‘Utopia: the Avant-Garde, Modernism and (Im)possible Life’ reviewed by Jeffrey Petts

Utopia: the Avant-Garde, Modernism and (Im)possible Life

De Gruyter, Berlin and Boston, 2015. 532pp., $168 hb
ISBN 9783110427097

Reviewed by Jeffrey Petts

About the reviewer

Jeffrey Petts is an independent scholar and guest professor at the Faculty of Arts, Northeastern …


Utopia is perhaps the cruellest political concept, essentially riven but also tensely liminal, (im)possibly poised for success. Both the conceptual divisions of utopia (temporal, aesthetic, ideological, and so on) and utopianism’s historical near misses are investigated in Ayers, Hjartarson, Huttunen and Veivo’s collection of 31 essays, organised into 5 themes: ideology and aesthetics, rationalism and redemption, experimentation and urban space, communities and education, and sexuality and desire. Ayers and Hjartarson’s introduction, New People of a New Life: Modernism, the Avant-Garde and the Aesthetics of Utopia, its title taken from a 1913 Russian Cubo-Futurist manifesto, identifies ‘new people of a new life’ as an ‘emblematic expression of the historical avant-garde and its inherently utopian project’ (3). However, they also note how these manifesto-like statements triggered critiques or declarations of the inevitable failure of utopian projects, concluding that the idea of utopia is antagonistic (3). This “triggered” antagonism is evidenced in the historic shift from utopia as a philosophical thought experiment about an idealised future, to utopian socialism and then to anti-utopian scientific socialism. The latter is noted in Russian communism, and in any state-controlled culture of everyday life, even exercised by the likes of the BBC. Alongside goes a change in the role of artists’ manifestos as they were usurped by the state taking responsibility for any project for the “new man” (5). Ayers and Hjartarson also identify an internal antagonism in modernism’s emphasis on “blissful moments of critical illumination”, and the paradox of dreaming of a different world but also being consoled by the vision (7). Still, the authors ultimately defend modernism’s utopianism, seeing it as a practice of building rather than theorising utopia through aesthetic experiments (7). These thoughts about essential divisions within the idea of utopia, and of possible ‘aesthetic’ reconciliations, are explicitly explored in the first set of essays but also pervade the others. Because of this, in combination with the number and scholarly depth of the essays, I will limit this review to a few that explore the conceptual issues while offering apologies to others that certainly warrant separate specialist attention.

Essays in the ‘Ideology and Aesthetics’ category centre on the idea of the ‘utopian moment’ as a means to escape ideology. ‘[I]t is often linked with ideas of a new cultural order rooted in a genuine aesthetic experience’ (7). Sam Cooper’s Enemies of Utopia for the Sake of its Realisation takes its title from Theodor Adorno’s view on Marx and Engels’s critiques of utopian socialism, and the essay investigates the paradox that utopia is both necessary because current life is not tenable and impossible because current life forecloses its realisation. Indeed, he argues that all futurist and surrealist manifestos dealt with utopia and the problem of its récupération (co-optation). For example, an essential antagonism or division is evident in Futurist manifestos, which are both ‘violent and precise’ and ‘disarmingly anxious’ (18). Marinetti’s First Futurist Manifesto is described as a ‘combination of exclamatory bluster and pervasive anxiety’ (19). Their anxiety is about institutional co-optation and generational change (19). However, Cooper argues that récupération is not inevitable, and can be seen productively as ‘a discursive formation that works dialectically to sustain the avant-garde’s utopian ambitions’ (32). He finds a source for this in the Situationists, arguing that they were aware of previous failings in avant-garde utopianism, and so responded to charges of their own utopianism by dealing in the ‘realisable’ (17). For instance, Guy Debord noted how, for example, Futurism was co-opted by its ‘puerile technological optimism’, evidenced among other things by how automatic writing was later exploited as ‘brain-storming’. They offer, Cooper continues, a dialectic solution to the problem of utopianism’s co-option. The Situationists solve the paradox of utopia’s necessity, as Cooper notes that by 1960, Situationism had a manifesto with ‘recognisably utopian ambitions’. Moreover they show how utopias do not present an impossibility, by dialectical synthesis of utopianism and récupération in their accounts of ‘moments’ (25), and of ‘life directly lived’ (29). The debate within Situationism, and their account of ‘moments’, was indebted to Marx and Engels’s brief outline of a communist society without extreme divisions of labour, so that people could, to paraphrase a famous passage from the German Ideology, ‘fish in the afternoon, criticise after dinner’ without becoming fisherman or critic. However, it seems disputable whether the classic Situationist ‘moments’ – the détournment and the dérive – escape co-option themselves. Regardless of whether they are robust, ‘realisable’ utopian acts, as Cooper would have it, do they hold a definitively left, post-capitalist view of human work? This would be a fundamental requirement, and is established for instance by the idea of ‘undivided labour’.

But then utopianism has drawn, unsurprisingly, on a wide range of sources and imaginings: the section ‘Rationalism and Redemption’ witnesses this conceptual eclecticism, often noting how besides the perhaps expected use of technological advances to ground speculative utopias, ‘Buddhism, Theosophy, Séances and Clairvoyants’ (a heading from Fae Brauer’s Magnetic Modernism) also played their part. In Utopian Futures and Imagined Pasts in the Ambivalent Modernism of the Kibbo Kift Kindred, Annebella Pollen records, similarly, a 1920s Wellsian, radical boy scout movement founded by John Hargrave. This utopia both looked back to a golden age of the ‘simple life’, but was also inspired by modernist art. A colour illustration shows a design for the kindred’s clothing. The section ‘Sexuality and Desire’ also witnesses utopia’s eclecticism, with essays examining various attempts to build new societies via ‘bodily collectives’ and the ‘eroticisation of the proletariat’ (13).

