).

Bellamy provided his readers with a version of ‘capitalism as social consumption’ freed from class struggle and revolutionary violence. As Beaumont describes,

These decades were a golden age for capitalist as well as socialist utopias. And Bellamy’s novel – which appealed to a readership that needed to be pacified not simply about the spectral threat of communism but about the crisis in the capitalist system of which this threat appeared to be symptomatic – marks the point of convergence between these apparently countervailing ideological tendencies. (72)

Possibly, the only shortcoming of this first part of The Spectre of Utopia is Beaumont’s lack of emphasis on the paranoid features of Bellamy’s novel. This is only partially compensated by the broader discussion in the following chapters. However, it is worth noting that Beaumont also analyses other authors, such as William Morris, who were particularly sensitive to utopian imagery.

The following chapters of the book (5, 6, 7) examine the intellectual atmosphere of the last two decades of the nineteenth century, in relation to lively debates around the concept of utopia. Here, Beaumont focuses on the Bellamy Library, and its founder William Reeves, as the main locus of radical publishing of the time. He also discusses the cultural ‘elective affinities’ between depoliticised socialism, spiritualism, and utopianism , with an entire chapter on the feminist version of utopianism in the liberal feminist newspaper Shaft. Chapters 8 and 9 return to close textual analysis of texts by Oscar Wilde and H.G. Wells. Beaumont’s reading of these exposes similarities and contradictions of different approaches to fictional and non-fictional utopianism (and their critical stance to the politics of the Right as well as of the Left), and his use of Suvin’s concept of ‘cognitive estrangement’, Freud’s ‘uncanny’, and Bloch’s ‘not-yet-conscious’ is at the same time original and productive in his enquiry into utopian narratives – e.g., what Beaumont’s defines as the ‘historical uncanny’ (222-5).

The strength of The Spectre of Utopia lies in Beaumont’s analysis of utopian texts and the historical and intellectual milieu from which they emerged, rather than his attempts to provide a new methodology for tackling utopian narratives. This can be seen in the last chapter on ‘anamorphic estrangement’ – a re-evaluation and re-utilisation of methodology used by other theorists (such as Suvin or Jameson) to investigate utopia and sci-fi. Beaumont incorporates both Suvin’s notion of ‘estrangement’ and Jameson’s argument for an ‘aesthetic of cognitive mapping’, yet simultaneously seems excessively critical about flaws in the former’s analysis (250-1 and 265).

The introduction frames the question of utopia as the Derridean spectre, as ‘revenant’, and as ‘visor effect’ (1-10) – the haunting presence at the fin de siècle. While the author could indeed make this methodological starting point clearer throughout the text, this does not diminish the overall strength of the book: it remains an important contribution to the understanding of the political relevance of its subject and especially so in relation to collective imagery. As Beaumont points out, “[t]he detached eye of utopian and science fiction can induce not simply amazement, but a committed conviction that the society from which it extrapolates its fantasies can be both understood and fundamentally transformed” (273). In times of economic crises and political unrest ‘utopian promise always becomes especially important when the opportunity to implement real social change starts to seem more remote’ (185). Given the (radical) left’s recent attempts at valid analysis in the face of a failing neoliberal project, the utopian promise holds true more than ever.

2 January 2013

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