redgen.pdf (130.77 kB)
Utopia in Rousseau: Some Jamesonian Reflections
journal contributionposted on 2017-05-21, 13:44 authored by Keith Redgen
It is easy to forget the extent to which the modern world is a product of utopian imaginings. The dream of something better, that "each generation should live better than the last" (to quote a recent advertising campaign for a major bank) has made a crucial contribution to the drive for scientific and technological innovation, revolutionary and reformist politics, and the desire for constantly renewed commodities. As I will argue, these utopian imaginings and aspirations have been accompanied from the outset by their apparently reactionary opposites. The desire for simplicity, to live more "naturally," in harmony with each other and our environment, has been an inescapable counterpart and companion to the progressive utopia of continuous improvement.
The case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau will be used to demonstrate the inescapable mutual implications of imagining, on the one hand, a utopia of scientific, social and moral progress, and on the other, a utopia of escape from all that in a return to our "natural" origins. I will argue that this appearance of a utopian aporia can actually give rise to a third moment of utopian imagining, utopia as the inspiration for adopting a critical attitude to the present. Reading Rousseau in the light of Fredric Jameson's recent study of utopia, I will make a case that Rousseau was the first to combine utopia and Enlightenment, not as aspiration, but as critique, not as a dream of a better world awaiting us in another place, another time, but as inspiration to work on ourselves, here and now.