Whatever their genesis, utopias come, as the general concept does, with other ‘antagonisms’ or divisions. It is necessarily avant-garde, but needs to educate and build wider, general communities. In The Future in Modernism, in the ‘Communities and Education’ section, Max Saunders analyses various attempts to educate a general audience for utopian aspirations made by states, local communities or through crowd-sourcing. He does so in the context of a book series edited by C.K. Ogden called To-Day To-Morrow, published by Kegan Paul from 1923-1931. It consisted of 100+ short volumes in which authors were ‘expected to delineate the contemporary state of [their] fields, then project its future’; many were young authors making their mark as ‘representatives of the avant-garde’ (383). The series, argues Saunders, exemplifies the claim ‘out of Marx’ that ‘modernity is essentially future-oriented’ (384). He notes, relatedly, how most contributions were optimistic about technological advances, setting them apart from technologically-inspired dystopias, generally post WW2, and with Aldous Huxley and Yevgeny Zamyatin as their prophets, seeing problems rather with old political and institutional structures. Saunders’s exemplar is J.B.S. Haldane’s Daedalus (1923). Although Saunders concedes that Haldane ‘is not unambiguously utopian’, the book exemplifies the series’ attitude to science in five related ways: first in its ‘radical, leftist, intellectual cast’, secondly in its ‘markedly polemical’ style, thirdly in its exhibition of a ‘debating model’ which ‘testifies to the series’ commitment to, and belief in, education’, and fourthly and fifthly in representing a pair of concerns with language and communication and with psychology (390). Saunders argues that Ogden’s editorial presence is evident in these attributes, and that they mark an important set of distinctions between progressive utopian attitudes about ‘faster’, ‘better’ and ‘universality’ and non-utopian ideas about fragmentation, disconnection, incommensurability and appeals to myth and tradition (for example, Ogden invented ‘Basic English’ as an international language ) (394). However, Saunders concludes, revealing again utopia’s antagonisms, that this scientific bias of utopian thinking is now part of the ordinary business of making predictions, of risk assessment, mining data and so on. And ‘yet from another point of view, what has been lost is precisely the imagination of the future’, lost to the ‘predictability of the algorithm’ (396). Thus, Saunders notes that the series is important because the works ‘are themselves imaginative works of a high order’, and so remind us of the human, not simply economic, value of speculation in that they indeed represent the modernist idea of ‘make it new’, emphasising make (396).

The idea of utopia as an important constituent of good human work itself seems especially vital when considering architecture, broadly construed. Essays in ‘Experimentation and Urban Space’ look at links between utopianism and architectural visions for urban spaces. Strangely, there is not a detailed examination of modernist ideas of city planning and social housing, and of debates that ensued with socialist realist architects in planning departments in most major European cities in the mid 20th century, which are still practically and metaphorically insightful about ‘building utopia’. Still, interesting aspects of architecture’s utopianism are examined. For example, Kate Arnaud’s A Paper Paradise, identifies a group called the Crystal Chain, who were architects and artists led by Bruno Taut, and shared utopian visions in immediate post-WW1 Germany. They produced ‘a body of work… closer to the expressive forms of an illustrated science fiction novel rather than an architectural portfolio’ (271). Arnaud concludes that the Crystal Chain were able to redress the balance with the ‘austere functionalism’ that followed them in the 1920’s, with ideas of an architecture that is “experimental, extravagant and prophetic, ushering in an entirely new mode of living” (272). Of course the issue here is that the ‘austere functionalists’ (Loos, Le Corbusier, Bauhaus) were themselves avant-garde and designing for the first machine age and its new way of living.

Offering one tentative set of conclusions from this collection, if we choose to elevate designers with a utopian vision over visionary ‘paper architects’, it might seem we are on one side of a fundamental utopian divide, preferring the avant-garde to fulfil a role as early exponents of new ways of living, rather than provide dreams. In this collection, Cooper suggests a dialectical approach between the idea of a new life and a sense of its inevitable co-option, and perhaps designers and architects who build what they can, and ‘make the best of it’, so to speak, and artists who work authentically, are exemplary in that regard, rather than the Situationists. However, it still seems a reasonable political and aesthetic generosity to allow that there will also be avant-garde dreamers. So, for instance, one day William Morris got fed-up with political argument at a Socialist League meeting, stormed out, and wrote News from Nowhere. Nowhere is a fiction, and as such it is sufficient for it to evince hope and to simulate the new world; the practice of its building is simply a different activity altogether. However, Morris was not a ‘paper architect’, since he made things too, according to his romantic and revolutionary principles. The art historian T.J. Clark argues that ‘no doubt there is an alternative to the present order of things. Yet nothing follows from this – nothing deserving the name political’ (‘For A Left with No Future’, New Left Review, 2012). He advocates an anti-utopian politics, dispensing with ‘Micawberism’ for a left politics with a ‘grown-up’ tone. However, perhaps there is a ‘practical utopianism’ that escapes the obvious antagonisms and divisions, exemplified in progressive architecture and other forms of good work, including examples from modernism’s historical avant-garde, which this collection amply argues and illustrates. Furthermore, surely there’s always scope for utopian dreamers, for their – as Herbert Read expressed it in June 1936 attending an International Surrealist Exhibition in London – ‘clarifying storms… electrifying the dry intellectual atmosphere, stirring our sluggish minds to wonder, enchantment and derision’.

16 June 2016


  • Marx and Engels 1846 German Ideology
  • Guy Debord 1967 Society of the Spectacle
  • T.J. Clark 2012 For A Left With No Future New Left Review 74
  • Herbert Read 1936 Surrealism

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