Utopia and Critique

McAuliffe, Sam. 2015. 'Utopia and Critique'. In: Critical Transactions: Engaging the Humanities East and West. School of Humanities, Hong Kong University, Hong Kong. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

Utopian projection, over and above the determinate content it expresses and regardless of the particular field in which it comes to be articulated, is bound up with an act of critique. The impulse that animates such projection, the faculties it passes through, the materials it tests itself upon, and the configuration it culminates in, all this participates in a critical impetus of some form. As the expression of “the longing for what is not yet,” utopia traces the contours of something other than what is given at present; it discloses the possibility that what is could be different, a possibility that would otherwise remain unacknowledged and occluded. Its projection thereby points to a gap in the existing order of things, it shows that within the latter’s present state “something is missing”, and it calls this state to account for this unrealized possibility. “The essential function of utopia is a critique of what is present”, Ernst Bloch says in the course of an exchange with Adorno on this tendency. However fantastic a projection is, this means its trajectory is guided by an antagonism in reality, which its passage then indicates in inverse form (think of Foucault on the soul as utopian invention: its translucence a precise inversion of the dark terrain of the suffering body).

And yet, it is no less true that the possible world held out by utopian projection only ever appears at a remove from us, as though blocked off to us; we do not know how to access it, how to render it something actual, or even how to situate it in relation to where we ourselves are. It appears to us as the place that is, strictly speaking, nowhere. In this way it always carries the risk of leaving unchanged the present from which it has distinguished itself. It is for this reason that Louis Marin suggests that “Utopia is an ideological critique of ideology”; it is opaque to itself as a critical practice, the figure through which it is imparted is “blind”.

This paper seeks to unfold a series of consequences that follow on from the double bind to which utopian critique is subject. By what means can a transaction take place between reality and its utopian projections? How are we to understand a form of critique whose discursive efficacy seems to rest upon a fictive element? And, above all, how are we to negotiate with the paradox that, for Adorno, cannot be subtracted from utopian critique: “The utopian moment in thinking is stronger the less it… objectifies itself into a utopia and hence sabotages its realization”?

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


Utopia, Theodor W. Adorno, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, Critique

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Visual Cultures


17 December 2015Completed

Event Location:

School of Humanities, Hong Kong University, Hong Kong

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

09 Nov 2018 13:09

Last Modified:

14 Nov 2018 09:20



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