Adorno to Bloch on the Blockage of Utopia

It was not my intention to make technology and the sobriety that is allegedly connected to technology responsible for the strange shrinking of the utopian consciousness, but it appears that the matter concerns something much more: it refers to the opposition of specific technological accomplishments and innovations to the totality—in particular, to the social totality. Whatever utopia is, whatever can be imagined as utopia, this is the transformation of the totality. And the imagination of such a transformation of the totality is basically very different in all the so-called utopian accomplishments—which, incidentally, are all really like you say: very modest, very narrow, It seems to me that what people have lost subjectively in regard to consciousness is very simply the capability to imagine the totality as something that could be completely different. That people are sworn to this world as it is and have this blocked consciousness vis-à-vis possibility, all this has a very deep cause, indeed, a cause that I would think is very much connected exactly to the proximity of utopia, with which you are concerned. My thesis about this would be that all humans deep down, whether they admit this or not, know that it would be possible or it could be different. Not only could they live without hunger and probably without anxiety, but they could also live as free human beings. At the same time, the social apparatus has hardened itself against people, and thus, whatever appears before their eyes all over the world as attainable possibility, as the evident possibility of fulfillment, presents itself to them as radically impossible. And when people universally say today what was once reserved only for philistines in more harmless times, “Oh, that’s just utopian; oh, that’s possible only in the land of Cockaigne. Basically that shouldn’t be like that at all,” then I would say that this is due to the situation compelling people to master the contradiction between the evident possibility of fulfillment and the just as evident impossibility of fulfillment only in this way, compelling them to identify themselves with this impossibility and to make this impossibility into their own affair. In other words, to use Freud, they “identify themselves with the aggressor” and say that this should not be, whereby they feel that it is precisely this that should be, but they are prevented from attaining it by a wicked spell cast over the world.

*     *     *     *     *

Yes, at any rate, utopia is essentially in the determined negation, in the determined negation of that which merely is,  and by concretizing itself as something false, it always points at the same time to what should be.

Yesterday you quoted Spinoza in our discussion with the passage, “Verum index sui et falsi.” I have varied this a little in the sense of the dialectical principle of the determined negation and have said, “Falsum—the false thing—index sui et veri.” That means that the true thing determines itself via the false thing, or via that which makes itself falsely known. And insofar as we are not allowed to cast the picture of utopia, insofar as we do not know what the correct thing would be, we know exactly, to be sure, what the false thing is.

That is actually the only form in which utopia is given to us at all. But what I mean to say here—and perhaps we should talk about this, Ernst—this matter also has a very confounding aspect, for something terrible happens due to the fact that we are forbidden to cast a picture. To be precise, among that which should be definite, one imagines it to begin with as less definite the more it is stated only as something negative. But then—and this is probably even more frightening—the commandment against a concrete expression of utopia tends to defame the utopian consciousness and to engulf it. What is really important, however, is the will that it is different.


SOURCE:Something’s Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing” (1964), in The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, by Ernst Bloch, translated by Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg (Cambridge, MA; London: The MIT Press, 1988), pp. 1-17. Excerpts: pp. 3-4, 12.


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